Michael Kelly, the actor who plays Doug Stamper on Netflix’s “House of Cards,” is a really nice guy. He barely ever cracks a smile on-screen, where he hovers behind Frank Underwood with the grim visage of a perpetually irritated butler. The past few seasons have revealed Stamper to be a particularly terrifying political fixer, who snuffs out both political opposition and inconvenient lives without much hesitation. But on the phone with me, he laughs constantly, and is apt to stop and say that something that happened on the show was “so cool” or that he was “freaking out.” When he met President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle, the couple—who are big fans of the show—joked that he did not seem “nearly as diabolical in real life.” Kelly said to me that he was mostly in shock: "I couldn't believe they knew who I was."
To fans of the show, it is not that surprising. Kelly’s Stamper has become a pillar of the show, even though in this fourth season, Stamper lives a bit on the margins, as Frank (Kevin Spacey) and Claire (Robin Wright) duke it out. But his story is, fans often tell me, what keeps them hooked on the show; all of the characters do awful things, but they feel for Stamper. I spoke to Kelly about his character’s charisma and foibles, as well as his own political leanings and whom he’s voting for this November.
I just watched you kill someone!
I was just watching the season 3 finale, and it is a scary episode, and you are very scary in it.
He’s … a pretty scary dude, really. [Laughs.]
One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you is because a lot of people tell me that Doug Stamper is, for them, the emotional heart of the show.
I’ve heard that, but I’ve also heard other people say they can’t get enough of Frank, or they can’t get enough of Claire. It’s funny how everyone sort of has their own character that they identify with or that they love or whatever. It’s like any successful television show—take “Friends,” for instance, everybody had a different one that they loved.
How do you feel about Stamper?
I love him. [Laughs.] This is the greatest gift I’ve ever been given. I can remove myself while watching it—my wife and I love to watch the show together. When I’m watching him, it’s funny—it’s a big range of emotions. I respect the hell out of his work ethic. I find some of the things that he does despicable. But at his true core, I understand the guy. I’m not saying that I would do any of those things, but I understand him. And maybe that’s because I’m playing him, but I completely understand he’s a complicated guy, with that crazy, addictive personality that a lot of alcoholics have. And it applies to everything for him. That’s what makes him tick.
My editor Erin Keane has a theory that Stamper’s feelings for Frank Underwood are the only truly unconditional love in the series.
I completely agree. My wife and I finished [episode 7] last night and she turned to me and she’s like, “Jesus, you’re really the only one he can count on!” [Laughs.]
Why do you think Stamper is so loyal to Frank?
It’s a combination of a lot of things. To go back to talking about the addictive personality that’s in him: There was Rachel [Posner, played by Rachel Brosnahan]; he became obsessed and addicted to that. His job, though, too. He loves what he does, it’s what makes him tick. When we saw this failing character of Doug in season 3, you saw him be quote-unquote “happy,” you saw him living a pretty normal life. OK, you also saw a lot of crazy shit. But you saw him test those waters. What it’s like to have a normal relationship with a girl, what it’s like to have family involved in his life for the first time. What it’s like for him to consider taking a job that’s not going to be so taxing on him.
But it doesn’t make him tick. What makes him tick is what he does. It’s what makes him go and gets him up every day, and has him apply that insanely admirable work ethic. On some levels, I know he loves Frank. They’ve been together for a long time, they’ve come up together. So part of it is that. But part of, I think, his loyalty to Frank, on top of the love, is also a byproduct of his addiction to his job. And wanting to be the best he can be at his job. That’s what makes him drive.
In this fourth season, Stamper’s marginalized both by Claire’s manipulation and by her new hire, Leann, who behind-the-scenes you dubbed “Lady Stamper.” What was it like to be diminished in that way?
It was tough. Especially when Frank’s gone or is out of the picture for a while when he’s incapacitated. That was hell. I found myself like going to work and feeling—you know, I like everybody at work and I’m pretty sure everybody likes me. We have a great time there. But it was weird, because I did sort of feel outside the box of everything. For that period of time I felt lonely, isolated, while we were filming that. And it was bizarre. It was great for the character to fuel that, but it was very uncomfortable, to be honest.
And Claire! It’s like, come on! That’s the last person you want to go against. But then I thought, what I just saw last night [in episode 7]—I thought what was so interesting about what Beau [Willimon, showrunner] did is that even Doug knows that she is a formidable foe. She is not someone you want to mess with. But he has to. Even when he finally goes at her at Frank’s bedside, and says, “You left him.” You did this, you did this. She says, “Take it outside in the hall” and then she says something—I’ll paraphrase—like we need to work together now. I need you. We need to do this together. And he’s finally welcomed back in and everything’s going to be OK. And he’s like, no. I’m staying with Frank, that’s more important. I think the line is, “I’m staying with him.” And points a finger back at her, and put her back at odds with him. [Laughs.] I was like, This is crazy, Doug. But that’s why I think Beau is a genius. Those writers, you know?
