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House of Cards season 3 has been out now for a week, and many fans have already binged their way through all 13 darkly lit episodes. EW asked Cards creator Beau Willimon burning questions about the first half of the Underwoods’ time in the White House. [MAJOR SPOILER ALERT IF YOU HAVEN’T WATCHED SEASON 3!!!]
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The big twist from the premiere is that Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) is still alive. Was that always the plan?
BEAU WILLIMON: That was always the plan, although the initial discussion at the very beginning of breaking season 2, there was a debate. We start each season by spending about six weeks working on the grid, looking at the overall plot and arcs for each character. When we got to stamper for season 2, we knew we had a Rachel problem. Rachel was a big loose end, and usually loose ends in the world of Underwood get tied up. So the way your mind naturally goes is by the end of season 2 he’s gotta kill Rachel. And that was a strong dramatic idea, but us when we have a strong idea my first impulse is, what is the opposite of that idea? And I said, what’s the opposite? And they said, well, he doesn’t kill Rachel. I said no, that’s not the opposite, the opposite is that Rachel kills him. And then just a silence descended on the room. We all love Doug Stamper’s character, Michael Kelly as an actor, we thought it was one of the biggest strengths of the show. It hit us in the gut, and we knew that if it hit us like that, we are compelled to do it.
I had a realization, which was we can have our cake and eat it too. We can do everything we’re talking about, and leave it a question toward whether Stamper is alive or not – probably leaning towards dead, but we don’t definitely know – and then have him alive in Season 3 and actually complete the story.
Season 2 began with the surprise death of Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara). Season 3 began with the surprising resuscitation of Doug Stamper. Was that a conscious choice?
Sort of conscious, in retrospect. Obviously we look at the way we begin seasons past as we start a new season, either to steal things we think are good or make sure we don’t repeat ourselves. We wanted to do something entirely different with beginning of season 3 that wouldn’t necessarily surprise you but catch you off-balance and set-up a stylistic and tonal difference that you’ll see in season 3. The thought was, to spend 25 minutes with Stamper, to see this story entirely through his eyes. We go through the first six months of the Underwood presidency, with the exception of the graveyard scene at the very top, in 30 minutes, which is not typically how we’ve dealt with time before. And we’re doing it through Stamper’s eyes, where usually we see it through Frank or Claire’s eyes. We wanted to earn Stamper’s recovery. If you leave a big question like that, is he alive or dead, and you come back and say ‘Guess what he’s alive haha!” without showing how he fought to get back, then I think you’re doing a disservice to the story and taking your audience’s suspension of belief for granted.
Why is he injecting whiskey with the syringe? So he can monitor it?
You hit the nail on the head. Speaking from experience as a recovering alcoholic who hasn’t touched a drop in 15 years, control becomes a big part of your life. And if one were to fall off the wagon after 15 years, that’s a big moment, a big choice. And there’s a lot of strange and bizarre ways to rationalize that choice. For some people that’s an impulsive moment, for others it’s a clear choice. And Doug’s life is very much about control, so I think he needs to be able to convince himself that he truly is self-medicating, that he can portion out these very particular amounts.
Season 3 is very different, basically it’s the end result of the build for past two seasons. Was that intimidating going in?
Sure, of course. I hope every season is intimidating and scary as we go into it. That was the case for season 2, and season 1 as well since none us had f—ing done it before [Laughs]. But what I say to all the writers as we start breaking a season, is by the end of the season I want us to be completely out of ideas. We don’t have a single idea left on the table. I want us to walk away from breaking the final episode going, “What the f— are we gonna do? We have nothing left, there’s no more gas in the tank.” That forces you in the next season to tap into your imagination in a vigorous way again. We don’t save anything. I think you’re correct in saying that this season is more of a departure. The chief one is a narrative departure, because the first two seasons were about an ascent, now they’re at the top of the mountain. There’s no more mountain left to climb. That’s gonna change things.
