Kate Mara: If we were up for the same job, our agents wouldn’t tell us

She left her large, affluent family to become an actor in LA. Kate Mara became a star but then her sister Rooney arrived. Theres no rivalry, or so she tells Sanjiv Bhattacharya

When Kate Mara was 19 she skipped college a place at the highly respected Tisch School of Performing Arts at New York University and bought a dog, Bruno, a Boston Terrier with one blue eye. I knew I would need the company, she says. Because where I was going, I knew literally no one.

Rather than remain at home with her big Irish family in New York, she was headed to Los Angeles to be a star. Fourteen years later, were at the Broome Street General Store, a small coffee shop in Silverlake, to talk about her latest movie. But Maras is not a sentimental story its about ambition. She was a painfully shy girl who loathed school and couldnt bear the thought of college. I look back and think, wow, thats how ambitious I was, she says. I was prepared to go through all that. But Im glad I did. It was worth it.

Today, Mara and her arguably better-known actor sister Rooney are arm in arm on red carpets, A-listers both. But it was Kate, 33, the elder by two years, who first made the leap. Today, wearing a red sundress, she directs me to a shaded table outside. Im Irish, she says. I burn. She doesnt seem the carefree, sundress type theres a steeliness to her; precise and clear, with an almost clinical intelligence behind the eyes.

Ice queen: Kate Mara in her latest film, Morgan.

As Zoe Barnes in House of Cards, she shone as the ruthlessly ambitious political reporter who stops at nothing until Kevin Spacey shoves her in front of a train. This part has made her a global name. I was just in London, she explains, and every time I took the tube, people would stare. In last years Oscar contender The Martian, she was a computer expert in a crew of astronauts, a nerd among nerds. In Morgan, her latest project, she is excellently cast as Lee Weathers, an icy executive from corporate who has been sent to shut down an AI research project that has gone awry. The android (Morgan) has turned violent, and while the scientists who raised her (Toby Jones and Rose Leslie) insist that she ought to be given another chance, their heartfelt appeals bounce uselessly off Maras pinstriped trouser suit and heels. Shes so tough that, though it seems improbable at first, the petite Mara spends the last third of the movie in a series of brutal fight scenes, getting hurled through windows and suchlike.

I got a lot of bruises, she grins. But it was fun. I think when you have a tense movie like this, and you spend all day in a dark house in life-and-death scenarios, you become delirious. Wed be crying with laughter at the most stupid things.

In person, Mara is a good deal warmer than Weathers. When she learns that I, too, have a Boston Terrier, she coos over photos of the dog on my phone. Shes not a reclusive celebrity. They know her here at the general store; regulars come up to say hello, and shes often seen walking her dogs with her boyfriend, the British actor Jamie Bell. Its really therapeutic, she says.

Young at heart: in Brokeback Mountain (2005). Photograph: Focus/Everett/Rex/Shutterstock

It wasnt fame that propelled Mara, unlike Bell, to a life of privilege she was born that way. Her father and his siblings own the New York Giants (estimated worth $2.1bn), and her mothers side of the family owns the Pittsburgh Steelers (estimated worth $1bn). With sister Rooney she is one of four siblings who enjoyed an idyllic upbringing of football and church and huge family gatherings her father is one of 11, and there are 22 aunts and uncles in all. She tells me they grew up about an hour north of New York city, in a suburb called Bedford not to be confused with Bedford-Stuyvesant, where Biggie Smalls grew up. Haha! No, Martha Stewart lives in Bedford. Its a bit different, she says. Mind you, she went to prison too Her greatest challenge growing up was remembering the name of the new baby at Thanksgiving. Theres always a new baby in our family.

When they were young, their mother would regularly take her two daughters to Broadway shows and the movies. At nine years old, Mara decided she would act. Rooney was different, she explains. She explored other interests. Also, she was much better at school than me.

