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How Kevin Spacey Created a Schemer for the Ages in ‘House of Cards’

”Kevin gets the audience to root for him in spite of themselves,“ says series creator Beau Willimon


(This article first appeared in the EmmyWrap issue "Down to the Wire.")

It was one hell of an introduction for one hell of a character. 

In the opening minutes of the first episode of Netflix’s groundbreaking series “House of Cards,” House Majority Whip Francis Underwood hears a crash and walks out of his Washington, D.C., townhouse to find a dog lying in the street, dying after being struck by a hit-and-run driver.

With his bare hands, he calmly strangles the (off-camera) dog, explaining as he looks straight into the camera, “Moments like this require someone who will act, who will do the unpleasant thing, the necessary thing.”

Then he goes to a black-tie New Year’s Eve party, where he works the room while once again addressing the audience directly to explain the rules of Washington politics: figure out which way the wind is blowing, ally yourself with the right people and know how to keep the sludge moving.

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“Welcome to Washington,” he concludes as he raises his glass in a mocking toast.

With that indelible three-and-a-half-minute welcome, Kevin Spacey ushered us into the dark, Machiavellian world of his character.

And Spacey knew just what to do from there, turning Underwood into an implacable, devious, scheming politician who occasionally had a heart, who always knew how to get things done and who wound up, before the 13 episodes are over, with a body count that included more than just that dog.

“The character has a ruthlessness that in the hands of a lesser actor could be off-putting,” “House of Cards” executive producer Beau Willimon told TheWrap. “But Kevin makes it delicious, and he gets the audience to root for him in spite of themselves.”

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With nine Emmy nominations, including one for Outstanding Drama Series and one for Spacey in Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series category, “House of Cards” has blazed new territory for a show that comes not from a broadcast or cable network but from a subscription-based streaming service.

And Spacey is at its center, starring as well as serving as an executive producer alongside a team that includes head writer Willimon and director David Fincher. None of the three are veterans of television but all found it the right medium for their adaptation of the 1990 British television series of the same name.

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“It wasn’t the first time anyone had come to David or to me and said, ‘Do you want to do television?,'” Spacey told TheWrap. “And I had to look at what had been happening in my own career and life, and what had been happening in the industry.”

A decade ago, he said, he’d moved to London to run the Old Vic theater company, committing to 10 seasons there; only as that run neared its end (he’ll leave in 2015) did he begin to play larger roles in films like "Casino Jack."

“At the same time, if you look at the shifts that have happened in the motion-picture industry, the kind of movies that I was making in the ’90s are not quite the focus anymore,” he added.

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“The ground is less fertile for character-driven, storyteller-driven films that appeal to the mind and not just the pulse. So it makes total sense to me that over the last decade we’ve seen some of the best writers, directors and actors moving into television, and now into streaming.”

Besides, in a way Spacey owed his movie career to TV: After seeing his stint on the '80s series “Wiseguy,” Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie wrote the role of Verbal Kint in “The Usual Suspects” for him, winning him an Oscar and launching a career in films.

Spacey’s participation, Willimon said, was crucial to the project — and the continuation of conversations that Fincher and Spacey had on the set of the film “The Social Network,” which Fincher directed and Spacey produced.

“David and I had decided that if we couldn’t get Kevin, it wasn’t a show that was appealing,” he said. “You needed someone who could carry a show, someone with a natural charisma, someone who was capable of accessing an infinite number of layers. And there are only so many actors who can do those things.”

Fincher, Willimon and Spacey pitched the show to all the networks, and found that Netflix’s offer came with a significant plus. “Everyone wanted a pilot except Netflix,” said Spacey. “David and Beau and I didn't want to do a pilot where we had to establish all the characters and create an arbitrary cliffhanger. We wanted to get on with telling the story over a long arc of time.

"The order we got was 26 episodes, which was pretty groundbreaking. I don't think there's ever been a series that was given two seasons’ worth of orders without a pilot and without it ever being aired.”

