Michael Kelly’s Doug Stamper was the steel-strong thread of integrity through six seasons of House of Cards. While the show’s leads Frank and Claire Underwood stopped at nothing in their Machiavellian scheming, Doug was driven only by his loyalty to Frank.
And although Kelly has three times been Emmy-nominated for the role, it is in this sixth and final season that he shines brightest of all. While Kevin Spacey’s departure from the show almost robbed House of Cards of a proper ending, the rewrites that emerged following that debacle ultimately gave Doug his well-earned pivotal bow. In a finale scene so intense it took some 15 hours to shoot, Doug both confessed to murdering Frank and was stabbed to death by Robin Wright’s Claire. He even got to break the fourth wall in that episode—a move previously reserved only for Frank and Claire. Thus, Doug emerged as a lynchpin; an almost Shakespearean figure of fate.
Offscreen though, Kelly felt the shock of what happened with Spacey. “In all honesty, it was really difficult,” he says now. “It was very hard to navigate on so many fronts. Personally, obviously. You have this thing in which this is a person I spent six months of my life with every year for the last six years at work. And then all of a sudden for that to be gone. There were so many emotions that went into what went down, and how it went down. It’s just a lot to take as an individual. I don’t care how old you are or how mature you are.”
It had looked like the show could not go on. But it was the responsibility to the crew that crushed Kelly the most. “That crew is my family and I love them so much,” he says. A possibly permanent hiatus threatened financial disaster for those workers. “The thought of them being shorted that time, to me, was too much to handle,” Kelly says. “That’s where my mind went.” He focused on that situation rather than what was going on with Spacey. “It wasn’t about the gossip or what was going to happen with a trial. I was like, ‘How do we get these people back to work? How do we wrap up this show for us, for the crew, for the writers who gave their life to this?’ Even the state of Maryland, the film commission there. How do we just let this not finish for Netflix, its first original show?”
Kelly credits Wright with saving the day, the show, and those jobs. When he called her, she told him, “We’re going to do it. We’re going to figure it out somehow.” The writers—who had already spent a year creating a sixth and final season assuming Spacey’s presence—had to scramble to completely rewrite the show in just two months. And what they came up with took Kelly to some “dark emotional places”, he says. “The final scene with me and Robin in the Oval, we were just running on fumes at the end and I think Robin really wanted two days to film it, and we only got one. But I remember there was a point when I was just out of tears. I was out of gas. I was out of everything.” It was Kelly’s love for his crew members that kept him on track, and specifically, a hug from beloved camera operator Gary Jay. “He put his arm around me and immediately I just started crying. That’s how much these people mean to me.”
With Doug’s death came peaceful closure too. “There’s that finality to it for me as an actor to completely close that chapter of my life,” Kelly says. There will be no Doug reboot now. “With these classic television shows sometimes, they come back seven years later. That’s not going to be on the books for me. They were like, ‘Are you so bummed you died?’ I’m like, ‘No. There won’t be any talk of a spinoff.’”
But there had at one point been more than just talk of a Doug spinoff. A pilot had been written. It wasn’t Spacey’s departure, and Doug’s consequently altered story, that put paid to it, Kelly says. “They decided that they didn’t like the pilot and they weren’t going to move forward with it. It happens all the time.” But while Kelly says he was “touched” to be thought of for that project, and calls the premise “a fantastic idea,” he once again brings the focus back to the crew he loves. “Part of it was I wanted to take the production back to Baltimore. The thought of a spinoff was great because I was like, ‘I get to stay with my family.’”
Since he first stepped into Doug’s shoes, Kelly says he has noticed the roles he’s offered have a similar flavor. “The jobs that tend to come my way are very much in that headspace, so to speak,” he says. “But then you find something compelling in it.” Take Tom Hardy’s period drama series Taboo, for instance. Kelly plays Dumbarton, a doctor dabbling in espionage. “I think they were basically looking for an 1800s Doug Stamper,” he says, “and I was very happy to oblige because I think that Tom Hardy is one of the best actors of our generation. I was like, ‘Wow, I have a chance to go and learn from Tom Hardy.’ For me, it’s always being able to grow as an actor to see someone else’s approach to acting.”
Humbly observing and learning from others is something Kelly keenly embraces. As FBI agent Goddard on the last two seasons of The Sopranos, he fondly recalls working with James Gandolfini. “To have watched him play that character—to learn from him how he did that—that was invaluable and something I will take to my grave as one of the most special experiences I’ve had in my career. He was one of the kindest, most generous people that I met in my life.”
A certain ‘by-the-book’ quality has also peppered Kelly’s resume, from an early stint as a detective on Kojak, to that Sopranos role, to playing real-life military officer Gary Volesky in limited series The Long Road Home. And now Kelly has just wrapped Season 2 of Jack Ryan, in which he plays CIA agent Mike November, opposite John Krasinski in the titular role. But despite his rule-abiding characters, Kelly himself is, he says, “not a by-the-rules, by-the-book kind of guy.” And in Ryan, he’s really enjoyed stretching the parameters a little.
“Mike November is a by-the-rules, very much by-the-book kind of guy, but Jack convinces him otherwise,” Kelly laughs. “It’s just a fun show, you know? Really exciting, and John is so great; Wendell [Pierce] is so great. Just to go and play with those guys was such a blast. And although he’s by-the-book, I was able to go and explore a slightly lighter side to this guy.”
Kelly was wrapping up Cards when the Ryan offer came in. “They said, ‘You have this offer to go and join the cast of Jack Ryan for one season—a one-season deal.’ And I was like, ‘Wow. Isn’t that just the perfect, beautiful Band-Aid to put on the way that I’m feeling right now, grieving over the loss, and the ending of House of Cards?”
Kelly had also met Krasinski before and liked him. While working with Krasinski’s wife Emily Blunt on The Adjustment Bureau, the trio had hung out one night over beers and a game of darts. “I love Emily Blunt,” Kelly says. “She’s truly I think the funniest human being I have ever met, man or woman. And John is equally as funny… Well, almost. I always give him sh*t because I’m like, ‘No, she’s funnier.’ They really reminded me of the way that my wife and I get along. We laugh, we take the piss out of each other, and I was like, I really like that guy. So when the offer came, I thought, I know I’m going to have a good time on that job. And I did. We got to do really fun sh*t.” That fun included flying Black Hawk jets, among other things.
Kelly hopes the post-Doug levity will continue. “I’m really enjoying the lighthearted nature,” he says. “I mean, that being said, if it was David Fincher or Christopher Nolan, or Spielberg or Ron Howard, I would go gladly. I would play a dark, menacing guy. I would do whatever those guys asked me to do. But right now, I’m having fun.”