'House of Cards' Star on Series Finale Fate and "Releasing the Demons"

Michael Kelly speaks to The Hollywood Reporter about how the Netflix series ends for Doug Stamper and weighs in on the choice to have Kevin Spacey's character haunt the final season.
Courtesy of Netflix
Michael Kelly with Robin Wright on 'House of Cards'

[This story contains major spoilers from the entire sixth and final season of Netflix's House of Cards.]

No one loved Francis J. Underwood more than Doug Stamper.

The House of Cards fixer played by Michael Kelly was so loyal, in fact, that the Netflix political saga ended its sixth and final season with Doug revealing to Robin Wright's POTUS that he was the one who murdered Frank (Kevin Spacey) in order to protect the "legacy from the man." That confession led to Claire Hale (Wright) stabbing a letter opener — the one keepsake Frank had left him — into Doug's stomach. The series ended with the last living man who knew all of the Underwood secrets bleeding out on the Oval Office carpet and dying in Claire's arms.

The Shakespearean series finale saw House of Cards leaning into the tone and rules that were set forth by Beau Willimon when he created the Spacey-starring drama back in 2013. After Spacey was fired over sexual assault allegations last fall, co-showrunners Frank Pugliese and Melissa James Gibson reworked the final eight episodes to chart Claire's ascension as the first female president while she literally and metaphorically stuck her middle finger up to the political patriarchy. But no matter which way she twisted or turned, her dead husband very deliberately haunted her until the bitter end — much like Spacey's departure cast a shadow over the final season of Netflix's first original series.

"Doug's whole season is dedicated to protecting this man’s legacy and trying to clear his name. The irony of it all is that’s what he’s doing all season," Kelly tells The Hollywood Reporter of his character's season six mission to save Frank's reputation. The writers decided to kill Frank offscreen and, in a clip meant to fill viewers in before watching the season, it's revealed that Claire had her ex-president husband disgracefully buried next to his father in Gaffney, instead of Arlington. To Doug, that is the first in a series of missteps taken by Claire, a woman who is dead-set on ruining the man Doug would die for and the legacy they had built.

Though Doug's death definitively closes Kelly's run on House of Cards, the open-ended finale left much to be desired after the screen faded to black for the last time. Will Claire, who is still very alive and very pregnant with Frank's baby, get away with yet another murder? Did Doug heed her words ("There. No more pain") and surrender to her mercy killing? Will the one person left who is still hot on Claire's trail — journalist Janine Skorsky (Constance Zimmer) — expose all of her misdeeds? 

Below, in a chat with THR, Kelly unpacks the final showdown between Doug and Claire, peels back the curtain to explain how and when the ending came to be, reveals who he was really talking to when he broke the fourth wall and explains why a series about the abuse of power is coming to a well-timed end.

Before Kevin Spacey was fired and the show had to be reworked, the initial plan was for the final season showdown to be between Claire Hale (formerly, Underwood) and Frank Underwood. Then everything changed. Since you had seen some of the original scripts and filmed some episodes, how was Doug Stamper going to factor into that story?

I didn’t get to read a lot of it, but I do know that the two of us [Doug and Frank] were going to go in the direction of the private sector [that had been set up by the season five finale]. I was going to be with him and I was going to get out. I don’t know how the pardons or any of that was going to play out, but I was going to be, obviously, on Frank's side. The writers, they shock us every year, so I don’t know if that’s how the whole season would have played out, but at least in the beginning, that’s how it was going to happen.

Maybe Doug would have taken a bullet for him in the end anyway?

Right. (Laughs.)

Then the season was being reworked and they decided to kill Frank offscreen. Did you have thoughts about who would be the one to do it and did you ever guess it would be Doug?

