Emmy-winner Reg E. Cathey on Race, Politics, and ‘House of Cards’

Emmy-winner Reg E. Cathey talks about the career path that led to House of Cards

Not every actor can boast a career like Reg E. Cathey with a filmography including such works as House of Cards, The Wire, Oz, Tank Girl, and Se7en. On top of his performances in film and television, he has always made it a priority to work in classical theatre whenever he is given the opportunity. With a distinctive voice that rivals Morgan Freeman and a commanding, booming laugh that concludes each story, we talked about a range of subjects including his college roommate David Allen Grier, the “tyranny of the douchebag,” and that time he crashed on Joey Ramone’s couch over spring break. We lost track of time and ended up concluding our talk just as he was going into the homophobic history of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and to my pleasure ended with Cathey singing the song to me himself.

Cathey on his first Emmy win

Every actor has a complicated relationship with winning awards, and they tell themselves they don’t matter. With Reg E. Cathey, it took the Television Academy so many years to recognize him that he was almost at a loss for words on what his first nomination and eventual win actually meant.

“I won an Obie award years ago [for Talk], but after years of struggle there is a point where others’ validation doesn’t matter,” Cathey said. “But winning was mind blowing. Man it was special.”

He was alone the first two times he was nominated, but the third time “was almost better in a weird way,” according to Cathey. The news of his first time found him surrounded by his peers when he received the good news.

“This year I found out while working on a production of The Merchant of Venice in Venice. It’s the 400th-year anniversary of Shakespeare,” Cathey said. “I was working on this show and the cast and crew were congratulating me. It was fabuous. Really an amazing journey I can’t put into words.”

Pulling out of an intense depression

For someone with as distinctive as a presence onscreen as Cathey, it might come as a surprise that there were times when he struggled to find work. He recalls a particularly powerful moment in his life when opportunities and doors seemed to close before him:

“When The Wire ended I thought, ‘FINALLY my career is going to take off.’ But then I didn’t work for two years. I was going through a hard time and my friend took me to see The Country Girl starring Morgan Freeman. After the show the doorman called Morgan and told him he had some visitors. Usually your heroes disappoint you, but he treated us like gods. My friend and I are were going to go out for drinks afterwards and, while walking down the street, another doorman invited us to see Laurence [Fishburne] in Thurgood Marshall. Afterwards Laurence invited us to drinks, and we stayed up until five talking about theatre, film, art. Talking about art really inspired me to get out of depression. It all came from love. Three months later, I was cast in The Shawshank Redemption over in the West End. It all came from love and I learned to tell myself ‘don’t feel bad, things are gonna change.’ That’s what I thought about when I won. ”

His move to NY, love For classical theatre, and The Wire

From the moment he bellowed out “Living in LA were the worst ten fucking years of my existence on this goddamn planet,” I knew his story would be one to which any artist could easily relate:

“When I moved to New York, I did voice work to make a living and only did classical theatre. I worked in Dante’s Inferno for a year. Then was the Scottish play. Next Taming of the Shrew with Allison Janney. I got a call from my friend about wanting me to try out for this show on HBO. I tried to tell him I didn’t want to play a drug dealer, but he interrupted me and said ‘Man shut up! I’m trying to get you money.’ Making a living off of theatre in NYC was hard but kids today have it even harder. Not only was the wolf at my door, but he had his toothbrush. You know… but when it was good it was great. Those were the best years of my career.”

He spent the second half of the 70’s in college at the University of Michigan, and his time in college often felt too good to believe. Even though he insists he can’t sing, he let it slip that he spent a term performing in West Side Story with none other than Madonna (he was a Jet and she was a dancer). He also had plenty of stories to share of his roommate, David Allen Grier.

“In college my roommate David and I went to New York for spring break when everyone else was going to Florida. We crashed on Joey Ramone’s couch. Wild times man. That was the 70s brother,” Cathey said.

His first time On TV

Reg E. Cathey’s prolific career has given him the opportunity to work on a range of films from The Mask to American Psycho and even Pootie Tang. Thirty-five years into his career, he still vividly remembers his first television role.

“My first job on television was Square One TV, a show about math. It had sketches like SNL,” Cathey said.

