Kate Mara’s “House of Cards” character, Zoe Barnes, may be shockingly, suddenly dead, but the actress herself is alive and well in “Transcendence” – a movie about life beyond mortality.
Set in a very near future, the thoughtful science fiction film proposes that a human consciousness will soon be preservable via cybertechnology. Johnny Depp plays a brilliant artificial-intelligence scientist, Will Caster, who is fatally poisoned during a series of attacks by anti-tech terrorists. His grieving wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), finds a way to upload Will’s brain, and perhaps his soul, into a computer.
Cyber Will thrives and figures out how to perform medical miracles – and other perhaps not so benign things as well. As he threatens to take over the Internet, the terrorist leader, Bree (Mara), teams up with an unlikely coalition to stop the superhuman computer.
So, who are the good guys and the bad guys here? There’s not a simple answer, which is something that drew Mara to the scenario.
“I liked that what you think might be very clearly black and white, good and bad in the film sort of takes a turn,” says Mara, casually dressed in white pants and a flower print shirt. “It gets you thinking that technology might not just be this wonderful thing, but it’s not just this evil thing. There are layers to it. It can do lots of really great things for us as a society, but it can also hurt us in a lot of ways, and you have to be careful with that.
“That’s very relevant,” says the actress, 31. “It gets you thinking. Just look around nowadays; people’s heads are down, always, and eye contact is very quickly disappearing. That concerns me. I’m always taken aback when I’m at a restaurant and see little kids watching movies at the dinner table. I know it’s a different time, but at my house, growing up, we weren’t even allowed to answer the phone when it rang during dinnertime. I still believe that there should be some sort of sacred time whenever we are disconnected from the Internet.”
Of course, there was a lot to talk about during meals at the Mara home. Kate and her younger sister, Rooney (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “Her”), are great-granddaughters of the respective founders of the New York Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers, and football is still pretty much the family business.
“I guess if we were boys, maybe we would have been football players,” Mara jokes, “but there wasn’t that much we could do as girls.”
There’s nothing girly about her role as Bree, an unflinching leader and ruthless ideologue. In keeping with the ambiguous vibe of “Transcendence,” though, one couldn’t call her evil.
“I didn’t know a lot about extremists in that way,” Mara admits. “I watched ‘A Tree Falls,’ which is a really great documentary about how an organization of environmentalists grew radical. It helped me figure out where Bree might have come from, and how an innocent idea of wanting to keep our environment safe can sort of catapult into doing anything it takes, even killing people. It’s crazy, but I was attracted to bringing out how somebody with very good intentions can start doing very bad things.
“That’s why I wanted to play her. And I liked that you’d assume that she’s the bad guy, but to me she’s not. People are not typically just one thing.”
That certainly describes her “House of Cards” character, Zoe Barnes, a Washington reporter with pliable ethics (she slept with Kevin Spacey’s conniving representative Frank Underwood); that proved fatal (again, Underwood’s doing) in the first episode of the Netflix series’ second season.
“ ‘House of Cards’ is very similar to ‘Transcendence,’ in that all of the characters on that show have some very sketchy stuff going on,” she says. “There are a lot of anti-heroes on the show, and the second you think somebody is good, they choose to do something that is clearly not.”
Zoe is just one of many popular characters who have been killed off in recent television dramas. Mara, though, knew it was coming from the start, and for the actress, if not every fan, it was a mainly positive experience.
“I guess it’s just the trendy thing to do,” she says with a laugh. “It was very freeing, sort of, to know this thing was going to happen. It’s like, doing a movie, you know the beginning, middle and end. A lot of times, with television, you don’t. So I took a lot of comfort knowing exactly what was going to be happening to Zoe and how long I was going to be committed to the show.
“But, you know, it’s an amazing show, so I would have loved to have been on it for longer. But knowing I wasn’t, it wasn’t a negative for me at all.”
Mara has shuffled between movies and television since her first big-screen appearance in “Random Hearts” in 1999. She’s had semi- or regular roles on “Nip/Tuck,” “24,” “Entourage” and “American Horror Story,” among others, and appeared in such films as “Brokeback Mountain,” “We Are Marshall,” “Shooter” and “Iron Man 2.”
“For actors, and for people who are just fans of watching TV, I think it’s come a long way,” she says of the new world of adult cable shows and binge-watchable series. “It’s exciting for an actor to know that, on certain channels anyway, there really is no difference. They’re getting the same brilliant directors and actors to do television as are doing movies. There are just more options, which is awesome.”
At the end of the month, Mara starts filming the reboot of “The Fantastic Four,” in which she’ll play comic book heroine Sue Storm, the Invisible Woman. It’s certain to be a high-tech production, but Mara won’t be bringing any phobias left over from “Transcendence” to the project.
“I’m not scared of it, but I’m not very tech savvy; I use my computer mainly for email and surfing the Web and it’s good for pictures,” she reveals. “I’m not that super-creative on it. But the camera situation freaks me out. I always put a sticker over the lens ’cause I’m convinced … Well, who knows?”