Since her breakout turn as an ethically compromised reporter in House of Cards, Kate Mara's onscreen oeuvre has ranged from subtle character work (My Summer of Mercy) to out-of-the-box action (Megan Leavey) and even a superhero movie (Fantastic Four, a disappointment except for the part about meeting her future husband, Jamie Bell).
But in Hannah Fidell's limited series A Teacher — a more fulsome version of her 2013 indie film of the same name — Mara plays a child rapist.
In the post #MeToo era, when female perpetrators such as Mary Kay Letourneau, Debra Lafave and Pamela Smart have been correctly recast as the criminals they were, did Mara have doubts about portraying a sexual predator?
"Well…" she begins, during a FaceTime interview from her Los Angeles patio. A long pause ensues. She looks away as a breeze rustles the blooming ivy over her right shoulder. When Mara makes eye contact again, she smiles a little and asks, "Is it wrong to say no?
"As an actor, when I'm feeling apprehension or nervousness about something that I have to do or portray, usually it's because it's going to be a challenging place emotionally to explore," she explains. "And those are the [roles] that I actually want."
In A Teacher, she plays Claire, a high-school English teacher who begins an affair with a male student. Eric (Nick Robinson) is a popular senior who at first revels in what he views as an audacious conquest, but as the series progresses, Claire becomes more manipulative and unstable before hitting a nadir and turning herself in to the authorities.
Fidell's original film focuses almost exclusively on the teacher (played by Lindsay Burdge) and ends before the criminal justice system kicks in. The 10-part series (produced by FX Productions and dropping November 10 on FX on Hulu) goes much further.
"They're very different in tone and scope," Fidell says. "The series is about consequences. So, I really wanted to focus on what happens after, not just for Claire but for both of them. That's always been our guiding light."
Fidell needed an actress who could deliver a performance that was by turns understated and explosive. Mara, who is five-feet-two-inches of sinew, has a spring-loaded quality. During the Covid lockdown, she's been doing daily streaming workouts, including Ballet Bodies and the LEKFIT minitrampoline workout. But it's not just her physicality that made her right for the role.
"Kate has this underlying edginess," Fidell says. "You always know that there's something going on in her head. And that's exactly what I wanted in the Claire character, something always simmering just below the surface. And she does that so well." The part, Fidell continues, "requires a fearless actor who is not afraid to look bad. I don't think everyone is cut out for that kind of role."
The project was originally set up at HBO with no cast attached, but after that network relinquished it nearly four years ago, Fidell and coproducer Michael Costigan took it to Mara. The actress had seen Fidell's original film, and the two were immediately simpatico on a vision for the series.
"What I loved about Hannah's idea for the show was that it should live in a moral gray zone," says Mara, who is also an executive producer, alongside Fidell and Costigan (other EPs on the series are Jason Bateman, Louise Shore and Danny Brocklehurst). "And the main reason I wanted to do it is, it was always supposed to be a two-hander, with stories of abuser and victim. I don't think we usually see this story from both perspectives."
They nursed the project through a development process slowed not only by Disney's 2019 acquisition of most of former FX parent company 21st Century Fox, but by Mara's pregnancy. Fidell remembers being in the writers' room oneday when Mara called to say that she would be induced at thirty-six weeks.
"She said, 'Hey, they're going to induce labor a few weeks early,'" Fidell recalls. "And then she said, 'But this is great for our shooting schedule.' And I said, 'You're amazing, but who says that?!' I think some actors come to projects and they just get the title of EP. But she was on every development call. She has been a true partner."
Mara had developed cholestasis, a liver condition that can occur in late pregnancy. She was induced, then underwent an emergency caesarean section after three days of labor. She and Bell welcomed their baby girl in May 2019. Production began in August, when her daughter was not quite three months old. (The couple has not revealed the child's name. Mara is also stepmom to Bell's seven-year-old son, Jack, with Evan Rachel Wood.)
"I find it quite easy to switch it on and off," Mara says. "Thank God, because as a new mom, when you have a baby on your boob, screaming in the trailer, and then you've got to go pretend to be sexy, it's kind of a complete nightmare. But it was also not, you know what I mean? Because I have this little angel baby."
There was an intimacy coordinator on the set, but Fidell and cinematographer Quyen Tran prioritized communication and transparency.
"We talked about everything beforehand, so it was never like, 'Okay, you're going to improv this incredibly awkward scene,'" Mara says. "Hannah strives for realism always. But for any of the intimate scenes, we were very specific about what we needed.
"Our DP, Q, who is a woman, camera-operated most of the time, and I felt such a sisterhood with her as well. We had this joke that every sex scene was really between three of us, because Q was always right there whispering things to us like, 'Okay, can you lower your arm?' For me, it was the safest set I've been on. And probably the most sex scenes I've ever had to be a part of."
For Fidell and Mara, it was important not to glamorize the abuse. Fidell, who wrote three and directed six of the 10 episodes, worked with psychologists and therapists specializing in child sexual assault, as well as experts from RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. Each episode begins with content warnings about grooming, the process of preparing a child for sexual abuse.
"Hannah was great in facilitating the conversation between us all to make sure everyone felt heard and comfortable in doing these intimate scenes," costar Robinson says. "And Kate wasn't at all afraid to say what she was thinking and what made her comfortable."
It's this decisiveness that make Mara a "natural producer," says Gabriela Cowperthwaite, who first met Mara in 2013, when the actress, an animal-rights activist and Humane Society spokesperson, hosted an awards-season event for Cowperthwaite's documentary Blackfish.
Cowperthwaite subsequently directed her in 2017's Megan Leavey, based on the real-life story of a female Marine corporal and a military dog who served two tours together in Iraq before an IED injured them both.
