'House of Cards' Star Talks Beau Willimon's "Painful" Exit, "Lady Stamper" and Donald Trump

"My initial reaction was to be stunned, and then it hurt really badly," Michael Kelly says of the creator's departure. "He's probably the most brilliant writer I've had the fortune of working with."
 Courtesy of Netflix

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from House of Cards' fourth season.]

House of Cards is back, and so is Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly). 

In the fourth season of the Netflix political drama, Frank Underwood's longtime right-hand man has a lot on his plate. In addition to Frank's presidential duties back in D.C., the new season opened in the midst of a demanding campaign and major marital turmoil for Frank (Kevin Spacey) and Claire (Robin Wright). Even complicating things further? The addition of Claire's "Lady Stamper," Leann Harvey, played by new series regular Neve Campbell.

On the day of the fourth-season premiere, Kelly spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about creator and showrunner Beau Willimon's exit, his toughest season-four scene and the uncanny parallels between the current election and the fictional political realm of House of Cards.

When you first heard the news that this season was Beau Willimon's last, what was your reaction?

I was stunned, that was my initial reaction. I was at a dinner, and it was an important dinner and I put away my phone, so when I came out of dinner I've never in my life seen so many texts and email notifications. (Laughs.) Like strolling through pages. I was like, "What? Wait, what?" Then I got home and I immediately called Beau because he's someone who I've grown to know and love as a friend as well over the years. And I was just stunned. I was, like, "I don't understand." Obviously not everyone can talk about everything and exactly what happened. I might not ever know exactly what happened. My initial reaction was to be stunned, and then it hurt really badly. He's probably the most brilliant writer I've had the fortune of working with. On top of that, four years in, we've become friends, and it was heartbreaking to know that that guy I hung out with for six months of the year every day I wasn't going to be hanging out with anymore nor have the benefit of his brilliance. It was stunning and painful. But these things happen. I understand the business aspect of it, certainly — it's just part of the business.

You've worked with now new showrunners Frank Pugliese and Melissa James Gibson, so how do you think they'll either change the direction of the show or keep to Beau's tone?

I can't imagine them changing the show. They've been part of the show for a while now so they're part of the voice to his House of Cards. While I was stunned and upset to learn about Beau, I was equally relieved to hear they'd be taking over the duties. They're two brilliant writers and super-sweet people. I was glad they didn't do an overhaul and bring a showrunner from another successful show or unsuccessful show. (Laughs.) I have faith that they'll keep the show the way it is. It's really important to not only the fans, but to those involved in the show and under contract for as many years as they have us for. 

Before you got the script for season four, where did you hope Stamper would go this season?

We tried to make the arc for Stamper last year not just about his physical recovery, because that would be really boring, but to make it about him getting back to where he believes he belongs. In Doug's mind, he has to be there. 'I have to be the Chief of Staff, I have to be by Frank's side.' So my hopes going into season four was that we would get back to our Machiavellian way so to speak, to twirling our mustaches and getting shit done. 

Where you satisfied with his arc this season?

I knew before we even started season four, Beau said to me, "It's not going to be like it was last year for you." And I said, "I completely understand, it would be kind of a weird story arc if we did." He said, "There's a lot of new characters and there's a lot to explore. Honestly, you're going to be doing a lot of opening doors and saying, 'Such and such is here to see you' kind of thing." And I'm like, "I'm fine, I'm so happy to be a part of this."

Luckily, he didn't kill you off ...

And I'm still alive! (Laughs.) So I get to see what happens in season five. That's kind of the best part. 

Do you know anything about what's coming up in season five for Stamper?

I've lied in the past about knowing things and not knowing things because I had to for season three, but I can honestly say I have zero idea of what's happening for next year. I already emailed Frank and Melissa a congratulations and that I'm very excited, and we chatted back and forth on email a couple of times. I can't wait to go visit in the writers' room. I always get to go see those guys when they open the writers' room and they'll usually toss me a couple of bones so I might know some things in a couple of weeks. 

This season, Stamper offered to give his liver for Frank, but was turned down. He then manipulated the situation to make sure Frank got a new liver. Before that, Meechum (Nathan Darrow) died for Frank. Had Stamper been there, would he have taken the bullet for him?