I definitely had thoughts about how they were going to do it. We were all talking so often. Robin, the writers and myself, we were all collaborating. But no, I didn’t think it was going to be Doug. Even when we were doing the season and Frank was gone, it still wasn’t determined who was going to do be the killer. When the writers approached me with it, I was like, "Oh, that’s good." At first it was more of a, “Wait, what?!” And then it did make sense. If you think about that beautifully written line where Doug says, “I had to protect the legacy from the man,” it shows just how dedicated this guy was to that man. Dedicated enough that he would kill him. It’s crazy, but it makes total sense.

What were some of those questions you had when they told you?

I think my immediate reaction was, “No! No! No!” And then it was explained to me, which is so often the case with these guys. Every year they give me things and I tell them it doesn’t make sense and wonder how I’m going to wrap my head around it. But after talking to Frank and Melissa, I realized that not only does it make sense, but it’s beautiful. And it says so much about this character that I went from a very quick “no” to a very quick “yes, that’s darkly beautiful.”

There are many signs throughout the season that can be viewed with a renewed lens once you know Doug is the one who killed Frank. Like when Doug told Claire (in the fifth episode), “Whoever killed him will get what she, or he, deserves." At what point during filming was it decided?

I’m remembering filming that day and I’m not 100 percent certain, but I feel like at that point we decided that it was Doug. We may have even decided that day. It’s such a cool moment, though, when he says that to her. With Robin, in so many of those scenes, we’re saying so much more than what we are saying literally. And that was so much fun to play with her.

In the final scene when you arrive at the Oval, Claire asks Doug, “What took you so long?” How long had she known, or were you confirming it to her in that moment?

I can’t speak for her character, but in my opinion, I think she knows it wasn’t her, so then the next logical conclusion for her is definitely Doug. I think she knew pretty soon thereafter it happened.

I prefer watching this showdown between Doug and Claire. Claire and Frank already had their face-off in season five — and Frank lost. Was Spacey’s departure a blessing in disguise for the story that ended up being told?

I don’t know. It’s interesting. Of course I’ve read some of the reactions on social media and some people are really upset that he’s no longer on the show and they don’t care what happened in real life, or they are able to remove themselves from the reality of what happened. For me, personally, you lose a friend, a co-star. There’s a million things that go through your head and it was difficult. I can’t imagine Doug Stamper’s part would have been this big had that not happened, but I would never in a million years wish harm or ill will upon anyone to greater or further myself as an actor. As always, on House of Cards, whatever they give me, I’m grateful. I’ve always been so grateful with everything they’ve written for that character and to do it in such an interesting way, I’m just grateful. Those guys are incredible writers and to get to say those words is a great honor.

Frank Pugliese and Melissa James Gibson made a deliberate choice to have Frank haunt the final season. I spoke to them about it and they explained why they wanted him to be felt, but not seen or heard. How did that choice make sense to you? 

On one hand, it was a tool for Doug. His whole season is dedicated to protecting this man’s legacy and trying to clear his name. The irony of it all is that's what [Doug] is doing all season. For me, it became this incredibly compelling story to tell for Doug, to have that be his driving force. He always has to have something to obsess about and pour 1,000 percent of his body into. It was not an easy task, by any means, as an actor, but it was an easy thing for me to wrap my head around, that Doug would again funnel everything into one thing and navigating that with all of the other characters. Having to pull that through line through it all.

The co-showrunners have explained why they couldn’t just erase the character. It does feel that even if all the other characters moved on, Doug would never.

Right. If you think back to the beginning of the season, here is a guy whose whole life has been that. And now that is gone. His entire adult professional relationship has been with this man and who he’s worked side-by-side with for over a decade, maybe close to two the way we have it in our backstory. And to have everything unravel. That’s all he has. At the beginning of the season, you really find a man who is so incredibly lost.

Jumping to the last scene and his death: After playing Doug for six seasons, how do you feel about the final card he was dealt? 

