Michael Kelly has now earned four Emmy nominations for playing the loyal-to-the-end Doug Stamper on “House of Cards.” The actor had a strong final season of the Netflix series, even in the wake of star Kevin Spacey‘s absence, with whom he had previously shared a majority of his scenes.
Kelly spoke with Gold Derby contributing editor Matt Noble before the Emmy nominations about coming back for the final season of “House of Cards,” the conclusion of Doug’s story and what he will miss most about the series. Watch the exclusive video interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: Looking back, what was the story of Doug Stamper?
Michael Kelly: Oh god. Complicated, troubled man who I guess never… just unwavering loyalty. It ended up costing him everything in the end. Kind of respect it, though. I guess that’s a good way to say it. If you think about it, it’s ultimately what did him in, him being the best he could possibly be at what he did for a living and serving the man he served.
GD: Michael Kelly, what’s your story from “House of Cards”? Because six, seven years ago, probably a bit longer, you started that journey, action was called on the first scene, you’ve now had cut on the last, what was your journey through that series?
MK: Absolute life-changing in so many ways. My daughter, she’ll be 10, but my son, we started rehearsals right around now seven years ago, and come June, which was about a month into filming Season 1, my son was born. So I have a real reference to my life in that span. Obviously, it changed my life in so many ways for my career but also just as a person. The things that this afforded me in life and the journey that I went on with this guy and over those seven years, it’s been an amazing run. There was something that felt really good about closing that chapter, especially with such finality to him, but an incredible journey for me. The things that it afforded me as an actor, the jobs that I was offered because of what I had done on “House of Cards,” the other jobs, the films, the limited series, all of that was a result of playing this guy. So I’m forever indebted to him.
GD: The final season of “House of Cards,” it was in limbo for a bit. You came back under unusual circumstances and everything like that. What was it like when you actually got back to the final season with the cast, with the crew and came to close out this story?
MK: My god, it was such a sense of relief and gratitude when we all got back to set. It was scary ‘cause we had a lot to do in a short amount of time and the writers, I can’t even imagine the pressure they were under. “Oh, rewrite your entire season in two months. Oh, by the way, you don’t have your lead actor.” They take a year to do this typically. I can’t imagine what they were under but there was a sense of, “Oh my god, we all overcame this incredible obstacle and we’re doing it.” I give crazy props to MRC and to Netflix for listening to Frank [Pugliese] and Melissa [James Gibson], the writers, and me and Robin [Wright], the actors, and saying, “We gotta do this.” Everyone agreed we had to finish it. So I think when we got back it was just like, “Holy shit, we’re gonna get to finish it,” which meant a lot to us to get that crew that had been on a long hiatus, to get them back to work, and to finish this story. It seems like forever ago but when you think back, “House of Cards” was the first original programming streaming for Netflix and now look at how that landscape has completely changed. To finish it for them, their flagship show, everyone was just like, “Yeah, let’s do it. Let’s get to work.”
GD: You were really the first series that had broken through into the Emmys for Netflix. Now they take up half of the drama series category.
MK: It’s crazy when you think back. I’ll never forget this. I maybe even told you this story before but sitting there at lunch one day and David Fincher had shown some of us the rough cut of the first episode and I was like, “Wow. Oh my god, we’re really making something special here.” I remember, I think it was Constance Zimmer, might’ve been Kate Mara, we were all sitting together for lunch and she said, “Do you think we’ll be eligible for the Emmys?” And one of the girls was like, “I don’t know.” I was like, “I don’t know. Is it TV? What is it?” (Laughs.) So to think that that was only… I guess seven years was a long time, it’s crazy to think how that whole landscape has changed now.
GD: Going back to the final season and the circumstances under which you came back, was there a different feeling on-set and especially for you, Michael, coming back on the set under those circumstances and the final season being quite different from the other seasons of the show, too?
