KATE MARA never had to do any soul-searching about her career choices. The 24-year-old actress, who stars opposite Mark Wahlberg in the political thriller "Shooter," knew early on she wanted to be a performer.
"I feel so lucky," Mara said recently, relaxing in the overstuffed chair in her publicist's swank Pacific Design Center office. She had flown in from the Boston premiere of the movie the night before, but showed no signs of jet lag.
"I have so many friends who have no idea what they want to do. They are out of college and working, but not sure they are doing what they want to do, which is normal. I feel so blessed. I never wanted to do anything else."
Mara is a member of football royalty. She's the great-granddaughter of New York Giants founder Tim Mara and granddaughter of the team's longtime owner, Wellington Mara. Her father, Chris, is vice president of player evaluation. Her mother is the daughter of Pittsburgh Steelers founder Art Rooney.
As a little girl, Mara went to Broadway plays and musicals with her mother. She found herself drawn to watching old movie musicals on television, especially Judy Garland films. In grade school, she began performing and singing in school and community theater. And at 14, she asked her parents to find her an agent. "They wanted to help so much, but they said, 'Sorry, honey. We don't know what to do.' "
But the mother of one of Mara's girlfriends, who also performed in community theater, had the name and address of a management company. So Mara's mom sent in her photograph and the agent signed her.
"I remember telling the agent, 'I don't want to do anything but Broadway,' " Mara recalled. "She was like, 'That's not really possible because there is not that much Broadway. So I'll send you out on TV and stuff like that.' "
Mara altered her feelings about movies and television on her very first audition -- for the role of a young rape victim on "Homicide: Life on the Street." She didn't get the part, but she got the bug: "From that audition right afterwards, I said, 'I don't care what I am doing. I just want to act.' "
Mara quickly began getting work in New York on such TV series as "Law & Order" and in films such as "Random Hearts" with Kristin Scott Thomas and Harrison Ford.
Her family, she said, has been supportive every step of the way, although her parents did press her to go to college. And she intended to, graduating from high school a year early and winning acceptance into the musical theater program at New York University. "But I happened to get a few jobs before I started school and told them, 'Why should I go to school to learn something I'm already doing?' I deferred three or four years and they realized I was going to be OK."
MARA said she's come to the point in her career where she can be selective about her projects. "I couldn't always choose," she said. "Eventually you get bored and you want to work. But I feel like I am past that now."
It was the small but pivotal role as Heath Ledger's loving daughter in "Brokeback Mountain," she said, that gave her career a boost. "People respect Ang Lee," she said. "The scenes I got to do, even though they were so short, they were so powerful. Having that [film] gave other people the chance to look at me twice."
Since "Brokeback," Mara was featured in a five-episode arc of "24" as a manipulative computer expert, in the Tim Allen family film "Zoom," and in the drama "We Are Marshall," about the ill-fated Marshall University football team.
As soon as she finished "Marshall," she went into "Shooter," which opens Friday. She plays a Kentucky widow coming to the aid of her late husband's Marine buddy (Wahlberg), who is on the lam after being accused of attempting to assassinate the president.
Director Antoine Fuqua ("Training Day") saw a lot of actresses for the role of Sarah. But Mara had him at "hello."
"She was very beautiful and sweet," Fuqua recalled of their first meeting. "This is weird to say about somebody, but she has this very angelic way about her. She has an incredible smile and a great confidence. You don't get that often where someone affects you immediately."
Fuqua set up a screen test between Mara and Wahlberg. "They did this scene when he first comes to her door and it was almost an instant connect," he said. "They fit in a very organic way. They joked around with each other. She would punch him in the arm. It was like this weird connection."
Mara, who recently returned from Lithuania, where she was shooting Brad Anderson's dark thriller "Transsiberian," has lived in Los Angeles for the last three years. But she pines for her very large family back home in New York-- her father was one of 11 children.
"We don't have family reunions because every other weekend or whenever we have a Giants game, we would all see each other," said Mara, who usually sings the national anthem at the season opener.
"That's why football is so important to me," she said. "It's my family."
One of her three siblings, younger sister Patricia, recently moved to Los Angeles and is temporarily living with Mara. "It's the best thing in the world," she said. "I am surprised I have lasted so long without any of them here."
She goes back to visit the clan as much as her schedule allows. "And I am looking forward one day to moving back there, because there's nothing like family."