From "Class of '09" to "Black Mirror" Kate Mara loves her range of roles: "The magic is still there"

On "Salon Talks," the actor opens up about AI's scary future, death scenes and embracing embarrassment on the job

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published May 24, 2023 3:00PM (EDT)

Kate Mara (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Kate Mara (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Kate Mara has built a career playing complicated characters. She has been a scorned lover turned vindictive ghost on "American Horror Story," a calculating, ambitious reporter on "House of Cards" and a predatory educator on "A Teacher." And in her new FX limited series "Class of '09," she gets to play three incarnations of the same woman at different phases of her FBI career, from a career-jumping nurse to a futuristic veteran with a difficult past — and a robotic eye.

Yet, Mara says she didn't set out to specifically take on dark, secretive roles. "Sometimes you just need a job because you haven't worked in a while and you've got kids to feed," she told me on "Salon Talks." "Or you're antsy and just need that creative outlet, or you are looking for something really specific, or if you've had an experience that wasn't so good and you want a palate cleanser." (She may have been alluding here to filming 2015's "Fantastic Four," which she's referred to as "a horrible experience.")

Now, as Ashley Poet on "Class of '09," Mara gets to transform from a "naive and hopeful" young recruit to a woman who develops "a lot of other layers" over time, all while working in a field increasingly dominated by surveillance and AI. "It does feel like these themes are very relevant," she said, "which is pretty scary."

Mara also opened up about her upcoming role on "Black Mirror," the acting roles that have been the toughest to shake off, and what getting killed off in multiple projects has taught her about playing dead. And although she admits that as an actor "we have to do some really ridiculous things," she still treasures the job she knew she wanted from the age of nine. "The magic is still very much there for me," she said, "when I get to do what I love." Watch Kate Mara on "Salon Talks" here.

This conversation has been light edited for clarity and length.

Tell me about Poet when we get to know her in her first incarnation.

When you first meet our characters in '09, we are all at Quantico, so we're having to go through all the steps that one does in order to become an FBI agent. When I was reading the scripts and also just in general, I think that's a really interesting thing that people go through. I love that aspect of learning about the real FBI agents, the training they go through and all of the tests. There are so many things that I wasn't aware of that they actually have to do and learn. 

"Once I get home, there are too many people there who don't care about what you were just doing the last 13 hours."

Poet is one of those students. Everybody excels in different ways at that point in their lives. She was a nurse before she was recruited to attempt to become an agent. That's where we meet her.

The show, especially the part in the future, couldn't be more apt for the moment we're living in right now because so much of it is about AI and surveillance. What did you know about AI before you came into this, and has it changed your understanding of what's going on in the world around us now?

I didn't really know much about it. Obviously the story that we tell is not true, but clearly it feels like a cautionary tale, what happens to human beings and our world if we do let AI and technology take over in a lot of ways. There's a lot that's happening now in our world. We filmed the show a year ago, and it does feel like these themes are very relevant, which is pretty scary. It's not something that I really was paying attention in my regular life. It freaks me out, and now I think it's even more concerning. The idea was what would happen if AI took over, in the future anyway, our law enforcement, and how would that affect us all?

This show takes place over three different time periods: 2009, the present day, and then the future. Was there a time period that you most liked doing?

I definitely preferred the present and the past. The future was hard because we did with the older age makeup and everything. There was prosthetic work that took a while to perfect, as it always does. It was just a longer amount of time in the hair and makeup chairs. And then also just the themes of the future episodes or the future scenes, I should say, are more complicated. It's fun to play a character who's more naive and hopeful, and then the present day I also enjoyed because she is undercover as a police officer. There's a lot of other layers there to play with.

I'm interested in how you as a cast and collaborators work to keep that kind of consistency and change throughout the different time periods.

A lot of it is in the scripts as is, so you can't really take that much credit for it. But there are obvious characteristics and themes for each character, even in the first episode I read. Poet romanticizes her career, and her career is her everything, and that stays really true for the past, present and future. It complicates her life, her friendships, her love life, and all of that stuff. That is definitely something that stays with her for a lot of her life, no matter what time period that she's in.

Take me back to 2009 Kate. What was she like?

"The magic is still very much there for me."

Because I have kids and they really do keep you present, there's not a lot of time to think about 10 years from now or 10 years before. My life was very different 13 years ago mainly because I wasn't a mom yet, but I'd been acting. The one constant for sure that I know that hasn't changed and I feel really grateful for, it has always been my passion for my job. I was lucky because I knew from the age of nine that I wanted to be an actor, and that I haven't gotten at all jaded by it. The magic is still very much there for me when I get to do what I love. I feel really lucky in that. That feels still really obvious to me that that's what I want to be doing.

