In 2011, Mara portrayed Lisbeth Salander, the title character in David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, based on Stieg Larsson's Millennium book series. She received critical acclaim for her performance and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress and a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama. In 2013, she starred in the thriller Side Effects, the independent drama Ain't Them Bodies Saints and the acclaimed sci-fi romantic drama, Her. The following year, she starred in the adventure drama film Trash (2014). In 2015, she garnered further critical acclaim for her performance in Todd Haynes' romantic drama Carol, for which she tied for the Best Actress Award at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama and the SAG, BAFTA, and Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Mara is also known for her charity work and oversees the charity Uweza Foundation, which supports empowerment programs for children and families in the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya, one of the largest slums in Africa.
Mara was born and raised in Bedford, New York, a town in Westchester County. Mara's mother's family (the Rooneys) founded the Pittsburgh Steelers and her father's family (the Maras) founded the New York Giants. Her father, Timothy Christopher Mara, is the vice president of player evaluation for the New York Giants, and her mother, Kathleen McNulty (née Rooney), a part-time real estate agent. She is the third of four children: she has an older brother, Daniel, an older sister, Kate, who is also an actress, and a younger brother, Conor.
Mara's father has Irish, German, and French-Canadian ancestry, and her mother is of Northern Irish and Italian descent. Her Rooney ancestors originated in Newry, County Down. Her paternal grandparents were Wellington Mara and Ann Mara. Wellington was the long-time co-owner of the Giants, who was succeeded in that position by her uncle, John Mara. Her maternal grandfather, Timothy James "Tim" Rooney, has run Yonkers Raceway in Yonkers, New York since 1972. Mara is the great-granddaughter of both New York Giants founder Tim Mara and Pittsburgh Steelers founder Art Rooney, Sr., as well as of Kathleen McNulty Rooney. Her granduncle, Dan Rooney, was chairman of the Steelers, the former United States Ambassador to Ireland, the co-founder of The Ireland Funds charitable organization, and the architect of American Football's Rooney Rule. U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney from Florida is her first cousin, once removed.
After graduating from Fox Lane High School in 2003, she went to Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia in South America for four months as part of the Traveling School, an open learning environment. She attended George Washington University for a year and then transferred to New York University's Gallatin School of Individualized Study, where she studied psychology, international social policy and nonprofits, graduating in 2010.
Mara was inspired to act by seeing musical theatre and classic movies, like Gone with the Wind (1939), Rebecca (1940), and Bringing Up Baby (1938), with her mother. She also wanted to be like her sister, Kate Mara, a professional actress. Mara resisted pursuing acting as a child, stating to The Journal News that "it never seemed that honorable to me, and I guess I was always afraid that I might fail." Her first and only role in high school was Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, which she got after being signed up to audition by a friend. Mara acted in a few student films while at NYU, and then began her career in acting, first auditioning at the age of nineteen.
Mara first appeared as an extra in films which starred her sister, including a bit-part in the 2005 direct-to-video horror film Urban Legends: Bloody Mary. She found work in television, making her professional debut in a 2006 episode of the drama Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, as a girl who bullies overweight children. She guest-starred on the legal drama Women's Murder Club in 2007 and played a drug addict in an episode of The Cleaner in 2008. Mara made her feature film debut Dream Boy in 2008 and guest-starred as Megan for two episodes of NBC's ER in 2009.
In a coming-of-age film Tanner Hall, Mara landed her first lead role, as Fernanda who has an affair with a married family friend (Tom Everett Scott). The film was the directorial debut of Tatiana von Fürstenberg and Francesca Gregorini, it debuted at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival and had a limited theatrical release in September 2011. Mara dropped her first name 'Patricia', to be known professionally by her middle name after working on the project. "I never really liked my first name," Mara stated to Paper magazine. "I never felt like a Tricia. And Rooney is more memorable". Her father and younger brother also go by their middle names.
In Miguel Arteta's 2009 comedy-drama film Youth in Revolt, Mara played Taggarty who tries to sleep with 50 men before she goes to college. The film was based on C.D. Payne's 1993 cult novel of the same name. Mara had auditioned for the starring role, but was offered the smaller part when the lead went to Portia Doubleday.
Mara played Courtney in the 2009 independent film, Dare and in The Winning Season as Wendy, a high school basketball player who has an affair with a middle-aged shoe salesman (Kevin Breznahan) with a similar story to The Bad News Bears. Both films were premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival and Mara was included on Filmmaker magazine's list of "25 New Faces of Independent Film" that year.
Mara starred in a remake of the 1984 horror film A Nightmare on Elm Street, as the protagonist Nancy Holbrook, a high school student victimized by Freddy Krueger (Jackie Earle Haley). Mara began shooting the film in Chicago on May 5, 2009, directed by Samuel Bayer. Mara told Filmmaker that she felt that her Nancy was "completely different from the original" and "the loneliest girl in the world". Mara had signed on to continue her role if a sequel was made. She stated to Vogue that she disliked the experience of making the film so much, that it made her question if she wanted to be an actress. Mara appeared at the Hamptons International Film Festival in October 2009 as part of its Breakthrough Performers Program, where she was tutored by Sharon Stone.
In David Fincher's biopic drama film The Social Network, she played Erica Albright, who breaks up with Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook.
