"House Of Cards" Creator On Sympathizing With Hill Staffers And Having To Kill To Be In Politics

Writer and executive producer Beau Willimon talks loyalty, power, and how House of Cards’ D.C. compares to the real one. The show returns Friday. posted on

Jesse Grant / Getty Images for Netflix

Beau Willimon (center).

House of Cards creator Beau Willimon chatted with BuzzFeed Thursday on where real-life Washington, D.C., stacks up against the show’s fictional D.C. The Emmy-winning Netflix series drops its second season of episodes early Friday morning. The show left off last year with Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) accepting an offer to become vice president. Willimon, who formerly worked for campaigns including Howard Dean’s presidential campaign before becoming a playwright, is the executive producer and writer for the series.

You know nothing is going to get done in Congress tomorrow. You have brought the entire federal government to a shutdown.

Beau Willimon: (laughs) They are probably not working because of the snow, or at least we can use that as an excuse.

If you heard that a Capitol Hill staffer say his or her life was like House of Cards, particularly Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), what would you think about that?

BW: I think a lot of staffers on the Hill are constantly forced with the predicament of what it means to remain loyal to their boss and the ethical choices that might force upon them. For someone like Stamper, his loyalty is unconditional, but a lot of people on the Hill, they find themselves working for someone who they don’t always condone and they have to weigh on the scale their own personal ambition for what they think is right or wrong. That is a real dilemma for a lot of people in Washington and one that I sympathize with and one that is a big part of what it means to wield power and have access to it.

Why film in Baltimore?

BW: It is really difficult to shoot in D.C. these days — for security reasons that are totally reasonable. Government agencies don’t want to see big trucks pulling up close to the Capitol or the Lincoln Memorial. In Baltimore, we have more liberty. We can shoot all over the city and surrounding counties. Maryland has a great tax credit. We would love to shoot in D.C. more but security restrictions make it very difficult.

D.C. as a city has been incredibly supportive. Folks from all walks of government — from staffers up to the highest members of Congress — have been really helpful in making themselves available to us, giving us expert advice, letting us see their offices for the sake of authenticity. Steny Hoyer and Kevin McCarthy have been incredibly generous with their time, particularly with Kevin Spacey. In fact, McCarthy allowed Kevin to sit in on a Republican caucus meeting, which is something that very few people have access to.

Do you think this is the way that D.C. does work or should work?

BW: We are not portraying Washington. Were portraying a journey of Francis and Claire Underwood’s (Robin Wright) life. They happen to live and work in D.C., but House of Cards is not supposed to be an overall portrait of D.C. We approach it from our particular angle and we show a sliver of it. We dramatize an extreme version. Our characters are focused on ambition, power, and self-interest. There are elements of Washington, D.C., that, I think, we dramatize accurately in their essence. But most politicians are not like Francis Underwood. He is his own animal.

Your friend Jay Carson worked for the Clintons, did you see any inspiration for the Underwoods in their marriage?

BW: It is unfair to pinpoint anyone source of inspiration. We get inspiration from everything and everywhere. Whether it’s real life or fiction. We draw from everything.

But the power couple, bent on the presidency…

BW: I think that’s reductive. That is just not how we operate. You can draw any comparison that you like, but our goal is not to draw some sort of parallel universe in that way. Our characters are entirely fictional. If we try to compare them or use them to comment on or explore real-life characters, that would be incredibly limiting.

So Claire is not based on Hillary?

BW: The characters are entirely fictional, real or imagined, and are not based on any one person.

So people being reminded of Joe Biden as the character of the vice president, John Boehner as the speaker…

BW: I find it interesting that people draw those conclusions and that is certainly one way to experience the show. But I think it limits one’s enjoyment of the show if you are trying to play the game of ‘who does this reminds me of’ because we’re creating a fictional world.

Who would ever work this hard to become the vice president?

BW: You are seeing the vice presidency as an end in itself. Frank Underwood’s project is power. So anything that allows him to have access to more power is a worthwhile pursuit for him. The VP is an ambiguous role in the U.S. government. You have vice presidents who wield very little power and some who wielded a great deal, like Dick Cheney.

If it is a job wherein the holder can make what he wants of it, then that position is perfect for Underwood.

The line “I can smell the cock on your breath from here,” where did that come from?

BW: There are all kinds of ways to exercise power. Often, Francis uses persuasion, seduction, and, in this case, intimidation. He uses whatever the most expedient tools are of achieving what he wants to. In that particular case he was dealing with a real brawler. A man who at his at his base core, Francis knew, would resort to violence.

But “cock on your breath”?

BW: When you write a scene, you think of the given circumstance and what they are willing to do to get what they want. And then you listen. And that’s what Francis said, so I wrote it down.

So you just listen to what Francis says?

BW: Often times, the process of writing for me is akin to being a recording device. It’s listening to characters. Not shoehorning dialogue into their mouths.

Underwood fights the teachers’ union and he wins. Is this meant to resemble the declining state of union power nationwide?

BW: We are not trying to make any political commentary with that storyline. Underwood needs to get this education bill passed to get proximity to the president. It is not about ideology. If you trying to pass an education reform bill, you would have many special interests that have things to say about it. One of those groups would be the teachers’ unions and they are not going to go down without a fight. It escalates to a point of a national teachers’ strike. That is a pretty formidable tool the unions have available to them. It is not a matter of whether we are portraying them well or not, it is a matter of how much power do they wield and what do we does Francis do to contend with them.

In your interview with the Telegraph, you said, “All politicians are murderers.” Do you think that would apply to Barack Obama? What about the generally inspirational pols, such as Cory Booker?

BW: If you are going to hold the highest office in the land, you are going to have to make decisions that sometimes result in death. Whether you are sending people to war or making changes to welfare, Social Security, or health care that could affect someone’s well-being. All of these have the potential, at the end of the day, to either keep someone alive or end a life, even if it is indirect. You hold people’s lives in your hands when you are a politician, particularly when you are at the highest office. If you are not willing to make a decision that will result in death, then you are ill-equipped to be someone who wields immense power.

This interview has been edited for length.

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