If anything is indicative of Michael Kelly’s (@michaeljkellyjr) versatility as a performer it’s how incredibly different he is from House of Cards (@HouseofCards) doppelgänger Doug Stamper. Immediately affable, humble and forthcoming in real life, Kelly conversely plays Stamper with the cunning, cold and pragmatic precision of a Robert McNamara foiled against Kevin Spacey’s towering and charming Lyndon Johnson-like Francis Underwood. Speaking with LITHOC (@livingintheHOC) by phone Kelly gives off a cool, funny, confident and laid back style that has doubtless made him a pleasure to work with and contributed to a diverse career that began over a decade ago.
Kelly has built a career around being a reliable character actor in TV & Film. He is one of those character actors who make acting seem effortless and who audiences rely on to give a project pedigree and depth. If Kevin Spacey is House of Cards’ Michael Jordan, Kelly is its Scottie Pippen. Victor Garber, Bryan Cranston, Powers Boothe, Elias Koteas, Richard Jenkins and Lance Reddick are just examples of character actors who either have moved on to become leading men in their own right or who consistently elevate an ensemble cast and give it nuance. Lead actors are only as good as the supporting cast around them, in which case judging by Spacey’s performance in the first season, Kelly has turned in an Emmy-worthy performance as Doug Stamper. One wonders if these kinds of careers are by design or simply a product of the chips falling where they may. Kelly thinks it’s a bit of both.
“It does kind of just happen, but my good friend and manager Brian, as well as my agent, together we’ve set out to work with people we want to work with,” says Kelly. “We want to work on projects that appeal to the three of us and make collaborative decisions based on that. The directors I’ve worked with, for example, is one of things I’m most proud of.”
Who wouldn’t be? Early in his career Kelly appeared along side Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson in M. Night Shyamalan Unbreakable (2000) and with Jim Carrey, as Andy Kaufman’s brother Michael, in Milos Forman’s Man on the Moon (1999). He worked with one of his idols, Clint Eastwood, in 2008’s critically acclaimed Changeling. Many fans remember him as security guard turned reluctant hero CJ in 2004s zombie remake and cult favourite Dawn Of The Dead, directed by Zack Snyder. Kelly told us about some of his cinematic inspirations and how succeeding as an actor is in part about setting the right expectations.
“In terms of film I’ve been a great Clint Eastwood fan for as long as I can remember, so working on Changeling with someone I admired and looked up to my entire career was so exciting,” says Kelly. “Ed Harris, who has inspired me my entire career, I look at that guy and say ‘wow, I want to be like him’. I could see myself aspiring to that and not being as out of reach as, say someone like Brad Pitt, and thinking ‘I want to be like that.’ Obviously I don’t have the beautiful head of hair and the Brad Pitt look, but it’s those kind of guys whose work I find incredibly rewarding to watch and aspire to match. Recently David O. Russell’s work has touched me and that’s someone I really want to work with.”
His TV career has seen him make a string of notable appearances as hard-nosed detectives, soldiers and intelligence agents. Taking on James Gandolfini as Agent Ron Goddard in HBO’s The Sopranos, or as Captain Bryan Patterson in the HBO Mini-Series Generation Kill (2008) and most recently along side Jim Caviezal and Michael Emmerson as CIA operative Mark Snow in CBS’s Person of Interest. Kelly’s choices as an actor have become easier as his confidence, experience and track record have allowed him to be choosier.
“I never set out and to be a leading man or to be a character actor,” says Kelly. “I wanted to become an actor and make a comfortable living doing that. So you take what comes your way, certainly early on. Later when I started working more and started making decisions myself, we targeted people we wanted to work with and projects we wanted to work on. Obviously we make choices, sometimes we’re offered two projects at once and then you have to decide what is it that you’ll get from this, who you want to play, it’s always something different that determines what work you associate yourself with.”
With House of Cards and the roll of Doug Stamper, Kelly finds himself taking a bit of a refreshing departure playing a calculating and simmering political acolyte side by side with Kevin Spacey. Kelly delivers a roll with cinematic depth, complexity and nuance, evolving a character who displays nothing but loyalty for his boss. Spacey and director/executive producer David Fincher’s involvement brings in two silver screen veterans and further advances the notion that television now regularly gives us the best that cinema can afford. In the past, crossing over from television to film and vice versa was extremely rare, but in the past fifteen years, the barrier is essentially non-existent. We thank this evolution for the Bryan Cranstons, John Lithgows and Michael Kellys of the film world. Kelly reflects on what its like weaving his way between film and television projects.
