EXCLUSIVE: For five seasons, Michael Kelly has played Chief of Staff Doug Stamper on House of Cards. And for five seasons, Kelly has impressed — and earned multiple Emmy nominations — for his role as the cold and calculated foot soldier for Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood. As Kelly enters the sixth and final season as Doug, he talked to Deadline about his character’s journey through the five seasons, the changes for him in the new season, how Kevin Spacey’s exit lit a fire underneath him and the cast, and how it feels for the groundbreaking show to come to an end.

“It’s bittersweet,” he said about House of Cards’ final hurrah. “I had such love for this show for so many reasons…the crew is one of the greatest crew I ever worked in my life. They became my second family.” He added, “I can honestly say that my last day, I was as excited to go to work as I was on my first day.”

Kelly said that he initially auditioned for the role of Hammerschmidt (which eventually went to Boris McGiver), Lucas Goodwin (a role that was eventually portrayed by Sebastian Arcelus), and even Peter Russo (who was played by Corey Stoll) before Executive Producer David Fincher thought he would be better for the role of Doug — which probably was better for him since two out of the three of them died on the series.

As Netflix’s first original series, House of Cards changed the landscape of storytelling and the way audiences consumed entertainment. From the very beginning, Kelly said that he knew the show was changing television. With Fincher at the helm, Kelly talked about how he would film scenes and knew they were on to something with this series that looked at the fractured and corrupt world of politics. While shooting the first season, Fincher invited Kelly to watch an episode in his office and he was floored.

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“I just came out and my mouth was agape,” remembered Kelly. “[Fincher] asked, ‘You like it?’ I said, ‘Holy sh*t!'” He called his manager and said that after watching one episode he knew that they were making something special.

Doug isn’t exactly the nicest guys on the show — the exact opposite of Kelly, who always has a smile on his face. Essentially Doug is a robot and, after the finale for season 5, he has proven he would do anything for the Underwoods, particularly Frank. But after taking the blame for the murder of Zoe Barnes — who Frank offed — Kelly said we can expect for the tide to shift in character when it comes to Doug.

“I think that’s one of the most interesting things about this season for this character, is that this is a man who’s been void of emotion to this audience for a very long time — and you actually see him feel this season,” said Kelly. “It’s really interesting. I think people are going to dig it. It’s the same, and yet it’s such a departure for this character.”

Ultimately, Doug is seen by many as the villain, but Kelly thinks differently. “He is a very complicated man who’s done some really bad shit but I don’t think of him as a villain for a second,” explains Kelly. “I think that everything he’s doing is for what he considers to be the greater good. He feels that that was what was best for the country —  it’s a terrible thing. I wouldn’t do most of what Doug Stamper does, but I understand.”

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The change in Doug is warranted considering he took the fall for the Underwoods. Even at the end of season five, we see him questioning what’s happening. “He’s out of a job — which is what drives him even more than Frank is his dedication to his job,” Kelly points out. “Everyone’s like, ‘Why is he so loyal to Francis?’ I’m like, ‘He’s so dedicated to his job.'” For Doug, everything is an addiction and with his job and Frank gone, Kelly said that the best way to describe him when we meet him in season 6 is that he is “lost” and we see the ramifications from that. With the first episode of the new, we see a bearded Doug and it is clear that something is brewing in his head… and I guarantee you it doesn’t include a plan to send an Edible Arrangement to Claire and company.

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It’s obvious that the glaring difference between the final season of House of Cards and the ones before it is that the show is missing a key player: Frank Underwood. When Spacey was fired from the series after multiple sexual assault allegations at the end of 2017, the fate of the series was in limbo. Luckily, Netflix decided to move on with Robin Wright taking the Oval Office as President — which was perfect considering that’s how season 5 ended. But unfortunately, the focus for many wasn’t on how the cast and crew pulled up their bootstraps to make season 6 happen under the gun, but on criticism of how they didn’t know about Spacey’s actions outside the confines of House of Cards. 

During an interview with Today in July, Wright addressed this saying: “Kevin and I knew each other between action and cut, and in between setups where we would giggle. I didn’t know the man. I knew the incredible craftsman that he is.” Kelly said that Spacey was a private person and everyone respected that. He reiterated the fact that when it comes down to it, House of Cards was a professional workplace and sometimes you don’t know your co-workers outside of their work life.

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“We came to work, we worked, we went home,” said Kelly. “I would hang out with Dereck Cecil and Neve Campbell — and you know there’s a group of people we would come to my house and drink wine and go over our lines and do our work at night, having fun — we would just hang out. I didn’t socialize with Robin and I didn’t socialize with Kevin.”

There would be times when he, along with many people from the cast would go over to his house to watch debates, but ultimately, he was a private man. For the first two years of the show, they had a professional relationship and closer to season three and four, they got to know each other more, but it still remained professional.

When it came to gossip and rumors surrounding Spacey, Kelly put it best when he says they were just rumors. He said that many people have approached him — especially on social media — saying that it’s “bullshit” that he didn’t know. “If anything was happening there, that I saw, or heard about internally through the crew, of course, I would have spoken out…we’re a family.”

Kelly adds, “People can’t wrap their head that you have your people at work who you have a work relationship with and you have people at work who are your friends — it goes along with respecting privacy.”

With the legacy of groundbreaking shows like The Cosby Show and Roseanne being affected by the actions of their leads, House of Cards is in a similar situation. “You can’t deny that this happened,” Kelly notes. “You don’t have your lead actor for your final season…or your lead actor changes for your final season, which was always the intent, but will it be remembered as that? I don’t think so. I think what Robin does this season is so fricking outstanding that people are gonna remember that…and I think that’s the indelible mark it’ll leave on the audience.”

House of Cards' Michael Kelly
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After the hiatus and Netflix’s decision to bring the show back without Spacey, Kelly praises the cast and crew for rising to the occasion to crank out a stellar season in a limited amount of time. He attributes a lot of that to Wright, who he called first after Spacey’s exit. He told her: “We can’t let this die. We’ve gotta figure this out.” He said Wright took the reigns and everyone was on the same page and said that they couldn’t let the show die because of the actions of one person.

The new season will certainly end the series with a bang. With Wright leading the charge and the addition of Greg Kinnear and Diane Lane as Koch Brothers-esque characters, the show will continue to eerily parallel today’s political climate. Kelly said that the things were getting too real between House of Cards and reality when the Trump administration entered the picture.

“When you think about it, going back to seasons one and two, we were the crazy show,” laughs Kelly. “It was a crazy look at Washington, DC. Then the administration changed and it was like, ‘Wow, We’re not really the crazy show anymore.'”

The sixth and final season of House of Cards drops four days before the midterm elections — and Kelly doesn’t think this is a coincidence. “House of Cards is about power…something everyone can identify with and you see what happens on our show with abuse of power. So if anything, it will give four days to make the audience think.”