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How Robin Wright Took Charge of ‘House of Cards’ and Saved the Final Season

“My turn.”

Those two words — which closed the Season 5 finale of “House of Cards” — could not have been more prophetic.

When the Netflix political potboiler returns for its sixth and final season on Nov. 2, Robin Wright’s first-lady-turned-commander-in-chief Claire Underwood will be in the seat of power. The character was always slated to move into the Oval Office, but with the hasty exit of star Kevin Spacey amid sexual harassment allegations, the transition was cemented.

Production was already under way when BuzzFeed published an interview on Oct. 29, 2017, with Anthony Rapp, detailing sexual abuse at the hands of Spacey when Rapp was just 14. The #MeToo firestorm, which had sparked a few weeks earlier with accusations against Harvey Weinstein, soon engulfed Spacey, as multiple allegations of similar behavior came to light. Netflix and MRC, the studio that produces “House of Cards,” quickly shut down production; on Nov. 3, the actor was fired.

The revelations and the lightning-speed fallout left cast and crew reeling. “We were all very shocked and surprised,” says Wright. “And then sad.”

“I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” says Frank Pugliese, who co-showruns “Cards” with Melissa James Gibson. “I kept thinking I didn’t hear it right.”

Then reality set in: The shutdown might become permanent. But Wright led the lobbying efforts with Netflix and MRC to turn the lights back on and save the 2,000 jobs involved, from the show’s 600-plus crew to all those in Baltimore who’d supported the production. “I was just like, ‘No, no, no. It’s not right. This is a job, and we’re going to finish it out as we intended,’” says Wright.

On Dec. 4, Netflix content chief Ted Sarandos announced that the show would in fact go on; principal photography resumed on Jan. 31 on an eight-episode final season. “That’s not to say it was easy, trying to react to the situation and get the show up and running and have Melissa and Frank write a really fitting conclusion and have the whole team bring it to life,” says Netflix VP of content Cindy Holland, who credits Wright with rescuing the season. “But I’m really proud of how everybody responded. I’m really proud of the season that’s resulted.”

Echoes Wright, “I was so happy that Netflix and MRC collectively decided to give the fans a true closure of this show, and finish it off the way we had always intended.”

Today, just about a year later, all distance themselves carefully from the man they worked alongside for years. None have spoken to him since. Wright has made it clear that their connection, as far as she was concerned, existed only on set and never off. “My story, Claire’s story, was always going to be separate because he was moving into the private sector and she was going to be president,” she says. “They were going to be living in separate territories, like two separate shows. So none of that changed, really.”

The showrunners, too, say they saw no signs of misconduct. “Our relationship with him was entirely focused on the story,” says Gibson. “We’d have intense conversations about arcs and scripts and scenes and dialogue, but our dealings with him were always and only about the work.”

As Frank Underwood’s chief of staff Doug Stamper, Michael J. Kelly shared countless scenes with Spacey. Looking back, he says there were “a million emotions” swirling at the time — disbelief, shock. “I never witnessed anything like that [misconduct],” he says. “I’m not saying anything about what happened or didn’t happen. I’m just saying that me personally, I never encountered anything that made me feel uncomfortable.”

But, he adds, “to have someone just removed from your life who didn’t die is very weird.”

When “House of Cards” launched in 2013, it was groundbreaking on multiple levels. Back then, it was revolutionary not just for an auteur filmmaker (David Fincher) trying his hand at a TV series, but for the cost of the show (the budget for Season 1 was $100 million) and for dropping all of the episodes at once. The binge-watching experiment was an unprecedented success. “It was the series that really helped us make our mark in the industry and with consumers around the world,” says Holland. “That series will always have a real cornerstone piece of our history.”

Ending a long-running show is a lofty challenge in its own right; the landscape of television is littered with series finales both praised (“The Americans”) and polarizing (“The Sopranos”). Add in the unplanned, last-minute ouster of the leading man, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. Pugliese and Gibson, who took the reins in Season 5 after creator Beau Willimon exited, were acutely aware of the pressure to stick the landing. And they had to do it — twice.

When the Spacey scandal broke, eight of the scripts had been finalized; the entire season had been storyboarded. The showrunners had to scrap it all and come up with a plausible plan B. “We wanted to end it with integrity,” Gibson says. “We wanted to take the seeds of what was there and pay them off properly.”

“House of Cards” has become renowned for its ever more outlandish plot twists; keeping one step ahead of the Trump administration proved yet another creative hurdle. Netflix is certainly leaning into the moment: It’s no coincidence that the show is returning just ahead of the midterm elections. (“Good luck, America,” quips Kelly.)

“At its best the show is about a Washington and about a White House that’s symptomatic of the times, not so much a reaction to the times,” says Pugliese. “It’s not so much like a TV show about politics; it seems like politics has turned into a TV show. That’s what seems to be frightening about what’s happened.”

