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'House Of Cards' A Delicate Balance Of Politics And Drama


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Kevin Spacey's got a memorable entrance in the new series "House of Cards." He looks into the camera and talks to the audience while he strangles an injured dog.


KEVIN SPACEY: (as Francis Underwood) There are two kinds of pain: the sort of pain that makes you strong; or useless pain, the sort of pain that's only suffering. I have no patience for useless things.

SIMON: "House of Cards" is Netflix's first original series. It stars Kevin Spacey as Francis Underwood, the House majority whip, as he plots and schemes his way through official Washington, D.C., and shares thoughts he cannot reveals to others, with us - the audience.


SPACEY: (as Francis Underwood) Money is the McMansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after 10 years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries. I cannot respect someone who doesn't see the difference.

SIMON: Robin Wright plays the equally calculating Mrs. Underwood. Corey Stoll is a drunken, philandering congressman - how do they come up with these plots? The series is written by Beau Willimon, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his screenplay "Ides of March," and Eric Roth. It's based on the BBC series of the same name, and a couple of novels. Kevin Spacey, the Academy Award-winning actor and director of London's Old Vic Theater, and Beau Willimon join us from New York. Gentlemen, thanks very much for being with us.

BEAU WILLIMON: Thanks for having us.

SPACEY: Indeed.

SIMON: Let me ask the first question of both of you. As a group, the U.S. Congress is less popular than used car salesmen. So what made you decide to set a 13-part series in Congress, with any hope that people would watch it?

SPACEY: Regardless of the current status of the public's admiration or disgust with Congress or politics, you go back to movie history - and you can go to the '30s and '40s and '50s and '60s; and right up to the current, quite beautifully done "Lincoln" - and see that politics has always been fertile ground for filmmakers.

WILLIMON: If people's frustration with Washington right now is political gridlock, is ideological polarization; and we see a Congress that has proven itself inept at making large leaps forward in the name of progress; what we offer is a politician who despite being ruthless and deliciously self-interested, actually gets things done. So I think there'll be something satisfying for audiences in seeing a Congress where things start to work because of this devious Machiavellian, who works in the name of forward momentum.

SIMON: Kevin, you've played so many Shakespearean schemers onstage. Does this experience transfer?

SPACEY: Well, I actually am kind of enormously grateful that a year ago, I had the chance to do Richard III - which this character was largely based on - from Michael Dobbs' original novel, and hence, why the direct address is employed. That was not Michael Dobbs' idea or Beau's idea. That happened to be William Shakespeare's idea. And so I had the experience of playing a character who does break the fourth wall. I don't think Richard has as much finesse as we're trying to give to Francis. He's just sort of slashing and burning; and the bodies are mounting up, in the course of that play. And while that experience was much more theatrical, and the requirements of doing the series are much subtler, I think it translated incredibly well. And I think it does have kind of those - sort of epic Shakespearean storylines and archetypes, and relationships between characters that are very complicated and difficult. But for me, it's been a little bit like, this first season - we've shot 13 - it's been a little bit like playing 13 hours of a championship chess match.

SIMON: I've seen two episodes. And Francis Underwood, whatever else might be said about him, seems to genuinely love and rely on his wife - played by Robin Wright - and vice versa. Is that true, or should I just stay tuned?


WILLIMON: As much as we all love the BBC original, they had a lot less time to deal with; and so they spent their focus on particular characters, and less so on others. And the wife in the BBC version is really a tertiary character. She's there as a support mechanism; and pops in and out, here and there. We really wanted to put Francis' wife front and center in our series, and particularly when you have such an extraordinary actress like Robin Wright. And we were really interested in the idea of not just Francis' ascendancy but this team, this marriage on the ascendancy together.


ROBIN WRIGHT: (as Mrs. Underwood) What does she want?

SPACEY: (as Francis Underwood) Access, seat at the table.

WRIGHT: (as Mrs. Underwood) Sounds like she's getting the better side of the bargain.

SPACEY: (as Francis Underwood) She can be controlled.

WRIGHT: (as Mrs. Underwood) Are you sure?

SPACEY: (as Francis Underwood) She can, I promise you.

WRIGHT: (as Mrs. Underwood) OK. If you say so.

SPACEY: (as Francis Underwood) The moment you want me to have...

WRIGHT: (as Mrs. Underwood) I know, Francis.

WILLIMON: It's an unorthodox marriage. They play by different rules than most marriages do. Their rules might destroy a lot of other marriages. But it's not just a political pact; it's a deep, mutual respect.

SIMON: Kevin Spacey, have you had the sensation yet of running into a member of Congress who has seen this, or part of it, and registered their reaction with you?

SPACEY: No, I haven't. We did the premiere down in D.C. the other night, and Congress was - funnily enough - not in session. So none of the congressmen we had invited were able to come. I did have the opportunity, as I was preparing for the show, to spend some time with the current majority whip - Kevin McCarthy, on the Republican side - and the Democratic minority whip, Steny Hoyer. And they were both incredibly helpful; answered a lot of my questions about the practical understanding that I was seeking, about what it would be like to try to corral 218 congressmen to vote the way you wanted them to vote. And obviously, as we've seen in this past year, that's not as easy to do as you'd think. But I will be curious to see how some of our current politicians respond to the show. I suspect they're going to go, yeah!


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) We spent the whole weekend in that room, poring over this bill line by line, and nowhere did it say anything about collective bargaining.

SPACEY: (As Francis Underwood) Let's calm down - and sit down - and we will discuss this. I will explain everything that's going on, and we will talk it out - no matter how long it takes.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: No, no more. This is going to be a very short meeting, 'cause only one of two things are going to happen. Either you assure me right now Fen (ph) amendment is out; or I am walking out that door, and I'm going to start launching missiles.

SPACEY: The amendment was never intended to stay in the bill. It's just there for leverage. That's all.

SIMON: Kevin Spacey, do you have to like a character like Francis Underwood, to play him?

SPACEY: No. I've played many characters that I didn't necessarily care for. But I'm also quite careful about judging the characters that I play. I think that's a huge mistake because I think if you end up judging a character you're playing - although, you know, I get asked this question all the time. And it's sort of, you know, at a certain point, people who like to only color with black and white, it gets really boring after a while. 'Cause it's not - life is not like that. Life is complex, and the gray areas are far more interesting than the black and white areas. So I never think of characters as villains - which, I'm always asked, oh, do you love playing villains? Well, villainy is not something you can play. It's not an active acting thing that you can do. It is a judgment about a character. And I can't judge the characters I play. I can only play them, and let the chips fall where they may.

WILLIMON: I think Richard III is a great example. If you look at all the things that Richard III does in black and white, is anyone really capable of liking him? But you find yourself glued to him. You find elements in him that you like because it allows you to access parts of yourself that you don't exhibit in your everyday behavior. There's a part of all of us that wishes we could, at times, be Richard III, or at times be Francis Underwood. And I think audiences have grown accustomed to that in a very sophisticated way, with characters like Tony Soprano or Walter White. Why do we...

SPACEY: Or Dexter.

WILLIMON: Exactly. Why do we keep going back to these characters? Because they give us access to something. And it's that attraction, which is far more powerful than the black and white of likeability, as it were.

SIMON: Beau Willimon, one of the screenwriters, and Kevin Spacey, who plays the scheming Francis Underwood, in the new "House of Cards," available now on Netflix. Gentlemen, thank you so much for being with us.

WILLIMON: Thanks for having us.

SPACEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.