However, as vividly as he remembers his time on the childrens’ show, he also remembers its disappointing cancellation. Cathey cites the then Secretary of Education, William Bennett, as the chief reason the series was cancelled.

“He said learning shouldn’t be fun,” Cathey said.

“There’s two types of people in the world; cool people and assholes. But the cool people will prevail because they have a secret weapon: faith,  hope, and love. With that they’ll defeat the tyranny of the douchebag.” Reg E. Cathey (House of Cards)

Enter House of Cards

As soon as we began talking about his work on House of Cards, Cathey immediately started to reminisce over his scenes with Kevin Spacey.

“When it was just the two of us [Kevin Spacey], it was the easiest job I ever had,” Cathey laughed. “We would do our stuff and laugh, and I would go home every night thinking that this is the best job ever.”

From the very beginning the entire creative team plotted the exact nature of the relationship between Freddy and Frank. In fact, he had no hesitation calling their friendship genuine and not as one-sided as one might think.

“Most definitely they were friends. They loved each other. That relationship was fraught with what America is fraught with: race, white supremacy, self-loathing. It’s all in there,” Cathey said. “It’s funny because it’s something that was thought about in the show but it had to be delicate. It needed to be treated personally and not with metaphors. What part of the Black community does Freddy represent? What part of White Supremacy does Frank represent? What do they reflect without knowing it?”

Freddy’s final scene

Without any definitive answers on whether or not this is the end of Freddy’s arc on House of Cards, we began discussing his big scene of the season. Cathey said he was never 100 percent certain at the end of any given year whether or not he would be returning the next. This year, the difference is that his Season 4 arc felt more conclusive than ever before. After yelling at Frank, we see Freddy beating up on a reporter trying to get information on the President.

After stepping on the recorder he declares, “I don’t snitch! Not to cops. Not to reporters. Not to anybody. Leave me the fuck alone!” and then turns his back and walks down the alley.

“What’s fabulous about that final scene is that because he’s walking away you don’t really know how he feels. That’s the beauty of it,” Cathey said. “Does he really mean what he says? You don’t know if his heart was broken. I have my own personal thoughts but I’m not going to share them.”

House of Cards and our current political climate

The first correlation Cathey made between House of Cards and our own world was a reference to Season 3.

“The scene that stands out for me is Freddy telling his grandson he’ll never be President while audiences currently have a Black president. What is he really saying? What is a way for an uneducated Black man to tell his son to dream without fantasy,” Cathey said.

Watching the scheming politics of House of Cards is almost impossible without thinking of the current American political climate. In fact, the Season 4 similarities were so strong that the show had a major contested convention storyline as we geared up for the possibility of two contested conventions. In terms of our current political racial divide, Cathey had an interesting take.

“I’ve always thought there is mental illness running through our society. It stems from white supremacy,” Cathey said. “Everything is heartbreakingly slow. It’s a mental illness we all suffer from and our current situation is just the latest installment of race in America.”

Of course he has some confidence that eventually everything will end up ok (and goes without saying that he doesn’t believe Trump will be elected). “There’s two types of people in the world; cool people and assholes. But the cool people will prevail because they have a secret weapon: faith,  hope, and love. With that they’ll defeat the tyranny of the douchebag.” And the second he ends with douchebag he erupts into his deep boisterous laugh.

As our conversation on race relations began to trail off, he began to recall his childhood, primarily in the American South as well as Germany.

“Growing up my family moved around a lot because of my father being in the military. Well my mom, she had us write book reports on Black history every Saturday. We hated it. We called it mom school,” Cathey said. “The reason she did it was because she didn’t want us to lose our education of who we were. Were never allowed to say ‘They never taught us that in school.’ Years later after she passed away I found a big box where she had saved every report. They were scrawled with notes and corrections.”

The role he still wants to play

For an accomplished stage actor, Reg E. Cathey had an immediate answer for whom he was dying to play.

“Faltstaff. Falstaff. Falstaff! I’ve done him before at the California Shakespeare Company in San Francisco but I want to play him again,” Cathey said.

With such a roaring presence, Reg E. Cathey should have no problem standing out to Emmy voters again.

You can find all four seasons Reg E. Cathey’s performance on House of Cards on Netflix.

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