House Of Cards actor Kevin Spacey talks about power, conspiracy, his mate Bill Clinton and whether he’d ever run for office...
In the new political drama House Of Cards, Kevin Spacey plays US politician Francis Underwood, a duplicitous man spurned in his bid to become Secretary of State. His vengeful quest for power becomes hugely suspenseful as he utilises fear, blackmail, shady deals and even violence to undo not only his rivals, but also his colleagues.
Underwood’s story has unspooled not on TV but on Netflix, the streaming video service that’s investing hundreds of millions in original programming. The revolutionary idea is that you can binge on all 13 episodes of House Of Cards, an adaptation of a 1990 BBC mini-series, in one sitting if you so wish.
With his biting wit and history of political involvement, it’s no surprise Kevin Spacey has taken to the role like a duck to water. A feature of the series is Underwood breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience to camera. In that respect, Spacey says he drew on his recent role in Richard III. Directed by Sam Mendes, the play began its run at London’s Old Vic where Spacey has been artistic director since 2003, before embarking on a worldwide tour.
“The experience I had playing Richard III was really kind of remarkable,” says the actor. “Because it’s not a soliloquy, it’s not like Hamlet who’s talking to the world about his thoughts. You were specifically looking in people’s eyes and making them your co-conspirator. It didn’t matter where we were, whether English was their first language or their third language, they were totally in it, and you could see them leaning on the edge of their seat and having a kind of glee and relish at the fact that they felt like they were involved in something that no-one else was involved in; they were in on it and part of the secret.
“Then when we came to do the series, I made a little bit of a readjustment, which was actually thinking that it’s like having a best friend who you’re sitting in a café with, and someone comes in who you know, and who you sent an email like two weeks ago and they never answered you. And you say to your friend, ‘Watch – he’s going to come over and go, ‘Oh, I got your email but I’m really busy’ – and then he comes over and says, ‘I’m really busy’ and you go, ‘Mmhmm’ and you look at your friend,” the actor explains, comically arching a sceptical eyebrow.
He continues: “It feels like that, it feels like I’m sharing something with my best friend. The audience becomes the person with whom Francis shares the most, who he trusts the most, who he’s willing to reveal himself to in ways that he wouldn’t even reveal himself to his wife. So it’s actually this very intimate feeling. I think that if I hadn’t had the experience of doing Richard, I’m not sure I would have reached or understood that, but boy can you see it in people’s eyes.”
Spacey’s asides to the camera, uttered in a slow, Southern drawl, lend the character an appropriately slimy and smug air. Director David Fincher didn’t want to replicate the “idealism” of shows like The West Wing – “We wanted it to be more realistic,” Spacey notes.
House of Cards certainly captures the constant wheelings, dealings and negotiations of the political realm, a world its star feels quite at home in.
“I’ve sort of been around politics from a very young age. I started working on my first Presidential campaign when Jimmy Carter ran for President in 1976 and I was in high school. And over the course of many years, I worked for other candidates in various races and ultimately became very close with former President Clinton. I also knew Teddy Kennedy and Pat Monahan and there are a whole number of remarkable and important politicians that I’ve managed to find myself in the same room with on many occasions. So in a sort of general sense I’ve been around figures who were important, powerful figures in the political scene. And you know, you can’t help but soak up a certain amount of the physicality of that. Some politicians that I’ve seen have been brilliant with the public. They almost speak with the skill of an actor.”
However, press him on whether his ruthless character is based on any one politician in particular and Spacey becomes political himself.
“I’m not basing the character on anybody, because Michael Dobbs and Beau Willimon have done such a brilliant job in laying out his characteristics,” he reflects. “I will say it’s interesting now to see how certain politicians who at the time had reputations for being ruthless or being bastards are being re-examined. Lyndon Johnson is a perfect example. After all the series of books have come out, people are saying, ‘Yeah, he was a bastard, and yes he was diabolical, but he fucking got things done!’ He passed three Civil Rights Bills in his very short presidency. It’s maybe interesting for an American audience that’s sat through the most non-productive Congress in the history of the United States, in terms of bills passed, to watch a fictional show where some bills actually get passed.”
While not a fan of Congress, Spacey is passionate in his admiration of the Obama administration.
“President Obama will go down as having passed some of the most historic bills in the history of this country,” he insists. “That despite constant knee-jerk opposition from the Republicans. A lot of people don’t realise how much he’s done in the most difficult of circumstances.”
Would he ever be tempted to stand for office himself? The actor explodes with laughter.
“If there’s anything you’ve gotten to know about me,” he remarks wryly, “I hope it’s that I like to get shit done.”
House Of Cards hasn’t gone unnoticed by the political world. Spacey performed in a parody of the show at this year’s White House Correspondents dinner. House Of Nerds, as it was dubbed, featured a whole host of politicos and high-profile journalists, including John McCain, White House advisor Valerie Jarrett and New York mayor Michael Bloomberg.
“I’ve generally heard, and whether people would say this publicly or only privately I’m not sure, that we’ve gotten it right. That there’s a tremendous amount about the way that we’ve approached the show that’s accurate in terms of how politics and the machine of politics works.
“Whether that’s a depressing or an interesting idea, I will leave to the viewers!”