Kevin Spacey re­flects on the rise of both ne­far­i­ous com­man­der-in-chief Frank Un­der­wood in House Of Cards, and its rev­o­lu­tion­ary cre­ator, Net­flix

Empire (UK) - - CONTENTS - Words Olly Richards pho­tog­ra­phy MARCO GROB

We talk Net­flix revo­lu­tion with Pres­i­dent Evil (Kevin Spacey, we mean — Trump’s not get­ting in, right…?).

When you’re pre­pared to do any­thing to get there, it of­ten doesn’t take long to reach the top.

In 2013, at the open­ing of Net­flix’s hand­some po­lit­i­cal drama House Of Cards, Frank Un­der­wood was just a party whip, a politi­cian with his eye on the big­gest job in the world and a ruth­less plan for how to snatch it. Now, as the show be­gins its fourth sea­son, he is the Pres­i­dent of the United States, his path to power stained with the blood of enemies and friends alike. In three years Un­der­wood has gone from just one of the pack to snarling top dog.

It’s a rate of as­cen­sion echoed by the net­work that cre­ated him, although only one of them killed (in the mur­der­ous sense, at least) to get there. No­body could have imag­ined pre­cisely how fast and how ab­so­lutely Net­flix would change the way TV works. Well, ex­cept one per­son, the man who plays Frank Un­der­wood: Kevin Spacey.

“Oh, I be­lieved,” says Spacey. “I fully be­lieved [be­fore Sea­son 1 de­buted] that we would be mak­ing a fourth sea­son of House Of Cards. Some­where deeper down I be­lieved there would some­day be a fifth.”

Back in 2011, Net­flix’s DVD rental and stream­ing ser­vice had not even ex­panded be­yond the US and Canada (it would not launch in the UK un­til Jan­uary 2012), so it made a bold move when it an­nounced in March of that year that it would start pro­duc­ing its own projects, be­gin­ning with a re­make of the 1990 Bri­tish se­ries House Of Cards. The pos­si­bil­ity that its orig­i­nal pro­duc­tions would be­come its chief sell­ing point seemed un­likely, as was the idea that it would com­pete with tra­di­tional TV net­works like NBC or ABC.

Yet five years later, Net­flix has ap­prox­i­mately 75 mil­lion sub­scribers, pro­duces more than 40 orig­i­nal shows (not in­clud­ing one-off spe­cials) and has over 50 more in de­vel­op­ment. Or­ange Is The New Black, Dare­devil, Bet­ter Call Saul, Jessica Jones and The Un­break­able Kimmy Sch­midt are big hits, crit­i­cally and com­mer­cially. It has re­de­fined TV as much as HBO did dur­ing the ’90s, and many be­lieve it has now sur­passed them as the cur­rent gold stan­dard of TV. And it all started with House Of Cards.

“Well, I knew some­one

was go­ing to do it,” Spacey tells us. “It was go­ing to be Google or Ya­hoo! or Face­book… Some­body was go­ing to say, ‘We make gazil­lions of dol­lars as a por­tal for en­ter­tain­ment and if we want to com­pete and not al­low HBO to be the only game in town, then we’re go­ing to have to start do­ing orig­i­nal con­tent.’ It just made sense.”

House Of Cards was a con­fi­dent, ballsy state­ment of in­tent: that Net­flix would be aim­ing for smart, ex­pen­sive pro­gram­ming with big name-ta­lent (David Fincher di­rected the first two episodes, and is an ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer along with Spacey him­self ). It is well-writ­ten, grown-up TV that ex­pects view­ers all over the world to be able to keep up with the com­plex­ity and shift­ing moral­ity of US pol­i­tics, like an evil West Wing. It’s now such a beloved mod­ern clas­sic that it’s odd to think it was ever con­sid­ered a risky propo­si­tion.

Spacey, Fincher and showrun­ner Beau Wil­limon had pitched the show to other net­works, but there was one rea­son they went with Net­flix. “Ev­ery sin­gle net­work ex­cept Net­flix loved it but wanted us to shoot a pi­lot,” says Spacey. “Net­flix said, ‘We don’t need you to do a pi­lot, we’ve run our an­a­lyt­ics and peo­ple like your movies, peo­ple like David’s movies. How many do you want to do? And on top of that we’ll give you cre­ative free­dom.’ Which is what we wanted.”

It was a fi­nan­cial gamble, with the show re­port­edly cost­ing much more than the ini­tially pro­jected $4.5 mil­lion per episode. “There were a lot of peo­ple who thought we were nuts and thought Net­flix was nuts,” says Spacey. But the gamble paid off, with House Of Cards prov­ing a mas­sive suc­cess, draw­ing in a far greater num­ber of sub­scribers than any­body had ex­pected.

In the years since, both Un­der­wood and Net­flix have risen to the top of their re­spec­tive games, yet how long can ei­ther hold their po­si­tion un­chal­lenged?

In Sea­son 4, with no higher place to go than the Pres­i­dency, Un­der­wood is start­ing to founder. He’s lost the sup­port of the Amer­i­can peo­ple, the loy­alty of much of his party and, per­haps most im­por­tantly, he’s with­out his wife, Claire (Robin Wright), his part­ner in crime (of­ten lit­er­ally). Dur­ing the very fi­nal mo­ments of Sea­son 3, Claire fi­nally

snapped, march­ing both out of the White House and out of her mar­riage.

