Peter Russo (Corey Stoll), the South Philly congressman who gets caught up in the political machinations of David Fincher's Netflix series "House of Cards," is in many ways the opposite of Kevin Spacey's Francis Underwood. Russo is hot-tempered where Underwood is cool and restrained; he's at the mercy of his addictions to drugs, alcohol and hookers while his fellow Democrat is measured and calculating about everything in his life, including his dalliances.
Most damning of all, at least in the unforgiving world in which the show is set, Russo feels invested in the community he came from and is representing whille Underwood cares only about D.C. power brokering. But Russo and Underwood are tied together by debts and practicalities, and as the series unfolds we start to understand what kind of bargain the two have struck. Indiewire caught up with the "Midnight in Paris" star by phone to discuss his part in the Netflix drama, sidestepping spoilers for those who have yet to binge on all 13 episodes.
Do you see Russo as a good politician, despite the personal problems?
I think he’s good at getting elected. He grew up working class, a scrappy kid in Philadelphia, but was smart and hard working and charming. He didn’t believe it when people told him he wasn’t supposed to be a successful guy, so he just walked into every door that was open, and got his scholarships, became a big lawyer, became a very young congressman through sheer force of personality and lack of doubt. That doubt was always there, waiting for him — you know he has a gnawing hole of need in his center. He fills it with drugs and alcohol and meaningless sex, but he has a great time doing it. He hasn’t really been burned, and the few times he has he just pretended it didn’t happen.
There’s that sense that he’s a PR disaster waiting to happen — certainly something we’ve seen with politicians before. Does that ever occur to him, going into politics when people are so scrutinized these days?
I think he, like a lot of politicians, does not have a sense of self-awareness. Part of his skill as a politician is his ability to lie to himself as much as everybody else. I was watching the first episode again recently and I don’t think there’s anything I say that’s true. Everything is a lie of some sort, either in fact or in degree. That’s just the air he breathes and that’s the air everyone breathes in D.C. He believes his own bullshit.
How would you characterize the series’ treatment of politics as a whole? As a topic it almost demands cynicism when it’s put on screen.
I think it’s very cynical. The guys you’re following are almost entirely Democrats, but they’re not Democrats you know. People are self-interested. There are some peripheral characters who are strong partisans, strong ideologues, but they’re almost seen as pawns in this game. Kevin’s character is the whip, which is really the seat of vote counting and just about power brokering, and so that’s what the show’s about — the show’s about power. There’s the Oscar Wilde quote, "Everything is about sex except for sex: it’s just about power." I think that would be a good slogan for the series.
Any real life figures that you looked to when working on the character of Russo?
A bit. Jay Carson [who served as press secretary for the Howard Dean and Hillary Clinton presidential campaigns], who was the political consultant, was talking about what politicians go through in scandals — a lot of the outcome is determined by people’s pain threshold. It’s like having a metal trash can on your head and someone beating it with a stick. You can’t really focus and it’s unpleasant and it’s going to end and it’s not going to leave any permanent damage.
Someone like Clinton understood that and was able to weather many scandals — someone like Anthony Weiner or Eliot Spitzer has no pain threshold, the second they got caught they folded. So he’s sort of a hybrid, my character — he’s not quite the hypocrite that Spitzer is or Weiner, he never presented himself as upstanding. [laughs]
Your last regular TV role was on "Law & Order: LA," which is classic episodic television, while these Netflix originals are very serialized — they’re almost in between film and TV. What's the experience been like working on it and how it was different from "Law & Order"? As an actor, does this represent something interesting to you as a new medium?
I love it. Especially when you have a character who is as varied as Peter Russo, so that one episode you’re in the gutter and another you’re soaring. It’s like doing a whole series of movies — it’s almost, in a way, like doing a play because you get to know this character in a way that you can never really know a character in a movie, because by the time you figure them out you’re done.
In terms of the episodic thing, it’s just different. You still want to find the character, but you’re finding him in a narrower slot, you have to choose your battles and find a way to just look at them there. But I had a good time doing "Law & Order." Obviously it was not about me in the way that a show like this is, but I like working. [laughs]
Do you watch much TV yourself? There’s been a lot of talk of binge-watching and how that's changing the way TV is made.
That’s how I watch TV now. I don’t have cable. I’ll watch one show and sometimes switch back and forth, an hour of this, an hour of that. There are problems with both ways of watching TV. Being one of the creators, there’s a certain fear that when you do binge watch some of the nuance gets lost because people just consume it. You don't have time to really digest what you’ve watched. I think that’s going to happen more. When I first discovered Netflix and even when series started coming out on DVD, you just plow through them. And after a while you have to have self control, to soak them in.
What was the experience like working with a famously exacting director like David Fincher — do you feel that he approached "House of Cards" any differently than he would a film?
I think he normally shoots about a page a day and we shoot about four or five pages a day, so it was a learning curve for him as well. That being said, he still did many more takes than any film director I’ve worked with. The first couple of times you work with him it’s a little disconcerting. It’s hard for an actor not to feel like it’s criticism the moment when you're asked to do the same thing over and over again. Then I realized very quickly that what he’s looking for is not some platonic version of the scene that he sees in his head before he showed up. He’s just trying to get you out of your own head and surprise yourself, create something organic like that. Once I realized that, it was so lovely.