Corey Stoll, who plays House of Card’s (@HouseofCards) troubled and tragic emotional/moral compass, Congressman Peter Russo, has become an expert at intense, unrelenting, committed and scene-stealing performances. A Manhattan native, he has woven his way through stage, film and television for over a decade in acclaimed turn outs. Such as in Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris where he played the immortal American literary icon Ernest Hemingway, a performance at once farcical, heartfelt and magnetic. In a phone call from NYC he talks with LITHOC (@livingintheHOC) about working with David Fincher, the pros and cons of a dying print news industry and the universal appeal of Peter Russo.
LITHOC: You studied and grew up in New York with some background in the theatre. Can you tell us some of the adjustments you have to make between the stage and the set of a television show or film?
CS: The major adjustment isn’t really just between stage and film is that with theatre, whether you’re in a small playhouse or in a Broadway theatre, actors are always having to gauge the size of their audience. As opposed to when you’re doing film or television, the audience on stage is that much smaller. The house your trying to reach out to is right against your face sometimes. There is an adjustment. The other thing is really just about pace of working. When you’re doing theatre, you’re the editor of your own work. You’re the one gauging the pace of the play and what’s going on. You can speed it up or slow it down depending on the reaction of the audience. When you’re doing film and television, you’re giving up a lot of that control. You’re handing it to the editors and the director.
LITHOC: For years you had a number of guest starring roles on a number of hit TV shows and supporting roles in several high-profile films. You received a tremendous amount of acclaim for your scene stealing performance as Ernest Hemingway in Midnight In Paris. You did a full season of Law & Order. Like a lot of actors you’ve moved around a lot. Coming into House of Cards were you hoping for a bit of permanence or a gig that would allow you 3 or 4 years of a regular routine on a TV series? Is that something you necessarily want as an actor?
CS: Well with this part I had just come off a year with Law & Order assuming that when I took the part it was going to provide a lot of job security because — well, it’s Law & Order. That didn’t happen. But then I got the opportunity to do some film work, which was really exciting. So I was actually had trepidation about going back into TV, but when I read the pilot for House of Cards, I thought well this is a character that is just so rich and so much fun to play. This was a character I could see myself doing for years.
LITHOC: Did you have a sense of where Peter was headed at the beginning of the season? Did you know where he was going to end up?
CS: I knew. When I very first auditioned I didn’t know, but on my call back with David Fincher, he told me the character was going to last only until the end of the season.
LITHOC: House of Cards looks at the corruptibility of news and politics, both of which demand people’s trust. Would you consider yourself politically engaged and do you struggle trusting what you read in American newspapers or what you watch on broadcast news? How do you break through the clutter?
CS: I think it depends on the kind of news stories that I’m engaging. When I’m reading the NYT or listening to NPR, you have a certain threshold for what you’re going to believe versus watching cable news, network news or – you know – FOX [News]. Everybody has their own place they go for news. Obviously I have a rather liberal bent and I have the sources that I trust more than others.
One of the [silver linings] to come out of the destruction of the newspaper industry, which is obviously a bad thing especially for local news, is that – you know – I grew up reading the New York Times. There was one source, and it was a source that was more of the reputable ones. It was still one source though. Now there is a chance to get different angles. That’s a great thing, I think. I balk when people impugn the media in general as this vague thing. It’s a little silly, because [the media] is more diversified than ever. Journalistic standards may be lower than in the past but –
LITHOC: — there are more options.
CS: Exactly, and I think that’s a good thing. There’s also a problem with the profit motive and the ability to – you know – like Zoe at Slugline when her boss tells her “just get it out there” and deal with the truth later. Clearly that’s problematic. But if a journalist writes or posts something that is clearly not truthful, it’s easier than ever to correct that.
LITHOC: Peter corrupts himself in many ways personal and professional, with alcohol and drugs, but still comes out of it all a sympathetic character. How shocked people were to see him go says a lot about the power of your performance. Peter is the moral and emotional centre of the show. Why do you think that is?
CS: Well the context of the show is really that the people Peter is surrounded by are really cut throat, cold and very self-serving. I think if the audience puts themselves into the world of HoC, I think there are very few people out there, fortunately, who would operate in the way that Francis or Claire or Zoe operate. I think that would be a really awful way to live. I think more people would feel that they would have the same moral qualms that Peter has.
Peter has his own demons and blind spots that make him more gullible and more flawed than people might see themselves. I think in a world where everybody is being selfish and self-centred, I think that there’s something in what Russo has that makes him more identifiable instead of the Machiavellian characters that surround him.
