''House of Cards''' Kevin Spacey reveals the people -- real and fictional -- who have helped him create the most insidious president in TV history

By Tim Stack
Updated August 08, 2014 at 04:00 AM EDT

House of Cards

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Best Politician in a Drama: Frank Underwood
Ladies and gentlemen, the president has no shirt on. Okay, he’s only wearing a T-shirt. Kevin Spacey is on the Baltimore set of Netflix’s House of Cards on this hot July day and is preparing to shoot a Situation Room scene for the third season of the series, which will follow Francis ”Frank” Underwood’s reign as President of the United States. But Spacey is looking fairly casual as he strolls on the soundstage in slacks, sneakers, and an undershirt. Then, moments before cameras are set to roll, the actor puts on a crisp white button-down, ties his own tie (with the help of a wardrobe person wielding a handheld mirror), and adds a sport coat. Boom. POTUS is in the building…albeit in a pair of sneakers. (The cameras won’t show Spacey’s feet.) ”I’m wearing my presidential socks,” he jokes, revealing navy and white polka dots at his ankles.

Frank Underwood would never be so playful. Cards fans know that every moment of the South Carolina politician’s life is a calculated and vicious attempt to gain power. In two seasons, we’ve seen the manipulative and occasionally murderous Underwood move up the political ladder from House whip to president. And yet, all the while, the audience roots for him (and his equally venomous wife, Claire, played by Robin Wright). Admits Spacey, ”I’m not trying to make him likable. I’m not trying to make him unlikable. I’m trying to play him as honestly as I can and let chips fall where they may.”

But it’s taken more than just a good tailor and some Freddy’s BBQ ribs to build Frank Underwood (a role that’s already netted Spacey two Emmy nominations for Best Actor). EW sat down with the 55-year-old star to highlight the people who have helped inspire one of modern TV’s most deliciously devious men.

1. Congressman Kevin McCarthy
Although Spacey says he hasn’t based Frank on any one particular politician, he did turn to the current House majority leader, Republican Kevin McCarthy, for research in the beginning. ”When I first approached him, he wasn’t interested in meeting with me,” reveals Spacey. ”A few weeks later he found out I was playing a Democrat, and then he agreed to meet me after that. [Laughs] He didn’t help me in terms of how to play Frank, but he helped me in terms of understanding the actual day-to-day of what it is to whip 218 congressmen to vote the way you want to vote.”

2. David Fincher
Spacey was lured to television by the idea of reteaming with his Se7en director, David Fincher. ”When we were on set [of The Social Network, which Fincher directed and Spacey exec-produced], we started talking about wanting to work together again as actor and director. A little later David came to me and said, ‘Have you ever heard of this series from Britain called House of Cards?’ and I said, ‘My mother loved that show. And I used to watch it as well. Ian Richardson was wonderful in it.’ He said, ‘We found out the rights to do a U.S. version of it are available.’ So he went off to watch it, and I went off to watch it again. We both agreed it would translate well for the United States.”

3. Morgan Freeman
Playing such darkness can get intense, especially given the lengthy shoots needed for an hour-long drama. So Spacey often keeps the crew entertained with his impersonations. ”I recently developed a Morgan Freeman impression that’s really fun. I just think he’s got such a great voice.” The actor breaks into a Freeman voice that’s uncannily spot-on: ”Morgan Freeman has somehow managed to make almost anything he says sound like poetry. If you take…just the right amount…of pauses.”

4. Bill Clinton
Spacey counts Bill and Hillary Clinton among his friends and says his exposure to politics has been helpful for the show. It’s also worked out nicely for the set: Frank’s office is filled with Spacey’s personal photos of himself and the Clintons. One particular shot shows the actor and the former president out to eat while traveling in Blackpool, England. ”He was like, [in a Bill Clinton voice] ‘I’m hungry. I saw McDonald’s when we drove in. Do you think we could all walk down there?’ So we all got dressed and we go to this McDonald’s.” So are the Clintons FoFs (Friends of Frank)? ”Huge fans. [Reverts to Bill impersonation] ‘I can’t watch it without her. She’ll get so mad.”’

