Kate Mara isn’t onscreen much in “Chappaquiddick,” John Curran’s account of the maelstrom surrounding July 18, 1969, when Senator Edward M. Kennedy drove his Oldsmobile off a narrow bridge into a pond on the Massachusetts island, leaving the scene and his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, who died. And effectively killing his presidential aspirations.
As Kopechne, Ms. Mara was determined to find justice for a campaign aide who, after her death, was reduced by some to a groupie who was having an affair with the married Kennedy, played here by Jason Clarke. (“Chappaquiddick” opens on Friday, April 6.)
“Like a lot of people, I’m fascinated with the Kennedys and their history and their achievements and the tragic stories that follow them,” Ms. Mara said. But she insisted on portraying Kopechne “as the brilliant, hard-working woman that she was and not just some tabloid story.”
It isn’t the first time Ms. Mara’s character has suffered at the hand of politics. As the dogged D.C. reporter Zoe Barnes in “House of Cards,” she slept with the House majority whip, Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), who pushed her in front of a train once he was tagged for the vice presidency.
This summer, she’ll play a 1980s New Jersey housewife whose husband works for the Trump organization in FX’s “Pose,” which is currently shooting in New York.
As a snowstorm approached, Ms. Mara, 35 — chatty in bare feet in the downtown Manhattan apartment where she’s living temporarily with her husband, Jamie Bell, and her elderly Boston terrier, Bruno — discussed her harrowing scenes as Kopechne and the recent sexual assault allegations against Mr. Spacey.
Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Kopechne joined Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s secretarial staff in 1964 and then became a “boiler room girl.” What’s that?
It’s a term they used for the girls who worked on Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign. Their office was boiling hot because there were no windows, and it was in this dark area of the building. They’d be down there for hours working their asses off.
How did you make sure you weren’t playing into the rumors surrounding Kopechne?
She achieved so much, and she was only 28 when she died. She started out as a teacher, and then she went on to play a very important role in Bobby Kennedy’s campaign. So I wanted to make sure that she wasn’t shown as just some rumored fling that Ted Kennedy might have had. Obviously, it was a possibility. But I appreciated the fact that we were going to leave it as it actually is, which is a mystery.
The official finding was “death by drowning.” But some have speculated that she suffocated as the water rose in Kennedy’s car across several hours. What was that like to shoot?
Horrible. [Laughs grimly] It was very surreal. We actually shot in a car that was flipped upside down in an underwater tank, and it was being held up by wires. And they would submerge it a little bit more, then a little bit more, and the car filled up with water over time. They had one of the doors off so I could swim underneath and get to the bottom half of the car where the actual air pockets were. And I had this amazing stunt team of ex-Navy SEALs that were under there protecting me in case anything goes wrong. It was quite an ordeal. Yeah, it wasn’t fun. At all.
And now you’re shooting Ryan Murphy’s “Pose,” about the 1980s ball culture.
It’s inspired by “Paris Is Burning.” I’m excited to see all those women dancing [on the series], because if you go online or on Instagram and follow any of the “houses,” it’s so incredible. Their actual vogueing, posing — whatever you want to call it — it’s an art form.
The show is said to have the largest L.G.B.T. cast of any scripted series.
It’s pretty mental how many characters we have, and it keeps growing with each episode. It’s so fantastic when you open a script and see all the characters’ names, and most of them are trans.
They’re not killing you off, are they?
No, God, I hope not!
I have to ask about “House of Cards” and working with Kevin Spacey.
I had a really amazing experience on that show for the 13 episodes I was on it.
Did you have any inkling as to the alleged sexual misconduct that led to his termination from the show?
No, that whole thing to me to this day is very shocking and devastating all around.
A new teaser shows Claire Underwood sitting at the Resolute desk in the Oval Office. Will Robin Wright, who plays her, be able to carry the show’s last season on her own?
Oh my God, I will tell you that from Day 1, I’ve been waiting for Robin to take over! There’s nobody like her.
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