You asked your mom to help you find an agent when you were nine?

I did. She laughed and she said, "I don't know how to do that, honey," but then she started asking around. I was in the community theater, theater arts programs and things like that. I think once she recognized that I was really serious about it and very ambitious about it, she started talking to the other moms. 

There was another girl who was already doing Broadway at nine. She was in "Les Mis," which was one of my favorite shows. Her mom gave us the address of an agency and said, "Just send her picture and a cassette tape of her singing a jingle," because I was a singer back when I was a kid, "and her resume." My resume was consisted of a few community theater plays. That was it. We sent it in and we got a call back saying, "We'd love to meet you." That's how it happened, which is so funny to me now in the age of, no one really sends mail anymore. It's all emails. That just wasn't a thing. It felt very much like it was meant to be.

I saw your Super Bowl ad from 1998 where people were sending faxes and talking on telephones.

I remember that very clearly, those days of getting a fax.

When you were younger, you sang the national anthem at a Giants game. You talk about not having any fear then. Doing this show where you play a character at different stages in your life, did you tap into that part of yourself, that had that kind of bravery? 

"There's something really amazing to be said about the younger versions of ourselves."

Yeah, I think there's something really amazing to be said about the younger versions of ourselves, certainly in the show as well. My character is quite fearless when she's trying to get through Quantico and taking a lot of risks. When we're younger, you're trying to prove yourself, trying to find your way. I definitely think that I try and remember what that feels like or what that felt like when I was a kid. 

Our jobs can be pretty embarrassing. We have to do some really ridiculous things. But I think a lot of that is one of the reasons why I love it. You really have to let your guard down and you just have to go for it and embarrass yourself in order to find these stories that we tell and the characters that we try and create. I think it's really amazing when people can be less self-conscious and in our heads about things. When we're younger, I think it's easier to do that.

You play these very morally complicated women. Do you look for that? Is this now something where people say like, "This person, that's a Kate Mara type?"

I don't know if people say that. Hopefully not, because I think one of the goals is to not to have a specific type. It's much more fun to play all different kinds of roles, but it depends. It depends on where I am or where I think anyone is in their lives or careers. Sometimes you just need a job because you haven't worked in a while and you've got kids to feed, or you're antsy and just need that creative outlet, or you are looking for something really specific, or if you've had an experience that wasn't so good and you want a palate cleanser, and so you're just looking for something really creatively fulfilling.

I feel like it really does shift with life and where I am in the world. The goal for me has always been to try and play different characters, but that doesn't always happen because we don't always have a choice depending on where we are in the entertainment world at that point.

You have been in a lot of dark things. Has there been a character that has stuck with you that was hard to leave behind at the end of the day?

I think playing real people. I've done that a few times where it's a true story or based on a true story. I think those are particularly hard to forget or they stay with you I think longer.

Like "Chappaquiddick"?

"Sometimes you just need a job because you haven't worked in a while and you've got kids to feed, or you're antsy and just need that creative outlet."

That was brutal, for sure. I did a movie called "Megan Leavey," and that character definitely stayed with me in a lot of ways because I met the real Megan Leavey, and we spent a lot of time together. She is inspiring. And also my experience with the dog specifically was really amazing.

Because of my home life, because of what's happening there, I don't usually have a hard time shaking off the day's work. Once I get home, there are too many people there who don't care about what you were just doing the last 13 hours. I think that's helpful.

You've also died a couple of times in your career. Is there a secret to dying well? Have you learned over the years how to die?

No. It's particularly hard to hold your breath when you know the camera's on you. The hardest one was "Chappaquiddick." There's a scene in the movie where I'm in the water and the water was freezing cold. We filmed it in Mexico, and it was the wintertime. It was freezing. They had to pull me out of the water, and I was obviously meant to not be shivering or moving, and that was an interesting test. I have no secrets. We just did it a bunch of times and somehow it worked, but it was really hard.

You're also in the upcoming season of "Black Mirror." I know people can never say much. Can you say anything?

All I can say is the experience that I had on it was one of the best experiences I've had making something. It was very short. It was a very quick shoot. I was also six months pregnant when I filmed it, and I wasn't meant to be pregnant. That was special because my now son was there in every scene. I'm sure as you could see in the trailer, none of those episodes are particularly light, but it was a very magical experience and I absolutely loved my director John Crowley. He was just a dream to work with. I've always loved "Black Mirror," so it was fun to be a part of that. 

"Class of '09" airs on FX and Hulu.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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