LITHOC: We all know what happens to Peter, a lot of people including me were really sad to see him go the way he did. But when it did happen, it seemed like it made sense given his demons and his relationship with Frank. After the initial shock, you get the sense that this is where things were headed for him. As an actor, can you reconcile being written off a show, and basically into unemployment, with telling a really good story? Does it make it easier/better as an actor when your character’s death succeeds narratively?
CS: Certainly it would have been more difficult had it been a surprise. Because I knew what was going to happen from the beginning, I saw my job as having a great role in a very long film. Which was incredibly satisfying in that context. I knew from the first scene of the pilot what story I was going to tell and so it was a great opportunity to be able to gauge it early on and get a chance to work towards that goal. The story of Peter Russo was a great opportunity and I feel very, very lucky. The other side of it is I loved having the chance to work with the people I was working with on the show week after week. Regardless of how it ended for Peter, it was a great experience. It felt good that when we were telling this story, it was arching in a really dynamic and exciting way over the course of the first season. It wouldn’t have been as fun, I think, or as exciting as getting the script every time and knowing that we had only 13 episodes to tell Peter’s story. So in that way, Beau [Willimon] (@BeauWillimon) and the writers and David [Fincher] and the directors weren’t holding anything back.
LITHOC: Netflix’s (@netflix) model has allowed the audience to get to know and get emotionally invested in Peter quite quickly. Some say the Netflix model will change the way we watch original TV. What will it mean, if anything, for how actors approach their characters knowing that you have to make a connection with them over a very short amount of time?
CS: It’s still pretty separated [from the theatre]. When you’re on stage you actually hear it, you’re there as the audience is reacting to what you’re doing. You still, even with binge watching, there’s still something second-hand about the reactions. But actually the way TV and theatre are similar versus doing a movie is that when you do a film, you have a couple of months with the character. It’s a very finite story.
When you’re doing a TV show over the course of 6-9 months you get to keep on coming back to the character. It’s similar to rehearsing a play. I definitely felt I understood the character of Peter Russo and became much more comfortable, and was also able to surprise myself in the later episodes than in the beginning when I was still trying to sort of create Peter. As the season went on, as I could marinate in him, I could let things happen more organically. Which is kind of similar to what happens in the theatre.
LITHOC: David Fincher has developed a reputation for his own brand of perfectionism. What was it like as an actor working within his process, particularly when you may have felt satisfied with your delivery on several takes only to find that he still wanted to do another one — or twenty.
CS: Now that David’s reputation is so [well known] and, sure everyone says that when they’re going to work with David Fincher it means they might have to do “a million takes,” but you’re prepared for it in a certain sense. I don’t mind doing a million takes, it’s not the work or that I find it exhausting in any way. Not at all. It’s just more the sense of adjusting to David’s rhythm. You can tell an actor to do [another take] and at times regardless of how much an actor knows that this is how the system functions, they’re going to feel that somehow it’s a criticism or a reflection that they’re not getting it.
But once you get over that, it’s a great feeling to walk off the set every time and feel that although the take I like the most may not end up on screen, [with David] you never feel like “I hope there’s a good take there” because there are probably ten good takes. You never know what is going to end up on screen. Most of the time when you’re shooting film and you think [for example] “take four was clearly the take” and you show up to the premiere and often, yeah, that’s the one that shows up on screen. For the most part when you’re doing TV you don’t really know which one is going to show up on screen. Which is sort of exciting. It’s definitely a learning curve. David works in a unique way but it feels good to be in good hands.
LITHOC: Can we look forward to seeing more of you on stage, on the big screen or perhaps behind the camera one day? Wha’s next for you?
CS: I’ve got a couple of films in the can right now. I have a couple things lined up. I haven’t done a play in a couple of years and I’m missing that. The overall direction I’m trying to take in terms of what I’m going to do next is just about following the material. It doesn’t matter what medium its in. A lot of the greatest stuff is in TV but there are some great films being made. I want to work with great people and play characters I haven’t played before and have great words to say. So it doesn’t really matter.
LITHOC: What are you watching these days?
CS: I’m just biding my time until Mad Men and Breaking Bad are back on. Right now, I’m slowly going back through the The Sopranos. I watched it all before but I hadn’t seen it in years so I’m re-watching [The Sopranos]. It’s still so good. And still the best show ever.
LITHOC: You should check out the two seasons of STARZ’s BOSS.
I saw the first season. I decided to take a break while shooting HoC because of the similarities. Especially with the governor character. I thought “this is a little too close to home” and felt like I didn’t want to copy anything. I thought [Jeff Hephner] was great in that role.
We’ve got more cast interviews coming next Monday when we talk to Michael Kelly!