Wednesday 7 December 2016

'I'd take Frank Underwood over Trump in a heartbeat'

As the new season of 'House of Cards' premieres on Netflix, Michael Kelly talks to our reporter about his Irish roots, the binge-watching revolution, and why he'd rather a see a murderer in the White House than Donald Trump

Meadhbh McGrath

Published 05/03/2016 | 07:00

Loyal: Michael Kelly as White House Chief of Staff Doug Stamper in 'House of Cards'.
Loyal: Michael Kelly as White House Chief of Staff Doug Stamper in 'House of Cards'.
Michael Kelly and his wife Karyn attend the Emmy Awards, where Michael was nominated.
Michael with co-stars Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright.

Michael Kelly sometimes frightens people. To some extent, it's understandable: on Netflix's hit political drama series House of Cards, he plays White House chief of staff Doug Stamper, one of the most quietly intimidating characters on television. Stamper is the unsung hero of the show: he is ferociously loyal to Kevin Spacey's Frank Underwood, and we've seen him bribe, blackmail and murder in his efforts to aid Frank's relentless pursuit of power.

  • Go To

In person, however, Kelly couldn't be further from his on-screen persona. He is easy to talk to and very relaxed, with a laugh that is never far away.

With a name like Michael Kelly, it's hard to deny an Irish heritage. For the 46-year-old actor, it traces back to his grandfather Edward, who made his way from Donegal to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in search of work.

"He didn't have any money. When my grandfather got to the States, he shovelled bridges and worked in a bread factory. Eventually, he became a superintendent of an apartment building and took great pride in it.

"When I was growing up, we lived in rural Georgia, so going to the city was a real experience for us. My grandfather bought me my first bicycle, and I remember riding that bike with him, and we would ride it all the way to the end of the boardwalk and get little sugar doughnuts. Some of the greatest moments of my childhood were with him."

Although Kelly hasn't had a chance to visit Donegal, he says it's a trip he hopes to make sometime soon: "I really want to go there some day; it's something I really want to do with my dad."

Last year, Kelly was honoured by the American Ireland Fund. "I do feel a connection to Ireland and I try to stay in touch with my roots," he says. Right on cue, an assistant from Netflix offers him a beer, which he politely declines, joking, "See, I'm so Irish!"

Kelly lives in New York with his wife, Karyn, and their two children, Franke (6) and Clinton (3). "It's really hard being away from my kids," he sighs. "We shoot for six months in Baltimore, but I'm home at least every weekend. I miss them a lot, and it's very hard, but when I'm home, I'm 100pc home.

"I leave Doug in Baltimore, and I can give them my undivided attention. It's tough, but when I'm not working, I get to spend two straight months hanging out with my kids every day. What other dads get to do that?"

Back in 2011, when Netflix first announced their venture into original programming, some in the industry were sceptical. At the time, it was best known as a DVD-by-post service, and had recently introduced a streaming catalogue. A Netflix original series was considered a risky experiment, but Kelly didn't see it that way.

"It wasn't risky for me, because David Fincher, Beau Willimon, Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright and Kate Mara were already attached. I had read the first two scripts and they were phenomenal, so I knew we were going to make a great project, I just didn't know if anyone would ever see it.

"Netflix was where you got your DVDs in the mail! I was thinking: well, maybe people will see it, maybe they won't, but with those kinds of people involved, it's going to be good."

Four seasons later, Netflix has changed the television landscape forever. The site famously does not release viewing figures, but following the success of House of Cards, it expanded its roster of original programming with series like Orange is the New Black and Bloodline. Netflix now boasts a stable of more than 30 original series and 75 million subscribers worldwide.

"It was neat to be a part of that television revolution. Look what it's become now - Amazon and Hulu are jumping on board, and we're getting so much more great television because of it. One day I'll tell my kids, 'you know how you watch TV? We started that!' It's pretty cool that we were the first ones to do it."

As he reflects on the show's influence, Kelly beams with pride. His love for his job, and his show, is immediately obvious. He can't talk about his work without breaking out into a huge smile, and often mentions how lucky he is.

