Michael Kelly never smiles on House of Cards. Ever. As Doug Stamper, Frank Underwood’s (Kevin Spacey) loyal Chief of Staff, Kelly’s job calls for mastering the thousand-yard stare and a monotone voice — both of which he developed after a quick note from creator Beau Willimon back in the first season.
“Before we ever started [production], Beau said, ‘Don’t emote. At the end of season 1, I want everyone to say, ‘What the f— is up with that guy?’ ” Kelly remembers. “So I said, ‘Okay, I can do that.’ ” The strategy worked: Over four seasons, Stamper has become one of the most sinister characters on the drama, capable of juggling the normal duties of being Frank’s right-hand man with the, well, abnormal ones, from cleaning up Frank’s messes to dealing with his own.
After being nominated for an Emmy for season 3, Kelly returns in season 4 with an arc that sees him back on his feet, but struggling all the same. He has to first deal with the in-over-his-head press secretary Seth Grayson (Derek Cecil), who’s been leaking information to a rival candidate’s campaign director. (And Stamper deals with him in the most Stamper way possible.) And then, later in the season, he chooses to save Frank’s life by taking a stranger’s — and then strikes up a romance with the stranger’s widow.
It’s all twisted, dark, and very much Stamper. Kelly spoke with EW about the season, Stamper’s inability to emote (and, perhaps, to feel), and the eerie parallels between House of Cards and the real-life presidential election:
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let’s start with this season’s “Stamper moments.” The first major shocker was the one with Seth and the glass, when Stamper suffocates him out of anger. How did that come together? It’s so violent.
MICHAEL KELLY: Right? That one was difficult on a number of levels. Derek Cecil, who’s a good friend of mine who plays Seth, he and I didn’t see eye-to-eye on the progression of the scene, so we talked it through a lot together before we ever started. And then the actual physicality of it, where it just goes from zero to 60 in half a second, to make that transition work was challenging … They had the chair rigged so when I threw him down, it wouldn’t slam his head too hard. The main concern was to not get his head to bounce off the ground. Honestly, one of the hardest parts was when I’m right on top of him, the cameras were so close, I wasn’t even able to look at him. I’m talking to the floor.
And then in the back half of the season, there’s another crazy twist for Stamper when he pursues the widow of the man he essentially killed so Frank could get the liver he needed first. How did you feel about having this storyline, in which Stamper, yet again, gets strangely obsessed with a woman he knows nothing about?
I was like, “Beau, this is f—ed up.” [Laughs] He killed her husband, and now he’s going to start a relationship with her? I was like, “This is sick.” But at its core, it’s addiction, you know?… [His relationship with Lauren] came out of him donating to the site and looking at these pictures and thinking, “Wow, she’s pretty. Huh.” And he keeps looking and looking and looking and it gets weirder and weirder and weirder! It’s so twisted. [Laughs]
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The Underwoods are obviously scary, but Doug is scary. He’s so emotionally stunted. How do you get into that mindset? He’s not exactly evil; he’s complicated.
At its heart, it’s all about addiction. Frank, work, alcohol, Rachel, everything, you know? … Beau said to me before we ever started, “Don’t emote. At the end of season 1, I want everyone to say, ‘What the f— is up with that guy?” From that came Doug’s voice and the fact that he never smiles. Beau laid the groundwork for that character, and I just had to say the words.
Is there anything you do before each take to capture that voice and that stare?
No, it just sort of comes up. I always try to get to a certain state of relaxation before work, so a lot of it has to do with that … I’m not even aware of it myself. That blank stare says so much about the guy, it’s scary. [Laughs] … The guy who does my hair on the show sometimes, when I’ll be in the makeup chair going over stuff, he’ll be like, “Oh s—! You just went there.”
And the funny thing is … a lot of girls have asked me to take a picture and [have said] “Can you just do it with the Stamper face and, like, put your hands around my neck like you’re choking me?” I’m like, “Sure, yeah, if that’s what you want.” [Laughs] I know, it’s creepy, but I do it ’cause it makes their day.
Beau Willimon is leaving as showrunner after this season. What are your thoughts on season 5, on getting two new showrunners?
I’m a hundred percent behind them … If we couldn’t have Beau, I think the next best thing was to replace him internally. I love both of them, but I will miss Beau so much. We became very good friends. We used to go to the James Joyce Pub across where we both stayed [in Baltimore], right in the little circle in the harbor there, and we would eat a lot of meals a week together, and I’m gonna miss that, I’m gonna miss hanging out with him. I’ll miss the fact that he was there every first take or every first rehearsal of every scene we ever shot, and then he’d just go back to his chair and write, and then he would eat and then go home and write, sleep a few hours and then come back to work. [Laughs] I mean, I can’t say enough good things about Beau Willimon.
Finally, I know you’ve compared Frank Underwood to Donald Trump before, but it’s interesting that in this election, there are several other notable parallels to real life. There’s the KKK being brought up as a factor against a candidate, the ISIS storyline through the fictional ICO, and there’s even an episode where Frank’s Cabinet members mention having to nominate a new justice to the Supreme Court in the middle of an election. How do these parallels affect the way you perceive the show?
When I use the word “genius” to describe Beau Willimon it’s also like, and he can see into the future! [Laughs] Every year we have something that happens [to mirror what goes on in real life], and this year, [with] the KKK, that was the one thing that we did that I was like, “Oh, we’re not going to see that.”
And then [Laughs], whoa, we see it! It just seems so outlandish [for the KKK to be discussed in real life] and it’s crazy, but really, wow. This current primary [in real life] is really making our world [in House of Cards] not seem so crazy anymore.
Neve Campbell said the same thing.
It’s crazy! What’s happening now [in real life] is just insane. The fact that someone being considered for the highest office is not operating with a level of knowledge, respect, proper decorum … the fact that anyone in our country is considering someone who’s acting like that, and to see the others stoop to that level, I can’t even wrap my head around it, you know?
Well, maybe they’ll watch House of Cards and go, “Huh. Maybe, we’re taking things too far.”
[Laughs] Maybe they’ll watch and think, “Maybe we should tone it down a little bit.”
House of Cards season 4 is streaming on Netflix.