We also made a very clear choice to delve more into the emotional journey of fewer characters this season, specifically Francis, Claire, and Stamper, although we do so with others as well, which meant we were going to have less narrative real estate for political machinations and intrigue, which was a definite choice, and it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. A lot of people love the show for all those chess moves and they like seeing Frank and Claire be invincible, they like Stamper being invincible. If it was easy for Frank, if he didn’t stumble, if he didn’t fail, then the show would become a parody of itself, and I’m not interested in that. I don’t want to repeat ourselves, and I’d rather take the risk of some people saying “Where’s the House of Cards from seasons one and two?” then play it safe and just become repetitious. So I think it’s a little polarizing this season among the audience but I think that’s a good thing. The heart of this show has always been the marriage. This season we wanted to unabashedly explore that fully and that’s the route we took. Of course that’s gonna lead to certain stylistic and tonal choices.
Despite being in the White House, they feel more vulnerable this season.
It’s interesting, the presidency of the United States is arguably the most powerful position in the free world, and in some ways it’s also the most constricting. You’re the most exposed, people are coming after you, you’re the bullseye at the center of the target, and you don’t have one of the prime advantages that Francis has always used to great effect, which is the shadows. He had 30 years of experience working well behind the scenes, but now he’s squarely in the spotlight. Shadows are harder to find.
How much were you basing the character on Russian leader Petrov on Putin?
I stick to my tried-and-true statement that no characters on House of Cards are meant to parallel people in real life. That said, we’re trying to create an authentic world, where in this case international dynamics are so far afield from what they are in real life. When it comes to the Russia storyline, the remarkable thing is we started developing that story a year ago. My biggest concern at the time was that no one would care about Russia, because Russia wasn’t really in the news. It had been quiet over there for a while, at least in the West. The only thing over the horizon for Russia at that time was the Sochi Olympics. You will see in subsequent episodes how eerily similar it is to some of the stuff in the Crimea, but we developed all that before Crimea happened. So it was a very strange and eerie coincidence.
With President Underwood, we draw from lots of different presidents, some more than others, but we don’t feel the need to say he is a stand-in for X. Naturally people are gonna draw comparisons between Petrov and Putin, and I won’t say we didn’t look at Putin at times, but we also didn’t want to limit ourselves to that. One thing I said to Lars Mikkelsen, cause he asked “Should I be studying Putin a lot?”, was “Go for it if you think it’s helpful but don’t limit yourself to that, because I really want you to create a role that’s your own who serves our story, not just a commentary on real life.”
So let’s talk about Pussy Riot’s appearance in episode 3. I don’t think we’ve ever seen real-life performers, aside from news anchors, appear as themselves on House of Cards.
I think that they are political figures who just operate in a way that’s different from most political figures. So having qualified everything with that, you’re right in that it’s the first time we’ve seen someone aside from a journalist who has intersected with our world. Pussy Riot is nonfictional. The way they came about was, as I said we were developing the Russia storyline, and I went to a PEN gala. PEN try to free journalists who are in prison or help the families of journalists who have been killed, and they were honoring Pussy Riot at this event. I was hosting a table and I was there and I saw them. I had been following them for years, and I wanted to talk to them about their experiences because it related directly to what we were writing about. So I shamelessly went right up to them and said “Hi my name is Beau Willimon, I’m the showrunner for House of Cards,” and they said they were big fans of the show. They had watched some episodes on the plane to the states.