I mean it’s crazy. When I first got this job, I didn’t know anybody, but I was like, wow. They’ve got a group of people here who—every single one of them I admire. Kevin Spacey, someone who I’ve looked up to. When I got the job I didn’t know how big of a character Stamper would become, certainly I never dreamed that. I was doing a lot of “Yes, sirs” and opening doors and whatnot, but I was like: I’m watching Kevin Spacey work every day. I’m gonna learn so much. [Laughs] That, to me, was so thrilling. And then everything that this has become has just been a great bonus on top of that.
What does it take to follow Stamper to his dark places, and to get into his mind-set?
I am so blessed. I have an incredible wife, children I adore, I’m a very happy man. I’ve got a great mom and dad and brothers and sisters and stuff, so I’ve always been happy. And I never stop smiling. So to go to that place ... To go back to the beginning of the show, it was Beau Willimon who—before I ever set foot on set, before we ever met—he just called me to congratulate me and he was like, “Hey, do you have any questions about Stamper?” I was like, “Oh my God, I’m so excited.” He was like, “Well, what you did in the audition was great, and you just nailed the character, but I think for season 1 if you just want to think about this: Don’t emote. I want everyone at the end of the season to say, what the fuck is up with that guy?”
I was sort of on that line in my audition, but that locked in so much for me. By going to that—out of that came his voice, and the way he stands and speaks. All of it just came out of that, which was really interesting. I had done my research on politics and had enough of a background there to begin with, and that was good. But really a lot of it came from that. So season 1, really I just said the words while thinking of those things. [Laughs.] And then the writing is just so brilliant on this show, that I was able to go into that mind-set and just say the words.
There’s a lot to Stamper. I mean, he has a heart. You saw the way he treated Rachel. I’ve said this before, but Arthur Penn, who I came up under at the Actor’s Studio, he said something to me: “Always bring as much of yourself to the character as you can.” So although Stamper does all of these despicable things, I brought a lot of myself to the character, in order to ground it in a sense of reality for me. So I think buried underneath is a lot of me. Of course it’s going to come through.
So I think that’s why people are like, “Ugh, he’s fucked up, but I can’t help but root for him!” [Laughs.] There’s just something about him. You want him to do well. But you can say the same for Frank and Claire and many of the other characters who do despicable things. You want to see these guys win. These writers are brilliant. Just brilliant.
The “House of Cards” writers seem to have predicted a lot of what we’ve seen this election cycle. There’s the KKK thing, the brokered convention, which we’re looking at right now ...
Were you a political person before you got involved with the show? Has it changed the way you think about politics?
I studied political science, and when I fell into acting in college—it was just a total fluke that I became an actor. I ended up changing my degree and went for a double major and missed political science by two classes. So I had that foundation, and I’ve always been interested.
There was a time after college when I was playing in bands in the city and I sort of lost all interest in anything other than trying to be an actor and having fun playing rock ‘n’ roll and just having too much fun. [Laughs.] Everything else kind of went by the wayside for a while. I’m pretty sure it was President Bill Clinton who brought me back into politics and following it.
In a negative way or a positive way?
Positive. My son is named Clinton. He’s one of three reasons for that—that’s one of them, and certainly a big one. I admire the hell out of that man, and think he did a great job as president. So I very much am into politics, and I’ve been able to have a voice now, because of people in D.C. Going to D.C. is probably the craziest place I ever go—with selfies and everyone taking pictures and wanting to talk. And I’ve gotten to know a lot of people there.
Just this year I started lobbying for the Older Americans Act and I’m actually making some real progress, trying to reauthorize this bill and get it through. You’d be amazed at how many doors that Doug Stamper can open. [Laughs.] It’s pretty crazy. We went in on our first day with, I think five meetings? And we ended up going nonstop the whole day. It’s been really exciting.
People sometimes see a parallel between the Underwoods on “House of Cards” and the Clintons in real life, so it’s interesting to hear you speak so highly of Bill Clinton. It’s very Stamper.
Do you also see the Clinton parallel?
Do you think Claire is like Hillary?
It’s really that that they’re both politicians and both ambitious, and the Clintons, their detractors think they are too ambitious.
I’ll give you the two very strong women parallel. You could draw that. [Laughs.] Two people who would be or could be or are very great political figures. But I think you look at Hillary and I don’t think Claire has done nearly as much good to the world as Hillary. [Laughs.] But would they both make effective leaders? Yes, I’ll give you that.
Do you want to tell the readers whom you’ll be voting for in the upcoming election?
I have no problem sharing that. I am definitely a Hillary, a Secretary Clinton supporter. I think that she’s got the experience and the leadership capabilities to be the next president—and most importantly, her understanding of domestic and foreign policy and social issues. I just think her ability to work with what is most likely going to be a Republican House and Senate—that’s not to slight Sen. Sanders, I think he’s a great man—but just like President Bill Clinton, who was able to pass five balanced budgets, I feel very confident that we are probably going to have a House and Senate that’s in Republican control, and I think that she’s the best person to get things done there.