“There used to not be a cross over like there is now between film and television. Now that cross over is totally there. You’re not considered a ‘TV actor’ or a ‘film actor’ anymore,” says Kelly about blurring the traditional divide between the mediums. “You see many great film actors doing television and many of the successful TV actors doing great film work. The intersect is so much more powerful now.”
When it came to House of Cards, Kelly’s decision to go after the show wasn’t so much about the medium or format as much as it was about the opportunity to work with pedigree talents.
“A couple of seasons ago my manager and I had a conversation about doing pilot season and being very selective. Try to work with the people we want to work with and go after something that’s appealing,” recalls Kelly who just before HOC had finished his run on Person of Interest and saw his film, the found-footage anti-super hero film Chronicle, hit the big screen in 2012. “Then House of Cards comes along and you have Fincher, Spacey, [showrunner] Beau Willimon and Robin Wright and you think, wow, are you kidding me? Fincher is someone I’ve admired and been a fan of for so long — from the beginning. He’s an amazing director and when you hear he’s going to produce and direct a TV show, I didn’t know anybody who didn’t want to be working on the show. I feel so blessed.”
Landing a regular role on a hit TV series is a great way for actors to occupy a space in the zeitgeist and the illusive element of several years of job security, around which they can pick and choose larger film projects. Like a lot of working actors who have bounced around the last ten years, Kelly considers the longevity that comes with a successful television run a by-product of choosing to work with great people.
“You know I have a family now, with two kids, and a long-term job, where you’re making money for a few years, is obviously important,” says Kelly. “But honestly with House of Cards, you just want to work with these people so badly. It didn’t matter if it were a short film that involved Fincher and Spacey, I would have been all over it. Going back to working with the people you most admire, that’s what my whole career was about. The fact that this was a series that was going to go at least two seasons was just a great bonus.”
Asked about the lengths he’ll go to get what he wants, including tens of takes and incredibly long work days, David Fincher recently told Empire Magazine “[I] can’t care. I spent way too much money, I spent way too much time thinking about this [scene]. I spent way too much time coaxing and cajoling to get [the scene]. We can’t leave [the set] until we have the moments that it’s going to take to make this work. We can’t. We’re doing everyone a disservice. You can’t allow it to exhaust you. You have to keep that focus and that concentration and you have to get what you need.”
Echoing Fincher’s philosophy, Kelly sees a method to the madness when working with the now legendary director.
“Honestly it was fine with me because — you know what– if he’s not satisfied, there’s a good reason. There were many reasons. I remember being on take twenty or whatever it was one night and asking ‘is there something you want me to do differently?’ He said ‘no man, the first twelve takes were just to make sure the background weren’t walking all stiff. That they’re walking like real people who worked at the Capitol.'”
Recalling another day on set with Fincher, Kelly says “I’ve seen him do seven takes, only to see him come in and adjust a salt-shaker on the table. But I never for a second question it, because his product is so amazing. His end product is always so much greater than anything I could create, so if he asks me to do a hundred takes I’m going to do it and with a smile on my face because it’s David Fincher. I know it’s going to be awesome when it’s done. There’s a reason behind it and I’m happy to do as many takes as needed to get what he wants. He doesn’t just have you do another take for the sake of doing another take. Ever.”
Kelly takes the heavy-handed sociopolitical commentary of House of Cards in stride. He considers any commentary the show takes will be received by the audience depending on where their political leanings already lie and doesn’t see it changing too many minds.
“We are fed what we want to hear. If you are left leaning then you’re not going to watch FOX TV. If you’re right wing, you’re going to watch FOX. It’s filtered for you by who covers it. You’re going to hear what you want to hear,” says Kelly. “If you’re a Republican and you watch the debates on FOX and the coverage after that, you’re going to think ‘Romney killed [Obama]!’ And if you watch any other network you’re going to think the other side won [laughing]. We’re fed what we want to hear. We go to the sites that reinforce our existing beliefs. It’s good to know that it’s out there if you want to dive into something that challenges your beliefs but most people read what they want to read.”
As for the debate in the media about how realistic House of Cards is about the dirty politicking that happens on Capitol Hill, Kelly believes that the show is an accurate narrative mirror of how things really are and how the broader world tends to work.
“In many ways the show [is reflective] of how it really is. In any job today there is no doubt that favours are done and later reciprocated. I’m not saying that all favours are done expecting something in return, but that when a favour is done, quite often a favour is returned. At least I hope not to the exact devious nature it is on our show [laughing] but at a certain level you can see, to an extent, it happening in that way [in the real world],” says Kelly. “The attitude in politics, it seems, is that if you want to side with me on this [issue], great, and I’ll side with you on your next one. This one’s really important to me so give me a pass this time. There’s no doubt that those cats [politicians on right and left] are talking.”
