Molly Parker Talks Ballet, Acting, and House of Cards

Molly Parker

Molly Parker made a career shift from ballet to acting to an Emmy-nominated role on Netflix’s House of Cards

I’ve seen talented actress Molly Parker in many TV shows and films over the years, but perhaps never been more impressed as a fan than when she appeared as Jackie Sharp on Netflix’s House of Cards. I had the pleasure to speak to Molly briefly about her Emmy-nominated work on the show in the latest season where she continued to give weight to the powerful women in politics dynamic.

I am a fan of the show. My wife says your character is her favorite. 

Aw, nice.

So I’ll come to House of Cards shortly, just a little bit of background first, if that’s okay. 

Sure.

Forget where you ended up, what are your earliest memories of what you wanted to be when you grew up? Did you know from a very early age? 

When I was really young, the first thing I remember I wanted to be was a mermaid. We grew up in Canada, a small town outside of Vancouver. My parents had a small fish market. We had a long display case which you put ice in, and I wanted to be a mermaid and lay on the ice. That’s the first thing I remember to be completely honest. I don’t remember saying I wanted to be an actor until much later, until I was an actor. But nobody who knew me seemed surprised in me being an actor. It didn’t seem to be an option, so maybe I did not have that in my imagination yet. A mermaid seemed much more likely.

Yeah, but an easier profession to get into… 

[Laughter]

…But not as well paid I think. 

Well, apparently not.

[Laughter]

So ballet was a huge part of your childhood. When and how did acting become the main event? Was it by accident? 

Yeah it was a little bit of an accident. I took ballet classes from the age of two until eighteen. Until that time dance, for sure, was the focus of my non-academic life, my extra curricular life. By the time I was in high school I wanted to be in plays. I was in the drama department… that I really loved. I loved dance, but I think I got to the point where I had to be so dedicated. When you’re so young, when I was fifteen or sixteen, I remember thinking I have to make this work all my life. I was not just into in acting, I was interested in biology, and could go to university.

Yeah, so you had a plan B.

Yeah, I had a plan B. When I finished high school I got a bursary, a scholarship, so I took an acting class, and I was hooked. That’s how it happened, something just landed, and I felt it was the most exciting thing I had ever done.

Who inspired you growing up? Did you follow or emulate anyone? 

There was a moment when I was maybe thirteen, seeing the film Silkwood. There is a moment between Meryl Streep and Kurt Russell, towards the end of the movie they have had this fight, and she is leaving. She gets down to the car, and he is on the porch or the steps. He turns around, and she just flashes him one breast. Opens her shirt and flashes a breast. They both crack up laughing. It was just a surprising, beautiful moment. I don’t know why, that movie just really moved me, and that moment I was thinking “Oh I want to do it.” Not the nudity, but what happens between two people. You think it is one thing, but it becomes something else. It was the power of it, and the humanity.

I read Condoleezza Rice’s book, which is very long. Read Hilary’s first book, Elizabeth Warren’s book. All of them were heavy hitters, they had written about themselves, and that was fascinating and told me a lot of what it takes to be a woman in power and what it costs and what it’s like for women in the generation of Hilary and women in my generation.

How did you land the role of Jackie Sharp on House of Cards? Is it the type of role you were looking for at the time? 

I can’t say I have ever gone around in my career looking for something in particular. In my experience in these 20 years is that the right thing will find you at the right moment if you are open to it. And this is true also with House of Cards. I auditioned for it. I was asked to put something on tape. I know that Beau Willimon [creator] announced he was interested in me for the show. He was a big fan of Deadwood and some of the other things I had done. So I put something on tape for them, and they asked me to do it a second time and asked me to change a few things. They gave me the part. I didn’t know much about the part. They did not share much about who she would be. They had an initial idea of her, and it evolved.

How familiar were you with that zone of political landscape in America? It is quite a heavy subject. How much research did you have to do? Are you political anyway? 

I have a general idea. I have a somewhat educated idea just from living in the States for such a long time. Been in Los Angeles for sixteen years. I had some ideas, but I also did a fair amount of research. I read a good number of biographies of women in politics and in power generally. I read Condoleezza Rice’s book, which is very long. Read Hilary’s first book, Elizabeth Warren’s book. All of them were heavy hitters, they had written about themselves, and that was fascinating and told me a lot of what it takes to be a woman in power and what it costs and what it’s like for women in the generation of Hilary and women in my generation. I think it is just such an interesting world to me, and I am very interested in current affairs and international relations, and politics.

Excellent. Did you bring any of your self to the character, or your own personality?

All the characters you play end up with part of you in some way. I tried thinking about if I take away aspects of myself that are not the character. It depends on different areas, like physicality. I tried in the beginning to give Jackie a certain physicality that is not me as she has come from a military background. I wanted to think about physically what that looks like, how one holds themselves. Particularly the woman role and being taken seriously. There is a certain sort of physicality that can express that I thought about that somewhat. And then it always evolved. In television you don’t know what is coming story-wise, unlike a film. In film you can make choices about what comes later. In television the work is like how we live, you don’t know what is coming. Sometimes the writers share with you what’s coming, sometimes they don’t. That is true on all the shows I have worked on. There is a kind of openness one has to have to the possibility that anything can happen. And I like that actually, not knowing what is coming. I have embraced it over the years, it is sort of exciting to not know where you are going in the story. The behavior is much more centered on the present moment, and the character.

Yeah. When the wife and I were watching that last season, my wife asked, “Is Jackie going to go right to the top and knock Underwood off his perch?” When you watch a show you play guessing games. The show is quite leading in that way. Did you think that of your character, did you think “Oh I could be president?” 

I think that you never know what is coming, but what is clear is that Robin [Wright] and Kevin [Spacey] are the leads of the show, that is clear all along. The show is very much a story about their relationship and marriage as much as it is a political one. I never ruled out that anything could happen, but I just tried to stay true to the ambitions as I imagined them to be for Jackie – her ambitions were limitless.

How do you all interact behind the scenes? Quite a heavy show. Are you still friends? 

I just felt so grateful all along that I was working with such great actors. The writing is really good, and such skilled actors. Such a huge cast, there are some people I have not even worked with, I mean I see them there or we cross paths or in on the same day. Some actors I have not had a scene with in three years. Spent a lot of time with Mahershala Ali [Remy Danto] who is also nominated. I adore him, he is one of the most wonderful people I have worked with, very talented. I worked with Kevin a lot, and Robin.

Congratulations on the Emmy nod. I did call it when I did my predictions. 

Oh did you?

Yeah, took me about two hours to go through it, there are a lot of categories. You had to be in there, though, you did not feel like a guest role. It was more of a supporting role. Guest suggests you just popped in, but it was a much bigger role than that. 

It was funny that. I was so surprised, especially this year as I had less to do than years passed. It was really surprising, and very nice.

Well, I would like to wish you all the best, I will be keeping my eye out. 

Thanks Robin.

House of Cards is available to stream on Netflix.

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