5. Richard III
One of Cards‘ most notable conceits is Frank’s direct address to the camera, carried over from the original British version. It’s a tricky stylistic choice — but Spacey had nearly 10 months of practice. ”I had just come out of having done Richard III,” he says. ”What that taught me was really incredible in terms of seeing in people’s eyes the kind of glee that they dug being on the inside, they loved being co-conspirators. I’m now just looking down the barrel of a lens. I’m not sure I’d know how to play the direct addresses if I hadn’t had that experience.” He jokes, ”A lot of people assume Ferris Bueller invented direct address, but he didn’t — it was actually Shakespeare.”

6. Katharine Hepburn
Spacey met one of his acting inspirations, Katharine Hepburn, when he waited for her after an L.A. performance of the play A Matter of Gravity. ”I was 13 or 14 years old. She parked her station wagon in the loading dock of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and I was waiting there with a bouquet of flowers. She came down this landing and she stopped and she looked at me. [In a Hepburn voice] ‘You’ve waited for me. How lovely!’ She took the flowers and sat on the bumper of her car and answered my questions about Spencer Tracy for, like, 15 minutes.”

7. Tony Soprano
Spacey knows that a complex anti-hero like Frank Underwood might not exist if ground hadn’t been broken by an anxiety-plagued mobster and a soft-spoken drug dealer. ”If you look from The Sopranos on and you look at characters like Walter White or Dexter or Sons of Anarchy, [there are] so many shows that exist on the edges and that really push the boundaries and have characters that audiences can both root for and be terrified of. I think all of those shows have paved the way for us.”

8. Beau Willimon
Before Cards, playwright Beau Willimon was best known for the political drama Farragut North (the basis for the 2011 film The Ides of March). ”To bring on a showrunner who was a playwright was incredibly important to me,” says Spacey. ”The playwright has an experience in how to hold an audience in real time and create an arc.” Adds Willimon, ”I see scripts as a strategy for giving actors tools to do interesting things because it’s not the words that people are tuning in to House of Cards for, it’s Kevin. You’re trying to catch lightning in a bottle, and a script is just where that journey begins.” The writer was also instrumental in finding Frank’s Southern accent. ”There were lots of discussions about different areas. But Beau’s father is from South Carolina,” says Spacey. ”He called his father one night and read a passage of dialogue to his dad, and he asked his dad to read it back to him. Beau was like, ‘The Southern accent is right because it means we can have a sound and a language and a rhythm that you can do things with.’ So that’s ultimately why it was decided he was to be from South Carolina. Quite possibly just Beau wanting to pay a little tribute to his father.”

9. Lyndon B. Johnson
Underwood’s office is also adorned with photos of Lyndon B. Johnson. ”Beau decided that the great president Francis admires is Johnson,” explains Spacey. In season 1’s finale, Frank is seen reading The Passage of Power, a volume from Robert Caro’s biography of the president. Spacey has been reading the same series himself as research. ”Lyndon B. Johnson was a figure whom many would have compared to a Frank Underwood: Machiavellian, difficult, son of a bitch, in your face.”

10. Robin Wright
The final piece of the Cards puzzle is Underwood’s own Lady Macbeth, Claire, played by Spacey’s offscreen friend Robin Wright. ”I’ve known Robin for 20-f—ing-something years,” says the actor. ”We did a film called Hurlyburly. There’s just something about the trust and respect we have for each other, and the fact that in the first season she was really able to create and establish a character with so little dialogue. I come to work every day — and they call it work, but it’s so much fun, it’s so much play.”

Episode Recaps

House of Cards

Ballots, betrayal, and barbecue combine in Netflix’s original drama, which stars Kevin Spacey as cunning congressman Frank Underwood and Robin Wright as his equally ruthless Lady Macbeth. Based on a 1990 BBC serial of the same name.
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