“You can talk to me while I pick up this shit,” says Kate Mara, bending over. There’s not much foot traffic today on the paths surrounding the Silver Lake Reservoir, and she could probably get away with not cleaning up after her two Boston terriers—Bruno, the nicer one, could even take care of the mess for her; he keeps digging frantically, as if he’d prefer to bury the evidence himself—but the actress lives nearby and walks here often. So Mara, best known for playing cold-blooded reporter Zoe Barnes on Netflix’s political drama, House of Cards, which returns for a second season on February 14, interrupts one of my questions to scoop up. She waves the plastic bag in the air. “Glamour.”
It’s strange to see Mara doing something so mundane, since her character is usually up to more sinister and outlandish things. In one six-episode span last season, Zoe embarked on an affair with married congressman Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), exchanging sex for scoops; took a phone call from her father while in bed with Underwood; let Underwood take naked pictures of her to use as collateral; and then turned up at his house and helped herself to one of his wife’s (Robin Wright) dresses. Dog poop aside, today’s walk past the reservoir looks a little like an episode of House of Cards: It’s cloudy in L.A., approximating the show’s ominous lighting scheme, and Mara, in sweatpants and a leather jacket, is dressed straight from the closet of Zoe’s bug-infested apartment. Her meaner terrier, Lucius, keeps growling for effect. If we were really on House of Cards, one of us would probably end up facedown in the reservoir.
Mara brings us back to reality: “House of Cards is just a job,” she says. She’s had plenty of them: Though the show is her biggest role yet, the 30-year-old has been working since her teens, back when she used to leave poorly spelled notes on her mother’s pillow begging for an agent. Mara got her start in community theater, where, she says, she “did basically everything”—except star in The Wizard of Oz. “I played a flying monkey and a tree, and I was gutted that I didn’t get to play Dorothy. A few years later, I ended up playing the Scarecrow. Still didn’t get fucking Dorothy.” She graduated to Law & Order and steadily booked supporting roles for the next decade: girlfriend (Nip/Tuck), daughter (Brokeback Mountain), assistant (Entourage), widow (Shooter and We Are Marshall). Then in 2010, Kate’s younger sister, Rooney, found her way into the business and landed a memorable scene in David Fincher’s The Social Network. (Kate’s boyfriend, Max Minghella, also had a small part.) Soon Rooney was starring in Fincher’s 2011 adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The sisters are close, so Kate flew to Sweden to visit the set, where she got to know the director.
Not long after wrapping Dragon Tattoo, Fincher took on House of Cards, an adaptation of the British series about a ruthless member of Parliament who murders his way to more power. Fincher and writer Beau Willimon (a former staffer of Howard Dean’s) recruited Spacey to play their anti-hero—in their version, a House majority whip with designs on the White House—and in 2011 sold two seasons to Netflix. Mara got a call saying Fincher wanted her for Zoe, the determined, bordering-on-sociopathic blogger who ruins politicians from her beanbag chair in the offices of Slugline (a fictional, hipper version of Politico). He immediately gave her a nickname: “Twitter Twat,” an epithet leveled at Zoe on the show. “I don’t know if he wants me giving him credit for that,” says Mara, “but there you go, Finch.”
As a TV experiment, House of Cards was an instant, Emmy-winning success, but not everyone was taken with Mara’s character. “A lot of people don’t really like how cold and manipulative she is, which are things I really like about her.” To Mara, Zoe is a little more sympathetic: “Obviously, I do not agree with a lot of the shit that she does. The stuff that I connected with was the human, emotional stuff. Her ambition.” And anyway, by the end of season one, Zoe has turned on Underwood and seems to be developing a conscience—though given the show’s warped morality, that could be cause for concern. Mara is forbidden from discussing her character’s survival prospects but does offer that, “usually on the show, if there’s a question about something, there’s supposed to be a question.”
Regardless, the performance is a breakthrough for Kate, who is now the second woman in the Mara family with a career owed to Fincher. “I don’t know if it’s because there’s a similarity between us that he specifically likes, or if it’s just one of those crazy things that happens and the timing is perfect,” Mara says of her benefactor. I suggest that Kate and Rooney share a certain, shall we say, reserved presence, which makes her laugh. “The Maras are such cold women,” she jokes. But she does see similarities: “I think we sound remarkably alike. The voice is always something that takes me back, because I feel like I’m listening to myself. But in real life, we have different energies. She would say that, and anyone in our family would say that.”
You might have heard of her family. Mara is the great-granddaughter of the New York Giants’ original owner, Tim Mara, and, on her mother’s side, original Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney Sr. Her family still owns both teams, though Kate denies that her NFL connections helped her or her sister in Hollywood. “Anyone who says the football world and the acting world are similar, so it’s really easy to get into the acting world—it makes no sense. I mean, I think it’s funny.” Being a Mara does have its perks, though: After we meet, she’s headed to New York for the Super Bowl, which will be sort of a family reunion. Since neither the Giants nor the Steelers are competing, Mara will be rooting for Peyton Manning, brother of Giants quarterback Eli, and treating the whole thing as a party (a party that probably ended when Manning threw his second interception). Her only worry is about taking New Jersey Transit to the game and back.
A gopher pops out of the ground, and Mara pulls Bruno and Lucius away before they can pounce. Her dogs will be Mara’s primary concern for the next few months, at least until the sci-fi thriller Transcendence (in which she stars opposite Johnny Depp) is released in April. She’s also fielding movie offers and hoping that House of Cards’ second season will get her as much attention as the first. Before Mara drops me off at my car—she wanted to make sure it wasn’t towed—I ask what she’s learned about journalism from playing a reporter. Mara thinks for a minute, then offers a piece of advice: “Don’t sleep with congressmen."
*This article originally appeared in the February 17, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.