Mara was born and raised in Bedford, New York, the daughter of Chris Mara, a scout for the New York Giants, and Kathleen Rooney. Mara has one older brother, Daniel, and two younger siblings, Patricia and Conor. Mara wanted to be an actress since seeing Les MisÃ©rables at a young age; she said she “fell in love with Broadway and musicals”, and grew up watching movie musicals on television and going to Broadway shows with her mother. She was especially a fan of Judy Garland’s films. She began acting at the age of nine, appearing in a school musical. Mara attended several youth theater-arts schools and appeared in community theater and in school plays.
Beginning at a young age, Mara continually asked her mother to help her get an agent. Mara’s mother got the name and address of a management company, sent in a photograph, and Mara signed with her first agent, beginning her professional career at the age of 14. Mara’s first audition was for the television drama Homicide: Life on the Street. She didn’t get the role, but knew she just wanted to act from then on. Mara was accepted into the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University to study musical theater, and graduated from Fox Lane High School early by a year. Mara felt pressure from her parents to go to college, but was already getting work as an actress, so she deferred for three or four years before deciding not to go. Mara moved to Manhattan in order to act full time.
Television and stage roles
Mara’s first television role was in the drama Law & Order in 1997. She went on to guest star on numerous television series including, Madigan Men, Ed, and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Recurring parts on the series Everwood and Nip/Tuck followed in 2003, along with appearances on Cold Case, Boston Public, CSI: Miami, and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Mara debuted theatrically in 2003 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Landscape of the Body with Lili Taylor. She has said that doing more theater work is a “dream” because it was “all I really wanted to do as a kid. I didn’t care about movies or tv, I just wanted to do Broadway”. Mara starred in The Alice Complex, a play by Peter Barr Nickowitz, at Dixon Place in New York City in 2005 and at the Blank Theatre in Los Angeles in 2006. The production co-starred Tony Award-winner Harriet Harris. Mara appeared in a large recurring role on the WB Television Network series Jack & Bobby in 2005 and a 5 episode arc on Fox television series 24 in 2006, playing computer analyst Shari Rothenberg.
Mara’s film debut was in Random Hearts with Harrison Ford in 1999, directed by Sydney Pollack. She next appeared in the Sundance Film Festival award-winning films Joe the King (1999) and Tadpole (2002), alongside Sigourney Weaver. Mara later starred in Urban Legends: Bloody Mary, and appeared with Noah Wyle and Illeana Douglas in The Californians in 2005. However, it was her supporting role in the Academy Award-winning Brokeback Mountain (2005) that brought her more widespread attention.
At the beginning of 2006, Mara signed with the William Morris Agency. That year, she appeared in Zoom with Tim Allen and Courteney Cox and in We Are Marshall, starring Matthew McConaughey. We Are Marshall recalled the aftermath of the 1970 Marshall University plane crash that took the lives of most of the football team, with Mara playing fictional cheerleader Annie Cantrell. It was a script that Mara responded to emotionally because of her football background.
In 2007, Mara appeared in the comedy Full of It with Ryan Pinkston for New Line Cinema. The film later aired on television as Big Liar on Campus. Mara was also featured in an advertising campaign for clothing retailer Gap called, “khakis with attitude.” She appeared in Shooter, a thriller about a master sniper lured out of retirement to prevent an assassination, based on the novel Point of Impact. Mara played Kentucky widow Sarah Fenn, the love interest of Mark Wahlberg’s character’s partner, and then Wahlberg’s character himself. She adopted a southern dialect for the role. Director Antoine Fuqua immediately felt Mara was right for the part when she auditioned.
Also in 2007, Mara finished the film Transsiberian by Brad Anderson, the director of The Machinist (2004). Transsiberian takes place on the Trans-Siberian Railway that runs from China to Moscow. The cast includes Woody Harrelson, Ben Kingsley, Eduardo Noriega, and Emily Mortimer. Mara spent three months shooting the thriller in Vilnius, Lithuania, starting in December 2006. The film also shot on location in Beijing and Russia. Mara describes her character as “dark”, “mysterious”, “sort of goth”, and doesn’t talk much. Transsiberian premiered at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival in January 2008 and will be released in theaters on July 18, 2008.
In 2008, Mara will star in Stone of Destiny, written and directed by Charles Martin Smith, a film about the theft of the Stone of Scone on Christmas Day, 1950. Mara plays Kay Matheson, one of four students that removed the stone in a Scottish nationalist plot. The period “adventure-comedy” co-stars Billy Boyd, Robert Carlyle and Charlie Cox. Filming began in June 2007 in locations around Glasgow, including Film City studio and Arbroath Abbey. Mara attended the world premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in Fountainbridge, Edinburgh, Scotland on June 21, 2008. A wider release is set for late-2008. Mara will also appear with Charlie Hunnam in Deal, a film by Michael Corrente, and star in The Open Road alongside Jeff Bridges, Justin Timberlake, and Mary Steenburgen. Filming for The Open Road began in Hammond, Louisiana in February 2008, continuing in Memphis, Tennessee and elsewhere in the southern United States.
NFL football ties
Mara’s family owns the New York Giants and the Pittsburgh Steelers; she is the great-granddaughter of Giants founder Tim Mara, the granddaughter of late Giants owner Wellington Mara on her father’s side, as well as the great-granddaughter of Steelers founder Art Rooney on her mother’s side. Mara’s uncle is John Mara, the president and CEO of the Giants, and her father is the vice president of player evaluation. Mara attended almost every Giants home game while growing up. On Sundays, after attending church, her family would head directly to the games. When asked who she roots for when the Giants play the Steelers she replied, “that question is not allowed. I can’t answer.” Mara missed the Steelers’ winning Super Bowl in 2006 because she was working in Los Angeles. Mara was so disappointed, she added to her contract that if the Giants or Steelers go to the Super Bowl, she can attend. She attended almost every game of the 2007 Giants season, leading up to the team’s win in Super Bowl XLII.
Mara’s favorite Giants game was when she was asked to sing the national anthem in honor of her grandfather, Wellington Mara, who died in October 2005. Mara has regularly sung at home games and season openers of the Giants since about the age of 15 or 16 when her uncle asked her to fill in when they couldn’t find a singer. She sang the national anthem at the 2006 NFL season opener, dubbed the “Manning Bowl,” where the Giants played the Indianapolis Colts. Mara’s singing was featured in the film The Californians.
Mara has stated that she comes from a “huge” family. Her father was one of 11 children. She has 22 aunts and uncles and 40 cousins. She lives in Los Angeles, having resided there on and off since around 2003. Her younger sister, Patricia, is living with her temporarily since relocating to Los Angeles in 2007. Mara travels back to New York when her schedule allows and has stated, “If I could live in New York, I would”, specifying that she likes “the cold… the rain” and “miss[es] it”. Mara tries to spend the football season in New York when she can. As of 2007, her boyfriend was producer and director McG, whom she worked with on We Are Marshall. As of July 2008, she was linked to Stone of Destiny co-star Charlie Cox.