In August 2010, Mara was cast as the lead in a film adaptation of the Millennium book trilogy by Stieg Larsson. She played Lisbeth Salander, a brilliant but troubled computer hacker who helps journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) solve a series of murders. Mara won the role over several other actresses after two and a half months of auditions and screen tests. David Fincher directed the first film, based on the novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, with Scott Rudin producing. The other books, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest, may be adapted, depending on box office performance. Fincher initially did not picture her as the character but changed his mind when she auditioned. He convinced executives at Columbia Pictures to cast her for the part.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo began shooting in Sweden in September 2010. Mara did not consider the film to be a remake, but another interpretation of the novel. "I plan on giving my interpretation of the character," she stated to Variety. Mara's long brown hair was cut short and dyed black, in a style reminiscent of 1970s punk and 1980s goth fashions. She also had each of her ears pierced four times, and had her brow and right nipple pierced for the role. Her nose and lip piercings were fake. She kept the nipple piercing so that it would not need to be re-pierced for a sequel. Mara's eyebrows were bleached, and she wore a temporary dragon tattoo. She began preparing for the role by starting to skateboard and kickbox, and underwent dialect and computer training. She also visited Stockholm, the setting of the novel. The film was released on December 20, 2011. Mara received universal critical acclaim and was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama for her performance. On January 24, 2012, Mara received her first Academy Award nomination in the category of Best Actress for this role.
In late 2011, Mara was considered for Kathryn Bigelow's action film Zero Dark Thirty; the role eventually went to Jessica Chastain. Mara replaced Carey Mulligan in Spike Jonze's film, Her (2013). Variety reported that Mulligan had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts, and Mara was selected to fill in alongside Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams and Scarlett Johansson.
Mara starred in Steven Soderbergh's 2013 crime/thriller film Side Effects, replacing Blake Lively. The film also starred Jude Law, Channing Tatum, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Vinessa Shaw. She played Emily Taylor, "a woman who turns to prescription medication as a way of handling her anxiety concerning her husband's upcoming release from prison." That same year, she starred in David Lowery's 2013 independent film Ain't Them Bodies Saints which is described as a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde story, alongside Casey Affleck and Ben Foster. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2013 where IFC Films purchased the rights for U.S. distribution. In May 2013, she became the new face of Calvin Klein new fragrance Down Town.
In 2014, Mara served as the costume designer on her former boyfriend Charlie McDowell's film The One I Love, credited as Bree Daniel.
In 2015, Mara played Tiger Lily in the Joe Wright-directed fantasy film Pan, a role which she received a great deal of criticism for taking. She and Wright faced accusations of "whitewashing" a role originally written for a Native American and of "Redface." To express their concerns, Native American activists created a hashtag #NotYourTigerlily to protest Mara's casting and thousands of Native Americans participated in a "Twitterstorm" to share memes addressing their concerns about the portrayal of Native women in film.
At the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, she tied for the Best Actress award for her role in the film Carol. She was also nominated for an Academy Award, a Golden Globe Award, a British Academy Film Award, and a Screen Actors Guild Award for her performance in the romantic drama.
In 2016, Mara voiced The Sisters in the animated stop motion film Kubo and the Two Strings. She next appeared opposite Ben Mendelsohn directed by Benedict Andrews in Una which had its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival on September 2, 2016. Mara next appeared in Lion opposite Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman, revolving around an adopted man finding his family using Google Earth and The Secret Scripture, directed by Jim Sheridan.
In 2017, Mara appeared in The Discovery directed by Charlie McDowell and A Ghost Story, opposite Casey Affleck, directed by David Lowery. Both had their world premieres at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2017. Mara then starred in Terrence Malick's Song to Song, with Ryan Gosling, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, and Val Kilmer, which was released in a limited release on March 17, 2017.
In 2018, Mara will appear in Mary Magdalene, directed by Garth Davis and also starring Joaquin Phoenix. Later that year, Mara will appear in Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot, opposite Joaquin Phoenix and Jonah Hill, directed by Gus Van Sant.
Mara is also attached to star in Vox Lux directed by Brady Corbet, and is also attached to serve as co-producer for a screen adaptation of the memoir A House in the Sky, and to play the lead role of Amanda Lindhout in the film, a longtime passion project that Mara expects to commence principal production in 2018.
Mara founded the charity Faces of Kibera, which aimed to provide housing, food, and medical care for orphans in Kibera, a Nairobi, Kenya slum. The charity's goal was to build an orphanage in the region, for which 6 acres of land have been purchased. The charity auctioned memorabilia from the Steelers and Giants, as well as training camp events on eBay to raise money. She visited the area as a volunteer in 2006 and was moved to help the orphans, many whose parents have died from AIDS and HIV-related illnesses. She began the charity due to her frustration with the growing number of nonprofits that are just business opportunities. "The people who need help aren’t really getting it. So I started my own", she told Interview magazine in 2009. Mara later found it challenging to balance her charity work and acting career. "I need to do both; I can't just do acting," she stated to The Journal News. In January 2011, Faces of Kibera merged with Uweza Foundation which runs community-based empowerment programs in Kibera, including soccer leagues and after-school tutoring. Uweza is a Swahili word meaning opportunity, ability, and power. Mara serves as the president of the board of directors for the foundation.
Mara moved to Los Angeles in early 2007 and lived with her sister temporarily. Although they do not live together anymore, Mara felt that the experience brought them closer together, and they still regularly discuss the film business and movie scripts. As of January 2012, Mara lived in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles. She includes Gena Rowlands among the actors who inspire her, especially her performances in A Woman Under the Influence (1974) and Opening Night (1977). She is a vegan.
Mara's mother's family founded the Pittsburgh Steelers, and her father's family founded the New York Giants. The families have maintained at least partial ownership of both teams since their foundings. Mara's father and paternal uncles have high ranking positions within the Giants organization; her uncle John Mara is the president and CEO of the team. Mara has described football as "the glue that holds our family together."