‘House of Cards’ Creator Beau Willimon Looks Back on Early 9/11 Play

Writer Beau Willimon’s name has become synonymous with cynical dramas that plumb the depths of the U.S. political system. They include his 2008 play “Farragut North” (and its big-screen adaptation, “The Ides of March”) and Netflix’s cerebral thriller “House of Cards,” which put the streaming service on the map, thanks to the irresistible combination of Willimon’s adroit prose and Kevin Spacey’s powerhouse performance as a Machiavellian lawmaker who manages to maneuver himself into the White House. “House of Cards” was the first web-based original series to earn major awards recognition, with Spacey and co-star Robin Wright both winning Golden Globes for their roles as the show’s scheming central couple. Willimon’s first mention in Variety came courtesy of a 10-minute play he wrote in 2001 about the events of 9/11, “Never Never Land.”

Do you remember seeing your name in Variety?

I do. I believe it was the first time I’d ever seen my name in print, and it was thrilling.

Who were your heroes and mentors?

My chief mentor was a playwright named Eduardo Machado who had accepted me into his graduate playwriting program at Columbia University. He was the first person to take a chance on me, and had he not, I don’t know if I would’ve had the courage to pursue writing as a career.

How did “Never Never Land” come to be?

I was in London for a playwright’s conference at the Battersea Arts Centre. While I was there, 9/11 happened. I couldn’t get back to New York because all flights had been canceled. As part of the conference, we were slated to do the first 24-hour plays in England. This was four days after 9/11. I couldn’t get that day off of my mind, so that’s the subject I tackled.

What was it about?

[It] started off with a dream where the two actors I was working with, each was one of the towers. A plane flew into one, and you saw the tower buckle over (portrayed by a person) and crumple. Then the character wakes up from the dream and instantly calls his girlfriend back in New York. He’s in London and feels the need to tell her about this dream and feels so helpless that he can’t get back to her. I was … trying to make some sense of the senseless and failing to.

How did it shape your career?

I think for a writer, everything they write plays a role in who they evolve into. I don’t know if I can draw an easier direct link other than to say, tackling a difficult subject, putting it up in front of a bunch of strangers, and contending with the consequences of that is something that you devote your life to as a writer. This was a visceral version of that.

What did you learn from the experience?

Trust. I was tackling a very difficult subject, just days after the event. It was scary, and I had to place it in the hands of a director and some very courageous actors who were willing to tackle it with me. Without them, there would’ve been no play. Their fearlessness set me at ease, and allowed me to trust not only in myself, but in my collaborators. That is a crucial thing to learn when you’re someone who writes for the performative arts.

Are you still in touch with any of those collaborators?

I am not. In terms of the actors and the directors, I haven’t seen them since. I hope they’re all off doing wonderful things. They were so talented, and I’m sure they’re all doing wonderful work, wherever they are.

Have you revisited the project since then?

I haven’t thought about that play in quite some time. I think that if I looked at it again, I would probably be deeply embarrassed. Anything I wrote at 23, I can’t imagine was all that good. But that really isn’t the point for something like the 24-hour plays. One of the great things about [them] is an immediacy. Oftentimes, to write a play takes months or years. And then to go in rehearsals — there’s a lag time. What the 24-hour plays allowed all of us to do is respond to something in the moment, which is something theater can do that really no other medium can.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known back then?

To eat more vegetables.

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