This will be, though, the final arc for “Cards”; a rumored Stamper spin-off has been shelved. “We went well down the road on that,” says Kelly. “I would’ve liked to have played him more, but when they decided not to do that, I was really OK with it. I felt like I had done him justice, and it was an incredibly rewarding experience.”

The final episodes — the word “bittersweet” comes up a lot — reflect the game-changing movements that have reverberated from coast to coast since last October. “Claire Underwood is reckoning with herself, with her choices, with the country, with the historical moment, with everything she’s done and been complicit with,” says Gibson. And the absence of Spacey’s proxy, Frank, reverberates as well. “It would have been absurd to deny the powerful existence and shadow of Francis Underwood, so all the rest of the characters have to navigate what went on with him prior to this season,” Gibson adds.

CREDIT: joe pugliese for Variety

Sneak-peek trailers have revealed how the writers handled Spacey’s exit: Frank Underwood is dead, but the circumstances of his death may not be what they seem. Then again, nothing is ever as it seems in “House of Cards,” with the key players endlessly plotting and counterplotting in their relentless pursuit of power.

None more so than Wright’s Claire Underwood. “Maybe the secret sauce of the show is when you’re first watching it, you think there’s one central character, and as the show evolves you understand that there’s two,” says Gibson. “I think she’s emerging this season as much of a layered antihero as he ever was.” Adds Pugliese, “[We’ve had a] decade or so of male antiheroes on TV, and I think it was just really exciting to write a female antihero.”

Wright says that delivers on a promise Fincher made to her when she first signed on. “This is not just going to be the wife of a politician. You will not just be arm candy,” she recalls him saying.

Claire may scheme and lie and yes, even commit murder, but the woman who plays her will never stand in judgment. “If I judge her negatively, I couldn’t play her,” she says. “But she was a really good wife. She took it on the chin until she felt she was going to be annihilated. Then she would retaliate. She really was such a utilitarian for the betterment of her and Francis.”

One trick she steals from Spacey’s playbook: breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to viewers. But is she being honest? Wright won’t tell, though she will admit to enjoying it: “I felt like I was being really naughty, like I was a kid going into the cookie jar before dinner.”

The final moment is “delicious,” she says, a decision that was made right before filming began on that last installment. “I think it’s a really fitting end for Claire Underwood,” says Holland. “I think it’ll be a little bit polarizing. But that’s what makes great drama.”

Along with the rest of the cast and creative team, Wright often refers to the “family” that developed on set over the course of the show’s run. “There’s a body of trust that you don’t normally have when you’re shooting a six-, eight-, 10-week film,” she says. “You build a community of support. That was the bittersweet part, saying goodbye to that.”

And when one of their own violated that trust, Wright deftly patched over the scars — not just as the star but as an executive producer and also a director. “It’s funny the way people keep talking about it like she might have stepped up. She was always up,” says Pugliese. “She’s always been a leader on the show.”

The mood on set when filming resumed was by all accounts highly charged, both grateful to be back at work, yet still reeling from the emotional whiplash. Kelly admits it was “bizarre” to return without his frequent scene partner. “Kevin was, quite often, a big entertainer on set. He would do impressions, and he would sing songs, and he would make everybody laugh a lot,” he says. “And to have that removed was very foreign to me.”

Robin Wright directs Michael J. Kelly in a scene from the final episode. “Once you taste that yummy dessert called directing, it’s really hard to go back to, I don’t know, Twinkies,” she says.
Courtesy of Netflix

But he says he was awed by watching the woman he dubs “the queen” take charge. “She just led by example,” he says. “And I think that’s the greatest compliment you can give someone, because she earned that.”

“When we partnered with Netflix on ’House of Cards’ we didn’t know where the journey would take us,” notes MRC in a statement to Variety. ”We did know that Robin Wright as Claire Underwood would bring an incredible performance to the role. It didn’t take long to learn that she was also a great leader and an artist who has created one of the most powerful female characters in television history.”

Season 6 introduces a few new combatants to the fray: sister-and-brother team Annette and Bill Shepherd (Diane Lane and Greg Kinnear) and her son, Duncan (Cody Fern). Lane’s Annette serves as a formidable foil for Claire, a longtime friend with a shared history that she’s not afraid to tap into as their battle of wills plays out. Lane says she was grateful for the opportunity to join the show for its concluding arc; her first day on set, she thanked Wright as they sat side by side in the hair-and-makeup trailer. “I was humbled and in a beautiful way, just feeling very celebratory about Robin’s ascent,” says Lane. “I know it was bittersweet for many reasons for many people, but we all brought as much sunshine to it as possible.”

