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Rooney Mara talks the election, feminism, and miracles in 'Mary Magdalene'

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Mary Magdalene (2018) is a retelling of Jesus’ life story through the eyes of the forgotten apostle: Mary Magdalene, who is often wrongly cited to have been a prostitute. The incredibly versatile star of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) and Carol (2015), Rooney Mara, plays the until-now-unsung heroine. Here's was she had to say on the timely nature of the film, and her approach to taking on the role.

Don't forget to read our interviews with the director Garth Davis & writer Philippa Goslett, with Joaquin Phoenix himself, and with co-stars Chiwetel Ejiofor & Tahar Rahim too.

When you first heard about the role of Mary Magdalene, was that daunting?

My reaction was absolutely “Oh my god, do I really want to do this?” Garth sent me the email — we were talking about doing this other project, and then he sent me an email, I think it just said “How do you feel about Mary Magdalene?” and I thought, ugh god. And then he flew to LA a few weeks later to talk to me about it, so I knew he was very serious. I was scared, I wasn’t sure I wanted to take it on. i knew I wanted to work with him, and I knew he would make a beautiful film that was integral and authentic and truthful, but I was definitely really nervous to take it on.

In the film we see a lot of Mary’s past - how much of that was based on fact? 

I had the image that most people have of Mary Magdalene, that she was the prostitute. So then I was shocked when I read the script to learn that that wasn’t at all true. We don’t really know anything, but we just piece together what we can from all these various different books and cannons and gospels. We know enough, like where she came from, and because we know where she came from we can gather that most people from there would have been fishermen. So that stuff is probably pretty based in truth. The writers spoke with a lot of historians and people who know their stuff pretty well.

The picture that most people have of Mary isn’t at all based in reality, so it was a huge undertaking to play someone that people think they know. And she is someone that’s important to many people, but on the other hand it was slightly freeing because while we’re not reinventing her, we are for the first time telling her story as we see it to be true. That kind of took some of the pressure off a bit. 

What was your research process like going into this?

To be honest, a lot of the research was done for me — I got packets and packets from Garth of “what it was like to live back then,” and just so much of it felt like homework. I felt like I was back in grade school, and didn’t want to read any of it! So than going to Israel was cool, because we got to learn a lot of that stuff first hand instead of having to read it in the textbooks. We didn’t shoot in Israel, but me and Joaquin got to go right before we went and shot in Italy. They took us on a little field trip there.

The gospel stuff - I really didn’t want to go back and read them, because again it made me feel like I was back at Sunday school or something. And then it was really actually Joaquin, who would start talking about it. Because he was reading them pretty intensely and he would talk about it, and I couldn’t believe it was from the bible, the things he was reading. So then I did start getting into it — especially the Mary gospels. There’s really beautiful stuff in there. Really really amazing stuff in there. So it was really cool to get to go back and read a lot of those texts.

This is such an incredibly timely film, which you couldn’t have known when you were filming. The whole premise of centring a woman’s narrative in this male-dominated story - how did that speak to you in the process of making it?

Exactly! And she’s a woman whose story was tarnished by men, and kept silent by men. It’s pretty remarkable. When we were filming, we knew it was an important and timely story, but we never could have known just how important and timely it would be. We were filming on the day of the election. I remember waking up that morning thinking “Oh god, we’re making this feminist film and we’re going to have our first female president, isn’t this fucking amazing!” And all of us just going to work that day, and we couldn’t believe it. And I think we were doing some scene that day, maybe it was the day Jesus was carrying the cross, so it was really intense, and it was cold, and everyone was just walking around like a zombie - no one could believe what was happening.

I couldn’t believe it then, and I still can’t believe it. It feels like even though we’ve come so far from when this all took place thousands of years ago, we haven’t really come that far actually. And that became even more clear these past few months with everything that’s come out. I think it’s a really important story and I think it’s going to be really meaningful to a lot of women, a lot of men, a lot of people who have felt marginalised. I think it’s going to be really important for a lot of young girls to see it. I think it’s going to be really inspiring for a lot of people - or at least that’s what I hope.

Do you feel that one has to be spiritual in order to enjoy the film?

I don’t consider myself religious, or part of any religion, though I was brought up Catholic and my family is largely Catholic. Religion is important to them and I respect that, and I respect it being important to other people. I do consider myself to be  spiritual person, though, but I think that you don’d need to be religious or spiritual to get something out of the film. 

Were there moments in the film where you thought Mary perceived things differently because she was a woman?

I think that she probably does perceive things to be different because she’s a woman. I think that’s why she perceives his teachings and his message about the kingdom so vastly differently than all the other disciples. Because she’s a woman, she’s coming from a different place. Every decision is made for her, she’s not allowed to have a voice or a life of her own, and Jesus comes a long and tells her that what she’s feeling is important and is valid, and that she does get to make decisions for herself, and her life is her own. He tells her that what she’s feeling is right and she should follow it, and I think that’s the first time that anyone’s ever made her feel that way, and it opens this door. 

Especially during that time, to have a relationship with god or your faith, there was this hierarchy. You had to have your Rabbi, or these high priests, and in order to get closer to god you had to go through those people. Jesus comes along and he tells them, “No you don’t. It’s within you. Everyone has equal access to it. You don’t need these people. You don’t need to go meditate on a mountain-top for five years to reach nirvana - you can reach it right now. It’s within you. You don’t need help from anyone but yourself.” And so I think she’s able to hear that differently because she’s coming from a marginalised place and the other disciples don’t have that experience. 

It’s interesting that she says the men sound like soldiers at one point, and war is seen as a very masculine pursuit. But women have never been in a position of power like that, so we don’t really know what we would do. I hope as a female that we would use our power differently, but we can’t really say. And so I think it’s less of a gender thing than it is being in a position of power.

There are miracles that happen in this film - did you have to rationalise them to yourself to be able to play the part?

You know, it’s interesting, we talked a lot about it — I think because Garth made such a pointed decision to make everyone in the story, including Jesus, much more human than we’ve ever seen them depicted. The way I rationalise it — I’m pretty new-age in my life, I’m really into alternate medicine and all that kind of hokey stuff. And that was actually what partly helped me see Jesus in a new light for the first time. Like, if I was alive back then, he would have been one of those people that I follow now. So I just thought of him as a healer. And I think also, Mary is conflicted, she doesn’t want to get married and have a normal life, she wants to follow her faith, and for those feelings which were not the norm, she was considered by her family to be possessed. Back during that time a lot of ailments were attributed to that — there was a different way of reckoning things back then. And I think Jesus coming along — part of the miracle and the healing is really just seeing people for the first time. 

He comes in and sees me, and he just says “What is it you want out of life?” and she says, “To know God.” And he looks at her and is the first person in her life to really see her, and to say, “There are no demons here.” That’s not a miracle, that’s just seeing someone for who they are. That’s a lot of the healing that he did — that he was really giving people a voice and seeing them. A lot of these people were lepers - no one’s able to touch them or look at them, they’re totally ostracised. So I think part of the healing he did was just really seeing people.

Mary Magdalene arrives in cinemas March 16th.

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