Everything that sounds surreal about Kate Mara’s life seems perfectly normal to her. Frequently attending the Super Bowl? Not that out of the ordinary: Her family tree includes founders of iconic NFL franchises — on both sides. To her, the big game often serves as a reunion to hang out with relatives. Being able to bond with a sibling about life in the Hollywood spotlight? That’s just a nice coincidence: Her younger sister, Rooney, also happens to be a successful actress.
How about becoming the breakout star of Netflix’s groundbreaking political thriller “House of Cards,” executive-produced by acclaimed film director David Fincher and starring award-winning actors such as Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright?
Okay, she’s pretty jazzed about that.
“It’s a really amazing role to play,” Mara gushed by phone from Los Angeles, where she’s lived for the past decade, just a few weeks before “House of Cards” makes its second season debut on Feb. 14. Mara, who plays aggressively ambitious political reporter Zoe Barnes, still sounds psyched that she landed the gig. “It’s just the most challenging experience in the best way for an actor, and that’s always what I want.”
At this point in her career, working alongside such esteemed company on the Emmy-winning drama is ideal — she didn’t even need to think about it when she was originally offered the part. “The material was so brilliant and Fincher is so brilliant . . . there were already these amazing actors involved, so it was really a no-brainer for me,” she said.
“I mean, scripts can be amazing,” Mara, 30, continued. “But if you’re not working with other actors or directors that are going to challenge you, then for me, it’s not really worth it.”
In 2011, Hollywood took notice when Academy Award-nominated Fincher signed on to produce a TV show and also direct the first two episodes. That it would be Netflix’s first foray into original programming attracted even more attention. Fincher — who directed “Seven,” “Fight Club” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” along with “The Social Network” and “The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo,” both of which featured Rooney Mara, Kate’s younger sister — had Kate in mind for a part, but didn’t simply hand it to her.
“It was awesome because I really felt like I worked for the role — I wasn’t just offered it, I had to audition,” she says, and was officially cast in early 2012. She met co-star Spacey at the initial table read when the show, based on a 1990 British miniseries of the same name, began filming in Baltimore that spring.
In the world of dirty politics on “House of Cards,” Mara’s Zoe Barnes is generally involved in the secondary story to the tangled plotlines featuring Spacey, who plays devious House Majority Whip Francis Underwood and is at the center of the show’s universe. During the first season, however, the pair often crossed paths when they realized they could help each other. The two formed a relationship that included a steamy affair, despite Underwood’s marriage to a similarly ruthless power player (Robin Wright). Determined to make a name for herself as an investigative reporter, Zoe’s scoops from Underwood helped land her byline on the front page; those stories helped him get leverage over his political enemies.
Mara’s character got viewers talking last season, and not always in a positive way — people often debated the show’s treatment of a young female journalist, especially one sleeping her way to the top. But Mara’s strong, scene-stealing performance stood out in a cast of established stars, making her one of the buzziest aspects of the addicting show. And it looks like that will continue into the second season: By now, Zoe has long ditched the newspaper for a Politico-type online venture called Slugline, and she and her colleagues appear to be hot on Underwood’s trail relating to the murder of a congressman.
Refusing to share even the smallest detail of upcoming episodes (partly because she’s not allowed, but also because she hates spoilers), Mara promises the upcoming 13 episodes will be as “dramatic and dangerous and exciting as the first season, for sure.”
“I think Zoe’s really fun to play because she’s really strong and very ambitious, and yet has vulnerabilities that come out every once in awhile,” Mara said. “So it’s nice to be able to play different sort of emotions as the series goes on.”
“House of Cards” creator and showrunner Beau Willimon praised Mara’s “fearlessness” and willingness to throw herself into any scene.
“From the very beginning, she knew this was a role that was going to be potentially controversial and could be polarizing, and would have a story that would force her to take a lot of risks,” Willimon said of Mara, making special note of scenes she shared with the formidable Spacey. “She never hesitated for a moment. And that sort of fearlessness that she exhibits as an actor resonated in the character itself.”
Mara has nothing but raves about working for Netflix, saying that executives give producers almost total freedom. The cast and crew spent seven months in Maryland filming the show, which was nice for Mara, who grew up in New York. Whenever she had at least two days off, she would hop in the car and make the three-hour drive to Westchester County, where her family still lives.
That’s where she first discovered how much she loved acting, back in elementary school: As a “painfully shy” child, Mara relished the moments when she could be a different character on stage in plays. When she realized that acting could be a “real” job, there was no going back. After continuous pleading with her parents, she signed with her first agent at age 14 and soon booked a part in the movie “Random Hearts,” starring Harrison Ford and Kristin Scott Thomas.
Afterward, she got a stream of small-ish and supporting movie roles (“Brokeback Mountain,” “We Are Marshall,” “Shooter”), and increasingly longer stints on TV shows (from a few episodes on Fox’s “24” and HBO’s “Entourage” to a large arc on FX’s “American Horror Story”). Now, she’s happy to have established herself as a rare commodity in Hollywood: the Steadily Working Actor.
She can always trade notes on show biz with her sister, who can easily relate: “It’s rare to have somebody that close to you who’s also doing the same job.” Rooney, 28, starred as the girl who dumped Mark Zuckerberg at the beginning of “The Social Network,” and burst on the scene in 2011 with a best actress Oscar nomination for her lead role in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” “When my sister became an actor, there were a lot of really great things about that, because I could share things with her that nobody else really could understand,” Mara said.
Family is Mara’s priority: If you don’t believe her, ask about the “Super Bowl clause” in her contracts. Mara’s paternal great-grandfather, Tim Mara, founded the New York Giants, and her maternal great-grandfather, Art Rooney Sr., founded the Pittsburgh Steelers. So she grew up thinking football stadiums were that fun place where she would go play with her cousins. Of course, she later learned to appreciate the history of her family’s legacy, and was devastated in 2006 when her “24” filming schedule conflicted with the Steelers-Seattle Seahawks Super Bowl in Detroit. Now, she includes a clause in her contracts that if she’s ever working when the Steelers or Giants are in the Super Bowl, she gets the day off. (People often find that a little ridiculous, Mara admits. She protests: “It’s more about the family element of it than, ‘I just don’t want to miss the game!’ ”)
In the meantime, “House of Cards” was just picked up for a third season, and Mara continues to look for roles that make her as excited as when she scored her first professional acting job as a teenager. She hopes to emulate the career of Jeff Bridges: While working with him in 2009 drama “The Open Road,” she was impressed by his “crazy excitement” on set every day, even though he’s been in the industry since he was a child.
“I thought that was really inspiring,” Mara said. “And I thought, ‘Well, I hope I always feel that way.’”
About one hour per episode. All 13 episodes of Season 2 are available on Netflix starting Friday.