Without a doubt. I think Stamper would like to think he would have taken the gunman down before he had a chance to fire the bullet. (Laughs.) That's Stamper. He would do anything for him, as was proven with Rachel and what he did with the donor. When I first read the script I was, like, "Oh Jesus, God." I get it because I do understand Doug, but then to take it a step further with the wife. ... I understood what he did to Rachel and it's crazy, but I understand it. At the same time, I understand that we all should be equal people, but Doug doesn't understand it.

Him manipulating the liver transplant wouldn't happen in real life, would it?

Beau and Jay Carson, our political consultant, researches everything. My brother-in-law this morning was, like, "Dude, how did Lucas get out of prison? That's a little bit of a stretch for me." And I was, like, "But it's not. It was researched and that's exactly what can happen." And the way that people find out or do not find out can also happen just like it said in the show. My guess is that he probably did research and that's exactly what would happen if someone could manipulate behind the scenes like that. 

Sebastian Arcelus told me he didn't know Lucas was going to die and you kind of chuckled to him ...

(Laughs.) If I'm remembering correctly, I think I found out before he knew he was coming back and I think it kind of slipped a little bit. And I was like, "Do you know what happens though?" He was, like, "What happens, dude?" I was like, "Uhh, I don't know. You'll find out ..." (Laughs.) There was a definite chuckle in the conversation. 

Fans are calling Leann Harvey a female Stamper. Do you think she's on Doug's level?

It's funny, because I met Neve right before we started filming  and when she was hired, I sent her a message. I said, "Hey man, congrats. Welcome to the team. I'm so glad you're here." And we hung out a few times and we did our first scene together and then we had our stand-off scene together with Frank and Claire, and I think it was right around that time where I sat down and said, "Lady Stamper." That's Michael Kelly calling her Lady Stamper. I don't think Doug Stamper thinks of her as that. But God, she's great. What a fantastic addition. 

It seems like her character has been on the show the whole time ...

She's something else. Being new on the show, I'd be scared to death, too. Just like I was in the beginning of season three, I had been on the show for two years and I was like, "You want me to what?" It's a scary show to work on! (Laughs). I give her so much props. 

What was the hardest scene for you to film this season?

Maybe that scene with Seth where I put the glass on his mouth. That was difficult. He's a good friend of mine, too, and was, like, "I don't understand it, this isn't right." We probably worked on that scene more than any other scene. He would come over to the apartment and we'd work on it, we'd talk about it, we'd get on the phone and work on it because we had to play that change from the kitchen to the eventual mounting him in the living room. (Laughs.) It was tough. 

This season debuted amidst one of the most controversial elections this country has ever had. Do you think there are parallels to the show and the election?

Definitely. (Laughs). It's funny because we're not a tear-from-the-headlines show, but it always ends up and keep in mind, Beau is writing this with these writers a year ahead of the time you see it. Yet inevitably Beau always sees something that's going to happen in the future, and I'll be damned this year if it didn't parallel not just the primaries, but actual events that have happened. Look at the KKK thing, isn't that crazy? Of all the things we filmed I was, like, "Well, this one won't happen." (Laughs.) And then low and behold, it does. And I got to admit, these real life primaries are actually making us look not so outlandish. Every year I go to the Correspondents' Dinner or when I go and work on issues like I'm doing now with the Older Americans Act and I'm actually going and lobbying members of Congress to help reauthorize this bill, these young staffers are coming up to me and saying to me, "I know a guy just like you."

Maybe not involvement in any murders, but do you think down the line something can be uncovered about one of these candidates like Hammerschmidt (Boris McGiver) did when he publishes the story on Frank?

Thursday night, Donald Trump was explosive quite a bit. People always ask me, "How would Doug Stamper take down Donald Trump?" and that's when I think he would do it quicker than what's happening. I think they're waiting and they have plenty on Donald Trump and if he ends up miraculously getting the nomination, I'm pretty certain that they will take him down, and take him down pretty easily.

What was your favorite Stamper moment this season? Do you think a Donald Trump takedown is in the near future? Where do you want to see Stamper in season five? Banter back and forth in the comments below and stay tuned to The Live Feed for all things House of Cards

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