On the surface and early on in Season 1, Doug Stamper seems like a cut-throat Kissinger-esque number one who would do anything for Frank, but as the season rolls along things get more complicated and we see him begin to struggle with the things he has to do, particularly for escort Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan). The layers begin to peel off and that’s a testament to Michael Kelly’s performance.
“The way I’ve tried to play Doug is that he’s Kevin’s [Frank’s] guy. He’s going to do whatever it takes. He’s very much like Frank in that way,” says Kelly.
By the end of the season, while it may seem that Stamper is beginning to feel the pull of his conscience, Kelly believes that in actuality, morally speaking, very little separates Stamper and Underwood.
“I don’t think [Stamper] ever morally questions himself. It just has to be done. Bad for the greater good. It’s just what has to happen. Things unfold in a certain way and you just deal with them,” says Kelly. He attributes his approach to the character as one determined by the writing team. “The great thing is that Beau wrote it and you just really have to play what he writes. I don’t believe I consciously set out to play him in any way other than how he was written.”
Asked if he had any opportunity to input into the development of the character in the writer’s room, Kelly again humbly defers to his confidence and trust in Willimon as the chief architect of the show and its characters.
“Beau and I spoke before we started filming but what could I say? [laughing] He’s one of the best writers out there so I don’t necessarily want to have any input. Tell me what to say and I’m happy. We had conversations obviously, but I never felt the need to have input. I really believe on a professional level that Fincher and Willimon know a lot more than I do and they certainly know a lot more about the story. I didn’t feel the need. I know that might sound like ‘whatever,’ but every script that I got, I loved the way all the characters were written. As for Stamper, he was such an appealing character to play because he was so straight forward and so complex at the same time.”
Following in Kevin Spacey’s footsteps (who hammed it up as Lex Luthor in 2006’s Superman Returns) Kelly is scheduled to appear in this summer’s Superman re-boot Man of Steel (June 2013), under the helm of his Dawn of the Dead director Zack Snyder. He’ll be playing Steve Lombard, a character from the DC Comics series who appears as a reporter at the The Daily Planet. Doubtless, Kelly will add depth and lift to a great ensemble cast and a darker story.
In the meantime Kelly is keen on getting underway with the second season of HoC, but is enjoying the opportunity to spend time with his family and to get back in shape for what promises to be another grueling production schedule commuting between NYC and Baltimore, which doubles for Washington D.C on the show.
“I’m anxiously awaiting the scripts so I can start work. We don’t know our exact return date. I will start getting myself into better shape to be honest with you. I gotta get back into shape and get myself prepared,” says Kelly. “I know when I was working — I live in Manhattan with my family and we shoot in Baltimore — I’m back and forth all the time. So I’m preparing myself for all the work that’s going to go into it. I’m spending a lot of time with my family because I know that when April or May rolls around I’m not going ot see them a lot.”
Despite the gruelling pace of work that comes with shooting an entire season of television, Kelly is grateful and tremendously satisfied .
“[Television] is tough, but I can say that I was as happy on my last day of work [on season 1] as I was the first day. I was tired driving back and forth, but working and getting scripts and doing the scenes, I felt the exact amount of joy in week one as in the last. Even on the last day I felt that I was in the right place, doing the right thing and that makes me feel so good.”
He’s also not too concerned with Netflix’s (@Netflix) distribution model, understanding that the show has hit a nerve in terms of how audiences want to consume their shows.
“It’s how people want to absorb things these days. We’re a very immediate generation and an immediate society. You’ve got a cell phone attached to your hip that can give you your email and everything else, you can find out anything in thirty seconds these days,” says Kelly. “I asked one of the Netflix executives recently why not do seven and then six or one a week and he said it’s because that’s not how our viewers want to watch it, and I thought, “cool!” They’ve obviously done a ton of research. As far as my job as an actor goes, that someone gets to know my character over the course of a weekend or a few weeks, I don’t think it makes much of a difference. I don’t think the viewer thinks of it differently because they still absorb it the way they want. [Ultimately], it looks like our audience just want to have the choice. Which is cool.”
Michael Kelly’s subtle, resonant, occasionally terrifying and surprisingly touching portrayal of Doug Stamper has earned Kelly a loyal following on the show. He’s right, the world is made up of a lose unspoken code of tit-for-tat favours and counter-favours, which grease the wheels of relationships in politics, media and even our own friendships and families. The ultimate favour Kelly has done us is being part of the incredible ensemble cast on House of Cards. We’ll return that favour by continuing to watch, enjoy and absorb his fine performance for seasons to come (knocking our collective rings, twice, on wood).