The actress Hollywood loves to typecast reveals her nicer side, relives growing up in an NFL dynasty and defends all those racy sex scenes.
PLAYBOY: Many know you from your "nice girl" roles in big movies such as Brokeback Mountain and 127 Hours, but TV viewers have watched you unleash your inner bad girl as the icy, ruthlessly ambitious journalist on House of Cards, as a vengeful sexual supernatural stalker on American Horror Story and as a bisexual cheerleader on Nip/Tuck. And now in Transcendence you play a militant revolutionary opposite Johnny Depp. What is Hollywood trying to tell us about you?
MARA: There's always a reason people get cast in certain roles, so I feel maybe there is something of that underneath. I take all that as a compliment. I don't think of myself as icy, but I'm definitely ambitious. I do think of myself as strong and very driven. I've had to audition for most of the roles I've done, so I still have to go in and prove I can be driven. I'm also comfortable saying that I'm pretty vulnerable with people I trust.
PLAYBOY: You were raised in New York's wealthy Westchester County with an older and a younger brother, as well as your also famous younger sister, actress Rooney Mara. Your father's family founded and still owns the New York Giants, of which he's an executive. Your mother's family founded and still owns the Pittsburgh Steelers. With that background, should we imagine you growing up beautiful, spoiled, headstrong and, when you got old enough, breaking the hearts of Giants and Steelers team members you dated?
MARA: Thank God no, because doing that would not have gone down well. I respected my dad way too much to ever even have that sort of temptation. The Giants are my family, and I'll always look at the team that way. Even going to a football game in sneakers and jeans, getting drunk with friends—that was so not the experience I ever had. We'd go into the box and sit with my grandma, dressed as nicely as if we were going to church. It was very much a place of business.
PLAYBOY: At several Giants games you've sung "The Star-Spangled Banner," and you also sang very well in the 2010 indie movie Happythankyoumoreplease. Should other singing actresses such as Anne Hathaway and Amanda Seyfried lose sleep?
MARA: My first dreams of acting were about being in musical theater on Broadway. My sister and I would watch all those classic black-and-white movie musicals. That's what excited me and what I wanted to do. As kids, my sister and I were even in a local production of TheWizard of Oz together, and neither of us played Dorothy. I guess we've shown them.
PLAYBOY: How did you start singing at those Giants games?
MARA: The first time was at the age of 14 when my uncle or my dad asked me if I felt like singing it. I was so naive and inexperienced that I thought, I'm just singing in front of my family and all these drunk people who don't care who's singing. As I got older and more successful in the acting world, I became harder on myself. I haven't done it for at least four years now, and the thought of doing it is definitely scarier now than it used to be.
PLAYBOY: Does that mean you've given up wanting to sing on-screen too?
MARA: My dream role would be to play Gypsy Rose Lee in a movie of Gypsy. I was 14 or 15 when they were bringing back The Sound of Music to Broadway and I got five callbacks. They had picked one kid for each of the roles, and though I'm a very small person—five feet three inches—they were afraid I'd grow taller than the girl they'd cast as the oldest daughter. I swore to them, "No, I'm not going to grow any taller," and I haven't. But when I didn't get that job, I thought I would die from the rejection.
PLAYBOY: When you were growing up, were your friends and would-be friends always hitting you up for Giants and Steelers tickets?
MARA: Maybe it's where I grew up, in a beautiful town, but I wasn't surrounded by people who ever tried to get things from me. I had very few friends, and I come from a huge, really close family. The need to have a big group of friends has never been a part of me. I love the Giants and Steelers so much that I sort of have an agreement on the set that if either team is in the Super Bowl, I have to be off the next day.
PLAYBOY: Did your lack of friends when you were young mean you were an introvert?
MARA: Like a lot of actors, I was painfully shy. School was terrifying to me, and I don't even know why. My mom was kind of shocked that acting was my chosen profession, given the fact that I could barely look people in the eye. But she was amazing, putting my sister and me into all these community theater shows and taking us to auditions. Having to be friendly and open to new people helped get me out of my shell.
PLAYBOY: Are you now the life of the party?
MARA: I'm okay at a party, but if I'm going out with a group of friends, I'd rather it be four of us than 10. Otherwise I'll wind up talking to just the two people next to me. I'm always much more at ease when there are fewer people. I wasn't a loner as a kid, but I'm 31 now and still like small groups rather than big crowds.
PLAYBOY: Many male actors admit that they were partly motivated to pursue careers in show business because of the astonishing-looking women who work in and around it. What about you?
MARA: I'll bet women don't say that. It's silly. Attractive people are everywhere. I was very focused on a career and still am. I was never boy crazy.
PLAYBOY: Would you cop to feeling slightly jealous over the fact that David Fincher directed you in the first two episodes of House of Cards, but he directed your sister in both The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the latter of which got her an Oscar nomination?
MARA: We've never had any kind of competitive thing between us, thank God. We're really close. Oscars aren't everything, but I watch them and I'm not super-cynical about them. Would I love to earn an Oscar nomination someday? Of course. But we were all together when we learned Rooney had gotten the nomination, and we all celebrated together. We went to the Oscars together. She and I have auditioned for some of the same parts, and we've actually checked with each other, like, "What time is your audition?" because it would be just awkward to see each other there.
