ACTRESS Robin Wright almost said ‘no’ to House of Cards, the brooding valentine to political backstabbing that has become the toast of television (even though the show is only on Netflix).
Approached by producer David Fincher to play Claire Underwood, Machiavellian spouse of Kevin Spacey’s dastardly politician, Francis Underwood, she was uninterested. Aged 47, Wright had played ‘the wife’ before and had little appetite for a role as glorified arm candy.
“My first response was — ‘no way, I’m too old for this shit’,” says Wright. “But Fincher told me this would be different — that it would be a collaborative process. I would be working with the writers to create the character.”
Though Wright was known for The Princess Bride and Forrest Gump (and her 14-year marriage to actor Sean Penn), matriarch Claire Underwood is the role of a lifetime. Wright recently won a Golden Globe for her portrayal, of a ruthless operator whose personality is as chilly as the cool, greasy blues with which Fincher (who directed the first two episodes) frames her. It has made her famous — a lamentably rare case of an ‘older’ actress reaching a new audience.
For Wright, television has proved a revelation. After 25 years in Hollywood, she was disillusioned. The interesting roles were drying up, replaced by a stampede of summer ‘tent-poles’. A character actress for whom a walk-on in the next Avengers movie held little allure, Wright found interesting parts ever more difficult to come by. She sighs as she says this.
“The Hollywood people live in another country now,” she says. “That’s what it feels like. They can’t make money with smaller movies. It has to be with cartoon characters, with action pictures based on Xbox and Playstation games — Marvel Comics, big fan explosions, all of that. Okay, you have a conglomerate of smaller movies, American Hustle, Wolf of Wall Street, and so forth. There’s no comparison in terms of the profitability. If [Oscar-winning Kevin Spacey vehicle] American Beauty came out today, it wouldn’t make nearly as much money.”
House of Cards is set in a heightened version of Washington DC, where skullduggery and double-speak are the only ways to get ahead. Attuning to the cynical ambience was not a challenge for Wright. When it comes to ignoble ambition and raw lust for power, politics has nothing on Hollywood.
“The entertainment industry is certainly very similar to House Of Cards,” she says. “I’m not kidding — you’ve gotta knock someone down to gain one more rung on the ladder. That is so true.”
Wright achieved early acclaim with The Princess Bride and received a Golden Globe ‘best actress’ nomination for Forrest Gump.
However, she put her career on the burner after marrying Penn, with whom she has two children (Dylan and Hopper, now 22 and 20, respectively).
It wasn’t the smoothest of marriages: she and Penn separated on several occasions, before divorcing in 2010 (she is now engaged to actor Ben Foster, 13 years her junior).
But, then, domestic instability is no novelty for Wright. She moved around a great deal as a child.
Her father worked in pharmaceuticals, her mother was a cosmetics saleswoman — they divorced when she was six and her mother quickly remarried. Having struggled at school because of undiagnosed dyslexia, aged 15 she was approached to model and moved to Tokyo to further her career.
Adrift in the megapolis, she found modelling to be shallow and unrewarding, and so returned to America, where, in 1984, she won a part in the daytime soap, Santa Barbara. From there, her career slowly, steadily gathered pace.
By the time she was cast in The Princess Bride, in 1987, Wright was recognised as one of Hollywood’s outstanding young talents.
She is not surprised by the success of House of Cards. On paper, a relentlessly dark political thriller, starring two middle-aged actors and available only via internet streaming, might seem a gamble.
However, so accurate are Netflix’s audience tallies, there never was any doubt that House of Cards would do well, Wright says. That’s why Netflix handed the producers $100m without even requesting a pilot. “Their data is more evolved than any else’s,” she says. “They sit there with a grid — they know which of their members love Kevin Spacey and what parts they love him in. They know who likes David Fincher, who likes Robin Wright.
“They put all these components together and they knew [House of Cards would be a hit]. That’s why they said ‘yes’ to 26 episodes and didn’t so much as ask for an outline.”
What’s remarkable about Wright’s portrayal of Underwood is the way she leavens the permafrost with glimmers of humanity. At first (and even second or third) glance, Claire is all bad — a gimlet-eyed charity consultant who, in the first episode, thinks nothing of firing all her staff and shrugs off her husband’s infidelities as if faithfulness were the last thing one should expect of a successful marriage. Gradually, though, the ice is allowed to melt and Wright provides glimpses of the vulnerable human being beneath.
“Everyone has a human side,” she says. “I’m sure [deposed African dictator] Charles Taylor had a really sweet side. There is evil in the world. We’re all human. I don’t think anyone is just good or just bad. We don’t have pure intentions all the time — we don’t have evil ones all the time. We’re a mix.”
Yes, but Claire is so buttoned-down and alienated from her emotions that making her seem like a plausible person is surely a challenge.
“She is very scheming and calculating,” says Wright. “She also has a vulnerable side. She has those feelings and she sucks them up and becomes this stoic glass again.
“That is something for me to play against. It is very exciting,” Wright says.