The drama series House of Cards, which can currently be viewed through Netflix, is an uncompromising exploration of power and ambition. Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey), the House Majority Whip, is a politician’s politician – masterful, beguiling, charismatic and ruthless – and he and his equally ambitious wife, Claire (Robin Wright) stop at nothing to ensure their ascendancy.
During this recent interview to promote the 13-episode series, actress Kate Mara, who plays bright and determined political reporter Zoe Barnes, talked about her take on the character, where Zoe’s moral compass lies, getting early drafts of the scripts prior to shooting, how each director took on two hours of the show and that they shot it like six movies, what it was like to work with co-star Kevin Spacey, and that they start shooting Season 2 in about a month. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
KATE MARA: I read the first couple of episodes, and they were already very full and layered, so Zoe was already there on the page for me. I didn’t have a ton of questions about her because (executive producer) Beau Willimon did such a great job of creating her in our script, and I just took it from there. And (director) David Fincher helped a lot with that, and in bringing her to life and figuring out what she should look like and wear to work. We wanted to make her seem as real as possible. She starts off not wearing a lot of make-up, at all, in the office and she doesn’t really care about her looks. And we decided that anytime she goes to see Francis, Kevin Spacey’s character, that maybe she would put on a little bit more and try to look a little bit better. We developed all of those little things that maybe people notice and maybe they don’t, which really does help bring a character to life.
How do you see Zoe’s morality? Where does her moral compass lie?
MARA: She is written as somebody who will do whatever it takes to achieve certain goals in her job. A lot of people like to judge her lack of morals, but as an actor, that was really fun stuff to play, playing somebody who maybe does think about things, but would do things that most people wouldn’t. She has a lot of balls to just show up at this guy’s house and strike a deal with him. She’s playing with a lot of older men and trying to play their game. That power struggle was what I was really attracted to.
In doing this for Netflix, was there anything different in the filming process or the way that the whole production is handled?
MARA: The only difference in shooting this series was the fact that it wasn’t going to be on TV really, but that didn’t even cross my mind. When I joined, it was Kevin Spacey and David Fincher. All these great people were already involved, so I didn’t think twice about where it was going to be shown because that really didn’t matter to me. Shooting it really just felt like we shot six movies in a row because each director directed two hours of the show. I’ve never been a regular on a TV show before, but I have done arcs and recurring roles, and I have always found that the most challenging part of it was the lack of knowledge that you have about your character and what’s going to happen each week with a new script. This was very different because David Fincher and Beau Willimon really let me know what Zoe’s story was going to look like. We got early drafts of the scripts, way before we were going to start shooting, so it was a very, very different thing. It really didn’t feel any different than shooting a movie. I just felt very lucky because I got to play with this character and these actors for such a long period of time. That was really the only difference.
Before the series started, did you sit down with Beau Willimon and chart Zoe’s journey?
MARA: Well, he didn’t have any outline written out for me, but he and David both knew exactly where my story was going to go, so I was never really surprised. I always roughly knew what was going to be happening, in one way or another, so when the scripts came in, I was never shocked at anything. Beau was on set, every day, and he was always sharing new story points with me.
How was the experience of working with Kevin Spacey?
MARA: He’s amazing! I have respected him for a really long time. Working with him was the greatest challenge just because he’s so on top of it and he really ups your game. I loved it! He’s also a hilarious person, so it was a lot less serious than I had thought it was going to be. Kevin has been around a long time and done a variety of characters. His experience is certainly something that helps, when you’re on set. And I just really trust him. As an actor, I trust his choices and he’s a real team player, so I always felt very protected with him.
MARA: Honestly, no. I don’t really tend to think about that kind of thing. That just happened because we were shooting it on Election Day, and it’s awkward enough having to do a scene like that. That just happened randomly.
Because she is so ambitious, do you think Zoe has a five-year plan in place and knows where she wants to end up?
MARA: I guess she could. I think she’s thinking about it more now. I think she tends to make things happen in the moment, rather than thinking about what’s going to happen in the next year. I don’t necessarily think that that’s on the forefront of her mind. But, she doesn’t have this grand scheme like Francis does.
How do you think working at a troubled newspaper will affect her ambitions?
MARA: I think she’s working at the Washington Herald because that’s the job that she’s in right now. I don’t think that it would really matter where she’s working. She’s working with what she has and trying to get ahead, in whatever way she can. I don’t think she necessarily knows what the master end plan would be. But, she definitely is a really hard worker and I think she just really wants to be appreciated, in whatever job she’s in.
Has playing a political reporter led you to ever consider a career in politics?
MARA: No, absolutely not! I’m not interested in politics, or being a part of them. I definitely do my homework and make sure that I know what’s going on, and I’m responsible enough to be able to vote for people that I respect. But other than that, I’ve never been a part of the political world. I really looked at this, and playing a journalist, as I would any other job or any other character. The fact that she is in the political world really isn’t a personal thing. It didn’t make me more political either.
MARA: I can’t really reveal anything. We should start shooting Season 2 in about a month. But, I don’t know. I haven’t sat down with Beau, and I haven’t seen the first few scripts, or anything like that. I sort of know where the story is going to be heading, but it would be silly for me to share because that would ruin a lot of things. But, I’m just as excited to start this season, as I was to start the last one. It will be an interesting thing to see where it goes, and what plays out.
House of Cards can currently be viewed through Netflix.