WARNING: The following contains spoilers for the final season of House of Cards. Read at your own risk!
There, no more Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly). The fixer and Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) acolyte met his end in the Oval Office during the series finale of Netflix’s House of Cards, when Robin Wright’s President Claire Underwood — sorry, Claire Hale — stabbed him with a letter opener and suffocated him to finish the job.
Kelly, who nabbed three consecutive Emmy nominations for his performance, tells EW he embraces being the show’s final kill. “It’s a badge of honor,” he says, laughing. “I was grateful to finish every season [before this] and see I was still alive. That was the greatest treat, like, ‘I made it!'”
Below, the actor revisits what it was like shooting his bloody final scene, what he thinks of Claire’s series-closing line, and reveals the prop he kept from set.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Of all people, Doug — Frank’s loyal right-hand man all these years — turned out to be Frank’s killer. How did you react to that when you first read it in the script? Or were you warned of it beforehand?
MICHAEL KELLY: Yeah, we talked about it at length before it went to paper. When [showrunners Frank Pugliese and Melissa James Gibson] first approached me, obviously it was incredibly shocking to hear it [laughs], but I’ve been very blessed over the years that they’ve given me such incredible material.
It made total sense. When you think about his entire mission, Doug, being the addicted character that he is, constantly has to have something to obsess over, and for him it was clearing that name, saving that legacy. [His murder] was about how to save Frank from himself. He was going to destroy his legacy, and Doug couldn’t have that, you know?
How early on did you know about this twist?
We were into it [by then]… There were so many unanswered questions when we started — [the writers] were almost done [with the season] when they learned they had to completely rework it within a couple of months.
I know you’ve commented on it before, but how did you feel about what happened around Kevin’s exit?
Well, there’s a million emotions that go through your head when something like this happens, but there wasn’t a lot of time to dwell on, “Oh my God, what happened?!” It so quickly became, “How are we going to do this, how are we going to bring this show to the proper conclusion for the fans, for ourselves, and for the crew?”
I think my first call after I spoke with my team was to Robin, and I just said, “We can’t let this end.” She was like, “No, we can’t, and I’m already on it.” [Laughs] It was so reassuring to have her take a leadership role. She stepped up and became the driving force for all of us, for the whole crew.
It’s impressive, and very Claire of her.
Let’s talk about your death scene. What was it like making that sequence happen, especially with having Robin also as your director?
Robin and I had both asked to be there on the last day for the crew, we had rehearsed the whole scene, and we thought it fitting for that scene to be the last scene we actually shot. Literally the last shot we shot was her holding me and staring down the barrel of the camera.
It was incredible on one hand. On the other hand, we ended up doing, I think, over 14 hours on that scene. [The scene] was five pages, and we took a full day. Robin’s directing and doing this incredibly charged, emotional scene, so by the end of it, the two of us were just on fumes.
So when the AD team stepped out and said, “That’s a wrap on Michael f—ing Kelly,” [laughs] — that’s what they call me, “Michael f—ing Kelly” — I just felt this wave of emotion for this crew that I’ve worked with for six years. Most of them are my second family. I was already incredibly emotional and exhausted and all that, but I remember saying, “Guys, I’m probably going to get out two words here, but I just want to say thank you and how much I love each and every one of you, and I couldn’t do it without you,” and I started bawling and crying. And then [laughs] they were like, “Alright, that’s a wrap on Robin Wright,” and Robin got up and gave this beautiful, elegant speech with no tears. [Laughs] She’s so… she’s Claire. [Laughs]
She really seems like it! Diving into the scene itself, Doug doesn’t really fight back at all as she’s killing him, and his last words are “I’m sorry.” What do you think his final thoughts were?
I think he’s okay. He’s finally at peace. This guy’s just been through hell his whole life, so I think there was a giant weight lifted off his shoulders. When he has the letter opener to her throat, in that moment he looks down and he sees there’s a part of [Frank] there and he can’t go through with it and he stops, so when she [stabs him instead], it’s just like, “Alright, that’s the way it’s gonna be.” [Laughs]
Like in his mind, he’s like, “This should be the way I go.”
Right! Because think about it: He can’t just walk out of that room not doing it. What happens then? It’s certainly no life that he would want. He’s almost grateful, you know?
So would you say he was prepared to die?