I asked them to come into the [writer’s] room. They were really intrigued by this Russia storyline and we talked for about four hours and they told us about their experiences. I had been looking for an event that sort of threw chaos into the mix. I was looking for that extra thing that would lead us to the unexpected. The idea struck me that it would be great to incorporate them into the episode. It absolutely made sense to me organically in my mind. I asked if they’d be interested and they said yes and we began collaborating. The lines they say at the dinner when they challenge the president, I said “this is your opportunity, you can say whatever you want, you tell me what you want to say and it’ll go in the script.” So those are their lines there. And then they said, let’s make a song too. At first I wanted them to make a song that was somehow taking on Petrov so that it would be relevant to the storyline, and they said, “We want to do something else, we want to make something bigger that’s not necessarily limited to the show.” I said “Fine. Go for it. This is your jam. You write the song and we’ll make a cool music video and put it at the end of the episode.” Which is also a departure, we’ve never done something like that. There was some debate among the producers whether that song actually belonged there, because it’s not part of the world, it’s not continuing the story. And I said, “Why the f— not? We’ve got Pussy Riot here, we have a whole crew, we have the ability to do something very cool and memorable, and what’s the harm?” And so we did it, and I’m proud of it.
Speaking of musical interludes, Frank is very musical this year.
You see that more at the top of the season, you won’t see it as much. Don’t worry, we haven’t become Glee. I mean, some people might really dig that but I don’t know how long we could sustain it. But that’s a motif for Frank that’s been consistent throughout all three seasons. The guy can carry a tune. These little moments just where you’re convinced this guy is a sociopathic automaton of destruction and power, you see him singing to himself the way you might while making a sandwich, and you find his humanity again. These little grace notes make him more layered in my opinion, and it’s just fun to see him sing.
So is Robin Wright actually good at beer pong?
Jayne Atkinson, who plays Catherine Durant, was really excited because she has mad beer pong skills. You gotta write that with a z. And Robin of course was looking forward to it because it’s such a fun and silly scene. They both got very good at it because we did a lot of takes. But I wanted to play with the contract of the pomp and circumstance of the White House. You’ve just seen a big state dinner. And why wouldn’t someone play beer pong in the White House, the way you would in your home? These people still have to shower and pee and put their socks on in the morning. You have regular human beings who are living in this very storied house, and their lives are full of ritual and pomp, and yet at the same time they sometimes wanna goof off or play video games. I don’t think there’s very many shows where you’ve seen that side of the White House. or silly side. Now in the beer pong scene, Claire also has a mission. She’s trying to get Durant to warm to her, and she’s pulling some southern charm out from under her hat. Claire, when she wants to put on the charm, is as good as anyone.
Is there really a vodka that costs $750,000 vodka?
There are some premier, very limited edition vodkas that cost that much. They’re more a display of wealth than to be consumed, but I believe there’s a real bottle of vodka that costs $1 million, it’s in a bulletproof bottle, and you get a free SUV when you buy a bottle. I Google’d “what’s the most expensive bottle of vodka?” and found some of these collector’s bottles. I was flabbergasted. Clearly in that case, if you’re buying a solid gold bottle with vodka in it, it’s not about getting wasted with your buddies before watching the Super Bowl, it’s about something else. That’s a little nod to the post-Soviet Russia, where the emphasis is on extreme wealth to throw around. Frank of course takes a different tack, the gift he gives Petrov is a surfboard. That surfboard is a real surfboard by a real artist, so there you have real life brushing against. Tomas Vu was my professor in college—he taught me printmaking. He’s a master printer and a very talented artist in his own right.
I like how the back staircase is now the new smoking window.
And a version of that staircase does actually exist in the White House. There are a few service stairwells. The one in the White House is a little more narrow, we had to be able to fit cameras in ours, we built that on a soundstage. But there is one that people used when they didn’t want to be seen, and maybe they still do. That staircase does exist, or a version of it. I was interested in – we see the more beautiful parts of the residence and the West Wing – I wanted to explore the bowels a little bit.
One great theme of this season is how people express themselves in non-verbal ways, like Frank urinating on his father’s grave or spitting on a Christ statue, or Claire taking a power meeting with a the Russian Ambassador while peeing in a restroom stall.
[Laughs] Well, we speak much louder with bodies than we do with our mouth. We’re always thinking about all the ways people communicate with each other: hands, posture, gesture. They can be quite loud or quite subtle.
(Additional reporting by Jason Clark)