Best Politician in a Drama: Frank Underwood
Ladies and gentlemen, the president has no shirt on. Okay, he’s only wearing a T-shirt. Kevin Spacey is on the Baltimore set of Netflix’s House of Cards on this hot July day and is preparing to shoot a Situation Room scene for the third season of the series, which will follow Francis ”Frank” Underwood’s reign as President of the United States. But Spacey is looking fairly casual as he strolls on the soundstage in slacks, sneakers, and an undershirt. Then, moments before cameras are set to roll, the actor puts on a crisp white button-down, ties his own tie (with the help of a wardrobe person wielding a handheld mirror), and adds a sport coat. Boom. POTUS is in the building…albeit in a pair of sneakers. (The cameras won’t show Spacey’s feet.) ”I’m wearing my presidential socks,” he jokes, revealing navy and white polka dots at his ankles.
Frank Underwood would never be so playful. Cards fans know that every moment of the South Carolina politician’s life is a calculated and vicious attempt to gain power. In two seasons, we’ve seen the manipulative and occasionally murderous Underwood move up the political ladder from House whip to president. And yet, all the while, the audience roots for him (and his equally venomous wife, Claire, played by Robin Wright). Admits Spacey, ”I’m not trying to make him likable. I’m not trying to make him unlikable. I’m trying to play him as honestly as I can and let chips fall where they may.”
But it’s taken more than just a good tailor and some Freddy’s BBQ ribs to build Frank Underwood (a role that’s already netted Spacey two Emmy nominations for Best Actor). EW sat down with the 55-year-old star to highlight the people who have helped inspire one of modern TV’s most deliciously devious men.
1. Congressman Kevin McCarthy
Although Spacey says he hasn’t based Frank on any one particular politician, he did turn to the current House majority leader, Republican Kevin McCarthy, for research in the beginning. ”When I first approached him, he wasn’t interested in meeting with me,” reveals Spacey. ”A few weeks later he found out I was playing a Democrat, and then he agreed to meet me after that. [Laughs] He didn’t help me in terms of how to play Frank, but he helped me in terms of understanding the actual day-to-day of what it is to whip 218 congressmen to vote the way you want to vote.”
2. David Fincher
Spacey was lured to television by the idea of reteaming with his Se7en director, David Fincher. ”When we were on set [of The Social Network, which Fincher directed and Spacey exec-produced], we started talking about wanting to work together again as actor and director. A little later David came to me and said, ‘Have you ever heard of this series from Britain called House of Cards?’ and I said, ‘My mother loved that show. And I used to watch it as well. Ian Richardson was wonderful in it.’ He said, ‘We found out the rights to do a U.S. version of it are available.’ So he went off to watch it, and I went off to watch it again. We both agreed it would translate well for the United States.”
3. Morgan Freeman
Playing such darkness can get intense, especially given the lengthy shoots needed for an hour-long drama. So Spacey often keeps the crew entertained with his impersonations. ”I recently developed a Morgan Freeman impression that’s really fun. I just think he’s got such a great voice.” The actor breaks into a Freeman voice that’s uncannily spot-on: ”Morgan Freeman has somehow managed to make almost anything he says sound like poetry. If you take…just the right amount…of pauses.”
4. Bill Clinton
Spacey counts Bill and Hillary Clinton among his friends and says his exposure to politics has been helpful for the show. It’s also worked out nicely for the set: Frank’s office is filled with Spacey’s personal photos of himself and the Clintons. One particular shot shows the actor and the former president out to eat while traveling in Blackpool, England. ”He was like, [in a Bill Clinton voice] ‘I’m hungry. I saw McDonald’s when we drove in. Do you think we could all walk down there?’ So we all got dressed and we go to this McDonald’s.” So are the Clintons FoFs (Friends of Frank)? ”Huge fans. [Reverts to Bill impersonation] ‘I can’t watch it without her. She’ll get so mad.”’
5. Richard III
One of Cards’ most notable conceits is Frank’s direct address to the camera, carried over from the original British version. It’s a tricky stylistic choice — but Spacey had nearly 10 months of practice. ”I had just come out of having done Richard III,” he says. ”What that taught me was really incredible in terms of seeing in people’s eyes the kind of glee that they dug being on the inside, they loved being co-conspirators. I’m now just looking down the barrel of a lens. I’m not sure I’d know how to play the direct addresses if I hadn’t had that experience.” He jokes, ”A lot of people assume Ferris Bueller invented direct address, but he didn’t — it was actually Shakespeare.”