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Kate Mara plays aggressively ambitious political reporter Zoe Barnes in Netflix’s “House of Cards.”

Mara shines as breakout star in Netflix’s ‘Cards’

Everything that sounds surreal about Kate Mara’s life seems perfectly normal to her. Frequently attending the Super Bowl? Not that out of the ordinary: Her family tree includes founders of iconic NFL franchises – on both sides. To her, the big game often serves as a reunion to hang out with relatives. Being able to bond with a sibling about life in the Hollywood spotlight? That’s just a nice coincidence: Her younger sister, Rooney, also happens to be a successful actress.

How about becoming the breakout star of Netflix’s groundbreaking political thriller “House of Cards,” executive-produced by acclaimed film director David Fincher and starring award-winning actors such as Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright?

Okay, she’s pretty jazzed about that.

“It’s a really amazing role to play,” Mara gushed by phone from Los Angeles, where she’s lived for the past decade, just a few weeks before “House of Cards” made its second season debut Friday. Mara, who plays aggressively ambitious political reporter Zoe Barnes, still sounds psyched that she landed the gig. “It’s just the most challenging experience in the best way for an actor, and that’s always what I want.”

At this point in her career, working alongside such esteemed company on the Emmy-winning drama is ideal – she didn’t even need to think about it when she was originally offered the part. “The material was so brilliant and Fincher is so brilliant … there were already these amazing actors involved, so it was really a no-brainer for me,” she said.

“I mean, scripts can be amazing,” Mara, 30, continued. “But if you’re not working with other actors or directors that are going to challenge you, then for me, it’s not really worth it.”

In 2011, Hollywood took notice when Academy Award-nominated Fincher signed on to produce a TV show and also direct the first two episodes. That it would be Netflix’s first foray into original programming attracted even more attention. Fincher – who directed “Seven,” “Fight Club” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” along with “The Social Network” and “The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo,” both of which featured Rooney Mara, Kate’s younger sister – had Kate in mind for a part, but didn’t simply hand it to her.

“It was awesome because I really felt like I worked for the role – I wasn’t just offered it, I had to audition,” she says, and was officially cast in early 2012. She met co-star Spacey at the initial table read when the show, based on a 1990 British miniseries of the same name, began filming in Baltimore that spring.

In the world of dirty politics on “House of Cards,” Mara’s Zoe Barnes is generally involved in the secondary story to the tangled plotlines featuring Spacey, who plays devious House Majority Whip Francis Underwood and is at the center of the show’s universe. During the first season, however, the pair often crossed paths when they realized they could help each other. The two formed a relationship that included a steamy affair, despite Underwood’s marriage to a similarly ruthless power player (Robin Wright). Determined to make a name for herself as an investigative reporter, Zoe’s scoops from Underwood helped land her byline on the front page; those stories helped him get leverage over his political enemies.

Mara’s character got viewers talking last season, and not always in a positive way – people often debated the show’s treatment of a young female journalist, especially one sleeping her way to the top. But Mara’s strong, scene-stealing performance stood out in a cast of established stars, making her one of the buzziest aspects of the addicting show. And it looks like that will continue into the second season: By now, Zoe has long ditched the newspaper for a Politico-type online venture called Slugline, and she and her colleagues appear to be hot on Underwood’s trail relating to the murder of a congressman.

Refusing to share even the smallest detail of the new episodes (partly because she’s not allowed, but also because she hates spoilers), Mara promises the 13 episodes will be as “dramatic and dangerous and exciting as the first season, for sure.”

“I think Zoe’s really fun to play because she’s really strong and very ambitious, and yet has vulnerabilities that come out every once in a while,” Mara said. “So it’s nice to be able to play different sort of emotions as the series goes on.”