08.26.10

The Dragon Tattoo Dynasty

Rooney Mara, who just got the plum role as the star of the new Stieg Larsson movie franchise, is hardly an unknown actress. Rebecca Dana reports on the super-rich New York family she comes from.

It was the Cinderella story of the summer: A little-known actress with a thin résumé and big dreams was chosen over thousands of other hopefuls, including Oscar nominees and mega-watt starlets, to play Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the most coveted role in Hollywood.

Who was this mysterious ingénue and how did she capture director David Fincher’s eye? What was her name again? Rooney… something?

Given that the readers of Variety are, by and large, a distinct group from the viewers of ESPN, the breadth of Mara-family accomplishments tends to go unnoticed.

Rooney Mara—the 24-year-old future Julia Roberts, if ecstatic press accounts are to be believed—may have been a virtual no-name in Los Angeles until news of her casting broke August 16. But the shy young actress, who had managed to land a few small indie parts since moving west just three years ago, was hardly plucked from obscurity.

Rooney is among the youngest of the Fabulous Maras, a sprawling, close-knit family that has become one of America’s greatest dynasties. And even if she manages to capture the “public fancy” and become as big a star as many predict, she still won’t be as famous to a large slice of the American public as, say, her great-grandfather.

That man, Tim Mara, was the founder of the New York Giants. Rooney’s grandfather, Wellington Mara, was a beloved steward of the team and a sports legend, who in his lifetime almost single-handedly guaranteed the success of the National Football League. After Wellington died, the team was passed down to his son John, Rooney’s uncle and one of 11 children. Rooney’s father Chris, another of the 11, is the team’s vice president of player evaluation. And her mother Kathleen is the granddaughter of Art Rooney Sr., the founder of the Pittsburgh Steelers. (She was originally “Patricia,” but took “Rooney” as a stage name.)

Given that the readers of Variety are, by and large, a distinct group from the viewers of ESPN, the breadth of Mara-family accomplishments tends to go unnoticed. In the entertainment world, Rooney was best known as the younger sister of Kate, who played Heath Ledger’s daughter in Brokeback Mountain. In the sports world, she is a “ pigskin princess,” who loves Eli Manning and enjoys the chicken fingers at Giants Stadium.

In both worlds, up until very recently, little has been written about the youngest Maras because the family has always avoided press.

“I think it’s a little overwhelming for them,” said Steve Tisch, the Oscar-winning Hollywood producer and the chairman and executive vice president of the Giants, a team his family co-owns with the Maras. “They’re soft-spoken, they’re conservative, they’re extremely not interested in being in the spotlight at all. That was Wellington’s great quality. He was such a behind-the-scenes guy. He wanted people to talk about the team, not its ownership.”

“The Maras aren't the kind of people who toot their own horn,” said Giants spokesman Pat Hanlon. They declined to be interviewed for this story.

Tisch, whose films include Risky Business, Forrest Gump, and American History X, said he offered his services to the Mara women—first Kate, then Rooney—when each decided she was going to leave the East Coast and try her fortunes in Hollywood. Like her sister, who has sung the National Anthem at Giants games, Rooney began getting work almost as soon as she arrived. She landed bit parts on TV shows, including the short-lived Women’s Murder Club and E.R. Her big break came in 2009, when Tatiana von Furstenberg cast her as the lead in her film Tanner Hall, where she played alongside Amy Sedaris and Tom Everett Scott.

“From the second she walked in to the audition, Rooney was so different from all the other actors because she was very quiet, very reserved,” von Furstenberg said. “Really still waters run very deep with her. You keep wanting more from her. She’s curious, she’s so composed, responsive, but it’s very, very subtle and profound.” She described Rooney’s acting style as being “like a little girl playing make-believe. It’s not performing—it’s true commitment, true belief.”

Von Furstenberg remembered watching Rooney on the monitor during filming and picking up a “Grace Kelly quality” in her.

“She also has incredible bone structure,” she said.

Less known for their bone structure are the football Maras, although by many accounts, Rooney has a lot in common with the dominant element of her family—her grandfather Wellington in particular. He was big-hearted and private, and was known to treat his staff and associates like relatives, once buying a reporter a television set and telling him he was “part of the family,” according to sportswriter William Bendetson, co-author of When the Cheering Stops, a forthcoming history of the Giants. The younger Mara has channeled her warmth into charity work, founding Faces of Kibera to help orphans in one of Africa’s largest slums.

The Maras haven’t always been a perfectly harmonious family—it was a rift between John and Wellington that led the elder to sell half the Giants to the Tisches—but they have always been close.

“In any family, it’s never perfect, it’s never smooth,” Bendetson said, “and that’s the case with the Maras. But what sets them apart, like the Rooneys—they’re still in the game all these years later. They’ve just passed the team from one generation to the next, and it’s been able to stay in the family.”

America’s great football dynasty is now poised to become one of Hollywood’s great acting dynasties. Tisch said he isn’t at all surprised. He plans to celebrate the latest good fortune, along with the rest of the extended Mara clan, at the Giants home opener on September 12.

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Rebecca Dana is a senior correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for The Wall Street Journal, she has also written for The New York Times, The New York Observer, Rolling Stone and Slate, among other publications.