She almost, but not quite, rolled her eyes. I was interviewing the actress Kate Mara in Toronto on Wednesday. She plays Zoe Barnes, a conniving reporter, on the Netflix series House of Cards – which, according to the Internet Movie Database's popularity algorithm, is the most-watched show currently airing on any platform. I asked her if she'd done any research for the part, perhaps shadowed a journalist?
"No," Mara replied, unblinking. "I didn't feel I needed to. If I didn't understand an ambitious woman, I could have shadowed any ambitious woman. That was more important to me than the journalism part."
No need to worry there: Mara, 30, doesn't hesitate to describe herself as ambitious. "Yeah," she says, laughing. "Which is why I didn't have to research. I'm like, 'I know all about that.'"
Exceedingly pretty, Mara is tiny yet curvy, with huge eyes and delicate bones right out of Japanese anime. But there's something flinty about her, too, in her direct manner and her deep, slightly monotone voice. Her auburn hair is slicked down hard and pulled back tight in a pony tail, and her fitted jacket has a glinting band of black crystal shards at its hem.
House of Cards is a remake of a 1990 British miniseries about sex and death in politics, created by Andrew Davies, England's go-to guy for smart, elegant television. It's Netflix's bid to become a player in original series to rival HBO, Showtime and AMC, and its pedigree could not be glossier: Davies is a producer; head writer Beau Willimon earned an Oscar nomination for the political thriller The Ides of March; director David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club) set the smoky, insinuating vibe in the first two episodes; and the directors who followed are class acts, including Carl Franklin and Joel Schumacher.
Netflix released all 13 hour-long episodes at once, in February, allowing viewers to mainline or mete them out as they pleased. So willing is the company to throw money at this thing that even in humble Toronto the launch party was lavish: all canapés, goodie bags and PR people clutching smartphones, glowing like a swarm of futuristic fireflies.
The series stars Oscar-winner Kevin Spacey (The Usual Suspects, American Beauty) as a U.S. Senator from Georgia, Frank Underwood – an excellent name, since he is both honest and underhanded. As majority whip, he has the ear of the (fictional) Democratic president, and he plays a slow-burning, merciless long game in his lust for power. Robin Wright is his Lady Macbeth of a wife, and Mara is a reporter-cum-blogger who uses Underwood (sexually and otherwise) to further her career, as he uses her.
It took only one line in the first episode to establish Zoe's character. As she bids a date goodnight, she senses that he wants to come up to her apartment. She pats his arm pityingly and says, "If I was going to [sleep with] you, you'd know."
"Zoe's polite. Ish," Mara says. Her smile is mischievous. "Polite while saying, 'Screw you.' It's this great grey area, which is really fun to play. Is she naive or a genius? Is she vulnerable or hard as nails? Is she playing you or being played? She goes back and forth and tricks you. Luckily, because of the way I grew up, I have much stronger morals than Zoe. But I definitely relate to being superdetermined and ambitious and a really hard worker. I was brought up in an environment where I wanted to work, because it makes me feel good. I think that's in our blood."
Mara grew up in tony Bedford, N.Y., amid National Football League royalty: One great-grandfather founded the New York Giants, another the Pittsburgh Steelers; members of her large extended family still run both organizations. Mara has sung the U.S. national anthem at Giants games. "It's like we have a family reunion every other week at the football game," she says. "It definitely unifies us."
As kids, she and her sister Rooney, also an actress – they have two brothers as well – spent a lot of time watching old movies with their mother. "I think that formed the type of projects I'm attracted to," Kate says. "Acting is literally the only thing I've ever wanted to do." She and Rooney were both "obsessed with" the 1986 film Lady Jane, starring a 19-year-old Helena Bonham Carter. "I haven't seen it in a long time," Kate says. "I don't know if it's good or not. It doesn't really matter. We probably both just wanted to be her."
They're doing just fine: Rooney, 27, also hit the big time working for Fincher, on The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (for which she received an Oscar nomination); she's currently in Steven Soderbergh's Side Effects. Kate made her way a little more slowly, through a variety of roles that played up her girlish-fatale quality: a minxy assistant on Entourage, a minxy hiker in 127 Hours, a minxy but vengeful spurned lover on American Horror Story.
"It's awesome being able to share something this important to me with someone that important to me," Kate says about the sisters' parallel trajectories. "We don't really look alike; we have very different personalities. Our family and friends would say we're total opposites. I guess I'm more outgoing, although growing up, I was painfully shy. But I'm realizing we're a lot more similar than we thought we were."
To land the role of Zoe in House of Cards, Kate met with Fincher, then auditioned a few times to make sure Spacey approved. She didn't mind that; she likes to know she's earned a part. Nor was she intimidated to work with Spacey. "I don't generally get nervous about working with people," she says.
Only one of my questions flusters her – How does she handle the role's nudity and sexual forthrightness? – and only for a second.
"When you said nudity, I was like, 'What? You see me nude?'" Mara says, laughing. "I totally forgot that scene ever happened. The whole cast signed nudity waivers, so we were all paranoid about it, trying to eat healthy and work out. But every script I'd get, the nudity was only implied. I'd go, 'Yes! I don't have to do it!' Then toward the very end, I moon viewers, for a second. I think I got away pretty easy on that one."
Don't expect Mara's ambition to wane any time soon. She just signed on to a sci-fi thriller, Transcendence, opposite Johnny Depp; House of Cards' second season begins production soon. She has no concerns about being part of Netflix's fledgling format. Well, maybe one: Since the show is not strictly on television, she's not sure if it qualifies for Emmy awards. "But I hope we will," she says, then adds, unabashedly, "We better!"