'House of Cards' showrunner Beau Willimon on Season 3's back half: 'We always like to keep our minds open'
After 10 days, everybody’s gotten their House of Cards 13-episode, season 3 binge out of their system, right?
Right—which is why following a round of intel regarding the front half of the season, EW has followed up with Cards creator Beau Willimon to get all our burning questions about the last batch of episodes answered. [Major spoilers follow, obviously.]
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This season, more than ever, seemed like The Moment of Claire. Is there any chance that she might seek a higher post now that she seems a little…freer? (In the last moments of Season 3, Claire announced in the Oval Office that she’s leaving her husband, Frank.)
BEAU WILLIMON: We haven’t even officially announced a fourth season, but we’re very interested to hear what people think. The big question should be: what does that mean? Is she leaving and to do what? How did this relationship that’s been so strong buckle under the weight of the presidency?
Was it always assumed that she and Frank could start going their separate ways?
We talk about the whole season when we start and where we’ll end up going, so we knew quite early on. Is it where we knew we going five years ago? No. We always like to keep our minds open on where a season can go.
Claire is more aggressive sexuality in season 3. What was the thought process behind that change?
What do you think makes it aggressive?
Well, she gets rough with Frank, and smacks him, and tells him what she wants.
But we’ve also seen her quite tender with [artist] Adam Galloway (played by Ben Daniels) in season 1, and the ménage a trois with Meechum (Nathan Darrow) isn’t aggressive. So what we’re seeing are aspects of a complex sexuality, like any of us on this planet. It can’t really be relegated to one type of sexual experience. It is true that’s it’s the first time we’ve seen the Underwoods have sex. We’ve seen them give each other strength in a lot of different ways.
You could look at it as aggressive, but you could also see it as quite tender, because you see two people that are really there for each other. When she asks Frank to “f–k” her, she’s someone who needs to be shaken out of something, and in that moment, that’s the type of sex that she wants. And it’s not reciprocated, which is one of the many things that leads to that final scene in the Oval Office. Sex isn’t really a subject for us–for us, those are moments that are only interesting if they reveal new things about the relationship.
One thing that really made viewers happy this season is the return of Cashew—hacker Gavin Orsay’s guinea pig, who nearly got smooshed last season to many raised hackles.
Yeah, Cashew’s okay. [laughs] He’s in good hands. We don’t ever write in terms of what we think the audience wants—not out of any antagonism toward the audience, but you run the risk of pandering. Something like Cashew returning wasn’t because we want to make a lot of people happy. It was a part of Gavin’s story, and we saw a lot of him last season. We always ask, ‘what are the aspects of this story that deserve to be told?’ He’s part of Gavin’s story, and we want to know what happens to Cashew. Gavin’s this conflicted guy who’s done terrible things and lied, but still has the heart to make sure that Cashew is looked after.
Season 3’s back half also feels really immediate. There’s so much dovetailing with current events—a hurricane that threatens devastation, Russian anti-gay laws. How did this happen?
It’s more coincidental than anything else. Well, climate change has been an issue for decades now, and the Russian anti-propaganda law is not news to anyone. But in terms of the whole Russian storyline: We started this over a year ago, and my biggest concern was that nobody would care about Russia, since they weren’t in the news. The only thing they were in the news for was the Sochi Olympics. It was eerily coincidental that what was happening in the real world bore some resemblance to our fictional world. It would be a fool’s errand to try to rip stories from the headlines, since we begin a year out. Our story would always feel a year old. You can’t plan for that. It just kind of happens sometimes.
Have you heard at all from Russia?
The government? No, we have not heard anything. We haven’t had any communication with the Russian government. Our only interaction was oblique: We wanted to film in the actual Security Council chamber at the U.N. and get the approval of the outreach office there and the Secretary General’s office to do so, but the member states have final say over whether you can film or not. And they said no. So we created the Security Council on a stage and green-screened all the walls and made it look exactly the same. But they didn’t want us to film there, so we didn’t.
I love the inside casting of some of the supporting actors, who are married in real life but rarely play opposite each other. You had Jayne Atkinson, who plays Secretary of State Catherine Durant, and her husband Michel Gill, who played President Walker in the previous seasons. And there’s one this season…
Yes, and this year we have Paul Sparks [who plays Frank Underwood biographer Tom Yates]) and Annie Parisse [who plays Suzie, the blunt, breast-feeding woman Claire has a one-on-one with to try to talk her into voting for Frank].
That scene with Claire and Suzie, the oversharing mother, is one of the most pivotal in the season; you just see these gears turning in her head in that scene after Suzie suggests she should be president.
I’m glad you said that. A lot of politics is reacting to chaos and things you couldn’t have foreseen. We’re always interested in the unexpected—with her expecting to talk to a supporter, and it turns out she’s not. And this woman ends up unloading her life in a way that sometimes happens in real life. That’s what we were aiming for in that episode.
It’s so shrewdly depicted. Claire and Frank just seem like they want somebody to talk to, like with Frank’s White House smoke breaks with Freddy—who eventually becomes a White House groundskeeper.
Or Frank and Yates. One of the biproducts or costs of the lives they’ve chosen is that it’s quite isolating. It’s lonely at the top. You see why the White House is called often called the gilded cage. You see Obama in his second term going for a stroll to go to Starbucks, even though the Secret Service doesn’t want him to, because it becomes a premium experience to be a regular person. You’re in that bubble, which is the most unnatural place to be. When they’re able to achieve moments of intimacy, it’s an important thing for them. They’re each searching for intimacy in different ways, even in ways that they don’t want.
Like with Claire and Suzie, Claire is both fascinated and repulsed by that experience. She’s supposed to listen, but also wants to get the hell out of there. When you get someone like Robin Wright playing that moment, you get something magical on screen.
Was Frank’s America Works, the controversial employment program in which the Pres. Underwood dips into FEMA money, based on any real in-the-works U.S. program?
No specific model was a basis, but we wanted him to have two big agendas: a domestic one and an international one. We knew he had very little time before the 2016 election, and I said that we need Frank to have some version of the New Deal. Unemployment is typically part of every election cycle, and the idea that Frank could eradicate unemployment with his “go big or big home” mentality is just the sort of thing he would tackle. He looks at this impossible thing and says, ‘maybe it is possible’.
We talked to lots of experts in academia, economists, policy makers, some book-learning, and what you see in the series is the tip of the iceberg of what we did. And we liked the idea of a program that’s both conservative and liberal. You take a conservative and a Marxist agenda in a blender, and you get America Works. There’s something in it for everyone to hate, and for everyone to like. It just so happens that he fails at it. It speaks to the pressures of the presidency; even Frank Underwood, deft politician that he is, has the hardest job on Earth, and it’s not going to be an easy road.