Rooney Mara on ‘Pan’, Hollywood’s Whitewashing Probelm and Storytelling

Rooney Mara has had a rollercoaster of a year, from appearing in the universally panned Pan to stealing our hearts (and Cate Blanchett’s) in Carol. She’s currently up for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as the lovestruck young Therese Belivet in Todd Haynes’s romantic drama, and it could even be argued that she should have been nominated for the lead. (Blanchett is up for the Best Actress Oscar.) On the other hand, Mara and Pan director Joe Wright stirred up a whole mess of controversy when the white actress took on the role of Tiger Lily, a Native American character. Wright defended the casting in an interview with Reuters, saying, “I can understand how it appears from the outside perspective… But when people see the film, they get it.” Unfortunately, not a whole lot of people saw the movie; it opened to bad reviews and even worse box office receipts.

In a wide-ranging interview with Deadline, Mara discussed the backlash. Writer Anthony D’Alessandro asked the actress, “When we start casting actors according to their ethnic background, doesn’t that start curbing creativity and art?” That seems like not just a loaded question but a skewed one; however, Mara’s response was careful to acknowledge the problems of whitewashing without completely dissing Pan.

I think that there are two sides to it. Yes, I do think it curbs art and creativity, and I also think that if you’re going to go by that, you have to be able to…it has to go both ways. It can’t just be that you don’t want a white girl to play a certain part. It has to be both sides. And I do think it can curb art and creativity. That being said, is there whitewashing in Hollywood? Absolutely, and I feel really bad and embarrassed to be a part of that. In J.M. Barrie’s book, the natives were not Native American. That was something later attributed and there’s probably racism behind even that attribution. In the book, they’re called the Pickaninny tribe, which is wrought with racism. But it was never my intention to play a Native American girl. That was never an option to me. It was Joe (Wright’s) pure desire to make the natives a conglomeration of many different cultures and indigenous people. To make them people of the world. He wanted them to be natives of planet Earth. I thought that was a really beautiful intention of his. That being said, I understand the anger about whitewashing. I completely do, and I agree with it.

What’s your take on the matter?