PLAYBOY: Has a fan ever asked for an autograph and looked surprised when they read the signature, thinking you were your sister?
MARA: As a redhead, I've been confused with other redheads like Amy Adams—but hey, I'll take that. She's amazing. I had someone come up to me for an autograph and say, "I loved you in The Devil Wears Prada," but no, that's not me either. I've signed autographs, and when I realized they thought I was someone else, I've actually called the other actor to tell them. Maybe I need to start asking who people think I am before I sign.
PLAYBOY: The opening episode of the second season of your TV series, House of Cards, caused shock waves when the intimate relationship between your journalist character and Kevin Spacey's character turned fatal. Shouldn't a character as smart as Zoe Barnes, already suspicious that her boyfriend has murdered a U.S. congressman, have seen that he's capable of pretty much anything?
MARA: She would never have entertained getting into a personal relationship knowing it was going to get so dangerous or that he was 100 percent capable of murder. Even though I obviously knew what was going to happen this season, I was able to watch in a pretty objective way. Because the show is so well-made, it's easy to forget about the scenes I'm in and not in and just sort of watch it like a regular person would. That's a real testament, because usually I have to watch something I'm in a couple of times before I can start to appreciate it for what it is. But with House of Cards, it was easy to get caught up in it.
PLAYBOY: Please annihilate the silly rumor that they used a body double for your naked backside in that memorable scene in the first season.
MARA: Who would say that? I met David Fincher when my sister did The Social Network, so I knew him long before I ever read for him. When he said, "I really want you to play this role," he told me about the series and what was going to happen with the character. I fell in love with her because she's so ambitious and driven. She's attracted to power. Of course, having seen his films and knowing what I knew about House of Cards, I expected there might be a lot of nudity and edgy stuff required. But I trust David.
PLAYBOY: Were you ultimately surprised at the amount of nudity and sex scenes?
MARA: I'd read all the scripts way in advance, so nothing shocked me. It just happened, and it wasn't uncomfortable. From day two of working with Kevin, I found him just as playful as I am. He would definitely up my game. I tried to get him to laugh by wearing pasties with his face on them. Of course, because Kevin wants to win whatever the game is and because he always wins, he did not laugh. He waited until the director said "Cut" and then he laughed. Kevin has an amazing sense of humor, but he's also a great professional and he's really fucking good at it.
PLAYBOY: How does your family react to seeing you in nude and edgy movie and TV scenes?
MARA: They have a sense of humor about it that they didn't used to have. They were very upset when I was 19 and had a scene in Nip/Tuck that showed only my back but suggested nudity. I tried to explain that it's acting and part of the craft, and if it's important to the story and tastefully done, I will choose to do certain things. By the time House of Cards came along, my family had dealt with plenty of other difficult things to watch with my career and my sister's career.
PLAYBOY: You recently landed the role of Sue Storm in the Fantastic Four reboot. You've finished shooting a thriller called Captive, and you've just been in Transcendence, the directing debut of Wally Pfister, the cinematographer for Christopher Nolan's Batman movies and Inception. Any tales to tell?
MARA: Wally is so talented and such an enthusiastic person. I loved working with him on Transcendence, playing someone who is anti-technology. I really hope he directs more movies. Captive is interesting too. I made it with David Oyelowo, who is a friend. It's based on the real story of a man in Atlanta who broke out of a courthouse jail, shot a number of people and took a single mother who was a meth addict hostage in her own apartment. It was intense and I probably wouldn't have made it with anyone but David. So it's been busy. I still have plenty of time for binge watching, though, given certain conditions.
PLAYBOY: Which are?
MARA: I try to work out six days a week, mostly doing the Bar Method, ballet-inspired classes mixed with Pilates. I have to run for an hour every day. If I put that time in, then I feel I can do whatever I want for the rest of the day, even if it's just watching movies or catching up on a TV show. I barely watch live TV now.
PLAYBOY: Are you addicted to working out?
MARA: No. It's not about being too thin or too fat or anything. It's not about weight. It's confidence. I'm a vegan, but that doesn't mean I get up and leave if I'm out to dinner with someone who orders a steak. My friends don't care about me not eating meat. Their biggest surprise is that I won't eat cheese anymore, and I don't blame them because cheese was definitely the hardest thing to give up.
PLAYBOY: What's your biggest professional frustration?
MARA: I'm grateful for the opportunities I've won already, but there are certain aspects of me that I haven't played yet. I'd love to do a love story and I haven't. Doing a movie or TV show that centers on two people can be the most challenging for an actor. That's something I would love to do.
PLAYBOY: Sue Storm in Fantastic Four possesses the power of invisibility. You're photographed whenever you're in public, but if you could be invisible for 24 hours, what kinds of mischief would you get up to?
MARA: I feel I have that power already. I can go almost anywhere and not be recognized. I already do what I want to do and just live my life.
This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of Playboy.
Photography by Kurt Iswarienko