In the atmospheric drama “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” (set in the 1970s), Bob Muldoon (played by Casey Affleck) and Ruth Guthrie (played by Rooney Mara), an impassioned young outlaw couple on an extended crime spree are finally apprehended by lawmen after a shootout in the Texas hills. Although Ruth wounds a local officer, Bob takes the blame and goes to prison. Four years later, Bob (who constantly writes letters to Ruth and their daughter, Sylvie, who was born during his incarceration) escapes from prison and sets out to reunite with them.
Meanwhile, police officer Patrick Wheeler (played by Ben Foster), who was wounded in the shootout, is in love with Ruth, but the feeling isn’t mutual. Patrick struggles to keep a respectful distance, knowing that his romantic feelings for Ruth could compromise the investigation into Bob’s escape from prison. I recently caught up with Mara at the New York City press junket for “Ain’t Them Bodies” Saints, where she sat down with me and other journalists for a roundtable interview.
How much was guilt a factor in Ruth wanting to stay loyal to Bob?
There’s certainly a lot of loyalty between them, and Ruth has a lot of loyalty to Bob and her daughter and she certainly has a lot of guilt. But I don’t think that one has to do with the other. I don’t think she’s staying loyal out of guilt. But I certainly think she feels both things very strongly.
Ruth is a vulnerable character. Do you want viewers to see more of that side of you?
I never think of it like, “Oh, what do I want people to see?” I don’t ever think of it like that, but certainly the character does have a lot more vulnerability, but I never think of it like, “I need people to see me more vulnerable.” That was where I was at when I chose those roles. Maybe I was feeling more vulnerable, and that was what I was responding to. I’m not really sure.
Do you think “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” writer/director David Lowery challenged you to be more vulnerable, or did that come naturally with the script?
No, that was just the character. It was never a problem that I needed to be more vulnerable. The character just is very vulnerable, physically and emotionally. Her life is very complicated.
What was it about the Ruth Guthrie character and the story of “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” that you responded to the most?
David just has a really special, unique voice. And the script is so beautifully written. Ruth, in the first script I read, was actually not that well-developed. It was definitely the most underdeveloped of all the characters. But he knew that and said that before I even read it. So it was something that he was working on, but I could still see all the potential there. And her relationship with Bob I found to be so beautiful and interesting.
I also really loved the love story between her and her child. I read a lot of scripts where it’s just the mom, like, “Oh, she’s a protective mother.” I just found the way she was a mother and the relationship with her child to be very different and interesting. It wasn’t just this protective mother. It was much more complicated than that. And I like that about it.
You’re involved in the charity the Uweza Foundation, which helps people in Kibera, a slum in Nairobi, Kenya. If you weren’t a professional actress, would you be doing charity work full-time? What other off-screen interests do you have?
I don’t know. I can’t imagine my life without having some sort of creative outlet like that. Certainly, the stuff that I do with Uweza and for Oxfam America is what grounds me. I can’t imagine my life without that either, but I don’t know what I would be doing if I wasn’t acting. Certainly, I would be doing more of that [charity] kind of thing, because I would have more time, but I can’t imagine my life without having some sort of creative outlet.
What do you think Ruth would be like if she never had a child?
I never thought about that, but it’s a very interesting question. I can’t imagine where she would end up. It’s very sad to think about. Maybe she would have ended up in jail. I think definitely having Sylvie was the best possible scenario of her life. I think it changed her life tremendously. I can’t imagine what her life would be like if she didn’t have her.
I don’t think Ruth is necessarily excited that she’s having a baby when she finds out she’s having a baby. It’s not something that she planned on doing. We even talked about that up until the point where she actually looks at the baby for the first time, she’s kind of fighting it.
It’s not something that she feels ready for; it’s not something that wants. She wants her life with Bob. She wants her childhood back with Bob. And until the moment she is actually holding the baby and sees it for the first time, I think she’s really fighting it. I think it did change her tremendously.
Around the time that the American version of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” came out in 2011, you were on the cover of Vogue. Who is more intimidating: your Lisbeth Salander character from “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” or Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour?
[She laughs.] I think Lisbeth is much more intimidating. Anna is wonderfully intelligent and certainly, I can see why she’s intimidating to people. She’s a wildly successful woman and a powerful woman. And I think people view that differently than they view men in a position of power. I think Lisbeth is probably much more intimidating.
Do you think people see you as intimidating or in ways that are not accurate?
I don’t know. Probably most everything the general public think they know about me is not accurate. There are very few people you truly know in your life. It’s hard to really know someone. People are very complicated. They just are.
And I think we try and simplify people and put them in these little categories of being this person or that person, and it’s just simply not true. Everyone is complicated. So I don’t know. I don’t see the world that way.
I don’t see the world as being this type of person or that type of person. I find people to be incredibly complex and interesting and different. So I’m sure that people who don’t know me, I’m sure most of the things they think about me aren’t true. The same goes for me with people I don’t know that I feel like I know from interviews or the media or whatever. I probably don’t really know anything about them.
When you were doing interviews for “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” you said you didn’t want to see the movie because it was hard for you to watch the movie’s violent scenes. Have you seen “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”?
Yes. I have seen the movie a few times.
