Michael Kelly has come a long way since he arrived in New York City 27 years ago with $300 in his pocket — and since the first season of “House of Cards” debuted on Netflix in 2013.
The actor, who plays Doug Stamper, has been Emmy-nominated three times for the role and “House of Cards” itself, starring Kevin Spacey until his ignominious fall from grace, was a huge awards magnet for Netflix, paving the way for the streamer’s entrée into prestige original content.
Those early days practically seem like the Pleistocene era both in terms of the distribution of content and in the power of the #MeToo movement, which continues to topple people like Spacey who had been at the top of the entertainment food chain for decades.
And of course, “HoC,” created by Beau Willimon and based on a 1990 BBC miniseries and a novel, premiered three years before the candidacy and ultimately the presidency of Donald Trump.
Kelly’s character arc on the show has been a wild ride, to say the least, involving passionate loyalty to Spacey’s ruthless politician Francis “Frank” Underwood, murder and alcohol abuse.
With Francis’ equally powerful wife Claire Underwood, brilliantly portrayed by Robin Wright, taking his place as commander-in-chief, Stamper finds himself buffeted from many directions in the sixth and final season of the drama, whose episodes dropped last month.
We caught up with Kelly by phone in New York and talked about the final season that almost wasn’t, the legacy of the show and the potential for his own political aspirations.
TVWeek: Let’s go back in time to the first season of “House of Cards.” Could you have imagined then that Netflix would be the powerhouse it is today in original programming — just five years later?
Michael Kelly: I so vividly remember a couple instances when Netflix executives visited, and told us they were going to drop all 13 episodes at once. They said this is now how people want to see content. I remember thinking it was so strange and wondering why someone would consume it so quickly. I understand now. But I remember telling my manager that we’re making something really special and I don’t know if anyone is ever going to see it. But I did invest in Netflix stock. The world has completely changed. All my kids watch is Amazon and Netflix, and everyone else jumped on board. Everybody is in on the game. What it’s done for consumers and us artists it is amazing. But still, you can’t watch every great show if you have a job or kids, although there’s something for everyone.
TVWeek: Let’s talk about the elements of Doug Stamper’s character and what you enjoyed most about playing him.
Kelly: What I loved most is that he is such a complicated guy. He’s not a bad guy. He’s done a lot of bad things but I don’t think he’s a bad person. Playing him all these years has been a great gift. He’s a character that’s so complex and you don’t often have the opportunity to do that.
TVWeek: Francis’s shadow hangs over everything in this final season. What was it like when you and the production team learned that Kevin Spacey would not be returning?
Kelly: There’s a lot that goes through your head — and about 100 emotions. For me, Robin, Frank and Melissa, it became about no matter what you feel or how it impacted you, how do we continue for the fans and the crew? Of course when it happened it was devastating.
It would have been easy to walk away. Robin was the first phone call I made and I said we can’t NOT do this. We both were on the same page. The most important thing was thinking about the crew, most of whom had been there from Season 1. They waited a long time in the off-season, and then came back for 3-4 weeks, and then we went on hiatus right before holidays last year. They thought they were out of work. Netflix and MRC paid the crew on hiatus to hold everyone over and then let them know about coming back. It was really uplifting.
The writers roughly had storyboarded the entire season, and had written 7 or 8 episodes and had strong outlines for the rest. I had finished the first two episodes and the whole production was about done when we went on hiatus. Basically then they had two months to write out the lead character — and start over. It blew me away. They were relentless and were constantly talking it through. I can’t imagine the pressure they were under.
TVWeek: Most of your scenes previously were with Kevin, so what it was like moving forward without him and interacting more with Claire and your dynamic with her character.
Kelly: I had that opportunity with the Francis character for five years, so to jump in and be a scene partner with someone I respected was exhilarating. The most we’d had before this was a few one-on-ones together. I admire her as a director, an actor, a producer and a team leader. I’d done it with Rachel Brosnahan but the opportunity to get in the ring with Robin was thrilling and I have a lot of gratitude for it. She’s so good, and watching those two face off was exciting.
TVWeek: For those who haven’t seen all of Season 6, for many the ending will be incredibly shocking. What are your thoughts on how everything wrapped up?
Kelly: You’re never going to please everyone. It’s like wait, what happened? If you wrap up every character’s storyline perfectly it’s too convenient. I liked that there are open- ended questions. The season made you think overall. When you look at that, the show’s always been about power. You get a look at what happens with abuse of power.
TVWeek: For these last couple of seasons since Trump was elected president, have you felt like the writing was reflecting more of the political realities in Washington?
Kelly: The head writers have analysts, experts, lawyers–everyone to contact for a storyline. You can’t help but to have the wind blow through and the thought process affected. We’re never been a tear-from-the-headlines show. The Russia thing has been big, but that was a total coincidence since the scripts are normally prepped a year in advance.
TVWeek: You have spoken about possible political aspirations of your own. Can you elaborate on that?
Kelly: I would love it but my wife would hate it. There’s a very big part of my heart that says I can help do something to better the country, the state, the community. As an elected official you have influence. I studied political science in college but being on “House of Cards,” I learned a lot more than I ever did in college. Since then I’ve gone to the Hill to lobby for seniors. This year I’ll be going to my first White House Correspondents’ Dinner to show we’re here for the press, not the president. It’s about giving young journalists scholarships and honoring great men and women who put their lives on the line covering stories. Here we have a president calling them the enemy of the people. There are things I can do to be there for seniors, and the press. There are people who bash me on Twitter, but when I speak out against the president they criticize me for being leftist-elitist Hollywood. But I grew up in Georgia and pounded the pavement in New York City for seven years. He’s doing damage to the middle class and lower middle class. I believe if everyone knew the truth … I’ve lived in New York for 27 years, and Trump has always been one to take advantage of the less fortunate. I find it incredibly frustrating and I’m going to use my voice to say this is wrong.
TVWeek: Now that “House of Cards” has wrapped, what’s next?
Kelly: The second season of “Jack Ryan.” It’s so much fun playing opposite Wendell Pierce as the chief of station in Caracas, Venezuela. We shot in Colombia. Wendell and Jack [John Krasinski] follow a lead on something back in the States, we join forces and go rogue — flying Blackhawks and such. There’s a lot of action, which is harder now that I’m getting older and I was used to the office thing.
To be a free agent for the first time in six years, I’m excited for what’s next, hopefully something cool.