The daughter of New York Giants executive Chris Mara and Kathleen Rooney Mara, a part-time real estate exec, Rooney Mara grows up alongside her three siblings in the affluent community of Bedford, N.Y. Her mother's love of movies and theater eventually inspires Rooney and her older sister Kate to act. "My sister started acting professionally when she was twelve," Mara tells Vogue, "but I wanted to go to college first."
While attending New York University, Mara begins auditioning for roles, eventually landing a guest-starring spot on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. "People are obsessed with that show. I don't get it," she later tells Allure. The actress makes further TV appearances on Women's Murder Club in 2007 and The Cleaner in 2008.
Following bit parts in 2009's The Winning Season and Youth in Revolt, Mara lands the lead in the 2010 reboot of A Nightmare on Elm Street, playing Freddy Krueger's victim Nancy Holbrook. Though the film tops the box office, she later tells Vogue, "I hated it. It left me thinking, 'If this is what is available to me, then I don't necessarily want to be an actress.'"
While out in L.A., Mara is spotted smooching aspiring director Charlie McDowell, the son of A Clockwork Orange star Malcolm McDowell and actress Mary Steenburgen. Though they continue to step out, the pair remains mum on their relationship.
A scene-stealing turn as Erica Albright, the fictional ex-girlfriend of Mark Zuckerberg, whose breakup inspires the creation of Facebook, launches Mara into the spotlight after The Social Network's release. "When Rooney walked in, I said, 'There's the girl!'," director David Fincher tells W. The film grosses more than $200 million, and becomes an awards-season favorite.
Mara beats out bigger-name actresses like Scarlett Johansson for the coveted role of Lisbeth Salander in director David Fincher's adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, based on Swedish author Stieg Larsson's best-selling trilogy. "I wanted her from the beginning," he tells W magazine. "We didn't make it easy for Rooney, and there was no way to dissuade her."
Mara scores her first major magazine cover, showing off her Salander transformation – which includes cropped black hair; eyebrow, ear and nipple piercings; and bleached eyebrows – on W magazine. "I didn't even have pierced ears," she says. "They put four holes in each ear, and, weirdly, that hurt the most."
Mara earns raves for her work in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, with PEOPLE declaring, "If [the film] isn't nearly as interesting as Lisbeth herself, blame Mara … She's a pixie with a mean punch." The actress earns Golden Globe and Oscar nominations for her performance. "It is a shock," the first-time nominee says of her Academy Award honor. "Just to go to the Oscars at all would be an amazing experience."
BIOGRAPHY (top to bottom): Courtesy New Line Cinema; Nick Stern/WENN; Merrick Morton/Columbia Tristar; Alex J. Berliner/NBC; Courtesy W Magazine; Merrick Morton/Columbia TriStar