First published on 26 Jun 2013. Updated on 26 Jun 2013.
It's been one of the most talked about shows of the year in the US – the story of a ruthless congressman played by Kevin Spacey, written by Beau Willimon (who adapted his acclaimed play Farragut North for the George Clooney flick The Ides of March) and presented by David Fincher. And this month it comes to DVD just in time for some cold weekend DVD binges. We caught up with star Kevin Spacey to talk about how the project came to be and whether he'd ever consider going into politics himself.
Kevin, how did you get involved with the project?
David Fincher and I have worked together a number of times in the past. I acted for him in Seven, and then I co-produced The Social Network. And it was on the set of The Social Network that we started talking about wanting to again work together as actor and director. The idea of House of Cards had been floated to David and he then watched the original mini-series. I actually remembered the original series, my mother loved it, and I thought it was brilliant. So I watched it again after David and I first spoke about it, and I thought it would adapt quite well to the United States – as its setting. It was a strange happenstance that I was about to begin playing Richard the Third at the Old Vic, which the character in House of Cards was largely based on.
The series – in both the original British version and now our version – uses Shakespeare’s direct address from Richard III, where the main character speaks directly to the audience. Beau Willimon (writer and executive producer) and I think this is a really rich and effective way to bring an audience even closer to the material. It’s quite fun and different, the direct address, and I’ve only seen it done a few times – Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, being my favorite.
So we started to talk about the show and develop it, and then Beau wrote the first script and we all thought that script was a pretty good launching pad. We then went out to all the networks and Netflix outbid everybody. So here we are with 26 episodes.
Were you familiar with Beau Willimon’s previous work?
Yeah, I was. I knew his play Farragut North, and I also knew his film The Ides of March, which he adapted from that play. For me, because I’m a man of the theatre, it’s awfully great to have a playwright, because there is a built-in understanding of structure and arc, and how writing can be quite powerful when it continues to move forward. If you go back and look at some of the great plays and how they’re structured, you will see a writer who has taken great care to build the dramatic blocks in just that right order that will draw an audience in. It works with drama and it also works with comedy, and I am very pleased that there is a surprising amount of humor in our show.
Was Beau available while you were shooting?
Yeah, every day. Beau and I have a really great relationship, and it’s been a really satisfying working style too.
The show as a whole feels very cinematic.
That’s all Fincher. He knows what he wants and he knows where to push you; he knows where to put you and he knows where you are. I’m one of those people who, if they’re lucky – and I have been, more often than not – willingly put themselves in the hands of a great director and just trust them and do what they want you to do.
How has it been working with Robin Wright, who plays Claire, your wife?
I’ve known Robin for 20 years. We worked together in a film called Hurly Burly. We trust each other and we’re friends, so that has been really comfortable and easy. It’s a great feeling to know that I can just look across the room and have a real sense of what Robin is thinking, and she can do the same with me. I think that in terms of story, our relationship is going to expand and get more complicated, and Robin’s character will prove to be a very formidable lady Macbeth, which is quite different from the original BBC series. I think with our show we really improved on that role.
Have you found yourself drawn to American politics more after playing on such a politically driven show?
When we were shooting we were in an election cycle, and I would go home and turn on the TV and watch the latest political news and think: Well, our storylines aren’t that crazy! One of the reasons I think that Francis is such an interesting character to play is because he gets things done – he might well be diabolical – but he’s effective. We’ve just come out of a congress that is the least productive congress in the history of the United States. They passed fewer bills than any congress ever. People sometimes ask me if I would ever consider running for a political position, and the answer is no. Because I like to get things done. And I think being in politics would be incredibly frustrating.
Have you done anything to prepare for the role of Francis Underwood?
I was very privileged to sit down with Kevin McCarthy, the current Republican Majority Whip in the House of Representatives. He let me tag along to some meetings, and it was very interesting to see what it was actually like to corral 218 congressmen every day, with many of them being freshman congressmen. I also spent some time with Steny Hoyer, the Democratic Minority Whip. Both men were very generous with their time.
What do you think the appeal will be for international audiences?
I don’t think there’s any doubt that people around the world are fascinated with American politics. America often has an opportunity to lead politically, and I think there will be a great interest in our show. You can see it now with the complexities and darkness that exist in shows like Homeland or Game Change. These are all very powerful, very complex shows that try to get to the underbelly of what is going on rather than the idealised version.
House of Cards is out on DVD and Blu-ray Thu Jun 27.