Kate Mara has brought backup to her hotel suite as she promotes her new war hero film, Megan Leavey. “This is Lucious. He’s 14,” she says of her Boston terrier. “And that’s Bruno, and he’s 15. They’re almost deaf. I thought this was the appropriate press day to have my dogs with me.” (FWIW, I totally agree as Bruno mistakes me for a popsicle throughout our interview.)
Megan Leavey tells the true story of a young marine corporal (Mara) whose bond with her military combat dog, Rex, saved lives during their deployment in Iraq. The real Leavey and Rex completed more than 100 missions until an IED explosion injured them, putting their fate in jeopardy, and also creating a bond that Leavey vowed would never be broken.
The film is a passion project for Mara, who says doing the film made her love her own dogs that much more. “You can relate or be inspired by her story no matter what you’ve experienced if you’ve ever loved something or someone and wanted to fight for them or it, whether it’s a cause or an animal or a loved one,” she says. “Eventually in your life you will have that feeling of ‘I’ve got to do what’s right and protect this thing.’ And that’s what I find inspiring about this story. It’s never give up on something that you love and know needs protecting and know is right.”
But creating a bond with the dog that plays Rex in the film wasn’t as easy as one might think. Here, Mara opens up about why she worked hard to keep it a professional relationship, and what surprised her most about her canine companion.
Glamour: Why was it so important for you to see Megan’s story told on the big screen?
Kate Mara: When I was sent this script, I was so surprised that I hadn’t heard the story before, but I was also surprised that it hadn’t been told yet. I was just so excited that I could be the one to tell it. It’s rare you see a movie about a female marine, and add into it the canine unit as well, and it’s not something that is talked about that often in films.
Glamour: The real Megan Leavey has a cameo in the film. How are you two alike?
Kate: As soon as we met, we felt that we spoke the same language. We’re both from New York, we’re both girly, but tomboys. We’re both sports fanatics. She’s a Yankees fan. I’m a massive Giants fan. There was this soul connection that we felt when we met each other. I felt like I knew her forever.
Glamour: Aside from the combat scenes in the film, Megan has the fight of her life emotionally when she tries to get her military dog, Rex, back after her deployment. How did you relate to her fight and that struggle?
Kate: The animal thing was an easy connection because I feel very passionate about animal activism and for a few years have been working hard on trying to protect different causes. I feel like it’s our moral obligation to protect those that can’t protect themselves, including dogs [and other animals].
Glamour: What did you learn about military dogs from making the film?
Kate: I really didn’t know much about the K-9 unit at all, so it was all a learning experience. I think that the level of respect that we have to have for these animals because they’re not choosing to do this. And yet their lives are on the line and they’re saving thousands of lives all the time. They should be taken care of when they come home, as should all the human beings. The dogs are veterans [too].
Glamour: In the movie, Rex is attached to you physically. Like literally attached to your body and gear with a leash.
Kate: Oh yeah, and you’re the first person that has mentioned that. It wasn’t an easy thing. It’s scary. It doesn’t happen anymore, and I don’t know what made them decide not to. Obviously, rules have changed since Megan was in the marine corp, but maybe they realized it was more dangerous. There was a time when I was attached to the dog, and I [ended up being OK], but he went running and took me off my feet!
Glamour: And you’re a tiny person!
Kate: Yeah, I was dragged a couple feet. I was fine because I had all my gear on which protects you, but it was scary. He weighs as much as me. That is almost the scariest part of being in combat—knowing that you’re attached not just mentally attached to each other, but physically attached to each other. It’s crazy!
Glamour: How difficult was it for you to leave this film when it was completed? Because you had been with this companion for months on end.
Kate: I think by the end we were all so emotionally drained from the experience because it’s such an emotional film and physical, and we had a…this is going to sound so silly, but [the dog and I] had a very professional relationship. I didn’t like cuddle him between takes. We were trained to be partners. I think in different kinds of films with animals, the trainer wants you to take the dog with you to your trailer so you guys are used to each other and the dog is comfortable with you. This was different because it was very specific, like we are going to go hunting for the IEDs, and I’m in control. There wasn’t this cuddly thing.
Glamour: That’s so fascinating.
Kate: It was an interesting relationship, but that said, I became very attached to him and sort of had this moment of realization where he could sense my feelings. A couple weeks into filming we were doing this scene with fake explosives—which are still loud and scary—and I was nervous. He was attached to me, and there’s a saying in the film and in life, “It all goes down leash.” So if you’re feeling excited, the dog will feel it. I hadn’t experienced that until that moment, and I was just sort of squatting in the corner with him ready to go, and like I said, we didn’t have this super affectionate relationship. He just all the sudden moved closer to me and put his head on my arm, and I looked at him and thought, “Oh my gosh, he knows that I’m feeling anxious or nervous.” I instantly felt that he had my back, that I’m safe, and we’re there for each other. And then I thought, “And here I’m just making a movie! Can you imagine what that feels like [in reality]?” So I got to experience that. There’s another scene where I’m just sitting there crying next to him, and he just started licking my tears. We were all just like, “Whoa. This dog is so sensitive and in tune.” I wasn’t even making noise, but he saw what was happening.
Glamour: You have two dogs. How do your pets add to your life?
Kate: Well, they’re constantly testing my patience because that one over there only wants me to be paying attention to him at all times. If I take my computer out he’ll stand on the computer and look at me like, what are you doing? I’m constantly being reminded to be patient because I chose to have them. You have to give them love at all times. I’m a strong believer in if you can’t take care of an animal, then you shouldn’t be flippantly getting one. If you’re working, you have to be able to take them with you or have someone take care of them. It’s a lot of work.
Glamour: What do you hope people take away from the film when they leave the theater?
Kate: I think it’s a great lesson of never give up. [Megan] didn’t give up, and she succeeded in spending Rex’s last days with him in a loving environment. It’s a good lesson for everyone: Fight for something you believe in.
Glamour: Is there anything you’re happy you didn’t ever give up on?
Kate: My sister Rooney and I went with the Humane Society two years ago to visit these chimps in Liberia who were basically abandoned by the New York Blood Center after years of being put through animal testing. They were injected with all kinds of diseases for our human benefit, and then after saying that they would take care of them for the rest of their lives, they kind of left them there. When we heard about this, we immediately had to go and see what this was like and see what the Humane Society was doing to help them. We’ve been fighting for that ever since to get them to reinstate funding ’cause it’s basically like abandoning a bunch of babies on an island and saying you can figure it out and you’ll be fine. To this day, my sister and I are working with them and trying to get them to do the right thing and get people’s help. [Ed. note: Days after this interview, the Humane Society announced a multi-million-dollar agreement with the New York Blood Center (NYBC) concerning more than 60 chimpanzees formerly used by the NYBC in medical experiments in Liberia. The New York-based medical charity has committed $6 million to the Humane Society to help with the decades-long task of providing long-term care for the animals.] Click here for more info.
Megan Leavey is in theaters now.