Creator of Netflix’s political drama talks with EmmyWrap about flexible morality and characters that gain power from thinking outside of the box
This story originally appeared in EmmyWrap: Comedy/Drama/Actors
Beau Willimon is determined not to pin down Francis Underwood, the lead character of “House of Cards.” No, the show’s creator said, Francis isn’t based on any real politicians. He’s not interested in calling him good or bad. And Willimon took issue when we asked why he decided to make Francis bisexual.
“That’s your word,” he told TheWrap, as he snuck in a coffee, salad and interview during a break in writing Season 3 of the Netflix drama. “I don’t think Francis has much patience or interest in labels, in the way of codifying behavior, the periodic table of human experiences, one that is an attempt to delineate, to find easy meaning, to classify. And I don’t think he sees his own sexuality that way, or anyone else’s for that matter. I think he’s attracted to things, to people and ideas, and pursues everything that he’s attracted to.”
Willimon, like Kevin’s Spacey’s Underwood, has a gift for speaking calmly and eloquently in long stretches. Even half-formed questions are met with thoughtful soliloquys, all of which arrive at the same point: Don’t try to simplify Francis. Or anyone else.
Sure, Francis had sex with his wife and their Secret Service agent in Season 2. But he’s about as likely to self-identify on a sexual spectrum as he is to call himself immoral for killing a couple of people. He’s flexible sexually, morally and especially politically.
“There’s a certain impulse on Francis’s part, whether in sexuality or politics or anything for that matter, not to limit himself to conventional ways of thinking,” Willimon said. “Part of his power comes from his imagination, from thinking outside the box. And not relegating thoughts into well-worn groups.”
Willimon has led his writers to construct an alternate-reality United States that, like the real one, is plagued by power grabs, political division and exploitation of all kinds. Sometimes people are punished for the harm they do to others. Sometimes they rise to positions of power.
The show doesn’t make judgments, and voters seem to appreciate it: The show won three Emmys in its first season, including one for director David Fincher, and was nominated for six more.
By the way: Don’t try to simplify Beau Willimon, either. Because he’s worked for Democratic politicians like Charles Schumer, Hillary Clinton, Bill Bradley and Howard Dean, it’s easy to assume “House of Cards” was inspired by his campaign stories. It wasn’t. Willimon only joined his first campaign because his best friend, political strategist Jay Carson, invited him to.
“I was writing before, and during and after,” he said. “Politics was never a career for me. I was very low-level. I volunteered or worked as low-level staff on a few campaigns. It was addictive, fun, great people, and we won, which makes you want to come back for more.
“But none of those times was I ever really contemplating a career in politics. In fact when I went to work for Dean in Iowa in ’04, I had just finished three years of graduate school for playwriting. That was my vocation, that was my career. And [politics] was something I did on the side, mostly because I wanted these people to get elected. I thought it would make the country better. I didn’t do it because I was researching a play or a movie.” (Carson now works as a consultant on “House of Cards.”)
A Navy kid who shuffled across the country before his family settled for a while in St. Louis, Willimon looks like a grown-up College Democrat, and like the Brooklyn writer he is. He dresses in the successful creative-dude uniform, a worn-in sport coat and T-shirt, and on the day we met had fat reddish sideburns Wolverine would begrudgingly respect. He spends part of the year in New York, working out of the show’s Tribeca writers’ room, then moves to Baltimore when “House of Cards” is shooting.
Sober for 13 years, he also rejects the imaginary link between drinking and great writing. “It’s bullshit,” he said. “No great writer’s ever done well when they were in the depths of their drunkenness. It’s always hurt their work.”
Another enemy of great writing? Oversimplification. It’s why he also dislikes queries about whether Francis and Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) are evil. What’s more important is whether we care about them, he says.
“You can be inspired by the way a mother cleans the chocolate ice cream off her two-year-old’s face on a hot summer day and use that moment and infuse it in Francis somehow,” he said. “It’s about opening yourself up to universality. That’s very important to us. If he lacks humanity or empathy he would be a pure sociopath. Sociopaths aren’t interesting. They’re a dead end. There’s no way to access them. There’s no overlap between your experience and theirs.”
He had a sip of coffee.
“Where’s the portal for shared experience, the common language of the heart?” he said. “It might sound odd to hear that from the ‘House of Cards’ guy, but that’s what we think about all the time.”