Rooney Mara On Tiger Lily: Actress Never Intended To Play A ‘Native American Girl’

A couple years ago, actress Rooney Mara accepted a role in a retelling of the classic story Peter Pan. But her casting as Tiger Lily raised a firestorm of outrage and put Mara on the wrong side of the Hollywood whitewashing controversy.

In an interview with the Telegraph that describes the American actress of Irish — not Native American — descent as shy and guarded, Rooney finally spoke about it.

The film was Pan. Released in 2015 and directed by Joe Wright, it was widely detested by critics and fans (Rotten Tomatoes gave it a paltry score of 26 percent). At the center of it was Rooney’s casting, a Caucasian girl as Native-American character Tiger Lily, even though more diverse options were surely available.

Mara was heavily criticized for accepting the role of Tiger Lily, Variety reported. The character is Native American in both the 1911 novel Peter and Wendy by JM Barrie and in Walt Disney’s 1953 animated version.

People even compiled a petition to Warner Bros. to oppose her casting and it gathered 96,000 signatures. At the time, Variety reported the petition as complaining that the “casting choice is particularly shameful for a children’s movie. Telling children their role models must all be white is unacceptable.”

Rooney said that playing Tiger Lily was a “tricky thing to deal with. There were two different periods; right after I was initially cast, and the reaction to that, and then the reaction again when the film came out.”

“It was never my intention to play a Native American girl. That was never an option to me,” Mara added to Deadline.

It didn’t help that other casting choices seemed to pass over more diverse candidates — like Johnny Depp being cast as Native American Tonto in The Lone Ranger. That movie also tanked with critics.

All the same, Rooney said of her Tiger Lily part that she enjoyed working on the film and insists the director’s intentions, although widely criticized, weren’t malicious but “genuine.”

“I really hate, hate, hate that I am on that side of the whitewashing conversation. I really do. I don’t ever want to be on that side of it again. I can understand why people were upset and frustrated. Do I think all of the four main people in the film should have been white with blonde hair and blue eyes? No. I think there should have been some diversity somewhere.”

The upcoming Oscars is rife with controversy for the Academy’s decision to nominate only white people for its best acting awards. It’s the second year this has happened, and plenty of celebs have spoken out against this routine; directors Spike Lee and Michael Moore, and actors Will and Jada Pinkett Smith will boycott, and #OscarsSoWhite is trending.

Rooney is nominated herself for Carol, a movie about two women who fall in love in the 1950s when homosexuality was considered a “sociopathic personality disturbance.”

Before they launched into a discussion about her Tiger Lily role, Mara was asked if she planned to attend the ceremony and uncomfortably confirmed that she would. She also spoke a little about the Hollywood whitewashing issue but was hesitant to say much. After all, fellow nominee Charlotte Rampling recently got in trouble for saying the Oscars boycott was “racist to whites,” Entertainment Tonight added.

She later said her comment was misinterpreted.

“Here is the thing, I have a lot to say and I have very strong opinions about it, but it is such a sensitive issue I don’t want to reduce it to a sound bite. I feel like that is what is happening. It is being turned into pull quotes and headlines, and that isn’t opening up a conversation so much as pointing fingers at people and taking their awards out of context. I don’t want to step into the conversation in that way.”

To Deadline, Mara said the casting debate in general that “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.”

[Image via Denis Makarenko/Shutterstock]