The role of Underwood, said Willimon, was a tricky one. “Francis pursues power, and he does so unapologetically, but I didn’t want him to be a sociopath,” he said. “I didn’t want him to lack empathy or feeling, so from time to time we need to see his humanity bubbling forth.

"That’s what’s great about Kevin. He shows us that, and reminds us that there’s an element in all of us that wishes we could disregard the rules and go after the thing we want without being bound by ethical constraints.”

Before filming the series, Spacey played Richard III in a stage production directed by Sam Mendes. He said the experience was crucial to taking on Underwood — not because of the details of the character himself but because of the way Richard, like Francis, uses “direct address” to break the action and speak straight to the audience.

“Doing the play helped me understand how to approach direct address in the series,” he said. “The big difference for me is that I’m looking down the barrel of a lens, whereas in the theater over 10 months and 12 cities around the world for 198 performances, I was looking into the eyes of the audience. But that experience of making an audience your co-conspirators really helped me understand how to play it in a way that I don’t think I would have had otherwise.”

Spacey won’t take too much credit for the character — he insisted that Underwood is in fact a collaboration between himself, the writers and the folks who he said really hold the power in film and television: the directors and editors.

Fincher, who oversaw the first two episodes of the first season, was particularly specific and demanding, using fewer setups than most directors but doing multiple takes until he got exactly what he needed.

“It could be said that sometimes he’s just trying to beat the acting out of you,” said Spacey, approvingly. “That can be quite valuable, particularly for younger performers who haven’t had that much experience, who bring lots of handles and gestures and props and things into a scene. David might be just simply trying to wear them down to the point where it’s just the words and what’s going on emotionally, and they get rid of all the gimmicks and handles.”

And what about for a more experienced performer — say, two-time Oscar winner Spacey? He must not need to have the acting beaten out of him, right?

“Oh no, sometimes that’s exactly what he was doing with me,” Spacey insisted. “I don’t distinguish myself from needing to have that done. Jack Lemmon said to me once, he said that Billy Wilder told him … ” He stopped, and shifted into an impressively layered imitation of Lemmon imitating Wilder.

“He said that Wilder said, ‘You know what, Jack? You’re like a supermarket. There’s aisles and aisles and aisles of things, and if I want one, I say, Give me that, and you go into the checkout aisle and give me that. It’s fantastic, it’s like a supermarket.'

“That, in many ways, is what I feel you have to be for a director. I am there to provide him with a whole smorgasbord of choices. So I might play a scene slightly more sinister on one line, and then slightly more ironic, and then funnier, with a lighter touch, and they will choose one depending on how they need that character to develop.”

Then again, the smorgasbord of choices in “House of Cards” is heavy on “give me ruthless ambition,” “give me implacability,” “give me cold-blooded pragmatism.” That, after all, is politics, which Spacey has been exploring since he played a senator in his first major television role, the mid-’80s “Crime Story,” and a political operative in 2008 with the HBO movie “Recount,” about the disputed Florida ballots in the 2000 presidential election.

“You couldn’t have made that s— up about what happened in that election,” he said of “Recount.”

“To some degree it was so outrageous that it was almost comedy. And now this part is our attempt to maybe get a little bit closer to the bone about what it might actually be like to get things done. I’m not talking about the more sinister aspects of the show but what politics is. And I’ve heard from a lot of politicians and people I know, ‘This is as close as we’ve ever seen anyone get to how it really is.'”

He laughed. “They probably won’t say that publicly, but it has been said to me privately.”

But can Underwood really be an accurate portrayal of a modern politician, considering how much he accomplishes? In the first episode alone, after all, the guy passes a comprehensive education bill.

“At a time when we have a very gridlocked government and a very entrenched congress,” he said, “it must be interesting for an audience to watch effectiveness, to see things move forward. I guess that means it has to be fictional, right?”

So does he think the real Congress needs more SOBs like Francis Underwood?

“Wellll … ” he began, then stopped for a long time to consider his words. “Maybe some of them are taking notes. Who knows?”