House of Cards has been a huge success for Netflix. Its star and executive producer Kevin Spacey tells John Byrne about working on the show and how TV has 'learned the lesson the music industry didn't learn'.
After a hugely successful first season, internet stream providers Netflix are currently shooting the second season of political drama House of Cards, while September’s Emmy Awards could see the show picking up quite a few prizes. All of which must be music to the ears of Netflix bosses, but Kevin Spacey – who plays the lead role of manipulative politician Frank Underwood and also exec produces the show – is enjoying the greater freedom that comes with working in an environment where the commitment to programming rarely goes beyond TV’s traditional starting point: the pilot.
“You know, it seems to me that one of the benefits of having entered into this partnership with Netflix has been the actual creative process was greatly affected by not being put in a position to have to do a pilot,” says Spacey, on the line from across the Atlantic.
“You know, in a sense, I suppose, one could look at a pilot as a kind of audition and that the writers, particularly, and Beau Willimon our head writer specifically, would have had to have written an hour or a two hour episode that establishes all of the characters and sort of creates kind of arbitrary, artificial cliff-hangers, etcetera.
“And because Netflix has such faith in David Fincher and in myself and in the concept of the series, being able to start knowing that we were going to tell this story and tell it over these initial 26 episodes, was a really remarkable way to begin.”
Not only that, but it allowed those involved, as Spacey puts it, “to just get on with telling the story.” It’s also a process that he believes has changed – or at least will help to change – the way TV shows (if we can still call them that, as Netflix isn't a TV channel) are put together in the future.
Spacey is of the opinion that things have been gradually changing for some time. “The manner and the distribution model in which it has been put out there, has been one that I believe has been in the making for a number of years,” he says. “I always believed [and] have been talking about it for about eight years, that we were eventually going to see one of these companies that was making a tremendous amount of money as a portal for content, waiting to eventually get into providing the content and being a part of the story telling process.
“So it didn't surprise me, I was incredibly pleased that Netflix was the first, they have been tremendous partners, and I think in some ways maybe this proves that the way in which an audience has been able to find the series, that we have learned the lesson the music industry didn't learn. Give people what they want, when they want it, in the form they want it in at a reasonable price and they will buy it and they won’t steal it.”
Then there’s the annual Emmy Awards on the horizon, with the ceremony taking place in September. Netflix are very much the new kids on the block, so they've done remarkably well with their three new shows: House of Cards, the return of Arrested Development and first-time horror thriller Hemlock Grove. Overall, Netflix got fourteen nominations, with House of Cards leading the race with nine.
Kevin Spacey’s been around long enough to know that awards and nominations are great, but not the be-all and end-all. “You know, look, I -– some of the most extraordinary programmes and some of the greatest actors and directors and writers have been honoured by Emmys and I think that we would be incredibly honoured,” he says when asked about winning an Emmy or nine.
“I know there is a lot of talk about it, you know, there always tends to be, you know, for us, we are the new kids on the block and we are just delighted that we’re being -– that we’re in the discussion and I suppose we’ll find out in a little while how we've done.”
On top of the critical and commercial success of the show, Spacey is also keen to point out that House of Cards has been on the receiving end of positive reactions from America’s political class.
He says: “I have generally heard, and whether people would say this publicly or only say it privately, that we've gotten it right; that there is a tremendous amount about the way that we've approached the show that is accurate in terms of how politics and the machine of politics works. And whether that is a depressing idea or whether that is an interesting idea, you know, I will leave to the readers.” That’s you, folks . . .
As for his own role, the character of Francis Underwood, he came into the part with more than a little knowledge of the original House of Cards – a BBC drama from 1990 that focused on a fictitious Conservative Party MP called Francis Urquhart, on which Underwood is based. And he was also excited at the prospect of working with acclaimed movie director David Fincher, whose stunning film CV includes The Social Network, Seven, Fight Club and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
“I was aware of the original series, I watched the original series when it was initially on in the United States,” he recalls. “You know, it was a program that my mother particularly admired. I thought it was terrifically well done; I thought that Ian Richardson was absolutely brilliant in the role. And you know, my initial attraction to it was really not so much the role itself, because I actually had to go back and look at it again, but it was the idea of coming together with David Fincher and being able to work with David as an actor and director again.
“And it was David who originally proposed the idea that the rights for the series were available and was something that we thought could translate into an American series. So we both went and looked at it and then we regrouped and decided that we both thought that it could in fact translate very well and that the role had all kinds of wonderful possibilities to it and then ultimately we brought Beau Willimon on to write the initial scripts. But really, it was about David. It was about the notion of having a chance to work - to reunite with David.
Like Spacey, Fincher is an executive producer of House of Cards. He also directed the first two episodes and earned himself an Emmy nomination for the pace-setting season one opener. Spacey’s not surprised that Fincher got nominated.
“Well, you know, I think that David’s work speaks for itself in many ways,” he offers. “He is one of the most remarkable directors of actors in terms of his technical aspects of how to make a movie and how to shoot a movie and how to promote a movie. I just don’t think that there is anyone that comes close to the kind of razor-sharp abilities that he has.
“When we worked together in Seven, when I watched what he did and his tremendous effort on The Social Network, and the experience that I have had with him now, it is just [that] he prods and pushes and asks all the right questions and does it with a tremendous good will and great sense of humour and it is just a pleasure to be with him on a daily basis. And yes, I would be very happy to continue that relationship for a long time.”
Season two of House of Cards is due for release in 2014