MK: Yeah, of course it was. There’s no denying the elephant in the room here. It was certainly a different everything and difficult in many ways for me to wrap my head around. If you think about it, maybe you could say Rachel Brosnahan, the Rachel character and I had a lot together but come on. I was in almost every scene with that guy for a long time. And then all of a sudden to not just be in the scenes but to not have that person around anymore, yeah it was different. It was almost like going back to a different show but you had that crew and you had Robin and the writers and everyone that grounded it for you. Of course it was different and of course it was challenging. I’m sure far more-so for the writers than myself but I could always count on the writers for giving me incredible material to dive into. It was a lot of things.
GD: Let’s talk a bit about that final season and particularly how it closes up. So I guess a bit of a spoiler alert for people watching if you haven’t caught the end of “House of Cards” yet. How did you feel when you read that final scene for the first time?
MK: On one hand petrified that they were gonna end it with me (laughs). The two of us together, I was like, “Oh god, that’s a lot to carry on your shoulders.” Just to be the end of an epic show. I was prepared before I had read it because we had talked it through so many times. There was many different endings to this show that we went over while we were filming. I was prepared before I read it so it was more like when I heard it for the first time, I was like, “Oh, god.” (Laughs.) I was scared. It’s a heavy scene. Of course, didn’t have enough time to film that final scene. You could always go back and be bummed about certain things but also grateful to be given the challenge.
GD: What do you think was the big takeaway from that scene? What note do you think that “House of Cards” chose to end on?
MK: Oh man, I don’t know. That’s probably more of a Frank and Melissa question. For me, it’s funny because some people were like, “God.” So many people have so many different opinions about the end of the show. It’s like, “Well, what is it? Is it the woman won?” I’m like, “Yeah, but she wasn’t really a good woman at the end.” She was a pretty bad, despicable person herself. There’s many ways to look at it. Evil won. The bad guys won. Yeah, she’s a woman but she stepped on so many women to get there. Doug is by no means a good character. There wasn’t many great characters, good people on the show.
GD: There were few angels on “House of Cards.”
MK: Few (laughs). You can argue that Doug was a good person who did some bad things. I just look at him as a really complicated guy. Yeah, he did some horrible things that I would never dream of doing in my life but at the same time, he was a good person. I kind of wanted to see him win at the end. That’s my ending.
GD: There was talk about there being a Doug Stamper spinoff, not after that final.
MK: We went pretty far down the road on that. It was a really interesting concept, too, for how they were gonna do it. I kind of like that that character had such closure, that I can truly close that. There’s no, “Many years later there’s a movie about a series.” “Sopranos” I think is doing one now. My chapter’s closed and it feels kind of good. There’s something about having done the work, having done the job and officially closing that chapter in my life. There’s something that feels really good.
GD: Unless they do a prequel series, “Better Call Doug.”
MK: It would take a miracle for my hair if they plan on doing a prequel (laughs).
GD: It worked for Odenkirk. He’s been able to pull it off. Also on the final episode, Doug leans in and he goes, “Never cared to talk to you guys.” Why didn’t Doug want to talk to us?
MK: I think ‘cause Michael Kelly didn’t want to. It’s funny, the writers said to both Robin and myself, she’s like… I don’t remember what Robin’s answer was but for me it was like, I don’t feel like it’s him. I don’t feel like he would care to engage with the audience. So we sort of came up with this concept of, “Was he talking to himself and was he talking to Frank to get away from that,” and then the one time that he truly does acknowledge the audience, he’s like, “Not for you.” I just felt like that was more him. The same way people would be asking me often, “Doug should be president. Doug should run for president.” I’m like, “No. Can you imagine the guy on the campaign trail, at a rally? You can’t see him firing up an audience. You could see him intimidating one but that’s not gonna get you elected president.” In the same way, the similarities for there for me. He doesn’t care to engage.
GD: What’s your favorite moment in the series?
MK: I think if I look back, it’s Season 1 when he kills the dog and looks up and says, “There, no more pain.” To me, as a viewer, I was like, “Oh my god. What are we in for?” It really set up what the whole show was. But for me personally, has to be something with Rachel. I loved it so much. She is a consummate professional. We loved working on our stuff together. That whole end of Season 2 in the desert when we went out there together, those scenes in the van really just diving into it with her, that’s probably for me personally as an actor, the most rewarding work that I got to do on the show. Yeah, I think as a viewer, as a fan of the show myself, that first, when he choked the dog and looked down the barrel, I was like, “Oh, that’s what we’re in for.” Even having read it prior, seeing it for the first time it was just like, “Wow.” And then to see that come full circle, “No more pain,” to the end when she says it to me, it was a nice nod.
