Is truth stranger than fiction? House of Cards’ cast reflect on today’s political climate
At the front of an exact replica of the White House’s James S Brady press briefing room, Michael Kelly, who plays the impassive, brutal political enforcer Doug Stamper on OSN Series First HD’s House of Cards, sits with his hands on the back of his head, and sighs as he considers the reality of a Donald Trump presidency.
“You can’t believe what’s happening in our country right now,” Kelly says. “There’s this sense that things have got so absurd in our own political system, that suddenly [House of Cards] isn’t so crazy anymore. If we created that character of Donald Trump, people would be like: ‘Come on, there’s no way that guy exists.’”
In a match-up between Kevin Spacey’s malevolent but ruthlessly competent president, South Carolinan Frank Underwood, and the brash, real-life New Yorker, Kelly says he would rather Underwood had been sworn in.
This is despite the conspiracies, misdeeds and murders of President Underwood. Kelly says that Underwood believes in “bad for the greater good. Frank believes that he is doing what this country wants and needs him to do.”
Fiction has struggled to keep up with fact as the norm-busting Trump shakes up the Washington establishment and rattles the global diplomatic order.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who plays sometime president Selina Meyer on nihilistic satire Veep, said on winning an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series last year that her show “started out as political satire but ... now feels like a sobering documentary”.
But on House of Cards, in which the President of the United States had committed multiple homicides before the end of the second season, the show’s writers aren’t keen to draw too heavily from day-to-day politics.
“We’ve never been a tear-from-the-headlines show,” Kelly says.
Spacey, imperious and indomitable on screen as Underwood, says: “Every season ... we’re determined to create as much drama as we can, to invent situations that convince our audience, that the impossible can become possible.”
He pauses, and with immaculate timing, deadpans: “They’re not making it easy for us.”
“I am acting the role of the president,” he says, very precisely. But “there are some days where it’s hard to tell who is a real politician and who is just playing one on television. We have a crazy meter in terms of what we believe we can get away with on the show, and that definitely seems to have widened.”
Spacey says the writers aim to repeatedly subvert the audience’s expectations. “It’s no different when you go and see a play, and you’re sitting there in a theatre, and you didn’t see it coming. And if you did see it coming, you didn’t see it coming in the way that it came,” he says.
“That’s what drama is: it’s about taking all those expectations and then spinning them. And not doing what you think we’re gonna do. Not going where you think we’re gonna go. That’s a very exciting way to go to work.”
Despite the dark deeds marking Underwood’s ascent to power, Spacey doesn’t see him as a bad guy. “I can’t judge the characters that I play,” he says. “You can’t play villainy – it’s an idea.”
Spacey took a production of Richard III on tour before beginning House of Cards. In it, he previewed the direct-to-camera addresses that are a hallmark of Underwood’s political career (originally seen in the 1990s British political drama of the same name, on which House of Cards is based). “You would look in the audiences’ eyes in every city we went to” – he stares directly into my eyes – “and you would see that they were excited to be included. They felt like co-conspirators, and they felt implicated, and it was kind of cool, and I was telling them all this stuff that I was gonna do.
“And right up to the point where he kills the kids – they were with him.”
“It’s a very interesting thing when you ask an audience to continually reassess their own moral compass about how they feel about a character,” Spacey says. “Can you both root for a character and be terrified by a character? Can you both want a character to win and can’t believe the things they’ll do to win. That is a very interesting line to get a chance to walk.”
Could House of Cards ever go too far with its murderous president? Spacey isn’t worried. “As long as we stay true to the character we’ve developed, there is something that the audience really dig about that push-pull, being pulled towards and pushed away from it at the same time,” he says.
Spacey won’t be drawn on the fate of the characters in Season 5. He laughs off supposed plot leaks. “I find it very amusing, every year, somewhere around the fall, these stories start popping up, Claire and Frank to adopt baby. Stamper to be killed in train wreck. I’m being killed off this season apparently.”
“I can only say this,” he says, before leaning heavily into his lowest, most sinister Keyser Söze from The Usual Suspects register. “Everyone on this show gets what they deserve.”
He corrects himself, quietly: “We killed karma off.”
• House of Cards season 5 premieres on OSN Series First HD on May 31 at 11pm