Kate Mara Considers the Other Side of the Story

With A Teacher, the actress challenges the villain stereotype.

by Carrie Wittmer

Kate Mara in a black t-shirt with her hand on her head
Kate Mara as Emma Lynwood from ‘ZeroZeroZero.’ Photograph by Drew Escriva.

For W’s second annual TV Portfolio, we asked 26 of the most sought-after names in television to pay homage to their favorite small-screen characters by stepping into their shoes.

From the ethically questionable journalist Zoe Barnes on House of Cards to Claire Wilson, a teacher who grooms and falls in love with a 17-year-old student on A Teacher, Kate Mara is drawn to complicated characters that are rarely similar to herself. On a phone call earlier this summer, the 38-year-old actress is vibrant, fun, and more inviting than the guarded, harsh characters she plays on-screen. In just a couple of months—if all goes according to plan—Mara will take on another character quite unlike herself when she begins production on the FX on Hulu series Class of ’09, a suspense thriller opposite Brian Tyree Henry about a class of FBI agents working in a criminal justice system that has been transformed by artificial intelligence.

Mara’s taste for the morally ambiguous explains why she’s so interested in her latest favorite show, Amazon Prime’s ZeroZeroZero, an Italian crime drama that follows the movement of cocaine between a shipping company in New Orleans and organized crime in Mexico and Italy. The actress was so enamored with the series that she even cut her hair in a similar manner to that of Andrea Riseborough (who plays lead character Emma Lynwood on ZeroZeroZero), calling it a “sister cut.” Here, Mara discusses her propensity for taking on roles that spark larger conversations about right and wrong.

Why is it so important to depict stories like the one shown in A Teacher?

I don’t think that this type of narrative has been portrayed as often as the male teacher/female student story has. It really opens up a lot of conversations with people when we’re talking about a young female teacher as the predator, and it brings up a lot of different emotions and opinions, as opposed to an older male teacher and the stereotypes. Those stereotypes have been talked about for years, they’re still very much alive, and I just think it’s an interesting way to explore that type of inappropriate relationship. To talk about grooming in that way, specifically from that lens, is unique.

Your character, Claire, is complicated. What was your approach to playing her?

I’m always attracted to challenging roles. That was the draw. I certainly have my issues with a lot of choices that she makes, but to me that’s much more exciting to play than it would be to play someone who’s doing all of the right things. It was a joy to play somebody so complex and so layered and flawed. It definitely makes you have to dive a little bit deeper and explore a little bit harder, and really, really think about why she might be doing what she’s doing and where she’s coming from so that people don’t just hate her the whole way through.

What kind of preparation did you do before you started shooting?

For the actors it was mostly just discussions, going through the script and talking about why we are where we are in each scene. With the more intimate stuff, just really talking in detail about why we are choreographing something like a specific sex scene in a certain way, or an intimate, emotional scene. Because we had to shoot relatively quickly, we wanted to be really prepared so we’re not sitting on set having these long conversations.

There were a lot of women directors for the episodes, DPs (directors of photograph), and so on. Was that intentional?

Definitely. It was rare, having an experience like that. Hannah Fidell [the creator of the show] was very conscious of that. It was really important to her to have an equal female presence on set. It may have been more [than half]. We had all female directors except for one. As producers, we wanted to be proactive in making sure that we’re showing the female perspective from the female point of view, and actually having females involved. [But] you’re not just hiring someone because they’re female. I think that Hannah did a really great job of really finding the best people for the job. I’m very proud.

Mara with ‘A Teacher’ costar Nick Robinson. Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images.

Mara with A Teacher costar Nick Robinson.

It could have been a very different show if it was all from a male director’s perspective. How did the larger female presence on the A Teacher set compare to some of the other productions you’ve worked on?

That’s a good question. I don’t know that I have an answer for that, except that, very specifically, I think that the choices that were made by Hannah to be very, very open and really communicative about the emotional and physical scenes that we did really helped the show thrive in a lot of ways. The scenes were better off for it, because we always knew exactly what the intention was.

And also, having a female DP—I mean, it sounds like I’m joking, but this is really the case—she was in the bed with us for the whole time. Any scene that we had that was intimate, she was there. I mean, literally right next to us, or right above us or whatever. There was a sisterhood and a safety. If it was a male DP who we just really bonded with as well, and I felt safe with him, maybe it could have been the same thing. I don’t know. But it felt very safe and everyone was just very comfortable with each other and it felt unique.

Let’s pivot to talking about ZeroZeroZero. How and when did you get into this show?

I was meant to do a movie and I was trying to cast my costar, and I heard that this actor, Harold Torres, who’s one of the stars of ZeroZeroZero, was incredible. I started watching it solely for him, and I was blown away. It was so hard to watch, but I couldn’t stop. Andrea Riseborough [who plays Emma] is a friend of mine. We’ve been friendly for years and we’ve always wanted to work together because every time I see her in anything, I’m just blown away. It was really brutal to watch.

What do you love the most about Andrea’s performance as Emma?

She’s so good at being seemingly in control, yet unhinged. There’s something about her that is so multilayered and you just never really know what she’s going to do. She’s very good at holding back emotions and yet you can see it all. She has so much behind her eyes. It’s a really amazing skill to be able to portray such strong opposing emotions, and she does it so well in this show.

Is this the kind of genre that you usually watch?

I’m all over the place—anything that’s dramatic. It doesn’t matter if it’s a thriller or straight-up drama. My husband’s always like, “Oh my god, I’m not surprised you’re into it. It’s a very seemingly masculine show,” which I agree. I guess I am more attracted to that sort of...I don’t know, is that even a thing? A masculine drama? He said it and I was like, “Yeah, that makes sense.”

I’m trying to think of another word, but masculine makes sense. The movies about the drug trade, mobs, and the mafia kind of have that masculine quality about them.

Yeah. But then the women in all of those movies and shows—I’m thinking of the movies, the classic movies, of course—are always very, I’m not going to use the word strong because it’s so overused, but so impressive and have to hold their own. They’re all connected in some way, even if the storylines are different. I think Andrea’s performance is definitely in that category of women who are in these extraordinary situations and are just being a boss.

Thinking about all these other mob movies or shows that are kind of about a similar thing, what do you think makes ZeroZeroZero unique?

It was interesting that they were in so many different countries and exploring different cultures, different ethnicities, and different languages. It’s that thing that everyone’s obsessed with in Succession, and I’m one of those people who’s obsessed with Succession. It’s interesting, fascinating, and you don’t want to take your eyes off of it. The family dynamics are really intriguing. And I think that there’s a lot of that in ZeroZeroZero as well.