Michael Kelly has been through the Beau Willimon grinder. He knows full well that any character, beloved or not, can be done away with by the House of Cards creator at a moment’s notice. Just ask Kate Mara, whose Zoe Barnes got pushed into an oncoming train in the first episode of season two and became one of the most surprising character deaths on a TV show, streaming or otherwise.
But when Kelly’s Doug Stamper was abandoned in a forest with what seemed like a fatal head injury at the end of season two, everyone—including Kelly’s parents—thought Doug was dead. “My dad was like, ‘Mom and I just finished and, I’ve got to say, you look pretty dead to me,’ ” Kelly recalls.
The actor, who had been comforted that Doug would live when the episode was shot—“Come on, I’m not getting rid of you,” Willimon had told him—started to doubt his place in Willimon’s universe. “It’s House of Cards, right? They do not hesitate to kill great characters,” Kelly says. Making matters worse, at the time Netflix dropped season two of the series, Kelly was thousands of miles from home, filming Everest in the Italian Alps. Accessing email rarely was possible, let alone streaming a show. What he couldn’t see for himself he asked his manager and business manager to check out, which they did hesitatingly, not wanting to forward through season two’s 13 episodes before they were ready, just to get to that last scene. “Hey, dude, it was fun while it lasted,” he remembers his business manager saying. Two long months passed before his contract for season three was picked up.
But what came after was one of Kelly’s toughest challenges to date portraying one of TV’s most complicated good bad guys. Season three saw a long arc for Doug Stamper, who recovered from his traumatic brain injury only to fall off the wagon while seesawing allegiances between President Underwood and presidential candidate Heather Dunbar. In the end, it seemed to be part of Doug’s master plan to land him back in the White House.
But first, what was up with that syringe full of bourbon? Kelly laughs. It’s a question he fields most often when he’s recognized on the street. “When he took that pill at the doctor’s office he was off the wagon. The pain (from his head injury) was too much,” Kelly explains. “Doug’s irrational thinking was, ‘I’m stronger than that. I’m going to get some bourbon and I’m going to measure it out; it’s medicine.’ ”
The trajectory from seasons one to three, it turns out, was all part of Willimon’s master plan. When Kelly signed on for the role, Willimon asked him to not emote the entire first season. “ ‘It’ll be written in such a way that I want everyone to go, What the fuck is up with that guy?’ ” Kelly recalls Willimon saying. “ ‘We’ll learn more about you in season two.’ In season three Beau completely turned Doug on his head. I basically was playing a different character at times. I’ve never been so scared to take something on. I’ve never been so filled with doubt.”
And even though Doug seems to regain control of his life at season’s end, he still returns to his grisly ways in yet another finale that threw viewers for a loop.
But just don’t expect any answers about whether we’ll see Doug as Underwood’s chief of staff at the beginning of season four. “I was alive at the end of three, that’s all I can say,” Kelly says with a laugh. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Beau was behind my bedroom door right now. I put nothing past him.”
Meanwhile, we’ll definitely see Kelly in Everest, a recounting of the devastating 1996 expedition to the world’s highest mountain that ended in eight climber deaths. On September 18 Universal will release the pic, which also stars Keira Knightley, Jake Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke and Josh Brolin. Kelly portrays writer Jon Krakauer, upon whose book, Into Thin Air, the movie partially was based. “I saw a rough cut not long ago,” Kelly says. “I was blown away. It’s friggin’ heart-wrenching and exciting as hell at the same time.”
Unlike the fictional surviving on House of Cards, Kelly and his Everest castmates found themselves in some real death-defying days of shooting, barely avoiding avalanches, shooting in high-altitudes and walking across a rope bridge suspended 1,000 feet from the ground. “When we were all cast and we got to set, I remember asking, ‘Did they ask any of you guys if you had bad knees or a bad back or anything?’ ” Kelly says. “Everyone was like, ‘No.’ We were all amazed that no one was asked of their physical state prior to going into this thing.” Towards the end of the shoot, a guide who consulted on the film gave Kelly and some of his costars a 99.9% shot at making the Everest summit. Would he ever want to try it? “I could die,” he says. “I have kids.”
To see more about the filming of Everest, click play below: