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The Girlfriend Experience: Meet Paul Sparks

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You know Paul Sparks, 44, as Underwood biographer-turned-bedmate Thomas Yates on Netflix’s House of Cards, in which he carefully manipulates his way into the D.C. inner circle. Now he’s David, the bullish boss of law student/escort Christine (Riley Keough) on Starz’s The Girlfriend Experience, who unwittingly (or… maybe not?) becomes ensnared in Christine’s other life. You can also catch Sparks in theaters — he plays the resolute Agent Miller in the sci-fi thriller Midnight Special

EW asked Sparks to shed light on his characters and his juggling act:

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What drew you to The Girlfriend Experience?

PAUL SPARKS: At first I was skeptical, because I think these sorts of shows [about prostitution] can go wrong, but I liked the script … Ultimately, it’s about relationships and trying to navigate the world. I think that the stigmas that are attached to escort services is interesting to tackle. It’s also provocative. People are curious about taboos, and I don’t know that I’ve seen anything that’s been handled quite like this is. It’s very different from the movie … [EP Steven] Soderbergh said something about how Christine is like a superhero who’s realizing her powers. I think there’s something very true about that.

Christine’s a budding superhero, and Claire Underwood is basically already one in that world. How do your characters compare? They’re both dealing with women who have the upper hand.

David isn’t very concerned [about that]. He doesn’t notice that this earthquake has just walked into his life, whereas Yates is very aware, he knows he’s in the presence of great power with Claire. David completely underestimates Christine, but Yates is very aware of where the power is, I think. David is much more of a bull, and he is just stomping through things, because I think that’s how it’s done in the world he exists in. 

Kerry Hayes/Starz

On that note, how does working on The Girlfriend Experience compare with House of Cards? Was it easier to capture one character over the other?

[House of Cards] was overwhelming. I was thrust onto this juggernaut show, I was in the presence of these enormous personalities, and I was in shock in scenes with Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. I was very, as I’m saying lines, aware, like, “I’m doing a scene with Kevin Spacey right now. I’m doing a scene with Robin Wright.” … [The Girlfriend Experience] was intimate. We shot it Soderbergh-style, and the set is very pared down. Coming from the theater, it’s a great way to make TV shows … You know, Riley is young. I didn’t know a lot about her or anything, and I think initially, it was easy for me to think, “Who is this? This person running this show?” So I think it was easy to play into that [as David]. Riley is a super talented young actress, it’s pretty humbling to watch … In terms of which was harder, I don’t know. It’s all hard. 

You’re also in the film Midnight Special and were just in an Off Broadway play. How do you choose your roles?

I look for complexity — I’m drawn to people who are not exactly what they seem. I like people that seem bad but actually are fighting for something good, people that seem dumb but actually are kind of smart. Also, whenever I get a new script, I read it and if I can say the words out loud, I will try for the part. I know it sounds sort of strange, but I need to physically make it come out of my mouth in a way that sounds like a human being.

That’s interesting because on House of Cards, you’ve developed a way of speaking to play Yates that makes him sound less than human sometimes. Where does that voice come from? Is it based off of any real life author?

[Laughs] Yeah … There wasn’t any particular writer I was trying to emulate. For Yates, he’s a very thoughtful person, he’s always monitoring the way he says things, how they’re coming out of his mouth. I think that causes an irregular speech pattern sometimes, but it’s not something that’s necessarily conscious. He spends a lot of time alone in a room by himself, he doesn’t have a lot of friends. I think it makes him odd. … There are certain characters that have access to words very quickly, like a machine gun. He’s not one of those people. 

David Giesbrecht/Netflix

Do you know anything about the next season of Cards? Will you be back?

I don’t. It’s sort of bittersweet. On the one hand I’m thrilled people like the show and that it’s been renewed, but Beau Willimon is leaving, and he was such a good friend of mine. I loved working with him, but that said, he never told me anything either, so I literally have no idea. I think the show is in very good hands with the new showrunners. Who knows?

Do you feel the momentum in your career? Is there an ideal role you’d like to play?

No, I’m not angling for huge fame. My career has been a very slow, arduous climb to the middle. [Laughs] I’m happy where I am … I hope [my career] is on the rise. I can feel that there’s somewhat of a modest groundswell of interest in the things I’m doing, which helps. I kind of just have been plugging away for a long time. When I got out of school, I just started doing plays of the off-off-Broadway route and for many years, that’s what I did, slowly doing work in tiny theaters, building relationships with people in the business. It’s not a showy story.

House of Cards is streaming on Netflix. The Girlfriend Experience premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. ET on Starz. 

A version of this story originally appeared in Entertainment Weekly issue #1410, on newsstands now or available here.

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