Rooney Mara

In indie-film-star terms, 2009 is the year of Rooney Mara—at least to everyone but Rooney Mara. Personally, the early-twenty-something actress would rather be in Kenya. Never mind that she has four films coming out: the comedy The Winning Season, opposite Sam Rockwell; an adaptation of the comic novel Youth in Revolt, starring Michael Cera; the prep-school drama Tanner Hall, with Amy Sedaris; and the relationship drama Dare, with Emmy Rossum. She even found time to appear in a two-episode arc on the final days of ER. Where did this girl come from? “I’m still trying to figure that out,” says Mara, who grew up just outside New York City in Westchester county. “I moved out to Los Angeles two years ago, and things just started happening.” In The Winning Season, she plays a high school basketball player who props up her alcoholic coach; in Youth in Revolt, she plays the best friend of Cera’s love interest. “It’s a really funny character,” she explains of the second role. “She’s trying to sleep with 25 guys before she goes to college. She has a wall of Polaroids and grades the guys based on their performance. She’s not a slut—she’s a genius. And it’s an experiment . . . Well, I guess you could call her a slut.” Mara seems to be able to find the genius in every situation. So far, she’s ricocheted between subversive slapstick comedy and intense drama. “I’m not at all funny,” she swears. “I can do dark comedy pretty well, but straight-up comedy, I don’t know. I’m much darker. I’ve been like that since I was 3 years old. For Halloween, my mom asked me what I wanted to be. I said Klara, the crippled girl in the movie Heidi.” Mara’s other job is a nonprofit she founded after a post-high-school volunteer trip to a Nairobi orphanage (“with a corrupt, disorganized charity,” she claims). “It’s frustrating because there are so many nonprofits sprouting up everywhere, it’s become a business opportunity,” says Mara. “The people who need help aren’t really getting it. So I started my own.” Her nonprofit, Faces of Kibera, is fundraising to build a children’s facility in a suburb of the Kenyan capital. Understandably, Mara’s career aspirations are pretty global. “I just want to keep doing what I’m doing,” she says, “which is a bunch of different things.”

To learn more about Faces of Kibera, visit the Web site.