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 The Wizard 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.