House of Cards: Robin Wright – Even our fiercest dictators have a human side

The star of the Netflix series talks Barack Obama, the sad state of the movie industry and working with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman

During her thirty years in the movie industry, Robin Wright’s decision to star in Netflix original series House of Cards was one of her wisest. Her portrayal of Claire Underwood, the calculating wife of ruthless Washington politician Frank (Kevin Spacey), has won her critical acclaim and a Golden Globe – the first major acting award for an online series.


The first 13 episodes of writer Beau Willimon’s chilling take on American politics – based on Michael Dobbs’ 1990 BBC thriller – made waves in the industry when it was released in March last year. Now, with a second season dropping on the streaming site this morning, and a third just announced, Wright is stepping back into Claire’s conniving shoes once again. So, what better time for to sit down for a chat with the Forest Gump actress? Here’s what she had to say about Obama, Shakespeare and her new career as a director…

How did you first get into the zone to play Claire? 

Can I tell you where I got my inspiration for whatever Claire is? The American Eagle. I wasn’t interested in trying to dissect a politician’s wife or a Hilary Clinton or Michelle Obama. Nobody’s ever going to know who they are because they’re doing their own theatre every day. And [director] David Fincher said I know you’re a very physical reference actor – I use animal behaviour all the time because they’re quiet. Yes, they have their own bark and screech but they don’t have the written word and you get to simply watch their quiet behaviour. [Fincher] said Claire is a bust and she’s marble. So, who is stone-like and regal and noble? The American Eagle – they’re very stoic, they don’t panic. They’re six steps ahead of all other animals and they’re very calculating in perceiving danger, getting their prey, how they get their food, how and when to wait and when to attack. When they attack it’s so tactical it’s like a sniper. 

Frank and Claire are inspired by Shakespeare – how did you use the Macbeths as role models for this part?

I feel like [Claire] has the levers, the sound board in the music room. She’s operating the operational modes and in contrast, Frank is very impulsive. They’re a good balance – what an incredible business team. 

Neither character is loveable yet we still feel sympathy for Claire. Why do you think that is?

She doesn’t care if she’s loveable. She doesn’t think about those things – it’s about getting the job done. It’s not about being powerful, it’s about being successful. If you’re going to play in this game of success, if people are not prepared, if they didn’t do their homework or they become a roadblock, they need to be removed. It’s really simple and that’s the art of war. 

But we still care about her – how do you create a humane aspect to Claire’s character?

That was a big part of this evolution of character that we were finding as we were going along. It’s too one-note to just play evil and it’s not human. Our fiercest dictators or leaders of African countries that the ICC have, I believe they have a human side as well. I was trying to implement that – that we’re all human, we all have both sides, it’s just manifested in different ways and we emulate it in different ways, the evil side or the dark side. That’s why we tapped into wanting to have children – maybe it was something she really wanted but she chose – cognitive choice – I’m going to choose this life which is romantic, sensual love and be diligent to it. 

And you got to direct an episode of series two…

Yes, and I don’t ever want to act again! It’s so much fun. I’m a better control freak than a puppet. 

What sort of reaction have you had from real-life politicians in Washington?

The one guy I interviewed, I said can you tell me how plausible this show is? How accurate? He said, “Oh, god damn, that’s like 99% accurate,” and I was thinking the 1% that’s not is murder, right? You know what he said? He goes, “The 1% would be we would never get an education bill passed that fast.” And that is the truth of our administration – how long it takes to get shit done. 

Well, you’ve got President Obama watching… 

I think he came out with a quote saying he’s obsessed with the show. He referenced that he wished our administration could be that ruthlessly diligent in getting shit done. And I don’t disagree with him. Can you imagine being in his position? It would drive me crazy. 

The setting of House of Cards is very Washington-specific – why do you think the show has enjoyed success on a global scale?

People love scandal and deceit and power and greed and they love watching that win for some reason. But we don’t like to watch a young girl getting raped – you don’t want to watch abuse yet you want to watch abusive people. We need a little therapy session. 

Do you think online streaming and television offers viewers more interesting, layered characters? 

Layered characters, yes, because the film industry is sad and disheartening. They’re not making money unless you’re a Marvel comic or Thor. That’s where the money is. The economy is tough in a lot of countries today and we’re losing money. We just don’t see American Beauty and the Ice Storm and all the greats – everything’s very sensationalised and flamboyant.

You worked with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman on one of his final films – A Most Wanted Man – what was that experience like? 

We lost one of the greatest artists of my generation, definitely. He’s actually one of the best actors we’ve ever had – him and Daniel Day Lewis. What a loss.

All 13 episodes of House of Cards season two are available on Netflix now. Watch the rather awesome trailer below…