But the 30-year-old performer says she has no particular interest in journalism or political life. She's just acting the part under the tutelage of screenwriter Beau Willimon and director David Fincher.
"I'm not interested in politics or being a part of them," she said in a teleconference this week. "I definitely do my homework and make sure I know what's going on and am responsible enough to be able vote for people I respect and that kind of thing... But I really looked at this and playing a journalist as I would any other job or character."
Most of what she knows about political journalism came from Willimon's script, she says.
"The script and the first episodes that I read were already very full and layered," Mara explains. "Zoe was already there on the page for me. And I didn't have a ton of questions about her, because Beau Willimon did such a great job of creating her. So, I just took it from there."
In terms of "bringing her to life," Mara says, "David Fincher helped a lot with that -- figuring out what she should look like and wear to work. We wanted to make her seem as real as possible. And she starts off not wearing any makeup in the office, really not caring about her looks. But we decided that anytime she goes to see Francis, Kevin Spacey's character, maybe she would put on a little bit more to try and look a little bit better. All of those little things that maybe people notice and maybe they don't, those things really help bring a character to life."
Let the record show that the consensus in the newsroom of the Baltimore Sun where the newspaper scenes in "House of Cards" were filmed is that Zoe Barnes does not dress or act like any young reporter anyone at the Sun has ever seen. But this isn't a documentary, and that break in verisimilitude does not in any serious way blunt the keen dramatic edge of this miniseries.
Mara does acknowledge that her character, who enters a sexual and professional relationship with a man she covers, Spacey's Francis Underwood, has some moral and professional issues. At the heart of the mini-series is the bargain between Barnes, the reporter, and Underwood, who uses her from his position as House Majority Whip to exact revenge on the President of the United States, who passed him over for secretary of state. As Barnes publishes the "scoops" Underwood feeds her, the young reporter's career soars.
"She's written as somebody who will do whatever it takes to achieve certain goals in her job," Mara says. "A lot of people like to judge her as sort of immoral -- or having a lack of morals. But as an actor, that was the really fun stuff to play -- playing somebody who would do things that most people wouldn't. And basically she has a lot of balls to just sort of show up at this guy's [Underwood's] house and strike a deal with him. She's with a lot of older men and trying to play their game. The power struggle and all of that is what I was really attracted me."
Mara's character is a complicated one -- no doubt about it. On the one hand, she is smart, hard-working and ambitious -- all good things especially in the world of journalism.
On the other hand, some might see her as borderline sociopath, as when she picks up the phone and demandingly says, "feed me," to Underwood. She says that because she's unhappy that he hasn't been giving her any more "scoops" -- the kind that get her on Page One, advance his agenda and destroy careers while compromising the integrity of the newspaper for which she works.
Trapping household insects under kitchen glasses and chatting with her dad while having sex with Underwood, a man surely as old as dad, are the stuff of which great psychiatric sessions are made. As they say on Twitter in the mini-series, Go, Zoe.
In the hands of a lesser actress, Barnes might be a tune out. But not with Mara. Time and again in "House of Cards," she holds her own in intimate and psychologically complicated scenes with Spacey, who brings a big, big skill set, as the popular expression now goes, to such moments on film.
Yet, despite her strong work in "House of Cards," so far, what's she gotten the most online notice for has been a revelation she shared on "Jimmy Kimmel Live" that in one of those bedroom scenes with Spacey she wore pasties that featured images of President Barack Obama.
As she explained it, the scene was filmed on election day, and she was trying to have a little fun by doing something that might crack Spacey up during his close-up.
On her first try, the pasties featured Spacey's face. No reaction from the veteran actor.
On her second try, Obama's visage.
She attributes it to Spacey's "amazing" focus and "professionalism."
Of course, she was asked about the pasties during the teleconference.
"I don't really tend to think about that kind of thing," she said. "That just sort of happened because of the obvious -- we were shooting it on election day and it's awkward enough having to do a scene like that. So. that just sort of happened randomly."