Yeah, I think… I think when he walked in there, what he wanted more than anything was for her to give the pardon. He gives her every reason to give him that — he says to her, “Here’s a full list of who wants you dead, I’ve once again done all the work, you’re set.” And when she doesn’t, he can’t take it. [Laughs] He’s like, “I’ve always been able to get what I want.” He just loses it. He’s playing with a new hand, but ultimately there’s no way to navigate it.
But even before that, he does warn Seth (Derek Cecil) that “it’s not going to go like you think.” He leaves behind his copy of A Tale of Two Cities and Rachel’s coordinates for Janine (Constance Zimmer) — it really does seem like he knows he’s walking toward his death.
Well, I think we’ve seen in the past that the one thing Doug always is is, he’s incredibly prepared for every scenario. Telling Seth that is saying that the Shepherds might not get exactly what they want, how they want it. And in my opinion, it’s this beautiful moment between these two men who have always been at odds… I think he’s just telling his friend, “I know we’ve hated each other at times, but here’s just a little bit for you to take forward: You might not have the job security you think.”
So in the end, do you feel like the scene’s triumphant or tragic? Claire’s won, but at cost.
It’s funny because even when characters win on our show, a part of them loses. So Claire, yes, she’s won right now, but I think Doug also set it up where no matter what happens, he’s given information to other people. I’ve set Janine Skorsky on a path [to finding the truth] with those little nuggets. I thought all of that was very well thought-out.
Speaking of those nuggets, what are your thoughts on the way the Doug and Rachel arc ended?
I thought it was beautiful. She’s the one person we saw him love over the course of this show. I know that’s weird to say because he killed her, but there is zero doubt that in some weird Stamper way he did love her, and so to go and say goodbye to her and give her a proper marking and give the coordinates so that her family, her friends, her girlfriend can have a proper goodbye… There’s something incredibly poetic in that.
Claire’s final line — “There, no more pain” — is also quite poetic. What did you think of it?
I loved it, because it goes back to season 1, when he kills that dog [in the pilot]. That’s just good writing, to go back to something that was so strong and memorable.
Moving on to the season as a whole, you got to address the camera directly for the first time this year —
[Groans] Ugh. Ugh.
I was about to ask you how you felt about that, but it sounds like you hated it.
[Laughs] I read that [in the script] and I was like, “Guuuuuys. I don’t know about this!” It’s the same as when people would ask me all the time, “Oh my God, please tell me Doug’s gonna be president one day” before every season, and I’d be like, “No! Can you imagine that guy on the campaign trail? He’s not good at talking to people.” You know? He’s just not good at it.
So when I got that [note], I was like, “Okay, alright guys, I’ll do it, because I never doubt you as writers, but I gotta figure this out. Who’s he talking to? Is he talking to himself? Is he talking to Frank?” I sort of made it a combination of those two, and I did not for one second ever pretend I was talking to the audience. I was either talking to myself or to Claire or to Frank — mostly to myself, sort of lending to the madness.
So you figured it out!
Yeah, but I wanted to throw up. [Laughs] I probably threw up in my mouth a little bit when I first saw it. Even in the prep, I mean, I worked very hard just trying to wrap my head around it. I was pacing around my apartment in Baltimore over and over, just telling myself “You can do it, you can do it,” but how? How?! [Laughs] It was truly maddening.
We also got unshaven, on-the-run Stamper this season. Was that at least fun and not agonizing?
Sooo much fun. I loved it. The beard is not a lot of fun to wear — you can’t imagine the level of discomfort [laughs] — but come on, it’s worth it to see him in that full beard.
And lastly, did you take anything from the set after your last day?
Of course I did! And you know what? [Pauses dramatically] I got the letter opener.
Yes! How perfect.
As a matter of fact, that was my wrap gift to the whole crew and cast. I got letter openers and I put “HOC 6” on them. I couldn’t get the same one but I got these cool little leather-handled, brass letter openers engraved.
Neat. Where’s the letter opener you took? Are you displaying it anywhere?
Not yet. It’s in my nightstand. I don’t want to blow it for my family on what happens on this show. [Laughs]
Ah, of course. Well, I hope it goes somewhere special.
Oh, it will. [Laughs]
There may be no more pain in Doug Stamper’s life, but there’s much more of Kelly’s interview. Pick up this week’s issue of Entertainment Weekly to continue reading the actor’s insights, including his thoughts on how Spacey’s departure affected the show, what his last day was like after filming his death, and more.
House of Cards is now streaming on Netflix.