ADTV discusses the challenges of acting and directing with House of Cards‘ Robin Wright
House of Cards season four ended with TV’s powerful and ruthless couple Francis and Claire Underwood (Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, respectively) creating fear, terror and war. As a growing power influence both in front of and behind the camera this season, Wright recently made headlines, and deservedly so, for fighting to receive an equal pay check to that of co-star Kevin Spacey. This season, Wright directed four episodes of House of Cards and is also an executive producer.
I met with the actress, director, and executive producer recently. On TV, actress Robin Wright plays the icy and fiercely powerful Claire Underwood, but, off camera, she is anything but that as she cracks a joke about how cold London was while she was there filming….
AwardsDaily TV: Congratulations on another fantastic and phenomenal season of House of Cards. Did you ever watch the original UK version of the show?
Robin Wright: I did not. I deliberately avoided that. I never did that in the past. Even in the past, if someone was making a remake or adaptation, I’ve never wanted to watch the original so as not to be influenced. Actually, David Fincher said, “There’s not a necessity for you to watch it because the character that we’re developing, Claire Underwood is going to be exponentially larger.” Was that true? Did you watch the UK version?
ADTV: I did. I have to say, Claire Underwood is in a league of her own.
RW: Yes. Good, that was the intention.
ADTV: When you first got the script, did you base her on anyone?
RW: I didn’t base her on a female politician. I didn’t base her on a human being. When David Fincher said, “I don’t know what to tell you. Here’s a template idea for you to start with.” This was long before the episodes were written. The one description that stood out was that he said, “Imagine she’s a marble bust, that you would see in a museum and that she’s an iconic figure and there’s a stoicism, and you can crack that marble. That’s what we’re gonna do over the course of the show. We’re going to slowly make cracks in her marble.” I read it, and said, “OK, I get it. That’s enough.” That’s all I needed really.
Physically that’s the way I work over just replicating or emulating someone in particular. I take the fabric of things. I went for an animal. I thought about the bust, and I thought, “What acts like that stoic bust with a regality?” It was the American eagle. I studied the American eagle on YouTube, and they way they hover over their prey. When they go for the kill, it’s with the utmost force and conviction. It was so smooth and stealth like. That’s what I used for her as an idea. Then once you put on her outfit or a dress and Louboutins, you’re kind of there.
It was a lot of physical stuff to help me find her to tell you the truth.
ADTV: Well, on the subject of physical was the dream sequence – the fight. Did you get injured at all?
RW: I used a piece of that in my episode that I directed. We were shooting very late that night because we had to get that scene. That was a mother bear of a day… a 16-hour day. Kevin and I were so giddy because you’re living on ether at that point, you’ve been working for so many hours. We were padded up, and had stunt people there, but we both went for it. We were both very bruised I have to say. We were giggling about it, saying we didn’t have to go for it 150 percent but we did. We threw ourselves on the desk. We had fun shooting it.
ADTV: What about directing yourself? Claire is such a complex character. What’s it like directing yourself in this?
RW: Kevin and I do this in our sleep at this stage. There’s not a lot of forethought needed with separation. So, it’s really not that complicated. It’s like anything, like any skill that you have. It’s like someone who rides a unicycle every day. They’re not even thinking about it anymore. They get on the unicycle and do it. It wasn’t an interruption to be directing myself while directing the show.
I would have much preferred to not be in front of the camera because I love being behind the camera now. I can’t wait for my scenes to be over, and I can get back behind the camera. That’s the truth. [laughs]
ADTV: How did Beau Willimon approach you this season to direct more episodes?
RW: I think Kevin was considering directing an episode or two. I remember being in the room when they were talking about it. I said, “Hey, I wanna direct one.” Beau said, “Let’s investigate that.” I said, “Yes, I’m scared shitless, but I’ve been in this business over 30 years.” I’d been on the show long enough, I knew the protocol, and I know the story and the style. I know the crew, they know me, and they’ve got my back. We all just joined forces and said, “Let’s make it happen, and they did.”
ADTV: It is tough to direct the smaller scenes with you and say one other, or are the larger scenes, like the church scenes harder?
RW: That is definitely tougher, when Kevin and I are in the same scene, and it’s a complicated scene. Like the scene where he discovers that she puts the earrings in his safe deposit box. That was a tough scene to direct. We didn’t have time to rehearse it. It was also re-written at the very last minute. We were getting changes moments before. We were all collaborating on the changes because once you get out there and you rehearse that long scene, that was a 7-page scene which we shot at the end of the day. That was just a disservice to all of us because we were all so tired. That was really tough. You learn from those mistakes as a director. I would never do that again to Kevin, myself, and the crew. I’ll never do it. I will make sure that we allot a whole day for a scene like that, especially given the nature of pace. We don’t even know if we’re going to have time to rehearse it. It’s going to evolve into something else. We need to give it time and to allow for that time as the production board. But, you live and learn. Always living and learning.
ADTV: Another fantastic moment this season was having Ellen Burstyn in the show. Those scenes. What was that like working with her and directing her?
RW: She was fantastic. I was so honored doing that. She was one of the first actresses I remember watching in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Ellen was one of the first I remember witnessing. There was a specialness.
ADTV: You are a leader. You’ve got a role as a leading lady in a top show. You’re also a female director in a field that’s dominated by men. What is that like for you?
RW: We can use the cliche of female empowerment. There’s something with that union of Team Underwood, with Francis and Claire, and the point of their unification is to say she is the best of both sexes. There’s almost an androgyny there. She is strong like male and female, and that in concert with Francis in the power seat, is almost like, she is the side car. They’re both propelling each other. They’re both a part of the same vehicle. She’s both.
ADTV: They’re quite a couple. They’re very addictive.
RW:[laughs] That’s a good word for it.
ADTV: Aside from Fincher, who else has influenced your work?
RW: Anthony Minghella was the one that touched a lot of people clearly. His process resonated. His delicacy with actors with when and how much do you speak to. You don’t want to drown out your actors. You need to let them breathe. There’s a way to let them breathe while simultaneously feeding them active verbs to play.
He was very good this way. He would tell a story instead of saying, “Give me more energy on this take, or be more sadder on this take.” You can’t play energy. What gives you energy? Give me an example that would make me feel “I have more energy.” Or give me an example or a memory or something that creates a factor in my body. Don’t just say, be sadder or be happier. He was a storyteller and a beautiful director that way. He created an environment and a world for you to embody the character within.
ADTV : It’s so apparent that you have the directing bug. Would you like to do more of it and direct a film one day?
RW: Definitely, I am pursuing directing. Yes.
ADTV: When did you first get the bug?
RW: I had it in my mind years ago. I think I was too scared, I wasn’t ready, but I knew I always wanted to do it. I just wanted to feel qualified to do so. Again, you don’t get qualified until you keep doing it which I realize now. Practice makes perfect.
ADTV: Do you have a favorite episode looking back on the season?
RW: I do like the one with mom and Tom. I like that one. I also like episode four – the assassination attempt. That was full and two very different ones at either end of the spectrum. I was very blessed with the writing of those two.
ADTV: Would you ever consider writing?
RW: I wish I could write. I can’t write. I can re-write a scene. We do it with the writers, restructuring and juxtaposing words and arc. I do that all the time. If somebody said sit down at a typewriter and write a story, I’d panic.
Robin Wright and all seasons of House of Cards are now streaming on Netflix.