Re­al­ity trumps Cards

Finds out why the House of Cards cast thought their lat­est sea­son might be too tame.

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It seems al­most quaint now. When House of Cards de­buted in 2013 as Net­flix’s first gen­uine block­buster se­ries, Wash­ing­ton DC was a very dif­fer­ent place.

The se­ries de­picted a United States cap­i­tal brim­ming with deeply cyn­i­cal, highly cor­rupt­ible in­sid­ers who were fun­da­men­tally ma­nip­u­lated to even­tu­ally hand the pres­i­dency to a ruth­lessly am­bi­tious South Carolina Con­gress­man named Fran­cis Un­der­wood.

It was, its pro­tag­o­nists in­sisted, con­ceived as a cau­tion­ary tale. Yet as Net­flix be­gins air­ing the fifth House of Cards sea­son this week, the ar­du­ous spi­ral of chaos and tu­mult swirling around the re­al­life White House hangs omi­nously over the se­ries.

Michael Kelly, who plays the ruth­less, ir­re­press­ible White House chief Doug Stam­per, says the sense of fore­bod­ing within the cast fo­mented as film­ing for the sea­son co­in­cided with the cli­max of Pres­i­dent Donald Trump’s sur­real rise to power.

‘‘There was a sense we might not be the crazy DC story. Or that we could feel tame with what’s cur­rently hap­pen­ing.’’

Kelly pauses for a mo­ment and smiles widely.

‘‘But we’re a tele­vi­sion show and we’re never tame. Hope­fully we will never see any­thing like what’s hap­pen­ing in our coun­try again. But if any­thing, we’re a show you can turn on and fall into. You can pour a glass of wine and say ‘this is make-be­lieve’.’’

Sea­son five be­gins in rou­tinely the­atri­cal fash­ion with Kevin Spacey’s Pres­i­dent Fran­cis Un­der­wood two weeks away from his own elec­tion and bel­liger­ently ad­dress­ing a hos­tile Congress.

The schemes of Fran­cis and his Vice Pres­i­dent-elect wife Claire (played with a sim­i­larly po­tent cal­lous­ness by Robin Wright) re­main the show’s key nar­ra­tive arc.

Still, House of Cards also works as an elab­o­rate en­sem­ble piece. And much of this sea­son is but­tressed by Stam­per and Neve Camp­bell’s char­ac­ter LeAnn Har­vey (Claire Un­der­wood’s top aide and Stam­per’s bud­ding fren­emy).

Stam­per is one of the most com­pelling – and con­flict­ing – char­ac­ters on tele­vi­sion. In the grand tra­di­tion of ‘‘Pres­tige TV’’, he has com­mit­ted a slew of seemingly un­for­giv­able acts (the mur­der of a young woman, the ma­nip­u­la­tion of an or­gan donor list) but re­mains an unas­sail­able fan favourite.

In per­son, the 47-year-old vet­eran ac­tor is charm­ing com­pany, coyly nurs­ing a Bloody Mary to as­suage a hang­over from a pre­vi­ous night’s drink­ing.

Much of what drives Doug Stam­per is ad­dic­tion – an ad­dic­tion to Fran­cis Un­der­wood, an ad­dic­tion to drink­ing, and an ad­dic­tion to Rachel, the young woman he even­tu­ally felt du­ty­bound to ex­e­cute.

‘‘Rachel aside, Doug doesn’t see any­thing wrong with what he is do­ing,’’ Kelly says. ‘‘He knows what has to hap­pen to get things done. Doug has an ad­dic­tion to what he does for a liv­ing. He loves the power, be­ing in the game. He is loyal to Fran­cis, and thinks he’s the right per­son to lead the coun­try. But with Rachel he was very wrong and that haunts him.’’

Stam­per cer­tainly en­dured a tur­bu­lent time in early sea­sons. As Fran­cis be­gan his rise to the vice pres­i­dency and even­tu­ally the top job, he al­most be­came collateral dam­age. Many fans ini­tially as­sumed he was out af­ter he en­dured a har­row­ing brain in­jury at the end of sea­son two.

Sea­son three, then, was as much the story of Stam­per’s re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion as it was Un­der­wood’s as­cent. He suc­cumbed to pain med­i­ca­tion, al­co­hol and iso­la­tion be­fore even­tu­ally clam­ber­ing back to Fran­cis’ side.

‘‘Doug never doubted he’d be back,’’ Kelly says. ‘‘It was just … how.’’

