Kate Mara and Kevin Spacey in 'House of Cards'
Melinda Sue Gordon/Netflix Kate Mara and Kevin Spacey in 'House of Cards'

When Netflix unveils all 13 episodes of the first season of "House of Cards" on Friday, February 1st, it will potentially join the ranks of cable networks like HBO, AMC and FX without being a TV network at all. The streaming site/DVD-by-mail company premiered its first original series, the international co-production "Lilyhammer," last year, but "House of Cards" is its major entry into the realm of highbrow original programming. The series is a political drama written by Oscar-nominated screenwriter and playwright Beau Willimon ("The Ides of March") and executive produced by David Fincher, who also directed the first two episodes in his first foray into television.

Kevin Spacey stars in the drama as Representative Frank Underwood, a silkily ambitious and amoral politician who, after being passed over for Secretary of State, sets in motion a plan to take down the new president he helped get elected. Robin Wright, Kate Mara and Corey Stoll are among the other cast members, who present a beautifully lensed portrait of Washington, D.C. as a snakepit as full of intrigue as any royal court. Indiewire spoke with Willimon, who served as the showrunner for "House of Cards," about the series, what we want out of politicians and working with Fincher.

Allen Coulter and Beau Willimon
Patrick Harbron/Netflix Allen Coulter and Beau Willimon

"House of Cards" is based on a 1990 BBC series -- how much or how little does it take from the source material?

I don't think any of us see it as a remake -- it's not like we're translating the BBC version and just Americanizing it. It really is a complete reinvention. There definitely are some clear things that anyone who watched the BBC series will see that we stole without remorse, and certain archetypal features -- a few of the characters and a couple big plot themes -- but it really is a reinvention from the ground up.

There were particular things, like [Underwood's] direct address to the camera, that we wanted to keep. The BBC series was a total of 12 hours over three parts, so knowing that we had 26 episodes guaranteed, we had to contend with the fact that we were going to have to introduce a lot of new characters, to have storylines that are far more long term and layered than the BBC ones. Pretty quickly a lot of the comparisons fall away. In many ways it's a different tone and style, and that's partly just my writing and David Fincher's filmmaking.

Despite the show being set in contemporary D.C., there's an almost Shakespearean tone, in part because of the direct address -- there are shades of "Richard III," "Othello," particularly with Kevin Spacey's character. Was that something you sought?

There's definitely a kind of heightened level of storytelling that verges on Shakespearean -- your words, not mine, though I'll take that as a complement, that guy's pretty good.

Kristen Connolly and Corey Stoll
Patrick Harbron/Netflix Kristen Connolly and Corey Stoll

Yeah, he's all right.

Tales of power and ambition and intrigue and betrayal and desire -- when you're telling those in a big way, you automatically want to go to Shakespeare. His dramas and his history plays, they're the best that Western civilization has to offer, right? Kevin had done "Richard III" on a world tour on stage for nine months prior to filming, so we were having lots of discussions of that play in particular, but you're also looking at "Macbeth" and "Othello" and a million other things as well -- I drew from my own experience in the political world. We wanted to create a world that felt authentic, where the behavior felt real, but at the same time to tell an ambitious story of size, and if we were able to get gritty naturalism and merge that with Shakespearean storytelling, that's right where we want to be.

Can you tell me about your use of the direct address? With a character like Spacey's, who presents a different false front to everyone he interacts with, it does seem to allow you to see as close to his true self as there is.

It gives you access, right? Which, put in the hands of the wrong actor, would be disastrous, because it would bring everything to a halt and feel like a narrative hiccup. But when you put it in the hands of a great actor like Kevin, it gives you access to this great mind at work, and makes you a co-conspirator in all of these schemes. In a way it makes the audience complicit -- you're his accomplice. You may, on paper, abhor some of the things he does, but you find yourself rooting for him because he gives you that access. That tension in the audience -- I'm rooting for him despite myself -- that's exactly what we're after.

"True master politicians and survivors of Washington don't tend to be ideological extremists."

You'll see the direct address throughout all of season one, in some episodes more than others. It depends on where we're at at any given point in the story.

A lot of recent political shows have played coy with party affiliation, but it's made clear that we're looking at Democrats here. Can you tell me about the choice to identify the characters as such and how much it matters to the story?

It both totally matters and totally doesn't. Spacey's character, Francis Underwood, is completely non-ideological. He is a pragmatist. He knows how to live in the middle and how to work both sides. True master politicians and survivors of Washington don't tend to be ideological extremists. They tend to be able to have one belief system one day and another belief system the other day. A lot of times people get in trouble for that -- flip floppers or whatever -- but actually it's smart political strategy because it allows you to forge new alliances and make enemies when you have to, and those are constantly shifting.

So while he may be a Democrat, he's just as capable of embodying more conservative ideals in a given moment if it's politically beneficial to him. What we do know is that he is unabashedly self-interested. He wants power for power's sake, and he's doing this for himself and he doesn't shy away from that. And I think that's sort of refreshing.

In terms of how it does matter: Hollywood has a reputation for tending to be on the more liberal side of things. I don't have any exact demographic information to back it up, but that's the conventional wisdom. I thought that if we had a diabolical, self-interested character and we made him a Republican, it might seem that we have an agenda that we don't, like we're trying to target Republicans. Really, we're trying to target everyone, and by making him a Democrat, I think not only does that make him more complex because we see him doing things that Democrats might not typically do, but it also says it doesn't matter if you're a Democrat or a Republican. If power is your aim, you're capable of this sort of behavior regardless of party affiliation.