Born into American football royalty, Kate Mara was never interested in the family business.
“I enjoy going to games and sitting in the family box with all my cousins but I always had my own dreams,” recalls Mara, 31, whose great-grandfathers founded NFL Super Bowl legends the New York Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers. Her family is still variously involved in the management of both teams. In addition, her grandfather served as US Ambassador to Ireland until 2012.
Her parents were not easily convinced. “I was nine years old when I started ‘the campaign’, and 14 when I got an agent. That’s five years of a lot of conversations. I did a lot of really bad community theatre so I think I proved I was very serious about it. I would leave misspelt notes on my mother’s pillow all the time,” smiles the petite actress who was raised in the well-heeled town of Bedford, New York.
Her determination paid off, first with small TV appearances and later with roles as Heath Ledger’s daughter in Brokeback Mountain and as a cheerleader in We are Marshall with Matthew McConaughey or as a widow in Mark Wahlberg’s thriller Shooter.
Having carefully laid the groundwork, her passion for acting also inspired her younger sister Rooney, 28, whose splashy roles in The Social Network and David Fincher’s remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo almost threatened to eclipse her own career. The US media enjoys depicting them as rivals, almost like opponents on the family’s NFL teams, so when you ask about her sister, you almost hear the inner sigh, like she imagines she will be answering this question for the rest of her life.
“Of course it’s complicated,” she ventures. “It’s complicated even if you just have a friend who’s an actor because the whole business is competition. You’re constantly being compared to other actresses and if you don’t have a good perspective on that then it can be confusing.
“But luckily my sister and I know that, while it may be both of our passions, it is just a job at the end of the day. It’s not the most important thing to either of us.
“It’s quite surreal that we both are so lucky in the success of it all,” she says, adding that she would even like to work with her sister.
If Rooney had her big moment a few years ago, then this is Kate’s moment in the sun; her unflinching performance as Zoe Barnes in Netflix’s House of Cards proving to be a real game-changer. The experience taught her to be as devious as Zoe Barnes herself when it came to saving spoilers. “The hardest thing was not telling friends. I would make things up. I love that the series caused so much controversy,” says Mara.
She is now co-starring in internet thriller Transcendence opposite Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall. The film’s themes about artificial intelligence scare her.
“I’m excited about technology and where its going to be in 10 years but it’s also terrifying to think that AI is no longer science fiction, that it is here already. That’s hard for me to wrap my head around,” she says.
Portraying the leader of an anti-technology extremist group, Mara’s own direct action is rather mild – a movement to protect Orcas. “I’m very much against performing animals for our own entertainment,” says the actress who became a vegetarian 10 years ago following a family road trip where they drove past a chicken battery farm. “Just miles and miles of these awful coops, chickens living in cages and that’s their life. I was so disturbed by it, I decided I didn’t want to eat meat ever again,” says Mara.
“People always assume if you’re vegetarian you can just live on cheese and meanwhile cheese is awful for your body even if tastes so good. I’m a massive animal lover too. Being vegan has been so good for me. I’ve never felt better,” she says, slender, toned arms peaking out from a striking red Sport Max Mara top.
Determined to give acting her best shot, she graduated from high school a year early and deferred a highly coveted spot at Tisch School of Arts in New York indefinitely, relocating to Hollywood when she was just 19 years old.
“School was not something I enjoyed, especially the social aspect of it, so college to me just sounded like a more intense social experience that I was not excited about. I don’t regret that in any way, even if a lot of my friends were shocked that I didn’t want to go to college,” says Mara.
She shares her home with two dogs, whom she treats to daily strenuous hikes. “I get depressed if I don’t exercise.”
Coming from a large family with scores of cousins, she almost chokes on her banana almond drink when you ask if she’d like a large family of her own. “Oh God no! To have 11 children sounds like hell. My grandma is smaller than I am so I can’t even imagine how she went about doing that. I do want a family for sure but not that many. But yes I am very close with my family so that’s something I want one day,” says Mara. She has been dating the British actor Max Minghella for the past three years.
By her own admission she was a shy child. “The older I get the more comfortable I am and the better I know myself. Growing up, I was definitely more comfortable with adults than I was with people my own age. I was ready to be an adult very young,” says Mara.
Having made her film debut in 1999 with Harrison Ford in Random Hearts, she has also featured in 127 Hours and Iron Man 2. Now, post-House of Cards, opportunities she never thought were possible, are being offered to her. “I still can’t believe I get to be a superhero,” she grins of her recent casting in her first big-budget lead role as Sue Storm in The Fantastic Four. It’s something of a personal triumph given that she auditioned to play Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises, but was passed over for Anne Hathaway.
“I start shooting in a few weeks. It’s exciting and makes me feel like a kid – in a great way. I think this is going to be the antihero superhero movie, and the cast is really interesting,” she says. Her co-stars include Brit actors Toby Kebbell and Jamie Bell.
“They’ve not asked me to do any physical training and I haven’t seen my costume yet. But I am the invisible girl so who knows?”
‘Transcendence’ is on general release