I think it was beautiful, in a way. We know Doug Stamper. He didn’t have a life, other than that. That was it. You saw his family, his brother and family, come once and he spoke to him for a minute or two every now and then. But his life was Frank and his life was work. And when both of those were gone, it was, to me, this beautiful moment. Once he drew blood from Claire, there was no walking out of that Oval Office without walking straight into a prison. He was never going to get another job in D.C., so that’s gone from his life. He didn’t have the only person he really knew in life. Everything was gone. He was done and he knew he wasn’t going to get what he wanted in the end. He walked into the Oval and that final showdown wanting the pardon for Frank. He said, “Here’s a list of everyone who is going to kill you and who wants you dead, just say it. Just give me the pardon for him.” And she said no. Then at the end, he’s willing to settle for her just saying it out loud, that she’s nothing without him. And she won’t. Once she turns the letter opener on him, he doesn’t fight. He doesn’t try to live. He just turned it over. 

James Gibson was pretty clear that for Claire, it was a mercy killing. She was putting Doug out of his misery, circling back to the Frank-dog moment that opened the series. What were Doug's final thoughts?

I haven’t seen the episode yet, but I know damn well having shot it for 14 hours that at least how I played it was that it was surrender. It was, "Thank you." There’s no more demons to battle. You can only imagine what life would be like to be Doug Stamper — it’s probably not a lot of fun! So I think for him, it was this beautiful moment of resolve and release of the demons. To just be able to go to sleep; to be done with it all. I think it was really, really beautiful.

How many takes did you do in 14 hours of filming — with Robin Wright directing?

Oh, my God. I don’t know what made it into the final cut, but it was a four- or five-page scene on paper. If I remember correctly, Robin wanted two days to do it, but that would have put us over a holiday weekend. So they said we had to finish it. It’s funny because the day before, I thought we might finish early. Then when you get in there, you realize there’s blood and the carpet and all these things. So the way we shot it, we had to break it up and that's what took so long. Robin always says, "I wish I had more coverage" (laughs) — she’s a great director in the way a great director can never get enough coverage. At the very, very end, the two of us were on literal fumes because it’s such a highly charged, emotional scene and we were doing it all day. Crying and then going back to not crying. The energy it took for the two of us to get through that at the end of the 14 hours, when I put my head in her lap, I could have very easily fallen asleep. I was so tired!

The biggest cliffhanger-threat is journalist Janine Skorsky (Constance Zimmer). Doug left her the coordinates to Rachel Posner's buried body. Why did Claire let Janine live, and do you have faith that Janine will write Doug's story? Do you imagine she’ll work to expose Claire on behalf of "disposable girls" Rachel and Zoe Barnes, and all the other Underwood victims?

I do have faith, but I also have faith that we can take the Senate! So I don’t know. I’m an eternal optimist. But I think you can probably look at it and say that Claire’s not done. Is Janine going to have time to get that story out before she’s taken care of? Claire is not one to let things go by the wayside. [Editor's note: This interview was conducted on the afternoon of Nov. 6.]

Janine's name isn’t on the list of enemies that Doug handed Claire — right?

No. Not in my mind.

So, she has a head start.

Exactly! I remember thinking back, because we were always talking through how the show was going to end, and there was a version in my head where I said this was a great opportunity for us to say that journalism wins: Give Janine and Hammer everything and let Claire only think she’s won at the end. I think a lot of the audience will wonder, is Janine going to get Claire? Is Janine going to avenge Tom Hammerschmidt's death and do what she’s been wanting to do for the last six seasons and expose the Underwoods? That’s the part that I would like to think happens. As a fan of this show, I like Claire winning, but as a person and seeing real-life politics today, I want journalism to win. I’m a little over this “fake news” shit. I’m over the news being called “fake news.”

How do you imagine Claire would explain away Doug's murder in the Oval Office? And how do you imagine motherhood — and especially being the mother of a girl — would impact her in life after House of Cards?

