It was an overcast Friday morning when I met Kate Mara at her local coffee shop in Silver Lake.
“I love it,” she said of the chill weather, clasping her almond latte.
We were approaching June Gloom, that time of year between late spring and early summer when a cloudy haze hangs over Los Angeles.
“I’m just gonna grab my dogs,” she said, suddenly disappearing around the corner and returning moments later with her two Boston Terriers, Bruno and Lucius.
Bruno, with his tongue habitually hanging out of his mouth, is the friendly one, she said; Lucius, sporting a bold “do not pet” sign on his back, isn’t as sociable with strangers. She brings them everywhere, she said, holding firmly onto their leashes as she took a seat.
Most might recognize Mara as Zoe Barnes on House of Cards, the ambitious journalist who was suddenly killed (shocking viewers) in Season 2’s premiere, but the 34-year-old actress has been acting for years, first appearing as a young teen on an episode of Law & Order in 1997. You’ve seen her on shows like Entourage and American Horror Story and on the big screen in The Martian, 127 Hours and as Sue Storm in 2015's maligned Fantastic Four.
“I’ve always wanted to be an actress—since I was little,” she said on the front patio of the cafe.
She was dressed casually, in a gray jacket, T-shirt and black leggings with a sweater tied around her waist. She wore sunglasses, her face bare of any obvious makeup, while her hair was pulled back into a low ponytail.
“It’s a luxury to be able to say that I always knew what I wanted to do,” Mara continued. “I feel lucky to have had that. And I feel just as lucky now, because it’s still what I want to do. It’s still what I’m passionate about.”
Those who follow the actress more closely are aware of her other love in life, fighting for the rights and well-being of animals.
“In my free time, and also when I’m working, trying to make the world a better place for animals that can’t protect themselves is a passion” she said. “I’ve had that for a while, but it definitely became more intense—actually because of Gabriela [Cowperthwaite], our director, when she made that movie Blackfish. That’s when I started working more intensely with the Humane Society and different organizations. I guess it’s a bigger part of my life now than it ever was.”
Cowperthwaite, a longtime friend, also directed Mara in her latest project, Megan Leavey, out June 9, a true story of a U.S. Marine corporal whose special relationship with her K-9 partner, a military working German shepherd named Rex, made headlines back in 2012 for the many lives they saved on more than 100 missions during their deployment in Iraq.
“It was emotionally the most difficult part I’ve played,” said Mara. “Because of the subject matter...It’s always a little bit tricky playing real people. Obviously, you feel an extra sense of responsibility for. And I’ve played real people before...so I’ve had that experience, but for some reason, this one specifically just felt extra special, probably because when I met the real Megan Leavey, I just felt like I knew her instantly, like we’d been friends, like we grew up together or something.”
Leavey had tried to adopt Rex for years following her military duty, which ended in 2008 after she and Rex were nearly killed in an explosive. The Purple Heart recipient fought hard to make it happen and finally gained custody four years later.
“To me, it’s just a beautiful story of what can happen if you don’t give up on what you love, and everyone can relate to that at some point in their lives; if you have passion for something or someone,” she said. “And I like that [the film] shows the struggles of having doubts in yourself, all the things that we as human beings experience in our lives. Perseverance, it’s just a beautiful lesson.”
As a political film, I asked, what was it like dealing with the subject matter, knowing what Americans know now about the various conflicts in the Middle East?
“To us, when making it, we weren’t trying to make a political film,” she said. “Of course, there’s politics involved because you’re at war. But that’s not what we were focused on. It was very, very specific to how this person’s life was completely changed by her relationship and discovery of an animal and what he taught her about herself and sacrifice, and how that changed her life and her relationships with the people in her life.” (Got Your 6, a nonprofit that promotes “normalized depictions of veterans on film and television,” honored the film for its realistic portrait of veterans. )
“If it doesn’t feel authentic to veterans and families of veterans, what is the point?” said Mara. “Not just when we’re in the war scenes, but really when you come home and what that must be like for veterans and their families. So, that was something that we definitely tried really hard to respect and get right, so when you hear that anybody is affected by it in a good way, that’s the best gift.”
It’s hard to talk to Mara without thinking that she seems unfazed by the surface level glitz and glamour of Hollywood, but she doesn’t reject it. She simply exists within that world, allowing herself to enjoy certain aspects of it, without making it her entire life.
She was born and raised in Bedford, New York, the second of four, including younger sister and fellow actress Rooney Mara (“I’ve seen almost all her movies, I think. And she’s really supportive of me as well.”)
Her father is an NFL scout and vice president for the New York Giants (her great-grandfather founded the team), while her mother’s side founded and owns the Pittsburgh Steelers. I mention some foreign press dubbing her “a football heiress.”
“I obviously don’t consider myself a football heiress,” she said, flashing a half smile. “But football is a huge part of my life, for sure.”
She’s turned fiancé and English actor Jamie Bell into a fan—of American football that is.
“He’s a massive soccer, ‘football’ fan,” she said. “So I am now an Arsenal fan, which is his team. So, you know, I definitely care deeply about whether they win or not, because Jamie is very affected by it.”
Another—perhaps more surprising—mutual interest is Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise.
“I love it,” she said. “To me, it’s just a silly and mindless way to chill out and laugh a little bit, and Jamie loves it, too, which is just a perk.”
“He had no idea what it was,” she continued. “He was like, ‘What is Housewives?’ I was like, ‘Well, you’re probably gonna hate it, but I watch it every week, so either get on board or I’ll watch it when you’re not around.’ He started out sort of like, ‘What is going on?’ And then it became, ‘What’s going on?’ Like, excitement...And now it’s a thing. We have full on conversations about it. It’s so fun.”
The two fell in love—as she candidly put it on a recent TV appearance—while on the Fantastic Four press tour and are expected to tie the knot by the end of the year.
“I’ve had so many family members get married, so I’ve seen it all,” she said, when I bring up the wedding planning. “It shouldn’t be stressful,” she later added. “It should be the easiest, most joyous occasion.”
She leaves it at that, careful not to share much, understandably so, considering the paparazzi attention she and Bell, 31, have received since the news was made public. There’s also the privacy of a child to consider, as the two have frequently been snapped with Bell’s son, whom he shares custody of with ex-wife Evan Rachel Wood.
While promoting Megan Leavey, these days, Mara has been working on developing her own projects. Is there a dream role she’s always wanted to play?
“Lots of them,” she said. “And one of them is one of the things I’m creating now, so I can’t actually say what it is. But there’s lots of different things I’d love to do that I haven’t gotten the chance to...I would love to be in a movie musical, but obviously those are few and far between. I’d like to play an athlete of some kind. One of the greatest things about our jobs is that we get the best teachers, and we get to train and learn things that you wouldn’t necessarily get the chance to do.”
Along with doing press for the new release, the rest of her day included a ballet class (“I’m not a ballerina. For fun, I want to get good at it. It’s a great way of calming the mind") and catching a movie.
“I really want to go see Alien: Covenant,” she said of Ridley Scott’s latest release. “Have you seen it yet?”
“[Jamie] isn’t in town, so I’ll probably go alone, which I don’t know if it’s a great idea to see Alien alone,” she continued. “You know what I mean? It’s a little scary. But maybe it’s a good test. I love going to the movies alone and have no problem with it, but I’ve never gone to a horror movie alone.”
“We’ll see if I survive it.”
Watch: Rooney Mara's 18th Birthday Was Not Like a Typical Teenager's