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Taking A Gamble on Netflix’s New “House of Cards”

Inside the making of Netflix’s thrilling new original TV series, starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright

By now, people are used to surfing over to Netflix when they’re looking to stream TV. Classic series and recent offerings are easy to sample or binge on—you can run through the entire first season of Revenge in a few days if you want, or just watch a few and decide it’s not for you.

On Feb. 1, the entire first season of a new series will be added to Netflix’s formidable library, but it’s unlike anything you’ve seen before. 

House of Cards is Netflix’s first original series, and when the first episode—directed, as is the second episode, by executive producer David Fincher—lands in your queue, so can the other dozen installments. The entire first season of the show—which features Kevin Spacey as the crooked politician Francis Underwood, Robin Wright as his chilly, calculating wife and Kate Mara as an ambitious reporter, as well a stellar  supporting cast—will all be available that day. (The gripping, intensely dramatic series—of which we’ve seen the first two episodes—is a smart, exciting political thriller as good as any on premium cable.) 

We talked with writer and show runner Beau Willimon and actors Kate Mara and Corey Stoll (who plays a congressman caught in Underwood’s web) about their experiences on the first season of House of Cards and how it could be the series to forever change how we think about TV.

How did you get involved with House of Cards?

Beau Willimon: Three years ago, David Fincher reached out to me about writing House of Cards. I had heard of the BBC miniseries, but I had not seen it. I knew it was about politics, and at first I had some trepidation about doing television and about doing another story about the political world because I was still very much [working on] Ides of March at the time. I like writing for theater and film, where you can have projects that have a beginning, a middle and an end, and then you move on. Television can take over your entire existence. But I did know the world of politics and am a huge fan of David’s, so I wanted to have that conversation. I watched the BBC original and thought it was fantastic. I saw all sorts of opportunities to make this work for the 21st century in America.

Kate Mara: The script was great, and it’s kind of hard to say no to anything David Fincher’s a part of. And already Robin Wright and Kevin Spacey were involved, so I knew immediately I wanted to be a part of it.

BW: When I spoke to David, I told him I wasn’t interested in a remake. I wanted to do a complete reinvention with a much broader scope. I wanted to create the characters. I wanted to take the essence of the BBC original and make it our own. And that’s what he wanted to do, so we got to work and after about a year, I had a pilot and we had Kevin and Robin on board and then we set it up with Netflix. 

Was Netflix even a player when you started? Did it seem completely out of the box to go with them? 

BW: When we first began, none of us were aware that Netflix was interested in original programming. We thought we’d most likely go with a place like HBO or Showtime or AMC, the usual suspects of the cable world. But as we got closer to finding a home, we discovered that Netflix was interested in getting into the original programming game and when we sat down with them, they said they said they wanted us to be their first project.

Now, from the very beginning we had said we wanted to have a full season guaranteed. We didn’t want to audition the pilot. And that’s hard to get. I don’t think any of us were interested in doing it unless we had at least a season to work with because we wanted to tell a story over the course of 13 episodes and not feel like we were working one episode at a time, trying to sell ourselves. We wanted to treat it like a 13-hour movie. When Netflix committed to not just one season, but two—and a huge degree of creative control—it was kind of a no brainer.

Netflix is tailor-made for that kind of consumption. 

KM: I myself am interested to see how people react to the fact that we’re releasing the whole season on one day. I know it’s not all that different from what people can do now—personally, I don’t tend to watch things live anymore because I’m so used to recording shows and watching a bunch in a row. I love the idea of being able to watch however many episodes I want and not having to wait.

BW: Empowering the audience with that sort of choice is the future of television. I don’t think there will be any distinction; my guess is there will be zero distinction between television and the Internet in the next five years. There’s no reason to spread a show out over 13 weeks other than we’ve been conditioned to watch it that way. And we certainly like to challenge what people are used to.

Corey Stoll: That’s how I watch TV now. I haven’t had cable in years.

The British House of Cards is decades old. What did you need to keep in mind in order to develop characters that felt contemporary?

KM: This didn’t feel like any TV I’ve ever done. The biggest difference is that we didn’t shoot it like regular TV; the only similarity is in how quickly we had to do everything. It felt like we were doing movie after movie instead of a television show.

BW: In terms of something like the West Wing, I’m a huge fan. And our show is 180 degrees from it. That show had a world where people were good and trying to do good things. And on our show, we don’t see the world that way. The best way to be fresh is to create characters people haven’t seen before and want to know more about.

CS: I think it’s a wonderful, vibrant, dynamic world that they’ve created. These are people who are multi-dimensional and the fact that Netflix gave us a guarantee of 26 episodes to tell this story enables us to allow things to unfold over the course of the show.