Warning: This following contains spoilers for season 5 of House of Cards. Read at your own risk!
Unlike what it did with LeAnn Harvey (Neve Campbell), Netflix’s House of Cards showed us the ending to Tom Yates (Paul Sparks). And what an ending it was: Part sex scene and part death scene, Sparks’ lothario writer went out with a, ahem, bang and a speedy death after being fed poison by Claire Underwood (Robin Wright). But dying by the freshly bloody hands of Cards‘ Lady Macbeth felt like a perfect way out for his player, Sparks says, and pulling it off with Wright as a scene partner and director made his exit all the more memorable.
Below, the actor talks what ran through his mind in that final scene, exiting the show after three seasons, and, of course, how it felt to play a part in a drama that’s supposed to serve as a funhouse mirror to an administration that already seems like a funhouse mirror to usual politics.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was your reaction to finding out that Tom would die in flagrante?
PAUL SPARKS: When I read it, I mean, it’s not often that you get to have sex with and then die underneath Robin Wright, so it was pretty spectacular. And she was directing too, so if you add in the fact that death scenes are, along with sex scenes, probably the hardest things we do as actors, it was… [Laughs] it was pretty monumental. It was good. [Laughs]
Do you think it’s a fitting way for Tom Yates to die? As we saw, he does like sleeping around, and willingly accepted this arrangement to become Claire’s sort-of-boyfriend.
To me, it makes sense. Not to be too grim, but I always thought that Tom would [end up] hanging from the ceiling by himself. That had always felt like it was headed in that direction, so on some level, I think Tom might have been okay with this. I think he might have seen the poetry of it, you know? He was always begging Claire to choose him, to choose bedroom Claire over politician Claire, and you know what? She chose. I think that ultimately he would appreciate the honesty of what she chose. There was nothing drawn out or ambiguous about it.
Looking back, do you think Tom Yates truly loved Claire, then, as he told her earlier in the season?
I always thought that Tom was a guy who existed in sort of the little league [world of this show], and he finally met someone he felt like he had an opportunity to go on an adventure with. I think that’s what he interpreted as romantic… And so, was he in love with her? Yeah, I think he was.
And yet, what’s interesting about him is that he was willing to destroy her and her husband’s lives because he continued writing that book. With that in mind, do you think he deserved what he got from Claire?
Hmm… [Pauses]. No, I don’t think he necessarily deserved it, but I do think that it was maybe destined. I think it was heading in that direction. I don’t know what else there was left for him to do. And I think in many ways, it saved him from a life he would not have felt so great about. What would have been the alternative to either killing himself or destroying their lives with that book? To destroy the only person he felt [with whom] he had a super close relationship, to destroy her? Would he have been okay with that? I don’t know, so in a way [his death] may have been merciful.
What was it like having Robin as your director for your death scene?
She’s directed me in several sex scenes on the show, so we were comfortable with that. She’s one of the smartest, one of the most emotionally intellectual actors I’ve ever met and that totally transfers to her as a director as well. She understands how people relate to each other, just on a kind of a kinetically emotional way, and I always feel very at home with her, because I know she’s steering me in the direction of truth. I mean, she’s great. She just is something extraordinary, and it’s just in her DNA.
Do you remember what was running through your mind while filming that scene?
[Laughs] Yeah, there were a lot of things going on. If I’m not mistaken, this was the last scene I was going to shoot on the show, so there was the profundity of having worked on this show for a really long time with all these people, and then there’s the absurdity of shooting a sex scene [laughs]. But I do remember thinking, “This is a big moment in my life. I’ll remember this.” There have been a lot of scenes I’ve been in that I’ve forgotten, on that show and other shows. I won’t ever forget lying in that scene on that floor, in that place, with that fire, and with those people around me. That I won’t forget. And I remember constantly having to put down kneepads for Robin so she wouldn’t get rug burns. [Laughs] So there’s that.
Well, it’s quite a way to go. Now House of Cards can’t do something like this again.
Yeah, right? I’ve taken that one. No more [characters] can get poisoned and then have sex and then die. [Laughs]
Just curious: Did you take anything from set after filming that last scene? Anything else you remember from that last day?
I remember how warm everybody was. It’s so hard doing goodbyes because you have these intimate, intense relationships with people and then you never see them again. But this one in particular, I can remember thinking when it was over, “Wow, I’m a lot more emotional about this than I thought I would be.” As far as taking anything, to be honest, the very first time I went in to put on the costumes for Tom Yates, they literally pulled things out that I personally own, like with the exact color [laughs], so there was no need to take anything. The only thing I joked about taking was that stupid bag that I had to wear that I was so sick of wearing [laughs]. But ultimately what I took away from it were really nice memories with really nice people.
You got to have memorable scenes with both Underwoods and much of the cast. Is there a scene partner you wish you got a chance to work with?
It would have been fun to do a scene with Reg E. Cathey [who played Freddy] just because we had no reason to do one [laughs] and I always wanted to do a scene with Tom Hammerschmidt. [Actor] Boris McGiver is an old friend of mine, and I always wanted to do a scene with two Toms. [Laughs] But I mean, and I know this happened in the fourth season, just the fact that I got to sit between and have coffee and apples with Kevin [Spacey] and Robin at a table in the morning was… [laughs] I don’t know if it gets much better than that.
I know everyone on this show has been asked this, but for you, what was it like going into this season knowing that the political climate had changed so much since back when you joined in season 3?
You know, it’s hard not to think about it, just as an American. Look, I don’t know everybody’s political opinions, but I think the majority of people in the arts are pretty leftist, and we’re disappointed in the Trump administration. I know it’s been said many times but they took all the good ideas away from what we could possibly do on the show.
I will say that the day after he was elected, I was in Baltimore and I remember waking up in the middle of the night and, probably not unlike a lot of people, sort of had a panic attack. The thought I had was, “I need to get the f— off this show.” [Laughs] Like, we perpetuated this love affair with s—ty people in politics! Like, that has now manifested itself in our daily lives! But I calmed down, and the truth is, my main problem with him is that I just don’t agree with his policies about the government’s role in people’s lives…. but, we do live in a democracy where we can vote him out.
And just to wrap up, is there anything else you want to add?
I just loved being on that show, I’m happy that people like it. I know that Tom was a somewhat controversial character, but I did love being on that show and I wish them all the best.
It’s funny you call him a controversial character. I saw a headline a while back that called him, or really you, “TV’s sexiest creeper.”
Right [laughs]. I don’t even know what that means, but yeah, “sexy creeper.” Can those words exist in the same sentence? I suppose they can, and I suppose that’s the ultimate compliment, that he is complex, because complex is what it is to be human.
House of Cards season 5 is now streaming on Netflix.