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.”
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.
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.”
“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.”
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.”