An edited version of this story about Michael Kelly first appeared in the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.
In 2013, Beau Willimon’s political series “House of Cards” became the first original series to be produced by Netflix, and the first streaming show to be nominated for Emmys. Six years later, it’s the most-nominated streaming series in history, with 56 noms spread out over its six seasons.
But the show had a rocky final season, cutting ties with star Kevin Spacey after multiple accusations of sexual misconduct and retooling the entire season without his character, Frank Underwood, after shooting most of the first two episodes.
The season ended up with three Emmy nominations, the least it has ever received. But two of those three went to actors who’ve been here before: Robin Wright, who has been nominated every season for playing Frank’s wife, Claire, and Michael Kelly, who is receiving his fourth nomination for playing the sometime chief of staff Doug Stamper, an amoral fixer who will do anything to preserve Frank’s legacy.
The season began with Frank dead under mysterious circumstances and ended with a showdown between Claire (who became president) and Doug in the Oval Office.
Why do you think a horrible person became such a fan and Emmy favorite?
(Laughs) That question is as complicated as Doug is. I think as an actor you always want to bring some of yourself to the character — and when you do that, no matter how deeply buried it is, that will come through.
Thank God I’m nothing like Doug Stamper. But while I don’t agree with his actions, I totally understand everything he did. He believed that what he was doing was the right thing. The whole thing with the show is “Bad for the greater good,” and no one took that as seriously as he did.
As inexcusable as his actions were, I think they’re coming from a place most people can understand, having served or protected or loved someone. That’s important. I think they respond to him because in some way they understand him as well. He has characteristics that people appreciate: loyalty and friendship, as weird as it is.
I can’t tell you the number of times that someone has come up to me and said, “I wish I had a Doug Stamper on my team.” He’s the guy you want on your side. He’s the guy who will do whatever you need to be done.
Did you understand him right away?
I understood him very quickly through a conversation with Beau Willimon. He asked if I had any questions, and I said, “A million.” He said, “Well, let me start. You killed this audition, you gave me that character. So I really want to say, ‘Don’t emote at all.’ And at the end of the season I want everybody to say, ‘What the f—‘s up with that guy?’” I was able to build the entire character on those simple lines.
Over the years, were there times when you have trouble understanding Doug?
Every season, more than once most seasons, I would have to go to the writers and say, “Why in the hell would he do this? I don’t get this.” But those guys are smarter than I am, and they would break it down until it made sense.
This season, with Frank Underwood out of the picture, the dynamic shifted and it really came down to Doug and Claire and a letter opener.
I guess it kind of had to come down to that. Obviously the story was always Frank and Claire, but interestingly enough Claire and Stamper had this very interesting respect for one another and disdain for one another. I don’t even know if she bothered to have disdain for me, but I certainly had it for her. So there was already this built up tension between the two of us.
And as an actor, there’s not much more you can ask for than going toe-to-toe with incredible people. I never really had anything with Robin, but in the end it paid off and I got my Robin time. And that was the last scene we shot on the last day.
An emotional day?
At the end of each season it was always, “See you next year.” This year, Robin and I shot that final scene, the whole crew came in and I got through about 20 words before I just lost it. We hung out for hours in the Oval Office. I miss that crew and I miss that set so much.
Now that the show has ended, do you miss Doug?
Yes and no, I guess. What I miss most was my own quiet time and solitude when I played him. I had a small apartment in Baltimore, and I would be alone a lot and live kind of like him, very simply. I allowed myself to be quiet and not do anything, and that’s something that I never ever do as myself. I have two kids and a great wife, and we love hanging out, but I never get any quiet time, any me time, any chill time.
Read more of the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.