Before House of Cards, Kelly had small roles on shows like The Sopranos, but it wasn't until he landed the role of Doug Stamper, at age 42, that his career really took off. Last year, he earned a Best Supporting Actor nod at the Emmy awards.

"I feel that I've built such a solid foundation by taking these small baby steps throughout my career," he says of achieving fame later in life. "I'm glad it happened like this. I found love later in life, I had kids later; I'm just a little bit slower out of the gate than everybody else."

Last season, Kelly shocked audiences by returning from the dead: after convincing viewers Doug had been killed, showrunner Beau Willimon decided to bring him back, and gave Kelly the biggest acting challenge of his career. Doug underwent a complex recovery, ultimately ending up back in his role as chief of staff.

In the new season, Doug finds himself in the rather undesirable position of being caught between a feuding Frank and Claire. "That's the last place you want to be!" he winces. "Doug's loyalty is obviously with Frank, so if they were to go their separate ways, I know which way he would go. Even if Frank was losing, he's not going to jump ship."

The relationship between the Underwoods is vital to the show's success, as Jodie Foster, who has directed on the show, articulated when she described it as "in some ways, the greatest love story of all time". When Kelly hears this, he nods vigorously.

"I'm not going to say it's a perfect love story, but it's certainly a compelling one. I think at its core, the show is about power. It's set in the political world, but it's about who has power, who wants it, and what they'll do to get it. Frank and Claire's relationship is equally about power, but that doesn't mean it's equal."

In season 4, we find Frank making a bid to return to the presidency. Of course, it is also a presidential election year in the US, and it's difficult to avoid the parallels.

"I studied political science in college before I fell into acting, it's something I've always been interested in. But I think the current state in our country warrants everyone to pay attention to politics. It's crazy," Kelly says, as if he can't quite believe it's real life.

A glance at Kelly's Twitter feed shows clear support for Hillary Clinton, but what does he think of the front-runner for the Republican nomination?

"I love Hillary, and I think she'd be a fantastic president, but I can't stand Donald Trump. If Trump was on our show, people would say, 'that guy does not exist in DC.'

"I would take Frank Underwood over Donald Trump in a heartbeat - and I know that he's killed people! I'd still take him over Trump! Anything to keep Donald Trump out of the White House."

'House of Cards' is on Netflix now

Michael Kelly sometimes frightens people. To some extent, it's understandable: on Netflix's hit political drama series House of Cards, he plays White House chief of staff Doug Stamper, one of the most quietly intimidating characters on television. Stamper is the unsung hero of the show: he is ferociously loyal to Kevin Spacey's Frank Underwood, and we've seen him bribe, blackmail and murder in his efforts to aid Frank's relentless pursuit of power.

In person, however, Kelly couldn't be further from his on-screen persona. He is easy to talk to and very relaxed, with a laugh that is never far away.

With a name like Michael Kelly, it's hard to deny an Irish heritage. For the 46-year-old actor, it traces back to his grandfather Edward, who made his way from Donegal to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in search of work.

"He didn't have any money. When my grandfather got to the States, he shovelled bridges and worked in a bread factory. Eventually, he became a superintendent of an apartment building and took great pride in it.

"At the time, my family were living in rural Georgia, and going to the city was a real experience for us. He bought me my first bicycle, and I remember riding that bike with him, and we would ride it all the way to the end of the boardwalk and get little sugar doughnuts. Some of the greatest moments of my childhood were with him."

Although Kelly hasn't had a chance to visit Donegal, he says it's a trip he hopes to make sometime soon: "I really want to go there some day; it's something I really want to do with my dad."

Last year, Kelly was honoured by the American Ireland Fund. "I do feel a connection to Ireland and I try to stay in touch with my roots," he says. Right on cue, an assistant from Netflix offers him a beer, which he politely declines, joking, "See, I'm so Irish!"

