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‘House of Cards’: Diane Lane on Playing Claire’s New Nemesis

With friends like her, who needs enemies?

On the final season of “House of Cards,” Claire Underwood’s (Robin Wright) ascent to power brings an old friend back into her life — but Annette Shepherd, as embodied by new cast member Diane Lane, knows all of Claire’s secrets. Along with her brother Bill (Greg Kinnear), she’s not afraid to tap into them to get what she wants out of the new woman in charge.

Here, as part of Variety‘s “House of Cards” cover story, Lane talks about joining the cast of “Cards” for its final arc, how she thinks fans will respond, and how the showrunners managed to stay ahead of what’s really happening in Washington.

How did the role come to you?

I got a phone call. I was kind of thunderstruck. I remember I flashed on the White House Correspondents Dinner that I had attended the penultimate year of Obama’s administration and the feeling in the room when the cast from show came, and it was just electrifying because the people in the room were all excited. In hindsight I wonder if seeing this show with all of the triggering that an image of the White House is for people now — it’s a different world and the show is having its finale. I wonder which came first, the dire reality or the dire proposition of reality on the show? I remember being on set and being fascinated, just amazed at [showrunners] Melissa [James Gibson] and Frank [Pugliese] because they’d already crafted an amazing final season, then we took a hiatus and came back to another version of it. I can’t wait to one day have a glass of wine and a nice meal and ask them, “Would you please tell me what the original version [of the ending] was?” They might take it to her grave.

What did the producers tell you about the character of Annette in the beginning? 

I have this small little piece of paper where I kept, while I was on the phone with them, I took notes. I love that little piece of paper because it was the adjectives I needed to grasp what they were seeking. You’re offering someone a job and you can’t show them the writing! That’s a really weird position to be in. So they brought me to where they had left off. And they told me some things about Annette and they alluded to this shared history between she and Claire. So I thought, well, this is juicy. They really wanted to go into a strong last season. And I loved that. I was very complimented by the invitation and I love the fact that Netflix was the first entity to give the people what they’d been doing anyway and what they wanted, which was to binge.

Annette is a very formidable foe to Claire.

It’s fun because they know each other from another era of their lives and when you have the goods on somebody from another chunk of their history — and most of my friends know me for a minimum of 25 years — there’s something about that frame of reference of “I knew you when” and to tap into to that for the writers I think was fun. Certainly for us to play it was fun and hopefully it’ll carry over and for the audience.

Were you looking forward to working with Robin Wright?

Carrying the show is a thing! I’ve always been a Robin Wright fan. I remember being in the hair trailer on the first day and I thanked her. Because there was no way I was getting on that show without her vetting me. Everybody has to approve. So being a pal from another era, it was sweet to be allowed to celebrate her moments. And I knew from the get go she was going to be directing the final episode and that was what excited me most, being part of her coming into her fullness as this character and as a maturing artist, reconsidering how she would prefer things to be. This was a leap. It was also being invited into a show that had this love, that had a certain expectation, and look and feel and flow to it and a fan base. It was like coming to school in the middle of the year, that feeling you have.

What is Wright like as a scene partner?

Robin and I do have a shared friendship and an acquaintance and a really goodwill towards one another that’s kind of electric. And so that’s a given. So you have that to work with. There’s a lot less pussyfooting around when you have a history with someone. And I knew she’d invited me, or I wouldn’t be there. So we got right to it. She looked at me and went, “Five years, Diane.” Meaning, you see how hard we work. I was humbled and in a beautiful way, just feeling very celebratory about Robin’s ascent. The show is very much carried on her because of the availability of her character.

She also directed the finale. What was it like working with her behind the camera?

As a director, she knows what she needs, she knows what the show needs, she knows what a moment requires. She knows her angles that she prefers. She’s been doing this for years. So she was in her element and there was no question about her helmswomanship. She’s got it, whatever it is, and I can see her natural transition to directing more and more. Because it’s a skill. She may have already been talented in that way, but now she’s got skills, like Napoleon Dynamite said. She’s the real deal. So I’m curious going forward what she chooses as material for her skill and her talent and on the other side of the camera. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could all just decide we were done with being on that side of the camera and switch sides? I felt that I couldn’t be more comfortable than having Robin directing. When she was happy I knew it was good enough for what was asked. I didn’t have to sweat and wonder if I was missing a mark. She knows what the mark is.

Obviously the cast and crew had just been through some pretty seismic changes. What was the mood on set?

I think there was a tremendous amount of love there because these people had been together through a lot together. Marriages and children and schools and all kinds of things had come into being for long-term members of the show, and it’s beautiful when it happens and it makes the show kind of fabric of your life. I very much was an observer and grateful to take up space in ways that serve the going forward of the show. That was what was upon me to do, what can I bring on a daily basis with Greg Kinnear. Honestly, you never know when you’re peaking. I joke about that all the time. I selfishly had a really good time. I know it was bittersweet for many reasons for many people, but we all brought as much sunshine to it as is warranted and as possible.

How would you describe the final season? How do you think fans will respond?

That’s the big unknown and it’s kind of exciting to witness the tension build. There are people, and I’m one of them, who are triggered by seeing the White House at this point in history, which when the show began, that was not our history. I mean, for the most part, not an extreme as it is now because of the strife and struggle and global news cycle that’s been dominated by [what’s] coming out of it there. I remember being on set and marveling at the daily dose of news and how surreal it was and writing in comparison to the news seemed unattainable. That’s the gift that Frank and Melissa have always had. It’s just that the world got as surreal as what they were considering. I will say that there’s an extra amount of curiosity about the show. That’s the million dollar question.

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