PHOTO: WARNER BROTHERS
By Karen Butler
British filmmaker Joe Wright has been taking a lot of heat for casting Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily in his Peter Pan origin tale “Pan,” but he maintains the Irish-American actress was the best woman for the job.
"When I first started considering Neverland as a world, before I started thinking about Tiger Lily's casting, I thought about the community that she is part of and I didn't want to make them one specific nationality,” Wright said at a recent New York press conference.
"Our idea of Tiger Lily being Native American actually comes from the Disney cartoon, not from [J.M.] Barrie's original source material," the 43-year-old director continued. "Barrie's kind of non-specific about Tiger Lily and her community's race and, so, I decided that I'd make the tribe natives of Planet Earth and the indigenous people of the globe. And that felt like a kind of opportunity then to really have all these people come together to fight Blackbeard, who is almost like a kind of colonial villain who wants to overtake their land and, so, that was very exciting. Then when I got to Tiger Lily's casting, I thought, 'Well, I can cast her from anywhere.' So, I had a lovely time meeting actresses from India and China and Japan and Africa and African-American and Native American and First Nation Australian and so forth, but Tiger Lily is described as being a warrior princess and there is something quite regal about Rooney and there is something a little bit scary, too. She is quite bad-ass. You don't want to mess with her and, so, therefore, she was the greatest actress who had the qualities described in the screenplay and that's why I cast her. I think people's concerns, which I fully understand, about the casting of a Caucasian actress in the role, are justified until they see the movie and when people see the movie, they kind of understand what I am trying to do."
Mara, sitting beside Wright on the panel, said she was happy to play the role, in part, because it was in a movie she would be comfortable watching with her family.
"I really wanted to work with Joe, but I really wanted to be in a film that my family could see where I don't take my clothes off and I'm not getting horribly abused by someone," the 30-year-old actress explained.
"I grew up loving fairytales and loving Peter Pan. It was just getting to go to work every day and not take yourself so seriously and just sort of play make believe. It was something really different for me, but I felt it was something I really needed and wanted to do."
With a screenplay by Jason Fuchs, the movie is a prequel of sorts to Barrie’s early 20th-century classic. Now set during World War II, the re-telling of the tale finds Peter [played by newcomer Levi Miller] eager to leave the London orphanage where he was raised when he is snatched up in the middle of the night and transported to the fantastical world of Neverland. There, he meets adventurer James Hook [played by Garrett Hedlund,] the evil pirate Blackbeard [played by Hugh Jackman] and Mara’s heroine Tiger Lily.
Asked how she went about making such an iconic character all her own, Mara replied: “A lot of it was kind of done for us.
“We had a great script and we had the amazing Joe and we had an incredible costume and hair and makeup team and I really spent a lot of time with the stunt department, trying to learn how to fight, so I could somewhat stand up to Hugh who’s just good at everything that he does. It took a lot, a lot of really hard work to be able to come off as somewhat good at fighting. I spent a ton of time with the stunt department. Also, we were lucky enough that we got a good amount of rehearsal time and just sort of the three of us spending a lot of time together was really helpful.”
So, did that colorful, multi-layered costume and headdress she wears in the film assist her transformation into this fierce character?
“I think costumes always are one of the most helpful things to moving and feeling more like the character,” Mara noted. “My costume was incredible and it was inspired by Joe’s son who was obsessed with belly buttons. It sounded like a really great, cute idea. I was like: ‘Oh, yeah, I love that. I’ll wear a midriff.’ Then, two months into it, I’m like, ‘Why did I do this?’ It was really hard to fight in my costume because there were so many things dangling everywhere. It was really hard to hide padding or harnesses under it. It was an incredible costume, but, yeah, by Month 4, I was ready to burn it.”
Even more difficult than fighting in that gorgeous getup was crossing swords with Blackbeard himself.
“For me, the most challenging part of making the movie was my fight with Hugh, actually,” Mara revealed. “I feel like we shot that fight for four weeks and we practiced it for way longer than that. It was my first time doing anything remotely like that and Hugh is an incredible fighter. He’s incredible at stunts. He’s an incredible dancer, so Hugh is quite used to picking up choreography and we’d be rehearsing this over and over and he’d just pick it up so fast. He could just literally keep going and going and going. He never got tired or winded. He never complained and that was a really hard fight and we basically had to do it on a balance beam. We had practiced it for weeks and weeks and on the day that it was time to shoot it, all of a sudden, we realized that we actually had to be on wires because it was too dangerous to do it without the wires, and that kind of changes everything about your center of gravity and the way you move. I think that was definitely the most challenging part of the entire shoot for me. It was also really fun, but it was very challenging.”
Best known for her work in the films “Trash,” “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “The Social Network” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” Mara admitted she doesn’t enjoy watching her own film performances too soon after the projects wrap.
“I have a really hard time watching anything that I’m in until it’s like five years later,” she confessed. “I don’t really have good perspective on myself. I’m super-hard on myself and critical and, when I watch things that I’m in, I only see the things I wish I hadn’t done. So, no, I’m never really that pleased with myself until years later, and then I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m not that bad.’”
“Pan” is in theaters now.