Kevin Spacey isn't just the star of "House of Cards," playing silky master manipulator Francis "Frank" Underwood, who with the help of his equally formidable wife Claire (Robin Wright) has been ruthlessly climbing the political rungs of Washington, D.C. He's also the digital series' executive producer, alongside the likes of David Fincher and Eric Roth, and as such has become a spokesperson for the changing media landscape, having delivered a widely watched Edinburgh International Television Festival keynote address on the topics of the rise of the quality drama, binge-watching, the inefficiencies of pilot season and the blurring of lines between TV and film. With season two of "House of Cards" set to premiere next week on February 14th and a third season just confirmed, Spacey stopped in New York for a press day to talk about what's next for Frank and about how the Netflix process has shaped the series. Here are 10 highlights from his roundtable interview:
Frank Underwood would be an effective president. When asked about the kind of leader his cutthroat character would be were he to make his way into the presidency, Spacey said quite possible a good one. "The most interesting conversations I've had with people, be they politicians or people in the public or just friends of mine, is that, say what you will about Frank and his methods, he's very effective. I'll just use the example of Lyndon Johnson, because he happens to a politician that Francis admires. There's no doubt that during his presidency, during his political career when he was in Congress, he was called Machiavellian, he was called ruthless, he was called son of a bitch, a bastard, an uncompromising asshole fuckhead who people hated -- and yet, he was very effective."
Spacey is not a fan of judging Frank. "My job is to not label a character 'evil' or 'psychopath,'" the actor noted. "Those are impossible to play. That's not an active word for an actor. My job is to really just show up and serve the writing and to try to play a character with as much honesty as I possibly can and let the chips fall where they may, and then let an audience make those judgements, not me."
Having a two-season commitment and not having to shoot a pilot set the pace for the series. On the topic of how having the series at Netflix rather than a traditional network affected the creative process, Spacey explained "they were the only network that didn't demand a pilot, an audition. When you shoot a pilot, you're forced to establish all the characters and create obligatory cliffhangers and set the whole thing up. And because we were not obligated to do that, we were given this commitment of 26 episodes to two seasons, it allowed us, from the creative perspective, to take our time, to allow characters to be introduced when we wanted them to be introduced, for relationships to have the space to expand and change and shift. And I think what all these different platforms prove is that the audience doesn't care [if it's streamed], they just want content."
Robin Wright came into her own as a director. "She was great," Spacey said of his co-star, who made her directorial debut this year on the series. "She was prepared. It was really great to watch her that first day. She just found her footing and she really liked it. You could see that she really liked being able to make decisions. I had a great time with her, and the hardest part is not giggling, because we laugh a lot."
Parallels between the series and real life are often unplanned. Sometimes "House of Cards" echoes what's actually happening in the country deliberately, and other times it's a happy accident, Spacey said. "All through the season, we'd be dealing with a particular plotline, and then I'd come home and on the news was that plotline. And I'd be, like, 'How did that fucking happen?' People are gonna think that we wrote that story because of that, but we actually filmed it before that happened. There were a number of times where, over the course of the seasons, things we were grappling with in the storylines actually were happening -- but not because we were trying to rip them out of the headlines, it was just fortuitous."
The ratings game is changing. Spacey admitted to knowing "everything" about how the series was performing, numbers that Netflix doesn't share with the public -- not that he feels they need to. "I think that traditional ratings are on their way out. I don't think it's gonna be the way that people gauge. Do you really genuinely think that 20,000 boxes on televisions represent 500,000 people across the country? Of course not. And someday, we'll actually know the numbers and it will change advertising."
The camera becomes a conspirator. "It's kind of a kick," Spacey said of his character's asides to the camera, ones he compared to the direct addressing of the audience in Shakespeare's "Richard III," a role he played on stage before starring in "House of Cards." "It's interesting to look into the barrel of a lens and talk directly to people. [The audience] feels like they're in on something that no one else is in on, like they're co-conspirators. Where I was able to make an adjustment in my own thinking about it was that, instead of thinking like I'm talking to lots and lots of people, I'm talking to my best friend, the person that I trust more than anyone."
The role of Claire was expanded from the original "House of Cards." "From the very beginning we wanted to make the role of Claire a much better role than in the British series, a much more complex role," Spacey pointed out. "And I think right from the get-go we were determined, once Robin came on board, to help make a very strong, very independent, very unique woman. And I've been delighted also to see, not just in our series but in a lot of series, really terrific roles for women and women getting opportunities to be showrunners and to create."
Frank is the latest in a line of complex small screen antiheroes. "There was a time when people felt that you have to make all the characters on TV likable, that they have to be good at their jobs, they have to have good families and all this stuff," Spacey said. "Where this last 15 years of programming have proved that actually all audiences want are character-driven stories that are complicated, that take a long time to evolve, in which characters are not necessarily good at what they do and have all these different kinds of qualities. I look at it that the foundation for us being able to do what we have done on 'House of Cards' was laid many years ago by very good storytellers. We've entered into a situation where we can exist because that's what an audience wants."
Frank may or may not have a conscience to wrestle with. Asked about whether Frank ever felt guilt about or regret for his actions, Spacey mused that it was a "great question." "As the season goes on and as we head into a third season, I think that those are some of the questions that we will definitely be addressing and grappling with," he allowed.