It’s become a cliché of celebrity profiles to say a given subject is nothing like the character she plays, but Wright personifies it. While Claire Underwood’s icy smile is a threat, Wright laughs often, easily and lightly. Her alter ego wouldn’t leave the house without her Louboutins, but Wright’s go-to look is far more casual — a striped T-shirt, cutoff jeans, tortoiseshell frames and a messy bun, her bare feet tucked casually underneath her as she curls up.

While Claire’s true motives are never clear, Wright talks openly and honestly about what drives her — directing, for one (she calls it a “revelation”), as well as her charity work. In 2014, she launched a sleepwear line for women, Pour Les Femmes, because she “couldn’t get enough reach going to D.C. and banging on the doors,” she says. Part of the proceeds go to helping women in the Congo who’ve been raped by the militia. “I was like, let’s do something that helps the women post-trauma, helps them get back on their feet, start their own business,” she says. “I’d like to continue doing that around the world in conflict regions, helping women.”

It’s only when the conversation turns to the inevitable subject of Spacey that shades of Claire’s pent-up fury peek through. Wright had given an interview recently where she was asked if Spacey should be allowed to come back, and the actress is indignant that her answer — she said, “Every human being has the ability to reform” — was taken out of context.

“I don’t think it’s fair for me to comment on anything — mainly because it’s not my life, and I don’t want to offend people who are victims,” she says. “You can’t win for losing with the media and how people just look for clickbait. … It made me look like I was insensitive to these people that are victims. It couldn’t be farther from the truth.”

She acknowledges, though, that this seismic year has made an impact. “The conversation has certainly opened up, that we need to start speaking differently about boundaries,” she says. “And it’s shifted the energy — in every workplace and just in society.” And she’s confident the rules will have changed for the next generation. “When you teach the little ones the difference between right and wrong and they grow up with that, that’s going to be a whole new world.”

Then there’s the matter of the F-word: not Frank, but feminism. It’s a badge Wright wears proudly. For her, it’s not a question of women versus men, but one of equality. And she can’t understand why others would see it any differently.

Maybe there is more of Claire in Wright than it appears; the actress quietly waged her own battle for pay parity, long before her co-star’s exit. “We do the same amount of work; we should get paid the same amount,” she says. “I believe in equal work, equal pay. It’s really simple.”

Asked why feminism has become such a charged word, she pauses for several long seconds. “I think for the same reason that if a man is difficult in the workplace, on set, they’re just strong, but if a woman is that or flips out or screams, she’s a bitch,” she says, shaking her head. “Isn’t it interesting that we’re bitches and they’re strong?

CREDIT: joe pugliese for Variety

“We don’t want to be the same as men. We just want to be treated equally. It’s beautiful to see the differences in men and women, how we bring different things to the table. Feminism isn’t knocking that.”

While she may have begun her career as an actress, it’s directing that fuels her now, and she wants to help more women get behind the camera. The numbers are dire — women helm only 25% of projects — but she’s encouraged by anecdotal evidence that male executives have told her that “just on principle” they’d hire a woman.

Perhaps what she’s most proud of is that she was handed the reins for the series’ final hour. In fact, she says she was more comfortable in the director’s chair than in the spotlight. “I just didn’t want to be in front of the camera. I felt like I was wasting my time,” she says. “Once you taste that yummy dessert called directing, it’s really hard to go back to, I don’t know, Twinkies.”

Kelly praises her as a “true actor’s director,” recalling a particularly tough scene from one of the first episodes she directed, with a then-unknown Rachel Brosnahan. Clad in her off-screen uniform of Chuck Taylors, Levi’s and black leather jacket, Wright climbed into the backseat of the car that Kelly and Brosnahan were filming in. “I just remember being really struck by it,” recalls Kelly. “We all struggle as actors, and if she sees you struggling, she comes from behind the monitors and talks you through it.”

Holland agrees, saying she’d work with Wright again in a heartbeat. “I think she has a huge career as a director ahead of her,” she says.

That’s what’s next on Wright’s agenda: She’s got her eye on an indie film script that landed on her desk. It’s a “beautiful” story, she says, about “love lost, love taken.” And of course, there’s the sequel to that little superhero movie that took the world by storm last year. Yes, her General Antiope will be making a comeback. “It’s so great being a part of that,” she says, though she can’t resist joking about the injuries she sustained. “Because it’s going to be iconic: A little Wonder Woman in the vortex of this movement. What does she symbolize? Justice and equality and speaking the truth.”

But filming those battle scenes paled in comparison with her tour of duty on “Cards.” “I will have terminal backache from sitting up that straight for six years,” she says. “That was the hardest part about playing Claire.”

There’s one souvenir she kept from her days in the White House: a painting that hung in the West Wing hallway of a sailboat moving across the sea. “It means something,” she says. “We’re moving on.”

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