When Kevin Spacey finally got House of Cards on air, there was one person he desperately wanted to see it. The trouble is, House of Cards is on Netflix – the online streaming service – and the person he wanted to see his performance so badly is wary of new-fangled technology. So Kevin Spacey sent Woody Allen a Netflix subscription.
“Every time he announces a new movie, I never get an audition,” he explains. “So, I introduced myself and sent him a Netflix subscription and said I don’t know if you’ve seen my work, but you might want to watch this series.”
You wonder why, after a screen career spanning almost 30 years including LA Confidential, The Shipping News, Glengarry Glen Ross and his Oscar-winning turns in The Usual Suspects and American Beauty, it was House of Cards he chose to send? Sure, it’s won two Golden Globes (of seven nominations) and four Emmys (22 nominations) – but that was still to come when he sent the sub.
More than that – why was Francis Underwood, the Machiavellian reboot of TV’s most devious opportunist Francis Urquhart, the man he championed from the idea stage to the screen? Why was this the script that brought him to the TV screen? Why did Trigger Street – his production company – offer the show to broadcasters but decline to shoot a pilot? What is it that draws him to the role?
Spacey is inscrutable. “He just strikes me as a really fascinating character,” he deadpans. “I think it’s obvious. When we were producing The Social Network , I was talking to David Fincher – we’d known each other since Se7en  and wanted to work together again – and he said the rights to House of Cards were available. He went off to watch it for the first time, I went to rewatch it, and we both agreed it would translate really well as an American series.”
They were right. Spacey brings a new level of threat to Underwood – present in the British original’s Urquhart but so much nastier when the nuclear codes are in play. To underline this point, he opens season one literally strangling a puppy. Seasons one and two loosely follow the UK version, charting Underwood’s devious rise to power. Season three finds him president of the free world, has a heavy hint of The West Wing – a somewhat twisted West Wing that explores the limits of moral equivalence in tyranny – and opens again with death. This time, Underwood is laying flowers on his dead father’s grave, oozing spite and scorn.
There’s an echo from a key scene at the end of season two here. Spacey/Underwood recalled in a typewritten letter to President Walker how, aged 13, he had gone into the family barn in South Carolina and found his selfish coward of a father with a gun in his mouth. Little Frank was invited by his father to administer the coup de grace. “My only regret in life is that I didn’t pull that trigger,” he writes.
Fincher says Spacey helped write that letter. Initially he denies it – “No I’m not a writer – I don’t improv the writing at all.” When I quote Fincher he pauses. “Well that’s a very long letter that [screenwriter] Beau Willimon and I kind of wrote together over a long period of time,” he admits, “but I’m an interpreter, I’m not a creative.”
All the same, it’s tempting to think Spacey was drawing on something deep in his past. His own father was a technical handbook writer who dreamt of being a novelist. The family moved a lot because his father lost jobs regularly so couldn’t pay the rent – in some cases they moved houses within blocks of each other.
Spacey is guarded about this. And admittedly, if you are Kevin Spacey, the press do like to speculate. There have been articles hinting that he’s gay, and unnamed colleagues whispering to journalists that he’s difficult to work with, so he’s used to shrugging off gossip. When I ask about his father: “I think there was something about that sense of being uprooted – well, I was very young and inexperienced and I remember being very angry with my father. We moved 11 times by the time I was 12. I was tired of always being the new kid on the street, always having to start a new school.”
There’s no direct correlation between dads – Spacey’s father was not a violent alcoholic like Underwood’s – but the uncertainty of those early years fuelled his determination – “I think there’s no doubt that my father’s difficulty in having a fully successful life in the business that he was in absolutely motivated me to try to do better,” he agrees.