SPOILER ALERT: Do NOT read unless you’ve finished season three of “House of Cards.”
Season two of Netflix’s “House of Cards” ended with Doug Stamper left for dead after being hit in the head repeatedly with a rock. Now, Michael Kelly, who plays President Frank Underwood’s (Kevin Spacey) longtime right-hand man, is relieved he can finally admit he survived the brutal attack. “After a year of lying, I can finally get to tell the truth,” he tells Variety.
That said, he’s been so busy working he still hasn’t had a chance to watch this season yet. “I can’t wait to see it!”
Did you always know you were going to survive?
When we shot it, it was written as, “Stamper is lying there, but he is breathing.” It was written as that, we filmed it as that. And then I was in the way Northern Italian Alps filming “Everest” last winter when it came out. I couldn’t stream it there. I would get shoddy email — 50 of them would pop up at a time. My dad’s email was the first one to come through, and it said, “Wow, great job this season, but you looked pretty dead to me.” The next one was from my business manager, “It was a hell of a run while it lasted.” And everyone had already run with the story that I was dead. With such shoddy communication, I started to worry, did they change their mind? It was the typical insecure actor thing.
The storyline hinges so much on your arc this season. How challenging was that for you as an actor?
When I got the first script, I was honored they’d put that much trust in me. It was taking Stamper and turning him on his head, almost changing the character. And then fear kicks in. They put this trust in you. This show has been incredibly successful for two years. You screw this up and you screw everybody. I worked on it so hard. I spent countless hours on the phone with the leading brain surgeon in the country. I did so much research on head injuries and brain damage. I worked my tail off to live up to the excellence that’s been out there for two years.
How much of the story do you know in advance? For example, did you believe you had really gone to work for Underwood’s rival, Heather Dunbar?
(Showrunner) Beau (Willimon) let me believe I was going to work for Dunbar for a good bit of it. He said, “I couldn’t have you thinking it was fake, or it was going to come across as fake. I had to have you feel as if you were really going to work for her.”
Why did Stamper keep Claire’s journal?
Maybe he didn’t know it would to be prove his loyalty, but he knew it would be useful in some way shape or form. He didn’t keep it out on the coffee table. I’m sure he had it locked away in a safe. He’s a smart guy — he wouldn’t have let it fall into the wrong hands. He showed it to Dunbar — but he never gave it to Dunbar. There were never any copies made. It was very useful for him.
Why is Stamper so fiercely loyal to Underwood?
I think his loyalty is somewhat of a byproduct of him just wanting to do his job to the best of his ability. Like many alcoholics I’ve known in my life, when they remove the alcohol from the equation, they tend to put all their energy into something else. He funnels everything into the job. Of all the people he knows he’s closest to Frank. But they don’t have a personal relationship.
That made Stamper’s breakdown in front of him so much more powerful.
That would be the only person I would do that to. He doesn’t have anyone else he could go to. That’s the closest person to him.
How much did Stamper’s absence impact Frank’s political struggles this season?
Selfishly, I think a lot. I think that certainly Frank would have been better off with Stamper. He’s not the ultimate fixer, but he would have made some things better without a doubt. The fact that he can simply watch the news and assess how to better deal with some situations without even being in them — that’s a big asset to Frank. I can’t wait to get back to doing the deed with him.
Do you think he’s a better partner than Claire (Robin Wright), who has her own personal motives?
Yes, he’s a better companion to him because he has no single goal for himself other than to serve the President of the United States. He just wantes to be the best chief of staff he can be. He’s a great partner for Frank, whereas Claire has her own goals. Doug doesn’t have his own goals other than to better serve the man he’s serving.
We also got to see a rare personal side of Stamper, when we meet his niece and nephew.
That was so hard! Those were my children: my daughter, Frankie, and my son, Clinton. When I finally come to (and send my brother home), Stamper thinks he’s OK and he’s obviously not, Beau was like that might be harsh, even for Stamper. He said, why don’t you say to your brother, “Send me a picture of the kids.” It will lighten the moment. I went to the next table read and it said, “Stamper walks over to the fridge and there’s a picture of the kids.” So I emailed Beau and said, “Do you mind if I put a picture of my kids up there so it’s someone I know?” Beau wrote back and said, ‘The more I’m brainstorming the story I’m thinking the kids might actually come visit. Are you OK with that?” I said, Totally. My wife said they’ve always wanted to come to work. Frankie and I worked on the newspaper thing — she loved it. And my son wanted nothing to do with it.
Their visit really humanized Stamper.
He’s had the ability to smile always. But I don’t think he’s ever been given the opportunity to smile. I think in two seasons you saw him smile once or twice, maybe — not even real smiles. Beau would write, “Stamper smiles, as much as Stamper would smile.” It was fun to play that.
What’s behind his obsession with Rachel? Is she a loose end or a lost love?
It’s a mix of so many different things. The loose end becomes a very big deal, but there are personal reasons as well. In his own mind he doesn’t even know what they are. Whether it’s the mother she reminds him of, or the daughter he never had, or the lover he wishes she had, she’s so many different things to him. In the same way he funneled that energy into work, she became a major distraction to him that just grew and grew.
(ONE MORE SPOILER ALERT: DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVEN’T FINISHED WATCHING THIS SEASON!)
Why did he change his mind about killing her?
He knew as he drove away, the ultimate goal is to get back (to Frank). This isn’t about a recovery. It’s about you getting back to where you think you belong. That’s the number one thing. In the end he knows it’s OK to let her go, and he knows in his heart that she’s never going to say a word. But he stops because he knows he can’t go back to Frank and say it’s done, because it wouldn’t have been done. But it killed me, because I killed my favorite character. It just made me feel so dirty. I had to go to some dark places for that. People are going to hate me for this one. It’s awful. In order for everything else to work in his life, it’s what had to be done.
It was somehow fitting that we didn’t see him do it.
There was a version where he didn’t, where he let her go. But I guess Beau thought it worked much better where he did. The whole season comes down to that, for the whole arc of that character.
What can you reveal about next season?
I know I’m not lying in the woods with a head injury. The old team is back together — I know that much. I’ll get to visit the writers’ room when I get back. Sometimes they’ll toss you a few breadcrumbs.
Does Frank win reelection?
I hope so! I need a job. I would vote for him. Unless someone screws him over — and that’s another way to screw them back over.