Kate Mara’s voice is deeper than you’d expect. The House of Cards actress—and star of the much-hyped Fantastic Four reboot (in theatres Aug. 7)—may be known for her small stature, but her greeting reveals a full-bodied timbre. That is the first surprise. The second: I realize that although yes, the 32-year-old is short, she’s by no means pocket-sized. And while I have six inches on her (and, uh, at least 50 pounds), her five-foot-two frame seems to fill the space beside me as we order iced drinks (tea for me, coffee for her) on a hot Los Angeles day.
Mara suggested we meet at a Silver Lake coffee shop–cum–general store, the type of place that sells homemade cookies alongside small-label denim, adorable French baby gear and shaving cream with an old-timey font on the can. She’s wearing a periwinkle sundress from ASOS and black studded Jimmy Choo flats: “This is me very girly, because it’s 100 degrees. I just thought, I can’t be bothered wearing pants today.” Her auburn hair is cut to just below the chin, and if she’s wearing makeup, I can’t see it. Hell, if she has pores, I can’t see them—even though it’s scorching out, she doesn’t break a sweat. The third surprise? The Mara name may have a certain aloofness attached to it, but Kate is quite engaging, laughing easily, listening intently, answering thoughtfully. I resolve to be surprised no more, which turns out to be tougher than I thought. Mara is full of small dichotomies.
Zoe Barnes, the ruthlessly ambitious reporter she portrayed on season one of House of Cards, was an actor’s dream. She matched wits with Kevin Spacey’s nefarious politico Francis Underwood, playing his media pawn, sometime lover and, in the season two premiere shocker (spoilers ahead, obvs), his murder victim—landing an Emmy nom in the process. “The relationship between Frank and Zoe became more complex because there were so many layers to Kate’s performance,” says showrunner Beau Willimon. “There was a danger: she brought strength and moxie, but also undercurrents of vulnerability and being a bit lost,” qualities she also brings to the big screen in Fantastic Four.
Subtlety and nuance are often lacking in the current glut of superhero spectaculars, but Mara was captivated by the challenge of humanizing the quartet of youngsters imbued with wild CGI-ed powers in Fantastic Four. When she met with director Josh Trank—the 31-year-old who helmed the 2012 sci-fi sleeper hit Chronicle—she was intrigued by his description of a different type of comic book film, one where “you do get that exciting, fantastical action-packed thrilling thing,” she says, “but you also get the emotional and very real human part of who these [characters] are. The movie really is about family coming together and what lengths you would go to protect them.”
She plays whip-smart Sue Storm; her Marvel family includes Miles Teller as her boo, Reed Richards (the stretchy Mr. Fantastic); Michael B. Jordan as her bro, Johnny Storm (the fiery Human Torch); and Jamie Bell as Ben Grimm (sentient rock pile The Thing). Jordan, who she had met before but didn’t know super well, was the first person cast. “I screen-tested with Mike and Miles, and for Mike and I, because we play siblings, it was so obvious how comfortable we were with each other. And Miles is a really fantastic actor as well; bantering with him was awesome.” Being around such a tight cadre of playful dudes helped during the downtime in between shooting the lengthy action sequences and high family drama. “The movie is very intense, so the set was an intense environment. But because of our dynamic, there was a lot of joking around,” she says. “When you’re having to emote a certain kind of energy and vibe all day, you need to joke around to let off some steam.” Jordan agrees, calling her a “goofball,” adding “she’s really a lot of fun. She becomes one of the boys.”
Family is very important to Mara, a fact she mentions more than once. Born in Bedford, N.Y., she’s the second of four children born into football royalty. The game runs deep on both sides: her maternal great-grandfather founded the Pittsburgh Steelers, and her paternal great-grandfather started the New York Giants; her father is a senior vice-president of the Giants today. Besides her younger sister (actress Rooney), she has an older and a younger brother. Growing up, Mara was introverted, which is why her parents were a bit confused when she told them she wanted to be an actor. “But I think that’s part of why I wanted to do it—for whatever reason, I was shy in my own skin, and when I was playing other people, I felt more confident.”
She graduated from high school early and was accepted into the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, but deferred to start working. Though she landed TV roles in Ryan Murphy’s Nip/Tuck and the short-lived Jack & Bobby, Mara’s first marquee part was as Heath Ledger’s grown-up daughter Alma Jr. in Brokeback Mountain. Appearances in indies like Transsiberian and Happythankyoumoreplease, and bigger films like the Best Picture–nominated 127 Hours followed, plus a wicked arc on American Horror Story: Murder House.
