In Side Effects, Mara takes on the role of the wife of a hapless insider trader, played by Channing Tatum. When he is released from prison, brimming with plans to rebuild their once-golden life together, Mara’s character descends into bleak depression, apparently fueled by an unscrupulous doctor’s careless administration of prescription drugs. Mara’s nuanced performance illuminates a movie whose unexpected twists and revelations owe a debt to Hitchcock at his sliest.
For her role, Mara spoke to psychologists, met with sufferers of depression, studied online video diaries—even visited the psych ward at Manhattan’s Bellevue Hospital. “I think everyone has at some point in their lives been depressed, or at least sad,” she says. “I had a lot of anxiety growing up because I was so shy, so I could relate to that part of it. But severe clinical depression is a whole other thing, and I guess I never really knew how bad it can get.”
Soderbergh says he was taken by Mara’s ability to “shape-shift” when he saw his friend David Fincher’s The Social Network in its unfinished early stages. Mara plays Mark Zuckerberg’s arch and increasingly exasperated girlfriend in the masterly pre-credits opening—a sequence that threatens to steal the movie. “Wow, who’s that girl?” he asked himself. “She just really registers strongly.” And yet, a surprising degree of personal shyness has clung to the actress since early childhood. “I think that’s part of the reason I like acting,” Mara explains. “I can be someone else. I get to express a lot of things that maybe are hard for me to express in my normal life.” She relishes a role with an accent for this reason: “I just find it easier to lose yourself. I’d really rather hide behind the character. It’s like a party trick! Not that I go to parties.”