A lot of movie critics are comparing David Lowery’s directing style to Terrence Malick’s directing style. Since you’ve worked with both of these directors, can you compare and contrast them from an actor’s perspective?
People do make that comparison a lot. They’re completely different. Their directing style could not be more different. But then again, I would say the same thing about David [Lowery] and David [Fincher, director of the American version of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”] and David and Steven [Soderbergh, director of “Side Effects”] or any two directors I’ve worked with. They’re all completely different.
I would say that similarity between David and Terry is that maybe they’re both very romantic and they both see the world in maybe a similar [way]. They’re both very poetic and maybe have a similar romanticism about them. But other than that, I find them to be quite different.
How are they David Lowery and Terrence Malick different from each other?
Any two directors I’ve worked with are so different. There’s not really a quick example. I can’t think of one thing about their directing style that’s the same. Everything is different. Everything about Terry is different. He’s one of the most unique people I’ve ever met.
In “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” Ruth tells Patrick that she doesn’t need anything and that she’s not able to sleep. What does she need and what can make her sleep?
The thing with the not sleeping, I think that comes back to the guilt. Bob has been writing her these letters the entire time he’s been in prison. I think Ruth started off writing him letters as well. And as soon as she had Sylvie, it was kind of like, how do you write about the first time you look into your child’s eyes or their first birthday or the first time they walked or the first time they said “mommy”? How do you write about that in a letter and make someone understand it, you know?
I think as soon as she had Sylvie and started feeling that way, she stopped writing to him because there was no way to express it. And I think she has a lot of guilt about that. She hasn’t slept in four years because she’s been wondering if he’s OK and having all this guilt that she’s not writing to him and that he has gone to prison for something she’s done and all of that.
Do you think Ruth can get closure?
Yeah, I think it would probably take a lot of time, a lot of healing. I think she’ll [eventually] sleep [well]. And then Sylvie will turn into a teenager, and [Ruth] will stop sleeping again.
Ruth has kind of a stern personality. What did you do to make Ruth more relatable to audiences?
I think before the movie takes place, Ruth was a very different person. I think her relationship with Bob was very passionate and fiery. And I think there was a lot of fighting and making up. And I think she was this wild, stubborn, feisty character.
And then what happens happens, and she has this child, and it changes who she is. Her life is very complicated and she is walking around with all this guilt and responsibility. It’s hard moving on and finding happiness with something great in your life when the person that you love [is in prison]. I would imagine that would be very difficult and complicated.
I really liked the [Ruth] character, so I didn’t really think about what I would have to do to make her more likable or more accessible to the audience, because I find her to be a really vulnerable, interesting, likable character. So I didn’t ever really think about her in that way.
David Lowery said that he gave you songs to listen to while you were filming “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.” What were the songs and how did they inform the Ruth character?
He sent me a bunch of songs, and I liked them, but I had my own songs that made me feel like the character, so I appreciated that. I listened to the songs but then I never listened to them again.
What were the songs you chose?
I have such a long playlist. A few of the songs he sent me were on there. There was a lot of Loretta Lynn on there and a lot of sad songs. I am constantly listening to music when I’m working and I have different playlists for each character, but I haven’t listened to [my “Aint Them Bodies Saints” playlist] in a year. It’s not like I’ve listened to it since then, so I can’t even remember what was on it.
What was your playlist for “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”?
There was a lot of angry music. There was a lot of Nico Vega on there and a lot of stuff that Trish Summerville the costume designer had sent me and a lot of stuff that David [Fincher] had sent, like the Karen O cover of [Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”]. He played that for me the day I got the part.
Your family owns the New York Giants, and your uncle John is currently the president/CEO of the Giants. How interested are you in football?
I have interest in it, as far as it’s an incredible part of my heritage and my family. It’s been a huge part of my life.
What’s your perspective of the love triangle between Ben, Ruth and Patrick?
People always ask me that, and I feel terrible because I didn’t see the movie as a love triangle between me, Casey and Ben. I saw it as a love triangle between me, Casey and my daughter. That was the choice I was making. I was never choosing between Bob and Patrick. I was always choosing between Bob and Sylvie.
I think for Ruth, Patrick is ... the guy you wish you wanted to date, but you don’t. You don’t have those kinds of feelings for them, but you wish that you could, because life would be so much easier and better if she did want to be with him.
I think [Patrick] is a lovely person and so sweet to [Ruth], and they would have a really nice life together, but she’s grown up with this person, and she’s had an amazing life. I don’t think you can go from that to … Plus, the way [Patrick and Ruth] know each other, it would never work out, I don’t think.
There’s a rumor that you’re engaged. Is that true?
If you were engaged, are you the type of person to be interested in wedding planning?
No. I have such a huge family. I’ve been to so many weddings in my life.
What do you think Ruth’s feelings were about Sylvie meeting her father Bob after he escaped from prison?
I always thought of it and played it like for most of the movie, [Ruth] is totally planning on going with him and would go with him and actually thinks that the right thing to do. When you’re in love with someone, you can be quite delusional. You can convince yourself of anything. I think she probably believes that that’s the right thing to do.
You have the still-untitled Terrence Malick movie that’s coming out in 2014 and the Spike Jonze movie “Her,” which comes out in December 2013. What else is next for you?
In September , I’m working with Stephen Daldry on his next movie called “Trash.”
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