Ellen Gray: Kevin Spacey gambles on Netflix-only 'House of Cards'

Spacey portrays a House majority whip in what he describes as "sort of the new television series that isn't on television."
Spacey portrays a House majority whip in what he describes as "sort of the new television series that isn't on television."
Posted: February 01, 2013

* HOUSE OF CARDS. Friday, Netflix.

KEVIN SPACEY is ready to provide instant gratification.

He's OK with the delayed variety, too.

Which means that if some binge viewers among Netflix's more than 27 million subscribers choose to make a 13-course meal of the first season of his new Netflix series, "House of Cards," when it goes online Friday, he'll be fine with it.

"I'll be very curious to see at some point what the analytics tell us about how many people do that, how many people watch four, how many people watch two and then wait," said Spacey in a phone interview Wednesday.

He sees in the Netflix model, which doesn't parcel out episodes a week at a time but makes everything available at once, a possible way for the film and TV industry to avoid the mistakes that the music industry's made.

"Give the consumer what they want, when they want it, in the form they want it in, and they will buy it at a reasonable price and not steal it. So I actually think this way of putting it out there, giving the consumer the option," will take "a huge bite" out of piracy, he said.

"House of Cards," the streaming service's second original series, was inspired by the BBC trilogy starring the late Ian Richardson that aired on PBS' "Masterpiece Theater" in the '90s.

"My mother loved that show, because anything on PBS she was addicted to," said the 53-year-old Spacey, who, as the artistic director of Britain's Old Vic Theater, has been living in London for the past decade.

In the new version, set in Washington, D.C., (and filmed in Baltimore), the two-time Oscar winner stars as Francis Underwood, a politician scorned, whose fury creates hell for anyone stupid enough to get in his way.

Robin Wright co-stars as his wife, Claire, a power player in her own right, and Kate Mara as an ambitious young reporter who sees in the House majority whip a source who'll boost her career.

Spacey, who's also one of the show's executive producers, worked with David Fincher - who'd directed him in "Se7en" - to put together what he describes as "sort of the new television series that isn't on television."

"We were interested in having an opportunity to really investigate this extraordinary fertile ground of not just Washington politics but power and manipulation and, you know, getting things done and [this] kind of power couple," he said.

They were hoping to "land somewhere that would be as interested as we are in telling a very long arc of a story, and we got phenomenally lucky that Netflix said to us, 'We think this is a great idea, we love what you want to do, we don't need to audition you and David, we believe in the original series, so why don't you go make 26? And you don't have to do a pilot and it's not about anything else but we believe in this, so we're going to take a huge leap.' "

Netflix subscribers also have the opportunity to play compare-and-contrast with the original - I've spent much of the past week rewatching the original trilogy - without necessarily spoiling the new version.

"Please do not assume that anything you saw in the original series we are doing," Spacey said, firmly.

"There are certain things we use as a launching pad, and there are certain things we've done as an homage to the original, but, trust me, we are creating our own, unique thing. It is not a remake. So, forget anything you might have seen in the previous BBC series as, 'Oh, they're going to do that.' We're going off in all kinds of directions."

One major difference I noticed in the two episodes that Netflix made available to critics: Wright's role in the Beau Willimon script has been expanded well beyond that of the Lady Macbeth-like helpmeet whom Diane Fletcher portrayed in the original. We see her as the head of a charity who wields power as ruthlessly as her husband.

And the couple's relationship is a lot sexier.

"Yeah, we really wanted to improve that role a lot, I mean particularly when you're going to bring on an actress of Robin's ability," Spacey said.

"We really wanted to sort of give her something really complicated and interesting to do, but also to create a relationship where an audience is going to be continually asking, ' What is going on with those two? Like what's the deal?' "

Other than "198 performances of 'Richard III,' " "House of Cards" represents the longest stretch Spacey's ever spent with one character.

"I think I shot 155 days in these first 13 episodes, luckily not in a row," he said, chuckling. "I've never made a movie that went that long. But as I say, it's not felt episodic. It's felt more like I'm doing a miniseries within a maxiseries."

He likens it to his experience 25 years ago, on CBS' "Wiseguy," when he did a memorable turn as deranged arms dealer Mel Profitt.

"That was seven episodes and then they killed me off, but it was a very interesting almost precursor to what ended up happening in cable later, which was that they were trying arcs of stories that then, when they got to the end of that arc, they'd move on to another arc and tell a different arc of the story," he said.

"I've been forever grateful to Mel Profitt, because it's because of that role and because of that series that Bryan Singer and Chris McQuarrie wrote 'The Usual Suspects' for me," said Spacey of the film that won him his first Oscar.

Having cut back on his film career during his time overseeing the Old Vic, a job he's set to leave in 2015, Spacey said that "House of Cards" "came at the perfect moment" as he makes the transition back "to more focused work and playing a more central role than I've allowed myself to do during most of my tenure at the Old Vic."

But living among the British, he'd worried about how "House of Cards" would be received there. (The show, made in association with Media Rights Capital, is being released on Netflix simultaneously in the U.S., Canada, Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia and Latin America.)

He got his answer earlier this month in London, during a Leicester Square premiere, a fund-raiser for the Old Vic.

"They have a real sense of ownership about 'House of Cards.' It's a beloved series. And everyone adored Ian Richardson, and rightfully so," Spacey said.

"I sat in the theater and I just listened, and then for about 10 minutes all I could hear was the sound of people eating popcorn. There was popcorn in every chair and it sounded as if gnats had been released into the theater," he said, laughing.

"And then slowly, you could feel it. You could feel they were beginning to get it. They were starting to react to the humor, to the direct addresses, to the deliciousness of it, to the naughtiness of it. And by the end of the two episodes, they were absolutely hooked," he said.

"A lot of my British friends, who loved that series, said to me after that not only did we do certain things that were, you know, paying tribute to the original, but we have in fact created something uniquely our own. And that's a great feeling, if you can strike that balance with something that's so beloved. It was really a great evening. I was incredibly happy with the reaction."

Email: graye@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5950

On Twitter: @elgray

Blog: EllenGray.tv

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