Is there anything he won’t do? For the last five seasons, Michael Kelly’s Doug Stamper has been Frank Underwood’s loyal-to-a-fault sidekick — willing to do whatever it takes to keep Frank in power, even confessing to a murder he didn’t commit.
But when “House of Cards” returns for its final season Nov. 2, Frank is dead (given star Kevin Spacey’s exit amid allegations of sexual misconduct) and his widow, Claire (Robin Wright), who’s never been fond of Doug, is now running the country.
The actor who plays Doug, though, couldn’t be happier to see his co-star take center stage. “Madam President, God I wish!” he jokes about Claire’s ascent to power. “I’d take her in a heartbeat right now. Even knowing what Claire is like.”
Kelly acknowledges there’s going to be renewed attention on the series’ final arc, given Spacey’s exit as well as current headlines. And he promises fans won’t be disappointed.
“This is the season I’m really, really excited to see because it will be different,” he says. “I’m so curious. Because we’ve known this show as one thing for five years, and now, it’s going to be the same show, but different. And I’m excited for people to see it.”
Here, Kelly talks to Variety about moving on after Spacey’s exit, working with Wright, and whether Doug will ever run for office.
How has this show changed your career?
This character was the greatest gift you could be given as an actor. It was absolutely life-changing. Changed my life, and I’ll never forget it, and I’m so grateful for it. It was one fun, hell of a ride, that’s for sure.
Are there things that you wanted to accomplish before saying goodbye to Doug?
It was tough. I’ll admit it. It was very hard to say goodbye to that character because I’ve loved playing that guy. I’ve had the best time on that show. It is, professionally, the most rewarding thing in all aspects for me, of my career, of my just doing it. Just getting to go to work with those people every day for six years, I’ll miss the hell out of it. There was talk of a spinoff for awhile, and we went well down the road on that. And I would’ve liked to have played him more, but when they decided not to do that, I was OK. I was really OK with it. I felt like I had done him justice, and it was an incredibly rewarding experience.
What motivates Doug? What do you think drives him?
Addiction’s such a large part of him, right? He’s addicted to everything, from work to Rachel to Frank. Everything that he does, he does 1,000% because he doesn’t know any other way. So I think his addiction actually fuels everything that he does because he doesn’t have an off switch once he gets onto something.
Would you say he’s addicted to Frank or addicted to power?
I think it’s both. I remember so many people, especially early on, would ask me, “Why are you so loyal to him?” I think the real answer is that his dedication and loyalty to Frank was a by-product of his dedication and loyalty to his job. He wanted to do his job the best that he could. Doug had a conscience, and he had a heart. He knew that some of the things they were doing were wrong, but he also knew that they were for the greater good. They did what they had to do for the betterment of the country. But what’s funny is that I actually understood Doug. I would not make the decisions that he made most of the time, me personally. But I understood everything. I didn’t have to say, “Wait, why would he do this?” It all made sense, and I guess that’s because I lived with him from the beginning. And I understood that guy as much as anybody.
Can he survive in Claire’s White House? Who is Doug without a job?
Without giving much away, a lot of this season is finding his place in the world. Because, like you said, you lose that one thing that you served for so long; well before “House of Cards,” he was working for Frank. And then it’s gone. And it’s like, “Wait, that’s my job. That’s my life.” And so, it was a really interesting season for me, for Doug to play that guy who’s just like, “Oh my God. What now? Wait, what do I do?” And he’s truly, truly lost in the beginning. You’ve seen glimpses of that before, but not to this extent.
What’s his relationship with Claire when the season starts? These are two people who never really liked each other.
He’s never been very fond of her, never. It’s sort of like that whole “who’s the better wife” thing between the two of them. And one could argue very easily that Doug is, when you really think about it. I obviously don’t mean physically, but if it’s like who’s the more dedicated person to the man, that’s kind of where it starts.
Who do you think is more ruthless, Claire or Frank?
I don’t know, man. We’re all pretty equally bad on that show, I think! She’s a formidable woman, that’s for sure. But that’s tough. It’s a toss-up.
I know there was a question of whether the show was even going to continue, given everything that happened with Spacey. How did it feel to live through that?
When it happened, obviously, it was a million emotions. Dealing with what actually happened was very difficult. But then, the reality set in, and it’s, “Oh my God, like we’re really not going to finish this show.” And I talked to Robin, and I talked to Netflix and [“House of Cards” studio] MRC. That was the nice thing because through the whole process, everyone was talking. I wasn’t talking to Kevin, but we were all talking, those of us left.
I remember having a conversation with Robin. We’re like, “We gotta finish the show.” The crew has been not working for almost a year, at that point, and then they had only been at work for a month, month and a half when they put us on hiatus. And it was like, wow, we’ve got to do this, not just for us, for the audience who deserves a conclusion, but for the crew. These people, the majority of which had been with us from day one, this very loyal crew on the show. And I said, “Can’t let them down. Robin, we can’t let them down.”
We all agreed we’ve got to finish this for everybody, for all of us. And everyone rallied. And God bless Frank [Pugliese] and Melissa [James Gibson], our head writers/showrunners. What they were able to do, to take the episodes that were done, and then, to have them start over, that was the hardest. To have them just say, “OK, we gotta start over. Oh, and by the way, you don’t have a lead actor. Figure that out.” What Frank and Melissa did, what they were able to accomplish, blew me away. And they just did it. They busted their butts, those two. And I can’t imagine the stress they went through.
Did they tell you how the original version differed from the final version?
No. No. No. You know, the really interesting thing is we’ll never know how [series creator] Beau [Willimon] was gonna end it either. I’m sure one day maybe he’ll tell me. But I remember him saying to me, “I have the greatest ending in television.” And I was like, “Dude, come on. You gotta tell me.” This was like, you know, we didn’t even, there was no ending even being discussed. We were on Season 3 or whatever. And I was like, “Aw, man. C’mon.” But he never told.
How did making this season feel different without Spacey on the set?
A million different ways, you know? Kevin’s always such a joker and entertainer, and not just someone you could talk to about acting. But he was, quite often, a big entertainer on set. Like, he would do impressions, and he would sing songs, and he would make everybody laugh a lot. And, for me, he was my acting partner. Most of my stuff over the six years, five years, was with him. And to have that removed was very foreign to me. To go to work that first day without him, I was like, “This is just weird. It’s weird.” Everything aside. It was just a very bizarre experience as an actor to not have that acting partner that you’ve been next to for all those years around anymore.
Did you ever see that side of him?
No, I didn’t. I was shocked. Again, it’s just a million emotions that go through your head and it’s disbelief, and there’s shock and there’s all these things. But no, I never witnessed anything like that. 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.
Have you spoken to him at all?
No. That’s also strange, you know? To have someone just removed from your life who didn’t die is very weird.
There’s also been a lot of conversation about whether the accused men should get a comeback or a second chance. Do you think that’s a valid conversation for someone like Spacey?
I don’t even want to get into that. I don’t feel it’s right for me to even comment on that. I don’t think we know everything right now. I don’t think it’s on me to say.
This season, we’re getting to see Claire break the fourth wall; any chance of Doug breaking the fourth wall?
I don’t know. Or be president? (Laughs.) People always say, “Do you think Doug would ever run?” I’m like, “Can you picture that guy on the campaign trail?” He’s not the best public speaker. No one could hear him, first of all. Robin’s big joke with me, she’s like, “I swear to god, one scene I just want to, as Claire, turn to you and go, ‘What? I can never understand a damn word you’re saying.'” (Laughs.) So she was like, “Why do you always whisper?” I was like, “Doug doesn’t have to raise his voice.”