"Kate has razor-sharp creative instincts. Her acting is so intelligent," Cowperthwaite says. "She's creative, so she has this nuanced and thoughtful right brain. But she also has this other side, which I haven't seen in every actor I've worked with, and that is a rock-solid left brain. She is on time, ahead of the game, calls bullshit where it stands.
"When something doesn't feel right, she says so immediately. And she's someone who truly knows what she wants."
Mara was nine years old when she began pestering her mother to get her an agent. "I would write her letters every night and leave them on her pillow: 'Can you please get me an agent?' And she was like, 'I don't know how to get you an agent. I don't know what that even means!'"
But she wore her mother down. And when a friend of a friend came up with an address for a manager in New York City, her mom mailed in an audition tape of Kate singing a TV jingle. Soon, mother and daughter were regularly making the hourlong drive into Manhattan from their home in the tony exurb of Bedford, New York.
"My mom really didn't want to be in the way. She didn't want to be a stage mom, so she would sort of hide in the corner or sit in the car," Mara recalls. "It couldn't have been enjoyable for her. But all credit to my mom, because she was like, 'Okay, I've got to figure this out.' I appreciated it then, for sure. But being a mom now, it's a whole other level of appreciation, the amount of time that she committed to this dream that I had."
Mara has had little formal training. She learned on the job, starting at age 14, with her first TV role in an episode of Law & Order. A string of TV guest stints followed; she is among the legions of actors who have been cast as killers on Law & Order and its spinoffs. In a 2001 episode of Law & Order: SVU, she played a teen gymnast accused of killing a rival to snag a spot on an elite gymnastics squad.
The second of four siblings, she — along with younger sister Rooney Mara (whose first TV role was on Law & Order: SVU) — made frequent trips to the city for Broadway shows including Miss Saigon and Cats.
At home, they devoured movie musicals and costume dramas. The 1986 historical drama Lady Jane, starring Helena Bonham Carter, was on a loop in the Mara house. "My sister and I were obsessed with Lady Jane," Mara says with a laugh. "And of course, she gets beheaded in the end."
The sisters hail from the Rooney and Mara clans, owners of the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Giants, respectively. Their maternal great-grandfather was Steelers founder Art Rooney, Sr., and their paternal great-grandfather was New York Giants founder Tim Mara. And Kate has sung the National Anthem at NFL games.
After high school, she deferred her acceptance to NYU's Tisch School of the Arts to relocate to Los Angeles. A series of supporting roles in lauded films, including Random Hearts (her film debut) and Brokeback Mountain, won the attention of casting directors. She continued to book bigger parts in television series (24, Entourage, American Horror Story: Murder House).
And in 2013, Netflix's monster hit House of Cards raised her profile considerably. Director Josh Trank's Fantastic Four — in which she played the Invisible Woman, Marvel's first female superhero — was supposed to be a major opportunity, but the film was a messy and expensive flop.
A year before its release, Mara earned the wrath of Marvel geeks when she told an interviewer that she had not read the comics. But the experience of making the movie — which 20th Century Fox released in summer 2015 — was worse.
"I had a horrible experience on Fantastic Four," she says. "I've never talked about it before. I married one of my costars, so I don't regret doing that movie at all . But do I wish I had responded differently to certain things? Yes, definitely."
She won't go into detail about what happened on Fantastic Four or on a second film that she says was a similarly negative experience. But in the wake of the #MeToo movement, Mara, like many actresses, has been reevaluating events she overlooked or suppressed.
"The fact of the matter is that my two horrendous experiences with directors were male directors," she says. "Have I not gotten along with a female director? Absolutely. And was it not the greatest work experience? Sure. But there was never a time that I felt, 'This is happening because I'm a woman.' Where with the male directors, it 100 percent was only happening with me; it was a power dynamic thing.
"And on both of my bad experiences, the movies were 95 percent men and I was the only woman in the movie."
It's not just on-set behavior. The entire Hollywood system — journalists, photographers, screenwriters — has objectified actresses for years. At the mention of a 2015 Esquire feature in which a male interviewer writes about Mara's "burnished amber eyes and tight sweater" and "beauty… that can silence a bar with a walk to the bathroom," she cringes.
"Oh God! I look back at some interviews and photo shoots that aren't from that long ago, and I remember feeling stupid or uncomfortable but thinking, 'Well, this is what you're supposed to do.' Today I would never agree to any of those things. It's horrendous and just stupid."
These incidents fortified Mara's resolve to exert more control over her career. It's one reason she and good friend Ellen Page (Juno, The Umbrella Academy) teamed up to produce a film together. Mara's first foray as a producer-star was 2017's My Days of Mercy, about a romance between two women (Page and Mara) on opposite sides of the death-penalty debate.
"I learned a lot on that movie," she says. "I thought, 'Why should I sit around and continue to read scripts that I'm not really interested in?' There's so much about being an actor that is completely out of your control. So being a producer for me was taking a little bit of control — or as much as I could — over the roles I get to play and the people I get to work with."
These days, the major catalyst driving Mara's acting priorities has been her role as a mom. Becoming a parent naturally recenters life, emotionally and physically. But for actors — whose livelihoods depend on exposing themselves, emotionally and sometimes physically, in front of millions — parenthood brings another layer of anxiety.
Mara allows that she began to think differently about the roles she takes when she became a stepmom. And having a daughter intensified those instincts.
"Eventually she's going to be able to look at the work I've done," Mara says. "And now more than ever, I want it to mean something and for there to be a point to it. Sometimes you do just have to work for money. Sometimes you're lucky enough that you can make choices based on more than that."
This article originally appreared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 11, 2020