Truth be told, that’s why Doug didn’t follow through with killing Claire. He knew once he didn’t get what he wanted that this showdown was going to end one of two ways: He was going to kill her and never see the light of day again, or she was going to kill him once he didn’t get what he wanted. And both were OK with him, I think. He went to draw blood on her and once he did that and looked down and saw the belly and pictured the child, he saw that Frank is in there. That’s why, in my mind, he didn’t go through with pushing the opener through her throat.

At one point, there was a Doug Stamper spinoff in the works. Obviously, his death complicates that, but did the idea break down as the writers were finding the end to this story?

No, it was before. I don’t remember the exact timeline, but to the best of my recollection, it was a little before the news broke [about Spacey] and we went on our hiatus; a month or two before. From what I understand, they didn’t like the pilot and didn’t move forward. I was really excited about it because I was going to get to executive produce and direct. It was a cool story, how we moved forward. And the end of House of Cards was going to have to fit into the beginning of that. But it was a no-go before we even started filming the House of Cards season.

Maybe you could do a Frances, with an “e,” spinoff [the name Doug suggested to Claire for her and Frank's baby].

It’s so funny — my sister called after she had seen the season and said, “Oh, my God, are they going to do the demon seed spinoff?!” (Laughs.) "The Demon Seed: The Child of Frank and Claire."

In the end, who was the biggest monster of all? 

I think that’s to be forever debated. There are a lot of people who say that Claire made Francis, and there are people who say that Francis made Claire who she is and that she became the bigger monster later. I think they were both equally awful and equally monstrous.

Doug also broke the fourth wall, becoming only the third character to do so after Francis and Claire. James Gibson said it was a sign that the House of Card rules were imploding. How did that feel and who were you talking to?

When [the showrunners] came to me with that, I threw up in my mouth. (Laughs.) “Oh, God, no!” I compare it to how people, all throughout the seasons, have asked me if Doug Stamper was going to be president one day. That answer is no. Can you imagine this guy on the campaign trail? He would not be very good in front of an audience. And I looked at speaking to the audience in the same way. It’s not something Doug would do. They really wanted to do it and said it was important, that it’s a sign of everything being turned on its head, so I had to wrap my head around it. I had them adjust it ever so slightly so that I could have it either be that I was talking to Frank, talking to myself or talking to Claire. I never wanted it to be about me sharing something with the audience with a wink and a nod like Frank did. And I think Robin had an idea for herself about what her address is about.

For each of the three characters, the way in which they do their direct addresses are different. Frank was always campaigning when he was doing it. I had to make it mine. It also lent a little bit to Doug losing his mind in the end. Is he talking to Frank? Is he talking to himself? I knew what each of the direct addresses were to me, but I wanted the audience to ask, “What is going on? Is he just really gone now?” I wanted it to be interesting and something specific, because I always think those are the strongest choices. But I told [the showrunners] that I couldn’t talk to the audience because it didn’t make sense to me. I’ve always been able to wrap my head around everything and I just couldn’t wrap my head around that one, so I talked to them about my idea. Even when I say, “I’m coming to get ya, Claire,” I’m saying that to myself in the mirror as I’m shaving, if I’m not mistaken.

This season had a well-timed release days ahead of the midterm elections. Is the end of the series coming at the right time — when the show can no longer out-dramatize the real White House?

Yes. We’ve never seen anything like this in real-life politics. In my opinion, it’s a very sad time politically and sometimes, as a country, you have to take a step backwards before you can take a step forward. Netflix has always been very brilliant about their drop dates; there’s no coincidence to dropping this days before the midterms. Because, if anything, I hope that this show makes you ask some questions about yourself, about the current political environment, about how you feel about power. House of Cards is set in a political world, but this is a show that’s about power and I think we showed this year, more than ever, what abuse of power looks like. I think it’s going to make many people think, "Be careful." Think before you make a decision, because these are big decisions. I don’t think there’s any coincidence about that.

The final season of House of Cards is streaming all eight episodes now on Netflix. Head here for all of THR's final season coverage.