“Yeah, I feel lucky right now,” muses Kate Mara sanguinely from a corner table at an eatery in Los Angeles’ Larchmont district, as she contemplates her good fortune. “Even when I don’t have a ton of work, I am always just really happy [with] the fact that I’m an actor and getting paid for it. I’m still really not used to that.”
“Lucky” might not be the first adjective summoned up by an actor whose complex, morally conflicted House of Cards character (spoiler alert) was shoved in front of a moving subway train and killed off the show just as it hit new heights of popularity. But throughout her stint as ethics-challenged Beltway journalist Zoe Barnes, intimately entangled with Kevin Spacey’s velvety-ruthless D.C. Rep. Frank Underwood, Mara knew from day one that a tragic end was imminent.
“It was a decision that was made before we ever even shot season one, and we had a long way to wait to see if it was going to work, if people were going to be as surprised,” reveals Mara, of Barnes’ preordained fate. Due to the doomed nature of the character in the original U.K. series that inspired House of Cards, some fans suspected early on that Barnes would be a casualty of her own ambitions; the trick was in the timing. “We thought: Well, we can shock them with when and how we do it,” she explains. Mara is pleased to see that creator Beau Willimon and executive producer David Fincher conceived of an exit that left fans reeling in the midst of their binge-viewing. “I had a lot of people who love the show say, ‘I knew it was going to happen, but I thought it would happen at the end of this season or at the end of another season—we were not ready for that,’” she says. “And that’s very flattering.”
Mara’s certainly not grieving for Zoe, or over her own exit from the groundbreaking Netflix series, the first digital-only show to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy. She got just what she signed up for when Fincher—whom she met when he directed her younger sister, Rooney, in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo—proposed the role to her. “That’s what I’ve been wanting to do for a really long time, whether it was [in] a movie or a show—it really didn’t matter to me. I just wanted to be a part of something that I felt was helping me grow as an actor,” says the sprightly 31-year-old actress. “Luckily, House of Cards is exactly what I wanted. Every day I would go to work knowing I was going to be challenged in some way, or that I would have to be on my toes.”
There’s that lucky feeling again. Mara’s led an admittedly charmed existence: She hails from a pair of distinguished NFL dynasties (her paternal great-grandfather founded the New York Giants; her maternal great-grandfather, the Pittsburgh Steelers; and her family remains actively entrenched in both teams). Despite many options available to her, when the acting bug bit Mara as a young girl, she chose an unwavering path toward her career goals, landing her first TV role as a teenager on Law & Order, New York actors’ unofficial finishing school. “It wasn’t like I thought I wanted to be an actor at 9 years old, and then when I was 17, I thought: Well, I can’t do anything else,” she says. “I always, always knew that that’s what I had to do, which is lucky.” Mara’s family encouraged her to pursue college, just in case, but supported her decision to repeatedly defer. “I said, ‘I’m going to school to learn to be an actor, but I’m already getting paid to be an actor, so why don’t I just put it off for a year?’” she reasoned. “And they agreed that I could defer for a year. I kept deferring because I was working and making my own way.”
Mara’s path ultimately brought her to Hollywood, appearing in several increasingly high-profile TV series—Everwood, Nip/Tuck,24, Entourage and American Horror Story—even as she launched an equally impressive film career with eye-catching roles inBrokeback Mountain, We Are Marshall, Shooter and 127 Hours. “I love L.A.,” she says, dismissing any reluctantly transplanted East Coast attitude. “I’ve been here 11 years now, so it’s been awhile. It’s my home,” she says loyally of Southern California, while still appreciating her roots. “One of the reasons I love New York is because I can go there, and I don’t feel like my job surrounds my life. And I feel like it’s easy to get lost in the energy of New York, and that’s a really good thing.”
She does, however, lament L.A.’s ongoing indifference to the sport on which she was raised. “That’s one of the main things I miss about New York. It’s the same thing every Sunday, [thinking how] I’m not in New York with my family, and it feels strange to me,” she says. “I mean, I’d love it if one day L.A. got a football team, just because maybe the Giants would come here.”
Family looms large in Mara’s life, and she cites her sister’s presence in the same profession as another blessing. “Now I have someone who’s in the club with me,” she says of the 28-year-old Rooney. “There was such a long period of time when I didn’t have that. It’s really rare to have a sibling going through the same, or very, very similar, experiences as you: similar stresses and joys and uncertainties. All of those things are easy for a lot of people to [relate to], no matter what your profession, but there’s something about having the girl closest to me in my life also experiencing the exact same job—I know how unique that is. I don’t take it for granted at all.”
“The only thing is,” she adds, “even though we live five minutes from each other, we’re never here in L.A. at the same time because we’re both, luckily, working.”
Working means preparing for a host of different roles, the latest of which finds Mara in theaters at this very moment. Transcendence, a sci-fi extravaganza, marks the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, Christopher Nolan’s longtime cinematographer, and puts Mara on-screen with Morgan Freeman and Johnny Depp. The film casts Mara as an eco-extremist, an unfamiliar role for the starlet. “I get to play the head of this revolutionary group who is against technology in a world where technology is clearly taking over, for good or for bad,” she says. “I was excited to be a part of the film because it was an interesting subject matter that I didn’t know a lot about,” Mara adds, noting that she watched documentaries to familiarize herself with the subject. “I learned a lot, and that’s one of my favorite things about acting. You get to become somebody else for a couple of months.”
Mara herself is neither tech-obsessed nor a committed Luddite in her own life. “I don’t want the new iPhone when it comes out,” she explains. “I take awhile. If something’s not broken, I really just don’t need the next invention.” She also enjoys intentionally unplugging at regular intervals. “I feel really free whenever I’ve left my phone at home and don’t have it with me for a few hours,” she laughs. “If you do it on purpose, it’s kind of this weird freeing feeling.”
The biggest professional news since her exit from House of Cards is her induction into the high-profile ranks of cinematic superhero-dom. Mara will be taking on the very first Marvel Comics heroine created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby back in 1961—Sue Storm, The Invisible Woman—for 20th Century Fox’s reboot of Fantastic Four, scheduled for a June 2015 release. “The whole thing will be different than anything I’ve ever done,” she says. “I really loved [director] Josh Trank’s take on it, and I’m a fan of his last film, Chronicle, which was like an anti-superhero movie—really dark, which is what I like. I like things that are rooted in reality and that are dark and not what you expect. And I think that that’s probably what Fantastic Four will be.”
So although Zoe Barnes was thrown onto the rails, Mara’s climbed back onto the train, one rocketing toward increasingly bright acting opportunities—but it’s the ride that matters to her. “Hopefully, I’m going to be around a long time, and I’ll have lots of choices to make—good movie experiences, and obviously a few bad ones, because how can you not?” she says pragmatically. “I hope that I’m in it for the long term because I feel like I should be. Right now, I want to be, anyway.”
Lucky. For us.
Hair by Alex Polillo at The Magnet Agency using Bumble and bumble.
Makeup by Coleen Campbell-Olwell for Exclusive Artists using Chanel