Why a Magazine Editor Was Cast in 'House of Cards' Final Season

Elizabeth Thorp, who ran the glossy D.C. pub 'Capitol File,' became the first female U.S. Secretary of Defense on the final season of the Netflix series.
Courtesy of Tim Coburn; David Giesbrecht/Netflix
Elizabeth Thorp, Robin Wright in 'House of Cards.'

It wasn't Elizabeth Thorp's idea to get into acting — or politics — but she's becoming the first female U.S. secretary of defense on the final season of Netflix's House of Cards.

In 2014, during her tenure as editor of Capitol File, a glossy pub for the D.C. glitterati, Thorp was approached by HoC's then-casting director, Kimberly Skyrm, to audition for a role on the show.

"I thought, how fun! I'll go up to Baltimore for an audition and check it off my bucket list," remembers Thorp. "Then I went into the audition room and just totally blew it. There's nothing more terrifying than standing on the X and having to record something for a camera in a closet-sized audition room."

While Thorp didn't land a role, she cemented a spot on the creative team's radar, receiving calls to come back in an audition for a handful of parts over the next few years—"a lawyer, a reporter, a government official, always some kind of traditional D.C. insider," says Thorp. In season 4, she filmed a scene as an Illinois state delegate.

Then, last May, Thorp got called in to read for three different characters — and was ultimately cast as part of Madam President Underwood's all-female cabinet, with Wright as both Thorp's scene partner and her director in the final episode of a season that aims to illuminate what strong, diverse female leadership would look like at the highest level.

According to HoC's showrunners Frank Pugliese and Melissa James Gibson, organic casting methods have been a big part of the series' success. The show has enlisted the talents of real-life journalists, former politicians and military vets, both onscreen and behind the scenes, to help establish credibility and accuracy down to the smallest detail. "There's an essence that people who've worked in Washington [bring]," Pugliese tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Elizabeth has a different kind of gravitas — there was an authenticity to how she approached her material that was something we were really looking for."

Current casting director Bernie Telsey saw this, too. "With many of the roles in HoC, we needed to cast actors who showed an immediate sense of intelligence and authority, something Elizabeth carries with her when she walks in a room," he says.

The episode wasn't Thorp's first encounter with Wright: In 2015, she interviewed the star for a Capitol File cover story. "I really connected with Robin as a mother, as a woman and as an activist. She's impressively knowledgeable about current events and politics, and just really down to earth and cool," Thorp recalls. "At the time, Robin said that D.C. was so much more corrupt than Hollywood, and I thought, 'No way' — I was a little protective. But now I feel like she's 150 percent right." Thorp, who is currently a senior advisor to Planned Parenthood and the editor of the women's comedy platform PYPO.com, points to the crises that have occurred during the current administration, like the Khashoggi killing. "There's some really sketchy shit happening."

Whereas the show once functioned as a hyperbolic depiction of hypothetical political atrocities, HoC's season 6 with its female-dominated leadership serves as somewhat of an antidote to our current political climate. Pugliese and James Gibson say their casting choices were both intentional to the plot of the series and also a political commentary. "Part of what we wanted to focus on this season is getting powerful women in the room together, all of whom have drawn different lines in the sand," says James Gibson. "There isn't just one kind of powerful woman," Pugliese points out. "It's a luxury we tend to afford men — that we allow there to be different kinds of powerful men in a room, so why not explore that with women?"

Michael Kelly, who's played inside operator Doug Stamper on all six seasons of HoC, tells THR that organic casting methods — along with creative consultants who are former White House staffers and Washington veterans — bring a truth not only to individual characters but also to the production as a whole: "When you have that chemistry with real people from that world of Washington politics — like Elizabeth, it always lends authenticity."

As for having Wright at the helm of the final season — both post-Kevin Spacey and during the Trump administration, Kelly expresses both awe and gratitude: "Robin was a real leader. It was her positive outlook that brought us all together," he says. "This was Netflix's first original programming show, and to think of it just ending [after season 5], that just wasn't acceptable — not for the fans, not for the hundreds of people in the cast and crew whose livelihoods depended on this show."

Kelly also says he feels "proud to be a part of a show that showcases women the way we do this season. To have a woman rising to power…it's almost like Robin stepped in and fulfilled the dream for a lot of us of what should have been."

A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.