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