Kate Mara’s Obsession : Coal Miner’s Daughter

Insight Online News

By Cody Delistraty

In our new monthly column, Obsessions, WSJ. speaks to luminaries across film and TV, music, fashion, business, architecture, sports and beyond about the work of art that has been fundamental in shaping their life and success.

Certain artworks obsess us. For actor Kate Mara that work of art is the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter. The film—a 1980 biopic that tells the story of Loretta Lynn, the country music star born into an impoverished coal-mining family in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky—has been central to Mara’s sense of her family’s history. “My mom raised us on old musicals,” says Mara, 37. “It wasn’t the first movie musical [biopic] she showed us, because it’s a little bit more mature than others, but she showed it to me, telling me, ‘You’re a great-great granddaughter of a coal miner.’”

Since those early-20th-century coal-mining days, Mara’s family had its own rags-to-riches triumph: Her mother’s side of the family founded the Pittsburgh Steelers football team, and her father’s side established the New York Giants, franchises valued this year at roughly $3 billion and $4.3 billion respectively. “If people know about our family history at all, they don’t usually go as far back as before there were football teams involved,” she says. “But it’s really not that long ago that my family was working their asses off.”

Lynn, as portrayed by Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner’s Daughter, lived a pauper-to-prince story with the real-life edges of physical abuse, her father’s death from black-lung disease and marital rape (at the hands of her husband, Doolittle “Doo” Lynn, played by Tommy Lee Jones) softened, helping the film earn its PG rating. The plot helps propel a core fundamental American myth: the possibility of extreme upward mobility.

It unfolds like a parable, beginning in the pennliness idyll of Butcher Hollow and nearing its end in what appears to be the heaven of nationwide wealth and fame until Lynn suffers a nervous breakdown onstage. Throughout, Lynn is depicted as having little agency over her life. Her ascent is relatively clean and polished. She marries Doo when she’s 15 (though 13 in the movie) and he’s 21. He takes her to Washington State, where she’s expected to clean the house and raise their children. Sensing her boredom, Doo buys her a guitar, prodding her to teach herself and paying for her to record a song, which becomes an overnight sensation, catapulting her to country music renown.

But Lynn also had to push through major challenges: She struggled in her marriage, and her close friend, singer Patsy Cline, died young in an airplane accident. “She was against much more odds than I was,” Mara says. “I grew up in a very lovely, very privileged area in the country, but I clung to the fact that she was this country girl like me, even though Bedford, New York, is not the same as Kentucky.”

With a forward-racing narrative that takes Lynn from a backwater to the Grand Ole Opry without lingering on life’s roadblocks, Coal Miner’s Daughter has a myth-like quality. For Mara, this contributes to its draw. It’s familiar. “You feel like you’ve seen it before,” Mara says. While it provides hope to those who come from little, tales of class ascent also lend comfort to those who come from privilege, absolving them of fortune’s burden.

Mara, speaking from her home in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband, actor Jamie Bell, and their children, looked to the movie’s depiction of Lynn’s improbable rise to fame as motivation for her own acting career.

There were challenges, Mara remembers, on her path from an industry no-name to acting prominence. Her younger sister, Rooney, later took after her. “It wasn’t something that was a normal route to take in my family,” Mara says. “We didn’t have the resources to call somebody and say, ‘Let’s make this happen.’ My mom asked a friend of a friend for the address of a manager—we weren’t emailing then—so I was literally sending in the mail cassette tapes of me singing a jingle and a headshot.”

One of the earliest and most significant professional rejections of Mara’s life came when she was 13 and in the final rounds of auditioning to play the mischievous Louisa von Trapp in The Sound of Music on Broadway. She ultimately wasn’t cast because she was 5 foot 2, about an inch too tall, according to the show’s producers, she says. “I was so devastated, and every night, I would just pray, ‘Please don’t let me grow anymore,’” she says. “The ironic thing is that I’m the same height now; it was very upsetting that I was so close to my dream.”

The story of Lynn’s life, as presented in Coal Miner’s Daughter, ultimately gave Mara the mental strength for success. Sydney Pollack later cast her in one of her earliest films, Random Hearts; Ang Lee selected her for Brokeback Mountain and Ridley Scott for The Martian. “I thought if someone can handle coming from literally nothing—and I’m much luckier than [Lynn] was—that gave me a little bit of fire and reminded me that while you’re going to hear a lot of noes,” says Mara, whose family dynasty ranks among the American elite, “if you believe, and you work your ass off, eventually, it will happen.”


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