House of Cards co-star Michael Kelly talks about his 2-time Emmy nominated role as Doug Stamper
Doug Stamper, played by 2016 Emmy nominee Michael Kelly, has been through it all on Netflix’s House of Cards. He’s a killer. He’s had brain surgery. He suffers from addiction. In Season 4, Frank Underwood’s loyal aide was prepared to give up his own liver after the President had been shot but arranged for a transplant as only Doug Stamper could, an act that haunted him the entire season.
Michael Kelly received a second Best Supporting Actor nomination for his role this year. Breathe a sign of relief – Kelly is nothing like Stamper. He’s a family man whose young children celebrated with him the morning he was nominated. AwardsDaily TV caught up with Michael Kelly to talk about Doug and how he switches from family man to Underwood’s dark and twisted right hand man.
Where were you when you heard you’d been nominated?
A really good friend of mine has a cool house on Long Beach Island on the Jersey Coast. He goes to California every year with his family, and he gives us his house so we were there. I knew the announcements were coming up, but that morning, I had forgotten about it because I was going to DC that evening, funny enough for House of Cards with our music composer at the Kennedy Center. It just slipped my mind, and I was out watering the garden and my wife told me to come in and eat. I went in and I saw my phone that had a text message saying, “Good luck today, I’ll be thinking of you.” I realized it was nomination day, and my wife joked, “You know you’re not getting nominated this year because we’re together.” I’m not joking when I say this, but I never get good news when we’re together. I’m always away working, and we’re just never together. As I opened the computer and my phone started going crazy. It was so funny. She was so happy, my kids were jumping up and down and had no idea why they were jumping up and down, but they were happy too.
I didn’t think it was going to happen this year. It’s a crazy category and there are so many great people and so many incredible actors who didn’t get nominated. I was so fortunate.
Doug Stamper, every season. There’s such a great team who surprises you each year with where they’re going to go with him. He’s a killer, and this year he almost gave up his liver for Frank. He is in a way the core of the show. How does that make you feel when you hear that?
It’s funny because Doug is not Doug without Francis being Francis. People can say whatever, but it’s everything. The writers are so great, and we all care so much about it. I made a point last year when I was nominated to have the crew pull together at the end of the day, and I thanked them because none of it was possible without any of them. David Fincher set that role model when we started. Everyone comes and gives 100% and pays attention to the most minute detail and it shows. I think different people have different characters that they love, but it’s funny because none of those characters work without the others.
Why is he still loyal to Frank? I mean Frank is the devil incarnate. [Laughs]
There’s no doubt that Doug trusts Frank with everything and anything. I think it’s vice versa, especially when we saw what Claire did to Frank this past season. The two of them trust each other with everything. There’s a love there between them and the utmost respect. A lot of it has to do with Doug’s addiction issues. He is addicted to that job and to doing the best he can do. Yes, he loves Frank, and there’s no one he would rather work for, but a lot of it is addiction to his job and doing it the best he can do.
You said you have a wonderful family and you’re so far removed from Doug. How do you switch on to him when you get to work?
[laughs] A lot of it I do on my drive to and from work. I live with the family in New York, and I keep an apartment in Baltimore. It’s about a 3-hour drive. I very rarely put on the radio. I either drive in silence, or I will listen to my dialogue. I record all my dialogue and listen to it, and I fall back into that guy. I’m not method. I have fun. Kevin and I have a lot of fun together on set. It’s always a fun day when the two of us are working together. It just allows me to fall back into that place.
I have a very minimalist apartment in Baltimore and that helps a lot. After this many years too, and my understanding of Doug has grown too. That’s a big help and makes it somewhat easier. In the beginning, I thought it was nuts. [Laughs] Beau Willimon, our showrunner and writer, did a lot to help me create that character. He gave me some early notes before we had even met. He asked if I had any questions, and I had a million of them. He said, “At least this season (one), I don’t want you to emote. Just don’t emote.” I said, “OK.” He said he wanted everyone at the end of Season 1 to ask, “What is up with this guy? What’s his deal?” I went along with that, and from that came so much of Doug. His voice and the way he holds himself. That all helped shape the character for me.
What goes through your head when you’re reading the script? As a viewer, I want more. I want to know what comes next, so I’ll watch the next episode.
What goes through my head? Am I still alive at the end of the episode? [Laughs] Most of the time, I’ll be reading it thinking I can’t wait to do this scene. It really is. I feel the same when I’m reading it. I read the script the first time for pure entertainment because I love reading them. Then I go back and start my homework on them. When the show comes out, my wife and I watch the show together. We are big fans of the show. It’s been so long since I did it, and I only do my scenes, so I don’t get to see the other scenes. There’s so many compelling characters, so you read it, you forget about it, and then you see it.
This past season, we saw the introduction of Lady Stamper. How is doing scenes with Neve?
She’s so great. She’s something else. Neve and I have become really good friends since starting the show. The first day we started working together, I said, “Look at you, Lady Stamper.” It caught on. The writers caught on, and it’s such an interesting dynamic between the two. She’s such an interesting force. The two of them. The two of us makes for such an interesting dynamic. I can’t wait to see what they’re going to do with that.
You are brilliant together on screen. I have to just say that. This show is incredible, and they just keep delivering great episode after episode. But let’s talk about how the writers seem to have predicted political events before they happened. Did you notice that?
Every year I notice it. Beau and the other writers do it before we see it. The fact that every year something happens or coincides with our show. Every year, I think it’s crazy or insane. The contested conventions almost happened with both parties this year in real laugh. That to me is nuts. Now, in the last year, I’m reading the script and wonder what’s going to happen. [Laughs]
I look back and then I say, “This happened on House of Cards.”
Donald Trump and the KKK. That was one thing we joked about saying it would never happen, and then it did.
Thank God we both support Hillary. So, were you a political person before you took on the role?
I was political before. I was pursuing a degree in political science when I fell into acting and took an elective one year. I have a decent understanding, and during this show I became more interested. I became involved and lobbied on the hill for seniors in our country.
I went and met with congressmen and women. The President signed it, and it passed. I am political, and I’ve been on Hillary’s side from the get go. She’s someone who has dedicated her entire life to public service, and how can you question that? How can you question her experience. Sanders was inspirational and had some great ideas, but I felt like we are so divided with the Senate and House being controlled by the Republicans, not that they’re going to be great and open. I felt like she has a better chance. I felt she could carry on the torch.
What scenes were a highlight for you this season?
I loved doing that scene with Robin in the hospital, and we go head to head. I forgot what we said, but Doug says, “I’m staying here with the man I care about,” and she’s leaving. To go with Robin in the scene and look at each other’s eyes and we said very few words, it was really fulfilling.
The challenging scene was with Derek Cecil where I put the cup over his mouth. We disagreed going into it. We talked over it with Beau, then the two of us. We worked it a few times, and we got there. On the day, the challenge was going from zero to 60. I was threatening him and his wife. It was physically challenging. It goes back to the team where everybody is there for you 100 percent. You also have a show where we truly like each other and we work on stuff outside of work is such a big bonus.
House of Cards Seasons 1-4 are currently streaming on Netflix.