After appearing in the multiple-award-winning House of Cards, she has been working more in film. This fall alone, she’s following up Fantastic Four with several high-profile flicks, including Captive with David Oyelowo in September, plus Man Down with Shia LaBeouf, and Ridley Scott’s hugely anticipated adaptation of the bestselling book The Martian, alongside Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain, in October. It was her performance as Zoe Barnes that led to her role as astronaut and computer expert Beth Johanssen in The Martian. “Playing opposite Kevin Spacey was a gift for Kate, and she certainly played her hand with authority and sophistication. I was impressed!” Scott shares via email with great zest. “She prepares extremely well and brings all her creative capabilities into play, so there is an excitement and surprise in her performance. She has a very good sense of humour and a very attractive personality.” Mara is clearly amped about the film, her dark brown eyes animated as she chuckles about how her character’s computer savvy doesn’t come naturally for her. “I’m not awful at computers, but I’m not very skilled,” she laughs. “I was definitely acting.” She laughs again, which she does often throughout our date. It’s just one more interesting Mara contrast: she’s light and jokey, but she’s also drawn to heavier material, such as the based-on-a-true-story Captive, in which she plays Ashley Smith, a woman held against her will by an escaped convict who committed two murders before hiding out in her apartment; and Man Down, where she is married to LaBeouf’s volatile, fresh-from-Afghanistan soldier.
“Fantastic Four was a long shoot. And I wanted to be really specific about what I did next [which ended up being Captive]. I said out loud, ‘I want to do a dramatic role, something small.’ But I don’t tend to go, OK, I think my next thing should be a studio film or it should be dark. It’s much more organic.” She could have a future in funnier roles, as evidenced by her winking humour in American Horror Story, along with her appearance in “Tiny Detectives,” a Funny or Die short with more than a million views, in which she and good friend Ellen Page play gumshoes who struggle to solve crimes due to, well, their tininess. The parody felt like a surprising move for Mara, and it all came to be through a random photo she posted on Twitter. “Ellen had never even seen True Detective before, and someone took a picture of us and said something about how small we were. And I posted the picture on Twitter jokingly, just hashtagged it #TrueDetectiveSeason2, and people actually believed it. Or people were just excited about the idea.” Are there more “Tiny Detectives” in her future? “Ellen and I really want to do some more,” she says, smiling. “We’ve been brainstorming.” Speaking of Twitter, @katemara has taken to the platform, whether she’s retweeting fellow animal activist Ricky Gervais (“A lot of his tweets are really emotional and heartbreaking, but still funny, and I love the balance between the two”) or finding herself having to tweet, “Ps. I’m aware @ TheOnion is a satire. I was playing along. But thanks for the hilarious comments.” after RTing the Onion’s “SeaWorld Responds to California Drought By Draining Animal Tanks Halfway” with a tongue-in-cheek “WTF?!!!” “People freaked out about that. Part of me didn’t want to clear it up because I thought it was hilarious.”
As a spokesperson for the Humane Society of the United States, and the star of one of their anti-factory farming PSAs—and an advocate for Oceana, the largest international organization dedicated to ocean conservation—Mara’s love of animals is clearly her passion, second only to movies. She spends her free time hiking and walking her two dogs, Bruno and Lucius (“which is funny because everyone’s obsessed with Empire and Terrence Howard’s name on it is Lucious, but my dog is 11”), and has been vegan for years.
Her pets are the only beloveds she’s willing to gush about. You won’t find her talking relationships (she dated actor Max Minghella for nearly four years; the pair went their separate ways in 2014) or spot her out at glittery restaurants and parties. “It’s so simple to me, because as an actor your job is to convince people you are someone else, and it’s harder to do that when people know a lot about who you are and what you do on a Saturday,” she says politely but firmly. You can tell she’s said this before. “I’m a private person, but I’m a very open person when it comes to my inner circle.”
I view this first-hand at our photo shoot the following day; stylist Johnny Wujek has been a Kate Mara bestie for more than 10 years. They giggle together, and, at one point, burst into ecstatic “Yes!”-es when “Sledgehammer” by girl group Fifth Harmony comes on, dancing onto set for the next shot. The clothes are romantic, floral and floaty, a look that isn’t necessarily Mara’s own style. While her red-carpet wardrobe includes structured gowns by J. Mendel, Valentino, Prada and Givenchy (“I love a collar”), her off-duty look is decidedly more chill. “Honestly, unless I have a meeting, I’m usually in some sort of sweatpants and Converse. I’m all about comfort. But if I have things to go to that require me to be social,” she laughs, “I tend to do that mix of masculine meets feminine. I like the marriage of the two.”
Masculine yet feminine. Private yet open. Shy yet confident. Light yet dark. These paradoxes are at the heart of Mara’s personality, and, perhaps, what make her such an intriguing figure on-screen. There are multitudes within.
Photographer: Nino Muñoz, stocklandmartel.com.
Styling: Johnny Wujek, Something Artists.
Hair: Alex Polillo, Davines, Forward Artists.
Makeup: Coleen Campbell-Olwell, Dior, Exclusive Artists.
Tailor: Shawn Panahandeh.
Art Director: Jed Tallo
Editor: Briony Smith