“I’m drawn to very modern stories about things we are grappling with now. I’m curious about exploring and unearthing that stuff, and allowing audiences to figure out how they feel about it. I try very hard not to lead people down the path of what I want them to think.”
Freedom and space
House of Cards is just the latest reminder of what a prestigious, and exciting, medium television has become in the wake of The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men and Breaking Bad. In contrast to what Fincher calls the thrillcentric world of celluloid, TV drama allows a freedom and space that attracted A-list figures like himself and Spacey.
“In television you have the time to allow characters to evolve,” says Fincher. “I liked the fact that we were going to see things about them that were completely morally reprehensible but we would get to see another facet of them. And it’s unfortunate that that now seems to be the purview of television almost exclusively, but for that reason we were looking to play in this particular sandbox.”
It differs from other small-screen ventures in one important aspect. House of Cards was funded by the online streaming service Netflix, which is to post all 13 episodes at the same time, thus allowing subscribers instant access to the entire run. It is a potentially game-changing move, appealing to audiences that increasingly consume TV drama in box-set-size chunks.
“It seems to me this is the opportunity for the film and television industry to learn the lesson that the music industry didn’t learn,” says Spacey. “Give the audience what they want, when they want it, in the form they want it in, at a reasonable price, and they’ll buy it; they won’t steal it.”
But the chief attraction of the series format is Spacey’s lead performace. Despite being diabolical in character, Underwood cuts a mesmerising figure, not least in his brutal ability to get things done in the logjammed political arena.
“It’s that moral conundrum of bad for a greater good,” says Spacey. “Is what he’s doing completely self-motivated or is there something else that’s going on? I used to come home at night after shooting every day during the presidential election and I’d watch the news and think to myself, Our storylines aren’t that crazy, because this is f***ing crazy.”
Despite the DC setting, House of Cards is less concerned with the intricacies of US politics than with the machinations and motivations of those who wield power: unsurprising, given that it is based on the BBC series starring the late Ian Richardson as the ruthless MP Francis Urquhart. The new version pays homage to the original by recycling a memorable trope, the lead character’s knowing asides to the audience, which Fincher describes as “the notion that Machiavelli is going to take you under his wing and show you how it works”.
A fan of the original since seeing it the 1990s, Spacey relishes repeating some of Urqhuart’s most famous lines, such as: “You might very well think that; I couldn’t possibly comment,” but his performance is no pastiche. It draws on other influences, most notably his lengthy stint playing Richard III on stage.