She was successful even as a 14-year-old, with a bit part on Law & Order, one of the tried-and-tested stepping stones for an emerging actor. But she says she learned a valuable lesson as a teenager: that if one door closes, maybe it was meant to be, because another will surely open. I was up for a part in The Sound of Music on Broadway, and I was completely devastated when I didnt get it. It was like someone died. And my mum said, Its happening for a reason, just wait. And soon afterwards I got this part in Random Hearts, a Sydney Pollack movie, which was incredible.

Picture this: In 127 Hours with James Franco and Amber Tamblyn. Photograph: C.Fox Search/Everett/Rex Features

It stood her in good stead when she moved to LA with Bruno. Her fortunes turned slowly but surely when she was 22 she got Brokeback Mountain, playing Heath Ledgers daughter, a role that changed the course of her career. At the audition, I didnt understand what a big deal it was to read for Ang [Lee, the director], so there was less pressure, she remembers. But he was so gentle and quiet, it felt like he was rooting for me. She likens Lee to David Fincher, whom she worked with on House of Cards. Theyre both very specific directors. Like, dont blink so much, dont raise your eyebrows I crave that now, but making Brokeback Mountain, I didnt understand. I just thought I was doing a terrible job and I was going to be fired!

Doors started to open. Movies like Transsiberian and 127 Hours got her name ever closer to the poster, and then House of Cards changed everything. Fantastic Four, where she met Bell, followed but wasnt all smooth sailing widely panned, it garnered just 9% of positivity on rottentomatoes.com, a hub of movie criticism.

Meanwhile, the career of the other Mara Rooney was soaring. Twice nominated for an Oscar, she may have entered the business long after Kate, but she has arguably surpassed her in many ways. The rivalry narrative doesnt wash. I know conflict is more interesting, says Mara, but honestly, I just feel so grateful that were both living our dreams successfully and to be able to share that with someone you grew up with its really special.

Sister act: Kate, left, with her sister and fellow actor, Rooney. Photograph: Pace/BEI/Shutterstock
So theyve never been up for the same job? They are both the same height, they look somewhat similar We would be the last to know, she says. Our agents would never tell us. So I dont think its happened. But maybe there are producers out there laughing, saying, Haha, it happened yesterday and we hired your sister!

Its not as though Kates phone isnt ringing. These days, shes preparing to shoot Chappaquiddick, playing the part of Mary Jo Kopechne, the girl who was found dead in Ted Kennedys car in a canal after a party in Marthas Vineyard in 1969. More politics after House of Cards, she says. But dont ask me about actual politics. I hate whats happening in this country.

She is also producing her first movie, Mercy, with Ellen Page, about the death penalty. I spend a lot of my time watching really depressing documentaries, she says. What confuses me is why the death penalty is considered the bigger punishment I think being locked in a box for the rest of your life is worse.

Two of a kind: with boyfriend Jamie Bell, whom she met while making the film, Fantastic Four. Photograph: Matt Baron/BEI/Shutterstock

In fact, after this interview she might do some more grim capital punishment research. But there are so many other things to get to its not all about work. A dedicated vegan, she is an outspoken animal welfare advocate, working principally with the Humane Society. Her current campaigns include trying to save chimps in Liberia, putting an end to the dogs of the horrific Yulin dog meat festival in China and protecting the marine life of SeaWorld. Have you seen Blackfish? she asks. That movie destroyed me. I cried for weeks.

And then there are her hobbies. Mara seldom finds a physical pursuit she doesnt like. For now, shes busy with ballet and boxing classes she had to take them to prepare for Morgan, and now she cant give up. But shes also into ice skating. I dont want anyone to know! she laughs. Im all about looking for the next thing to be good at. Like, Id love to be a great tap dancer, too.

That fierce ambition that brought her out to LA has mellowed. Some days, shell just work out, read a script and then go to dinner. I dont know if Im getting much done, but I love it. When people ask, Where do you want to be in 10 years? I just say that I hope Im still acting. Oh and kids, sure. Kids are compulsory in my family, anyway.

She shrugs and gestures to the street, the hills in the background. I think whats changed is that Im home now. It took a while, but I feel like I belong here.

Morgan is released in cinemas on 2 September

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/aug/14/kate-mara-if-we-were-up-for-the-same-job-our-agents-wouldnt-tell-us

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