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posted: 2/14/2014 5:30 AM

Plot thickens for 'House of Cards,' Kate Mara

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  • Reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) continues to be a force in the tangled plot lines of Netflix's "House of Cards."

    Reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) continues to be a force in the tangled plot lines of Netflix's "House of Cards."

  • Kevin Spacey as congressman Francis Underwood and Robin Wright as his wife and a similarly ruthless power player return for season two of Netflix's "House of Cards."

    Kevin Spacey as congressman Francis Underwood and Robin Wright as his wife and a similarly ruthless power player return for season two of Netflix's "House of Cards."

By Emily Yahr
The Washington Post

Everything that sounds surreal about Kate Mara's life seems perfectly normal to her. Frequently attending the Super Bowl? Not that out of the ordinary: Her family tree includes founders of iconic NFL franchises.

Bonding with a sibling about life in Hollywood? That's just a nice coincidence: Her younger sister, Rooney, also happens to be a successful actress.

How about becoming the breakout star of Netflix's groundbreaking political thriller "House of Cards," executive-produced by acclaimed film director David Fincher and starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright?

OK, she's pretty jazzed about that. The show, available on Netflix, makes its second-season debut on Friday, Nov. 14. Mara plays aggressively ambitious political reporter Zoe Barnes.

At this point in her career, working alongside such esteemed company on the Emmy-winning drama is ideal -- she didn't even need to think about it when she was originally offered the part. "The material was so brilliant and Fincher is so brilliant ... there were already these amazing actors involved, so it was really a no-brainer for me," she said.

"I mean, scripts can be amazing," Mara, 30, continued. "But if you're not working with other actors or directors that are going to challenge you, then for me, it's not really worth it."

In 2011, Hollywood took notice when Academy Award-nominated Fincher signed on to produce a TV show and also direct the first two episodes. That it would be Netflix's first foray into original programming attracted even more attention. Fincher -- who directed "Seven," "Fight Club" and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," along with "The Social Network" and "The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo," both of which featured Rooney Mara -- had Kate in mind for a part, but didn't simply hand it to her.

"It was awesome because I really felt like I worked for the role ... I had to audition," she says, and was officially cast in early 2012.

In the world of dirty politics on "House of Cards," Mara's Zoe Barnes is generally involved in the secondary story to the tangled plot lines featuring Spacey, who plays devious House Majority Whip Francis Underwood. During the first season, the pair often crossed paths when they realized they could help each other. The two formed a relationship that included a steamy affair, despite Underwood's marriage. Determined to make a name for herself as an investigative reporter, Zoe's scoops from Underwood helped land her byline on the front page; those stories helped him get leverage over his political enemies.

Viewers debated the show's treatment of a young female journalist, especially one sleeping her way to the top. But Mara's strong performance stood out. And it looks like that will continue into the second season: By now, Zoe has long ditched the newspaper for a Politico-type online venture, and she and her colleagues appear to be hot on Underwood's trail.

Mara promises the upcoming 13 episodes will be as "dramatic and dangerous and exciting as the first season."

Mara has nothing but raves about working for Netflix, saying that executives give producers almost total freedom. The cast and crew spent seven months in Maryland filming the show. Whenever she had at least two days off, she would make the three-hour drive to Westchester County, where her family still lives.

That's where Mara first discovered how much she loved acting. She signed with her first agent at age 14 and soon booked a part in the movie "Random Hearts," starring Harrison Ford and Kristin Scott Thomas. Afterward, she got a stream of smallish supporting movie roles ("Brokeback Mountain" and "We Are Marshall"), and increasingly longer stints on TV (Fox's "24," HBO's "Entourage" and FX's "American Horror Story").

Still, family is Mara's priority: If you don't believe her, ask about the "Super Bowl clause" in her contracts. Mara's paternal great-grandfather, Tim Mara, founded the New York Giants, and her maternal great-grandfather, Art Rooney Sr., founded the Pittsburgh Steelers. So she was devastated in 2006 when her "24" filming schedule conflicted with the Steelers-Seattle Seahawks Super Bowl in Detroit. Now, she includes a clause in her contracts that if she's ever working when the Steelers or Giants are in the Super Bowl, she gets the day off.

People often find that a little ridiculous, Mara admits. She protests: "It's more about the family element of it than, 'I just don't want to miss the game!'"

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