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Q&A: Michael Kelly

The House of Cards star on how politics and drama intersect on screen and off

Over the first three seasons of Netflix’s acclaimed political drama House of Cards, Doug Stamper—the scheming sidekick to Congressman (and then President) Frank Underwood—has seen his share of trouble. He’s been an addict, he’s been left for dead and, perhaps worst of all, Underwood has put him out into the cold. But in the just-released fourth season, Stamper is back as the President’s Chief of Staff, and he’s just as bad as ever. Here, actor Michael Kelly explains the appeal of his disturbed character and discusses how real-life politics is sometimes even stranger than fiction. 

The fourth season of House of Cards just premiered. Can you feel yourself being streamed across the country? 

It’s pretty wild, man. You can see Twitter going crazy. It’s totally fun, because of the way Netflix does it—you know, dropping them all at once—and I think it’s great.

And you made it to the fourth season! Your character, Doug, has had some close calls. I wasn’t always sure he’d stay alive.

Doug Stamper is the greatest gift I could’ve been given as an actor. I love this character, I love playing this character. I understand him. It’s been a real gift for me to be able to say these words six months out of the year, every year. And it’s certainly been rewarding for my career: I’ve received other jobs as a direct result of the show. I feel very fortunate. 

Is playing Doug fun?

When you’ve got Kevin Spacey at the head of the show, you know you’re going to have a good time. He is a very serious man, a very serious actor, someone I’ve admired my whole career and really just looked up to as a mentor. So to be with him, and get to know him over these years — it took a little while to get to know Kevin—was well worth the wait. And we do have fun, but only because [from the beginning,] David Fincher said that the best way of working, right from the first day, was for everyone to bring their A-game. We’re never held up because someone doesn’t know their lines or isn’t ready for the scene. We’re always ready so that when we do have downtime, we have a good time. 

Doug’s been through the wringer over the last few seasons. What’s in store for him this time around? 

I’m not allowed to say a ton. What you saw at the end of season three, we made last season — for my character at least—all about his recovery. We didn’t want to make it just a physical recovery, we wanted to make it about his job. Doug believes he belongs as the Chief of Staff to Frank Underwood, and he wants to be back there. So at the end of season three he’s back, and so you can just imagine when Frank and Doug get back together, some exciting shit’s gonna happen. I think that’s what’s in store for the audiences this season. 

The season is being released in the middle of primary season—and what’s happening off screen can seem almost more fantastical than the fictional happenings of the show. Is that purposeful 

No! The funny thing is that the show was never written to coincide directly with the primaries. Beau Willimon is certainly not the type of writer to be like, ‘OK, we’re gonna have the primaries coming up, let’s line it up with that.’ We wrote that stuff well in advance, the writers were in the room in January every year, and the show comes out over a year later. So the basic story arches are set in January and February of the year. I swear, though, that Beau is some sort of clairvoyant being. He has his finger on the pulse and he knows what’s happening, even though we’re not a ripped-from-the-headlines kind of story.

Though what makes for headlines these days might not even seem believable. 

I’ve been being asked about this for quite a long time now, and six months ago I was laughing and saying, ‘Donald Trump is a great example of how an American in our country can truly do anything.’ I did not think there was any way that America would take him seriously. But yet they have. I understand America’s frustration with politics and the gridlock in our system right now. 

One of the great things about Doug is that he’s this incredible henchman, and he’s always got some dirty work to do. What’s been your favorite aspect of playing him?

What I found so appealing about him from the get-go when I got the job was that I wanted to know where is this character going. I just wanted to understand, is this guy going to continue doing these little devious deeds for Frank Underwood; is that what’s planned for him.  And I was told yes. It’s really what drew me to the guy! At the root of it it’s all about his addictions, whether he’s addicted to work, or Rachel, or alcohol, whatever it may be, he just battles out his addiction.

My favorite moment, to answer your question, is my stuff with Rachel [his ex-prostitute quasi-girlfriend and bête noire] over the years. Obviously going to work with Kevin Spacey everyday, and learning from him is incredible, but Rachel [Brosnahan, who played her] and I felt like those two characters had something so special—it was their connection, and she and I as people, and she and I as actors. Those two characters, just the way they were together, were such a joy. I hated killing her. Well, I loved it, but I hated it.

Main image by Anthony Blasko