Spacey in­sists that re­la­tion­ship has al­ways been at the very heart of House Of Cards. “It’s so in­ter­est­ing to ex­am­ine these two fig­ures, who have been ex­tremely suc­cess­ful work­ing in the dark shad­ows and al­leys, who sud­denly found them­selves in the hottest, whitest spot­light they could be in, and no longer func­tion­ing in the way they did,” he says. “What we were in­ter­ested in ex­am­in­ing was how does that pres­sure in­flu­ence both the way they go about do­ing what they do and their re­la­tion­ship? Where that will lead?”

Sea­son 4 will see Frank con­tin­u­ing his cam­paign for a sec­ond term as Pres­i­dent, with­out his wife but with his right-hand man, Doug Stam­per (Michael Kelly), back at his side. In a sense, Frank is where we first found him, try­ing to lie and cheat his way into peo­ple’s trust, ex­cept this time he’s al­ready got the job he wanted and his fight is to keep it.

As for Net­flix, such is the speed of its suc­cess that oth­ers have come along and imi­tated. Ama­zon has leapt into cre­at­ing its own con­tent, de­liv­ered on its Prime ser­vice. It doesn’t have the same quan­tity of se­ries as Net­flix, but it has the qual­ity. At last year’s Emmy Awards, Ama­zon took home five prizes to Net­flix’s four, all for the com­edy Trans­par­ent. It won two Golden Globes, too, for Mozart In The Jun­gle. Net­flix won none.

Yet awards don’t count for nearly as much as view­ing fig­ures. Although it’s hard to cal­cu­late the num­ber of sub­scribers to Ama­zon’s video ser­vice (Ama­zon Prime has around 50 mil­lion sub­scribers, but Prime mem­ber­ship is chiefly sold on the prom­ise of free postage on Ama­zon pur­chases, so shop­pers aren’t nec­es­sar­ily watch­ers), Ama­zon is one of the wealth­i­est com­pa­nies in the world, so has the funds to match Net­flix’s out­put. Oth­ers are test­ing the wa­ters, too, with mixed suc­cess. Ya­hoo! cre­ated a sixth sea­son of the com­edy Com­mu­nity, for­merly on NBC, for its Ya­hoo! Screen ser­vice, although Ya­hoo! Screen was shut down in Jan­uary. Ev­ery bat­tle has ca­su­al­ties, but this one isn’t over.

Net­flix will cer­tainly

have its fig­ure­head for a while longer. A fifth sea­son of House Of Cards has been con­firmed (though with­out Wil­limon as showrun­ner), mak­ing Frank Un­der­wood by far the long­est-run­ning role of Spacey’s ca­reer, in­clud­ing stage work.

“Why wouldn’t I want to do some­thing that’s in­cred­i­ble to do?” he asks. “What am I sup­posed to be do­ing, some­thing else? I love the fact that I get to come to work and dis­cover stuff about this char­ac­ter I didn’t know. I some­times hear peo­ple talk about, ‘Oh, I know ev­ery­thing about my char­ac­ter and I know ex­actly what my char­ac­ter would do,’ and I thank God that I don’t feel that way.” And can he see him­self play­ing Frank in­def­i­nitely?

“Well, not in­def­i­nitely,” he sighs, a lit­tle ir­ri­tated by the ques­tion. “There will come a time when we will make the de­ci­sion that this will come to an end, but I can’t tell you how long that is… You’re ask­ing me to spec­u­late so you can say, ‘Kevin Spacey says Sea­son 5’s the end.’ I have no idea. It could be Sea­son 5, Sea­son 6, Sea­son 7. I can’t give you that head­line.”

That early gamble on Net­flix’s fu­ture has put Spacey at the van­guard of this par­tic­u­lar growth in­dus­try. He says he lacks the time to watch much TV but ad­mires Or­ange Is The New Black and Nar­cos. As one of the first peo­ple to recog­nise the stream­ing revo­lu­tion, what does Spacey think will be the next revo­lu­tion in sto­ry­telling?

“Aug­mented re­al­ity and [vir­tual re­al­ity],” he says, dead­pan, like he’s sug­gested we’ll soon be watch­ing TV via chips in our heads from our hover loungers. “I am com­pletely se­ri­ous,” he con­firms. “I’ve seen the fu­ture and it’s awe­some. I’m very in­volved in the VR world, so I be­lieve in it, and I think aug­mented re­al­ity is the fu­ture and we will see over the next four or five years what a dy­namic place that will be for sto­ry­telling, en­ter­tain­ment, sports...”

He’s backed the right horse once. You may want to go and buy some shares in AR right now.

House of Cards Sea­son 4 is on net­flix from march 4.

“I love the fact that I get to come to work and dis­cover stuff about this char­ac­ter.”

Kevin Spacey as Frank Un­der­wood, cam­paign­ing for a sec­ond term as US pres­i­dent in Sea­son 4. Un­der­wood fi­nally makes it into the Oval Of­fice in Sea­son 3. play­ing the hon­est Con­gress­man with wife Claire (robin Wright, right) and right-hand man Doug Stam­per (Michael Kelly, far right) in Sea­son 1.

Spacey’s Un­der­wood

step­ping up to Vice pres­i­dent in Sea­son 2. David Fincher on set

with Corey Stoll’s Con­gress­man russo

in Sea­son 1.

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