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Passionately devoted to her craft—not the trappings that go along with it—actress Kate Mara is on the verge of breaking through into the ranks of major movie star.
Forget the critics. When it comes to seeking job approval, actress Kate Mara has her own high standards to live up to.
“It’s always flattering when someone says something nice about something you worked really hard on,” says the auburn-haired 24-year-old in her straightforward, matter-of-fact style. “But it’s more important that I feel proud and satisfied with the work I did without having to get approval from a critic or anyone else.”
Ignoring the critics may get increasingly hard for Mara, though. After steadily ascending the ranks of working actresses in Hollywood—over the past two years, she’s been in Brokeback Mountain, co-starred in 24 and received rave reviews for the otherwise tepidly received We Are Marshall—Mara has a full slate of films on deck. Early April saw the release of Shooter, a fast-moving action flick in which she costars with Oscar nominee Mark Wahlberg, and she recently wrapped filming on Transsiberian, which costars Sir Ben Kingsley, Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer.
The former is an action film, the latter a dramatic thriller—and the fact that they have relatively little in common is exactly the point for Mara. “I like a challenge, something I haven’t done before,” she says. “Roles that scare you are always the best ones to take, because then you have to do the work and it’s so much more fun. It’s better for me when a role makes me nervous.”
Mara has been acting since the age of nine—although her family tree lends itself more to athletics. Born in Bedford, N.Y., about an hour north of New York City, she is the great-granddaughter of Timothy Mara, founder of the New York Giants, and Art Rooney, founder of the Pittsburgh Steelers. An avid football fan, Mara grew up singing the National Anthem at Giants games—a practice she continues today on opening day and other special occasions.
Though she began acting professionally at 14, she does admit to the occasional bouts of self-doubt when making a film. Take Brokeback Mountain, in which she played the daughter of Heath Ledger and Michelle Williams and was directed by Ang Lee. “The best word to describe him would be peaceful, but he’s also extremely focused,” Mara says of Lee.
“He’s very specific, and it was hard at first to get used to that. My role was small and I was only there for a short amount of time, but I was convinced I’d be fired after the first day,” she laughingly remembers. “Then I realized that’s his way of directing and, by the end, I embraced it and realized that’s why he’s so well respected. He knows what he wants and he really does the work—he knows exactly how it’s supposed to look, how it’s supposed to sound, but he’s not opposed to you trying things.”
When Mara talks about movies and directors, she knows whereof she speaks. A self-described cinema buff, she spends her off hours watching films old and new, from movie musicals like The Sound of Music and Oklahoma to modern classics like Coal Miner’s Daughter and Shakespeare in Love. That grounding has given her a very clear idea of how to navigate the sometimes tangled twists of Hollywood. She is devoted to her profession, not the extreme fame that comes along with it. Often compared to a young Julia Roberts, Mara is quick to demure when asked if she’d like to achieve stardom on that level. Noting that Roberts is an actress whom she greatly admires, Mara also names Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett and Kate Winslet (“We have the same first name, but that’s not the reason!” she jokes) as role models. “I admire actresses who are known for their acting. “You can have great style, but I’m not interested in being known for what I wear.”
That’s not to say she’s completely immune to the fashion bug. Describing herself as obsessed with Christian Louboutin shoes—the 5-foot, 3-inch actress’ most recent purchase was a pair of peep-toe turquoise pumps with a 4 1/2-inch heel—she also favors Prada, Chanel and Dolce & Gabbana. For red-carpet appearances, Mara works with a stylist, but takes inspiration from her roles for her day-to-day style. “One day I’ll wake up and feel very girly, the next, I’ll want to wear Converse sneakers and a hoodie sweatshirt. When I was shooting We Are Marshall, my clothes were Seventies-inspired and it made me want to dress like that in my normal day life.”
Even though she recently moved from New York to Los Angeles, land of the omnipresent paparazzi, when it comes to beauty, Mara’s routine is relatively low-maintenance in the way that only the genetically blessed can be. Her must-have makeup item? Mascara—L’Oréal’s Double Extend is a current favorite. As for her flaming red hair, a distinctive trait that sets her apart from hordes of young wannabes? “I’m awful,” she says, when a hairstylist compliments her on its healthy state. “The only time I brush it is when I get out of the shower. I love Bumble and bumble’s products for redheads, but if I travel, I don’t bring my own shampoo,” she continues to groans all around. “I just use what they have in the hotel.”
Mara may be low-key about her beauty, but she’s not about her career. “I have a crazy passion for acting. It’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do,” she says. “I feel really lucky because I have a lot of friends who are trying to figure out what they should do. I’ve always known and my passion today is just as strong as when I was a kid. Stronger even. I just love it.”