Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite (Blackfish), the war drama Megan Leavey is based on the truly touching real-life story of a young woman (played beautifully by Kate Mara) who was aimless and unhappy until she found purpose in the Marine Corp, where she was paired up with an unruly German shepherd named Rex from the K-9 unit. Over the course of their service, Megan and Rex completed more than 100 missions, until an IED explosion injured them and she made it her mission to convince the military to let her adopt Rex and give him a loving home.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actress Kate Mara talked about why she wanted to play Megan Leavey, how deeply this story spoke to her, the insight it gave her to actually meet the real woman at the center of this story, why it was important to her to work so hard at the training, finding a natural bond with her K-9 co-star, and why this role was the most challenging of her career. She also talked about wanting to develop and produce projects to star in, and her desire to be in a movie musical.
Collider: You knew your director, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, before shooting Megan Leavey together. How did you guys originally meet, and had you been actively looking for a project to do together?
KATE MARA: We weren’t looking for something to do together, but I always loved her and secretly wanted to work with her. We met through Blackfish. I watched the movie and reached out to her because I loved it so much, and I wanted to help out in the campaigning and figure out if there was anything else we could do to help the orcas. That’s how we became friends. We would just meet up for dinner and talk about movies we love and animal activist stuff, and we really just became friends. And then, when I read this script, there wasn’t a director attached and I just thought, “I know Gabriela hasn’t directed a feature like this yet, but I believe in her. And if she loves this and has the same vision for it that we all do, let’s try to get her on board.” That’s how it all happened.
Was it important to you that this was a true story, or would you have wanted to be a part of telling this story, even if Megan Leavey were a fictional character?
MARA: When the story is true, it’s always more interesting to me, but I guess if it wasn’t true, I probably would have wanted to do it anywhere. It’s rare that you get a story in a movie that is about a female in the military, and I think it’s really important that we tell those stories. But as a movie lover, I’m always more intrigued by films that are true stories and I’m always more emotionally connected and affected by them. That was just a really amazing part of it all.
How did actually getting to meet Megan Leavey and spending time with her give you an understanding of who she is and what she went through that you didn’t get, just from reading about it?
MARA: It really just made me see how much she must have grown and what an incredible human she is. If you met her, you would have no idea what she’s been through in her life and the trauma she’s experienced and the courage she’s had to have. She’s so sweet, down-to-earth, easy-going, really good with people, very personable, open and very willing to talk about her experience. She’s not closed off, in any way.
When we meet Megan, she’s pretty lost in her life, and not only does the Marine Corp give her a purpose, but she actually becomes really good at her job, in a way that other people can really depend on her to help keep them alive. What most helped you feel confident in playing a Marine? Was it the training, or was there a combination of things?
MARA: Yeah, it was the training. I knew I had to do everything and anything to prepare. I wasn’t just going to show up, on set, and pretend to wear the uniform. I knew I had to be taught and challenged and tested, as much as I could be, before I stepped onto that set. I felt like I had done enough work and that I was protected, on set, because I always had my advisors there. I just felt like I had the support around me to help me out, if I ever needed it, or to remind me of things. But I wouldn’t have been able to do that, unless I worked really, really hard at it.
How much did putting on the uniform help you, as far as getting you there mentally and changing how you would hold yourself physically?
MARA: Especially when you have on the backpack, which feels like it weighs 50 pounds and probably weighs close to that, and then you’re holding on to the dog, but the dog is also attached to your vest, you can’t help but feel different and walk different. It’s a massive part of stepping into her shoes, literally. You feel like a different person.
How did you get to a place where you could understand what the bond between a soldier and their K-9 partner is like? Did you have a processing process for the dog, and did you just work with one dog?
MARA: I trained with just one dog, but we had three dogs total. The one dog, Varco, was my main guy and he and I bonded naturally. It happened because we spent a lot of time together, training. It wasn’t like you bond with a pet. It was the way you bond with another soldier. We were trained together and trusted each other and we earned each other’s respect. Through that, this natural love and bond happened. Luckily, it happened when we needed it. It was exciting to realize that we had it. I was like, “Oh, thank god!” You can’t fake that.