Once back in the in­ner cir­cle, Doug had to bat­tle with Seth Grayson, the in­ter­nal op­er­a­tive deftly played by Derek Ce­cil.

‘‘He was a huge threat,’’ Kelly says. ‘‘I think back to the scenes at Frank’s back­yard be­fore he was pres­i­dent and I re­mem­ber even me as an ac­tor be­ing threat­ened by Derek and his pres­ence. It’s funny how you can think like that.’’

Last sea­son the feud hit an outrageous cli­max – al­though the two do even­tu­ally joust again this sea­son – when Doug essen­tially wa­ter­boarded Seth us­ing a glass and some ice.

‘‘Derek and I didn’t see eye-to­eye on that scene in gen­eral,’’ Kelly says. ‘‘He didn’t think Doug could do that based on our size dif­fer­ences. But it’s Stam­per. I couldn’t, but Stam­per could kick your ass and sure as hell pin you to the ground. Once we got in there with the stunt peo­ple, we caught him by sur­prise and took him down. But even then he had bruises the next day. He wasn’t happy. But we’re friends and we got through it.’’

One dis­tin­guish­ing trait of ‘‘Pres­tige TV’’ is the ad­vent of the showrun­ner. So the cast were ini­tially cir­cum­spect when HOC parted with showrun­ner and cre­ator Beau Wil­limon last year.

‘‘I’ll be hon­est: I cried when I found out,’’ Kelly said. ‘‘He’s my friend. I talked to him the night it hap­pened. I was dev­as­tated. I was wor­ried what peo­ple might think. I can’t imag­ine what he went through. It’s tough all the way around.’’

Even­tu­ally Wil­limon was re­placed by staff writ­ers Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese.

‘‘They did the right thing,’’ Kelly says. ‘‘Frank and Melissa knew the voices and the di­rec­tion Beau had in­tended the show to go.’’

Kelly re­sides in Man­hat­tan and re­tains a mod­est apart­ment in Bal­ti­more for the six months of the year House of Cards is film­ing. He uses the three-hour drive to re­hearse lines and slowly be­come Doug Stam­per.

‘‘The drive helps me fall into it,’’ he says. ‘‘I’m not method. But my apart­ment is de­lib­er­ately min­i­mal­ist. I don’t live as Doug Stam­per. I go out, I have fun.’’

Some­what in­trigu­ingly, Kelly says he and the enig­matic Spacey rarely if ever spoke off-camera in film­ing the show’s first two sea­sons. Do they so­cialise now?

‘‘Ev­ery now and then,’’ he says, care­fully. ‘‘Kevin is a very pri­vate per­son. We get on well, but it took a cou­ple of years. We just didn’t talk a lot so­cially in those first two sea­sons. He had a lot go­ing on, that is a tough job what he does. But over the years we have started to talk a lit­tle more.’’

There were no such is­sues with Neve Camp­bell. Kelly swiftly be­came close friends with the for­mer Party of Five star.

‘‘For Doug, she was an ad­ver­sary and an equal,’’ he says. ‘‘He was chal­lenged by her and threat­ened by her. She cre­ated a lot of ob­sta­cles for him and they were a lot of fun to play.’’ He pauses for a beat.

‘‘It gets pretty crazy be­tween them this sea­son.’’

There are cer­tainly sev­eral pre­scient mo­ments in this sea­son’s early episodes. At times, Fran­cis Un­der­wood’s pub­lic blus­ter and pol­icy stances are pos­i­tively Trumpian.

In one key scene Fran­cis jus­ti­fies his pos­tur­ing: ‘‘What they want,’’ he says of his vot­ers, ‘‘is some­one to keep them from the things they are afraid to know.’’

‘‘That’s hap­pen­ing now,’’ Kelly says of the quote. ‘‘Peo­ple don’t want to see global warm­ing. They are fear­ful and want to keep their eyes closed and hope this will keep them safe.’’

Mean­while, al­though the show’s re­newal seems as­sured, Net­flix is yet to con­firm a sixth sea­son. - Fairfax

Sea­son 5 of House of Cards is stream­ing on Net­flix in New Zealand on Tues­day evenings.

Sea­son five of House of Cards be­gins in rou­tinely the­atri­cal fash­ion with Kevin Spacey’s Pres­i­dent Fran­cis Un­der­wood two weeks away from his own elec­tion and bel­liger­ently ad­dress­ing a hos­tile Congress.

On House of Cards, Michael Kelly plays the ruth­less, ir­re­press­ible White House chief Doug Stam­per.

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