Nightmare Alley: Rooney Mara and Richard Jenkins Interview

Nightmare Alley
Rooney Mara and Bradley Cooper in ‘Nightmare Alley’ (Photo by Kerry Hayes © 2021 20th Century Studios)

Oscar winner Guillermo del Toro’s riveting adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s Nightmare Alley, published in 1946, tells the story of carnival hustler Stanton Carlisle (Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper) and the three strong women who play integral roles in his life.

Oscar nominee Toni Collette’s Zeena the Seer helps introduce Stan to the art of mind-reading and warns of the dangerous path he’ll head down if he gives in to the dark side of the con. The sweet and spirited Molly (two-time Oscar nominee Rooney Mara) has known nothing other than the carnival life and when Stan showers her with attention, she’s unable to resist his charms. Two-time Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett plays Dr. Lilith Ritter, a cunning psychiatrist who pulls the unsuspecting (but not undeserving) Stan in and traps him like a fly inside an inescapable web.

Two-time Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins plays a pivotal role as Ezra Grindle, a filthy rich and morally corrupt businessman who turns to Stan in an attempt to soothe his guilty conscience.

Paired up for a Zoom press conference, Rooney Mara and Richard Jenkins spoke about their entry points into their characters. “I don’t know if there’s one specific thing,” said Mara. “Guillermo writes these incredible character biographies and to me, that was when it all clicked for me was when I read that. There’s so many little things in there that might seem meaningless to some people but that just make a person feel real. That to me was my real entry point was reading that biography and learning all these little things about Molly.”

“When I read the text, when I read the script I remember thinking, ‘Okay, you spend your life trying to connect with this vision, this person who you feel responsible for their death that you loved. And then you see them…you see them…and all of your life this is what it’s been geared toward and then you see them. And then you find out in a second and a half that it’s all not true.’ What is the human response to that? How do you even wrap your head around it? I think that just really interested me,” said Jenkins.

Mara admitted she’d never analyzed the story from that point of view and Jenkins added, “Yeah, you see those beautiful gardens and he’s built this to honor this woman. And for me, that was when I just said, ‘Yeah, I would love to play this. I would love to see what happens here.’”

Guillermo del Toro and co-writer Kim Morgan felt it was very important to have the symmetry of three women and three fathers for Stan. “These three figures each illuminate this negative space that Stan is,” explained Guillermo del Toro. “Kim and I discussed this very detailed and she said, ‘We’re going to have the archetypes – the ingenue, the femme fatale, the earthy heart-of-gold humanistic character. I want the three to survive and in fact thrive after Stan.’ And they all see him in some way but they’re hoping he’s not that.”

Rooney Mara appreciated the fact del Toro and Morgan included representations of three archetypes in the story. “So many times in film are women are reduced down to their archetype but you’re only seeing one of those. And all these three women, while they represent three different archetypes, they did feel like fully, well-rounded humans,” said Mara. “I think it’s really unique to have all three of those archetypes in one film in the way that this film has them. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that.”

Nightmare Alley
Richard Jenkins and Bradley Cooper in a scene from ‘Nightmare Alley’ (Photo by Kerry Hayes © 2021 20th Century Studios)

Molly and Ezra are on the receiving end of Stan’s hubris and both characters have distinctly different reactions to their interactions with the charming hustler.

“I always wondered, ‘Do I like Stan?’ I don’t know why that just kept coming up. I realized I didn’t; I needed him. I liked him when I needed him and when I didn’t, I didn’t,” said Jenkins. “You know, this is a fairly self-involved human being and I found that really interesting to do. I mean, there were times when I would look at Stan and feel great empathy for him. And then times I would look at him and think, ‘I’d like to squash him.’ So, it was, I guess, human – that’s a good word for it. I never tried to choose when those moments happened. They just seemed to find their way in and out.”

“I think the beautiful thing about Molly is she has the ability to have love and compassion for anyone, even in their worst moments, almost to a fault – almost to her undoing. And so that’s kind of how I thought of Stan. I was able to sort of love all parts of him,” explained Mara.

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Searchlight Pictures is releasing Nightmare Alley in theaters on December 17, 2021.