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‘House of Cards’ Star Michael Kelly: Playing Doug Stamper is a Difficult Gift (Emmy Watch Video)

'House of Cards' Star Michael Kelly: Playing Doug Stamper is a Difficult Gift (Emmy Watch Video)

House of Cards” was well into shooting Season 3, Episode 10 on location in Baltimore when showrunner Beau Willimon took Michael Kelly aside. “I need to talk to you.”

Kelly was nervous. What was up? On a show like “House of Cards,” which is currently streaming Season 4 on Netflix, anything can happen.

In fact, at the end of Season 2, most viewers thought Kelly’s character — Doug Stamper, the take-no-prisoners lieutenant/henchman/operative to Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) — was dead. During the filming of Season 3, Kelly had to tell people he saw on the street that he was a consultant on the show. “Last year was difficult,” Kelly told me. “Everyone thought I was dead… I had to boldface lie to people. It kind of sucked. I knew I had to lie.”

READ MORE:  ‘House of Cards’ Is Made to Be Binged, But Does Not Bingeing Make It Better?

That’s because Season 3 was devoted to Stamper’s dramatic recovery from a traumatic brain injury and his determined quest to return to the job he was meant to have as President Underwood’s chief of staff. Accomplishing this meant proving himself and his willingness to do anything to survive, including killing someone he loved.

“The third season was incredibly difficult,” said Kelly, “exploring a whole other side of him I’d never seen before.” It earned him a supporting Emmy Drama Series nomination.

As originally written, in Season 2, Episode 13, Willimon had Stamper let Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan), the young woman he was obsessively involved with, drive away in a van. But no. Willimon had decided that Stamper had to prove his loyalty in order to get back to Underwood.

Willimon told him, “You gotta kill her.”

Kelly paused. “I gotta kill her,” he thought. “People are going to hate me! We knew that for the story to be right he could not go back and say, ‘we are all good.’ He had another chance. If he was going to go back, the character arc was all about getting back.”

Even if it meant killing someone he loved. “He loved Rachel, whether it was a weird Mom thing he had,” Kelly said, “or he may have loved her/loved her. At times she was like a daughter to take care of. He was using her, he loved her, it was the hardest thing he ever had to do. It’s a big thing, he knew he had to do it.”

Thus Stamper winds up “with the president… getting back to where he believed he belonged.” So by the end of Season 3, we see Stamper in the Oval Office with President Underwood helping him to beat back his political opponents, who at times even include his wife Claire (Robin Wright). So that’s where we go during Season 4. But Kelly, while willing to talk about the seasons viewers should have caught up with by now, doesn’t know what they have and haven’t seen in the Netflix binge universe. So Season 4 is off-limits.

READ MORE: Review: ‘House of Cards’ Season 4 Might Be the Best Season Yet, But It Won’t Be Your Favorite

As for Stamper, his loyalty still knows no bounds. “Doug is so much based on addiction,” said Kelly, “from alcohol to Rachel to Frank, it’s something he has to have: tunnel vision. His loyalty to Frank is a byproduct of his loyalty to his job. When he failed, he saw another life he could have with his family and his brother, with a job that would take him elsewhere and Hawaii, to an easier life. He could do it, but it didn’t make him tick.”

For Kelly, Stamper is “not a bad guy. He does bad things. He’s a complicated guy with serious addiction issues.”
And somehow via the writing — which manipulates our sympathies like a whipsaw — and Kelly’s Emmy-worthy performance, we often root for him while being offended by him.

“That goes back to Arthur Penn and the Actors Studio in New York,” said Kelly. “He was a mentor of mine. He said, ‘Never let go, always bring as much of yourself to the character as you can to ground it in reality. No matter how deep it is, find the goodness in that person, it seeps through.’ [Doug] has a heart; he battles addiction… It’s about power, something everyone can identify with. Power draws you in, it’s something we can gravitate toward.”

Kelly loves getting the scripts at the start of the shooting process, and finds them as compulsive to read as we do binging on the show: I watched eight episodes in one weekend. The same writing team is still in place for Season 4 under Willimon (Sarah Treem left for “The Affair”), who is exhausted and letting go the series after this season, when veterans Frank Pugliese and Melissa Jane Gibson will take over as supervising executive producers.


“Beau Willimon is a genius writer and friend,” said Kelly, “with a tireless work ethic. He looks like hell at the end of the season. You can’t drink that much coffee and not sleep.” Willimon starts in January and goes through June, checking out the first rehearsal or first take, returns to his trailer to write, then back to the set. Each night Willimon and the cast get together for dinner at a local pub and then he returns to his room to write and sleep. Every Friday he returns to his wife, to be back on Monday. This goes on for six months. “With a leader like that, you can’t complain about anything.”

During the year, Kelly lives in an apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan with his wife and two young kids, and for six months he commutes on weekends from Baltimore. Not to mention other jobs like “Everest,” when he was in Nepal, the Italian Alps, Rome and London, playing Jon Krakauer as part of the 1996 team that tried to scale Mount Everest. That book became “Into Thin Air,” which was sold to Sony TV, so Kelly couldn’t talk to the author for Universal’s “Everest.” Kelly has never been a climber, and didn’t want to take altitude pills up above 16,000 feet, so he suffered through for two weeks, feeling like co-star Josh Brolin “was pushing the palms of his big strong hands into my head every night… I’ll be proud of it forever, the friendships we made, with a lot of ups and downs, we got a little crazy.”
Now Kelly is working in London with Tom Hardy and Steven Knight on eight-part BBC/FX series “Taboo,” set in the period around the war of 1812 when the British and the Americans were fighting over territories. Hardy’s character claims a pivotal piece of land; Kelly plays an American spy. “Tom’s one of the best actors right now,” said Kelly. “I learn from Kevin Spacey and Tom Hardy, watching these guys work, the things they all do differently. Tom never stops exploring and discovering, take after take, his mind never turns off.”

But in the end, playing Doug Stamper is “hands down, the greatest gift I have ever been given as actor,” Kelly admitted. “Here’s a total gem: I get to play this guy and say these words. To know that I love going to work every day… after four years! It’s the greatest job I’ve ever had.”

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