NEW YORK — “Did you think I’d forgotten you?” asks Francis Underwood, addressing us viewers near the end of the second-season House of Cards debut. Then he roguishly adds, “Perhaps you hoped I had.”
Portrayed by series star Kevin Spacey, Underwood, the soon-to-be-sworn-in vice-president, has a delicious way of conspiring with the audience in his Beltway depravity: a sly aside, a knowing roll of his eyes, a caustic pronouncement shared only with us.
Though many of the first-season batch of episodes are sparked with Underwood’s in-our-face declarations, he keeps his own counsel until late in this second-season kickoff.
“There is but one rule,” he reminds us in its final moments — “hunt or be hunted.”
Happily for us, another 12 new episodes keep Underwood on the hunt as Netflix releases the full second season on its website Friday.
Set in Washington in the current day, House of Cards is a loose reinvention of the 1990s British political thriller of the same name.
It premiered a year ago and instantly established Netflix as a bold new contender in the world of original video, stealing thunder from such august cable networks as HBO and AMC while landing the first major Emmy nominations for a streaming-video series.
In short, this Cards game was a game changer, forcing viewers (and the industry) to think outside the box: the box known as “TV.”
Now Underwood, formerly a ranking U.S. Congressman, has plotted his way into the vice presidency. But there’s no hint he’s satisfied with that lofty perch, if the first four hours made available for preview are any indication. Even as he faces growing threats that could lead to his downfall, he’s driven to climb higher, whatever it takes.
“That’s the interesting thing about Francis: He has no allegiance, not even to party,” says Spacey with an admiring laugh.
Actually, Underwood does seem to have a precious pair of allegiances: to his own accumulation of power and to his wife, Claire, his loyal partner-in-crime, played by Robin Wright (who last month won a Golden Globe for her performance).
Last season, Underwood memorably stated that he loves his wife “more than a shark loves blood.” As he navigates the political world, and taps into the underworld, his collusion with Claire is one of the series’ most fascinating elements.
“I love the fact that the new season is coming out on Valentine’s Day,” says Spacey puckishly. “I think their relationship is incredibly romantic.”
Interviewed last week, Spacey is natty in a blue pinstripe suit, open-collar shirt and swank olive green oxfords. At 54, he looks younger and more easygoing than Underwood, who, despite unflagging Southern charm and boundless energy, seems weathered by the pressures of his job and his insatiable ambition.
“There is so much I don’t know about Francis, so much that I’m learning,” says Spacey, clearly pleased to be granted even more time to explore him: Netflix recently announced plans for a third season.
“I’ve always thought that the profession closest to that of an actor is being a detective,” he goes on. “We are given clues by writers, sometimes clues they’re aware of and sometimes not. Then you lay them all out and try to make them come alive as a character who’s complex and surprising, maybe even to yourself.”
Spacey’s midcareer entry into series stardom comes after many distinguished films, including L.A. Confidential, Glengarry Glen Ross, Se7en and The Usual Suspects.
Since 2003, he has focused on stage work as the artistic director of London’s Old Vic Theatre, which has only reinforced for him a central tenet of his craft: “The primary function of an actor is to serve the writer, not ourselves,” he says. “If you serve the writing, you will be in the right place.”
“An astute actor like Kevin really does respect the text,” says Beau Willimon, “House of Cards” creator, writer and show runner. “But the whole reason scripts exist is to capture actors doing interesting things. What the audience is watching is the actors’ emotional life and their human behaviour. A script is a strategy to tap into that human behaviour.
“This,” he sums up, “is a collaborative endeavour.”
Spacey’s many Old Vic collaborations include the title role in Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” whose diabolical champion, he notes, served as a template for the “House of Cards” hero.
“I absolutely know that without the work I’ve done at the Old Vic,” says Spacey, “I wouldn’t have been ready to do Francis Underwood.”
For one thing, doing “Richard III” helped Spacey master the direct address.
“I did it for 10 months, in 12 cities around the world,” says Spacey, “and I got to see the glee and naughty delight from an audience being told, in effect, ’I’m gonna do this thing and you’re not gonna believe I’ll get away with it, so you hang on and watch.’
“If I hadn’t seen all those faces, I don’t know if I would have known what I’m looking at now doing ’House of Cards,’ when I look down the barrel of a camera lens.”
But Spacey knows all right, and he sees us, delighted, looking back.