Kelly lives in New York with his wife, Karyn, and their two children, Franke (6) and Clinton (3). "It's really hard being away from my kids," he sighs. "We shoot for six months in Baltimore, but I'm home at least every weekend. I miss them a lot, and it's very hard, but when I'm home, I'm 100pc home.

"I leave Doug in Baltimore, and I can give them my undivided attention. It's tough, but when I'm not working, I get to spend two straight months hanging out with my kids every day. What other dads get to do that?"

Back in 2011, when Netflix first announced their venture into original programming, some in the industry were sceptical. At the time, it was best known as a DVD-by-post service, and had recently introduced a streaming catalogue. A Netflix original series was considered a risky experiment, but Kelly didn't see it that way.

"It wasn't risky for me, because David Fincher, Beau Willimon, Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright and Kate Mara were already attached. I had read the first two scripts and they were phenomenal, so I knew we were going to make a great project, I just didn't know if anyone would ever see it.

"Netflix was where you got your DVDs in the mail! I was thinking: well, maybe people will see it, maybe they won't, but with those kinds of people involved, it's going to be good."

Four seasons later, Netflix has changed the television landscape forever. The site famously does not release viewing figures, but following the success of House of Cards, it expanded its roster of original programming with series like Orange is the New Black and Bloodline. Netflix now boasts a stable of more than 30 original series and 75 million subscribers worldwide.

"It was neat to be a part of that television revolution. Look what it's become now - Amazon and Hulu are jumping on board, and we're getting so much more great television because of it. One day I'll tell my kids, 'you know how you watch TV? We started that!' It's pretty cool that we were the first ones to do it."

As he reflects on the show's influence, Kelly beams with pride. His love for his job, and his show, is immediately obvious. He can't talk about his work without breaking out into a huge smile, and often mentions how lucky he is.

Before House of Cards, Kelly had small roles on shows like The Sopranos, but it wasn't until he landed the role of Stamper, at age 42, that his career really took off. Last year, he earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Emmy awards.

"I feel that I've built such a solid foundation by taking these small baby steps throughout my career," he says of achieving fame later in life. "I'm glad it happened like this. I found love later in life, I had kids later; I'm just a little bit slower out of the gate than everybody else."

Last season, Kelly shocked audiences by returning from the dead: after convincing viewers Doug had been killed, showrunner Beau Willimon decided to bring him back, and gave Kelly the biggest acting challenge of his career. Doug underwent a complex recovery, ultimately ending up back in his role as chief of staff.

In the new season, Doug finds himself in the rather undesirable position of being caught between a feuding Frank and Claire. "That's the last place you want to be!" he winces. "Doug's loyalty is obviously with Frank, so if they were to go their separate ways, I know which way he would go. Even if Frank was losing, he's not going to jump ship."

The relationship between the Underwoods is vital to the show's success, as Jodie Foster, who has directed on the show, articulated when she described it as "in some ways, the greatest love story of all time". When Kelly hears this, he nods vigorously.

"I'm not going to say it's a perfect love story, but it's certainly a compelling one. I think at its core, the show is about power. It's set in the political world, but it's about who has power, who wants it, and what they'll do to get it. Frank and Claire's relationship is equally about power, but that doesn't mean it's equal."

In Season 4, we find Frank making a bid to return to the presidency. Of course, it is also a presidential election year in the US, and it's difficult to avoid the parallels.

"I studied political science in college before I fell into acting, it's something I've always been interested in. But I think the current state in our country warrants everyone to pay attention to politics. It's crazy," Kelly says, as if he can't quite believe it's real life.

A glance at Kelly's Twitter feed shows clear support for Hillary Clinton, but what does he think of the front-runner for the Republican nomination?

"I love Hillary, I think she'd be a fantastic president, and I can't stand Donald Trump. If Donald Trump was on our show, people would say, 'that guy does not exist in DC.'

"I would take Frank Underwood over Donald Trump in a heartbeat - and I know that he's killed people! I'd still take him over Trump! Anything to keep Donald Trump out of the White House."

'House of Cards' is on Netflix now

Irish Independent

Read More

Promoted articles

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment