HOUSE OF CARDS
Kevin Spacey reflects on the rise of both nefarious commander-in-chief Frank Underwood in House Of Cards, and its revolutionary creator, Netflix
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.
stepping up to Vice president in Season 2. David Fincher on set
with Corey Stoll’s Congressman russo
in Season 1.