GD: Yeah, bookended the series, that moment. That was really cool. In the van, you kill Rachel and she went on to wonderful things, marvelous things you would say. Maybe if she’d killed you in the show you would’ve had an Emmy-winning series. What’s it been like to see her, Rachel Brosnahan, go on and do so well on the award circuit?
MK: It’s incredible. I’m so happy for her. I’m sure you’ve talked to her before, you know what an amazing woman she is as well, hard worker. But it was one of those things where I knew. You just knew it. You knew it working with her and you knew it being around her as a person, you knew where she was headed in life. To the point when I was with her when Beau [Willimon], we were walking to the table read and he broke it to her that we were killing her. She was like, “I knew it was coming. It was kind of inevitable.” He said, “But I’m not worried about you. As much as I’m gonna hate to see you go, I know you’re going to great places.” And she was like, “Oh, thanks.” We all just kind of looked at each other and Beau and I were like, “You are.” You just knew it. There are some people you come across in your career where you just know. She was one of them.
GD: That was the first season that I spoke with you, Michael, and it was also I spoke to her that year about “House of Cards” and “Manhattan” so a very strong memory of that season.
MK: “Manhattan,” that’s right.
GD: Which she was great in as well. Really fun to see the trajectory of you on that show and her on another show from that point on. Speaking about these awards and stuff like that, you’ve had three Emmy nominations for “House of Cards.” What has the award circuit been like, that whole awards scene for “House of Cards”?
MK: It’s incredible. You’ve been to these weekends. It’s so much fun. It’s that time of year where you get to see a lot of your friends that you only see once a year at these award shows. So many of them you become close with. Ty Burrell and I go back to “Dawn of the Dead” and the only time we really see each other is at these award shows. It’s so much fun and then also just getting to talk about the work and what you’ve done and the paths you’ve traveled to get to where you are and being amongst all of these colleagues that you consider to be people at the top of their game doing some really cool work and talking to them about their work. I feel grateful to be in the conversations every year and I feel grateful to be part of it. It’s been a hell of a fun run.
GD: Fantastic. I’ve got here, the photo, Michael, of us, from that year of the Emmys. Last question, what do you miss most about “House of Cards”?
MK: I think the words, getting to say those words, getting to dive into a character so complex on a daily basis and to live in that world that this guy was. Actually, the solitude. When I filmed that, I would drive in silence listening to my lines in Baltimore, which was about a three-hour drive, three-15 to my apartment, and I would drive home listening to my lines or I would just drive in silence, just to ease into it and ease out of it. When I was there, I’ve got two young kids and a wife, and when I was there working, I made a point to give myself quiet time, not saying a word to anyone, not getting on the phone, not getting on the computer, just being in my apartment. Not to say that I was method and I lived it, but just an hour every day or every other day of nothingness. I miss that, the peace and solitude of that. It helped me get into that guy’s head. I miss that. I guess more than anything I’ll miss that family that we had, the crew. It was the greatest family. I hugged Gary Jay, our A camera operator, and I remember for that last scene with Robin, I had to go to a pretty heavy emotional place at times. You turn around and you’re doing coverage of a different part of a scene and then you gotta go back to the heavy, emotional part where you’re crying. All I had to do, because it was our last day of filming, was go and give Gary Jay a hug and I would just immediately start crying. He, to me, is one of those people who I saw every day for half of a year for six years and my heart breaks to think that I don’t get to hang out with Gary Jay this year when we go back to work. It’s the tough part of the business. That family, I’ll miss it a lot. I already do.
GD: Michael, thanks so much for talking to us for all those seasons of “House of Cards.” All the best of luck with this year’s Emmys. We’ll speak to you again with another show you’re working on and things like that.
MK: Yeah, right on. Matt, thanks so much, man. It means a lot for you guys to include me in these conversations and I’m grateful, so thank you.