As Doug Stamper in House of Cards, Michael Kelly expertly ranges from silently smoldering to outright psycho. Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey)’s henchman and Chief of Staff has also played dead (temporarily), alcoholic, kidnapper and murderer, among other challenging plot turns. No wonder then that this is his second Emmy nom for the role.
This latest, fifth season, sees the show continuing without its original showrunner Beau Willimon, although Kelly assures they’re “in very good hands” with senior writers Frank Pugliese and Melissa James Gibson.
With Underwood’s health deteriorating at the close of Season 4, rumors abound that Spacey might follow Willimon, a topic Kelly tackles with, “You lose characters that you love. We almost lost Frank, and I always have faith in the writers that no matter what road we go down, we’re going to come back to what the show is.”
How is being on a political show, given the current climate?
I mean, it’s pretty wild. You know, always keeping in mind that our show is a drama, but yet somehow, even though this is written a year in advance of anyone seeing it, that we somehow manage to coincide with real political events that happen after we make the show. But never more so than this year, with the primaries running at the same time as ours.
Do you find people come up to you and ask for political advice?
Yeah. It’s funny because I actually am well-informed on politics. It’s something that I very much love. I studied it in college, and I studied political science, and I fell into acting. It was a total fluke. I had a dream to be an attorney. I don’t know if I ever would’ve passed the bar or not, but that was my dream. I actually do go to the Hill, and I lobbied this year for the Older Americans Act. So it’s something I’m very interested in, and you know, people do ask, and I think they think or just assume that, because I’m Doug Stamper, that I know everything about politics. I certainly don’t know everything. Like, I’m always asking Beau Willimon, “What exactly is this?” while I’m Googling things, because I don’t know everything.
Speaking of Beau, how are things without him?
I’ve only been on set three days so far. We’ve just started season five. We’re on episode one and two–we shoot two at a time. I miss Beau a lot. He’s a good friend. We became friends over the years. He helped me create that character. He and the other writers gave me the gift in the third season of writing that beautiful arc for my character, and I always say that Doug Stamper’s the greatest gift I’ve ever been given, and he’s a large part of that. So I miss him a lot, but Netflix, MRC, I had confidence in them that they would do the right thing, and they did. You know, they hired from within, and Frank and Melissa are incredible writers, and they kept the whole writing room. So, it doesn’t feel all that different, other than I really miss my good friend. But like I said, it’s only been a few days. So I don’t know. We’ll see. It’ll play out over the year.
Doug has a kind of physical immobility. Was that something that you and Beau collaborated on at all, or was that something that you just felt was Doug?
The first thing that Beau Willimon ever said to me, he called to congratulate me. I was in New Orleans doing a film, and he called to congratulate me, and he was like, “Do you have any questions about the character?” And I was like, “Oh, yeah, a lot. But I want to hear what you have to say first. You know, you wrote this.” He’s obviously different from the original Stamper in the original series, and I said, “What do you have to say about it?” He said, “Well, two things. He was like, “Season 1, just don’t emote. I want everyone to go, ‘what the fuck is up with that guy?’” It’s funny, because those two notes gave me the foundation to build that character. His voice came from that, the way he holds himself. Everything came from those two simple notes, and from that and their incredible writing, came the character. So, yeah, he had a lot to do with it, a lot.
Doug has seemed like two people at times. What’s been the biggest challenge overall of playing this role?
Maybe the recovery period in season three, you know, after he suffered the traumatic brain injury. I knew about it months before we started. So I was able to do a ton of research, watch films with people with TBIs, and we had one of the leading brain surgeons in our country, Dr. Schumacher, this wonderful man down in Florida, and he would talk to me any time and answer every single question.
You know, Stamper, everything is so internalized always. So to go outside that box and then have to explore that other side of Doug that’s like, we saw, yes, he could exist doing another job and being with his family, and his niece, and his nephew, and his brother, and all that. That’s another world in which he could live, but it’s not what makes him tick. So it was interesting to explore that and to honestly be the same guy, but a different character almost from what I was so used to playing, the guy who didn’t emote, who didn’t do anything. So that was a big challenge. But it’s so much fun. I mean, I love going to work. It is the greatest job I’ve ever had. It’s the greatest crew that I’ve ever worked with. It’s a dream. You know, to feel that way at the start of season five, to feel the same I did when I started season one, it just says so much.
What do you think makes Doug tick?
Addiction. I mean, at his core, he is a guy who just battles massive addiction. He was addicted to Rachel. He was addicted to Frank. He’s addicted to the job. Everything for him is 100 percent. You know, he doesn’t half-ass anything.
With Frank’s failing health possibly worsening, how would you feel about radical changes like that in the show?
I don’t know, because I feel like there have always been radical changes in this show. As we’ve gone along, you know, crazy shit happens all the time. Almost the entirety of Season 3 was about these characters failing, because Beau Willimon, I remember him saying to me, “Look, I can have you and Francis twirling your mustaches forever and destroying everything in your wake. People love it. But I want to challenge myself. I want to see what happens when these people fail.”
I feel like any big changes that have happened on the show, it’s always well-warranted or well-deserved, that the audience will get it. They might have to wait longer than on your typical TV show, but they will bring you back.
What can you say about about your upcoming FX show Taboo?
It’s so good. I’ve seen some of it now, and one thing I can say is that Tom Hardy has to be one of the best living actors right now. Almost all of my scenes were just the two of us, and to work with him, it was a dream, man. I’m a doctor who’s an American spy in London. I think I’m the only American in the whole thing. They probably had to have an American in there, so they put me in it.
Maybe they just liked you?
Maybe. I was just like, “Yes, I’ll do that. That sounds amazing.”