When writer-producer Beau Willimon adapted the black-as-pitch British miniseries House of Cards for a ground-breaking deal with Netflix, he introduced U.S. audiences to the anti-hero power couple Francis and Claire Underwood (Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright), both so bent on rising to the top of Washington power circles that their ambitions trump their morals. By the end of season two, they had reached their goal, moving into the White House. Willimon first explored political cynicism and boundless ambition with the play Farragut North, which became the 2011 film Ides of March with George Clooney. Now, heading into a third season of an award-winning blockbuster, Willimon explains how Frank Underwood is actually as optimistic a politician as they come.
DEADLINE: Early on you worked on Chuck Schumer’s campaign, and then with Hillary Clinton, Bill Bradley and Howard Dean. In your adaptations, politicians just seem like such awful people. What the heck did you see that informed such a cynical view of politics?
BEAU WILLIMON: Well, I don’t have a cynical view of politics. I don’t see Francis Underwood as being cynical at all. He doesn’t have an ideology. He’s not driven by idealism, but he is an optimist at heart. He says, “Forward progress, momentum. Do something instead of nothing.” That’s an optimistic point of view. Admittedly, both Ides of March and House of Cards are a dark take on the political process, but the subject isn’t politics, it’s power. So, there are no politicians that I worked for that, in any way, are parallel to Francis Underwood. Now, the more you become acquainted with the political world, you see people who are constantly faced with ethical choices, who wield a great deal of power, and with that power, comes a huge amount of responsibility, and you’re more often than not in that gray area instead of a black-and-white dialectic. I like to amplify the grayness. I like to really dig into those forks in the road, those moments where someone becomes a monster or plays into the darker side of power. But that’s not meant to be reflective of the entire political process.