LOS ANGELES -- A true story of a Marine's love for her military combat dog, "Megan Leavey" was catnip for Kate Mara.
"I was very moved and really inspired by her story and her journey. How she grows up and finds herself and her purpose in life," Mara, 34, said of Leavey, who joined the Marines in 2003 and was deployed in Iraq with Rex, her German shepherd combat K-9 partner.
Over two six-month tours in 2005-6, they discovered buried bombs and completed over 100 missions until both were seriously injured.
"As an actor, it's what you look for," said Mara, who is the same age as Leavey. "You look for somebody who has lots of different layers and goes on a real journey so that you can explore not just one moment but what they go through in the stages of their life."
Actor and subject met often. "I had a preconceived notion of what she might be like," Mara acknowledged.
"When you think 'Marine' you probably think of someone who is very tough.
"Yes, she's super tough -- because she made it out of hell. But she is such a warm, down-to-earth person. She was so willing to share!"
Mara knows the adage about never working with kids or animals, "but I cannot disagree more. Dogs and children typically are similar in that they're unpredictable, very honest and you have to be on your toes the whole time.
"I felt like it was a blessing with Varco (who plays Rex) in that you have to be ready for anything.
"Most of Varco's best takes were his doing things that weren't scripted at all, that I would just have to react to and figure out. Those are the most beautiful moments."
Mara hasn't yet seen her upcoming made-in-Boston "Chappaquiddick" movie. She plays Mary Jo Kopechne, the 28-year-old political worker who drowned when Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's car went off a small bridge on the island.
"I'm excited to see how they handle the story because it's obviously just such a tragic story. One of the reasons I signed on was that they would handle Mary Jo with the respect which she deserves.
"They show how she was very smart and part of the politics of the time when she works with Bobby Kennedy and then Ted."
("Megan Leavey" opens Friday.) ___
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