On my way to interview Robin Wright, I bump into her in the lift. I say ‘bump’ — she stands, motionless, at the other side of the elevator, concealed behind vast ‘Famous Person’ mirror shades. She isn’t chilly so much as absent — a celebrity who has learned how to tune out in order to preserve her sanity amid the clamouring crowd.
Upstairs in a suite at this plush London hotel, the actress is more forthcoming. Wright, 47, smiles a great deal — a surprise if you know her mostly from political thriller House of Cards, in which she plays icy Claire Underwood, Lady Macbeth to Kevin Spacey’s machiavellian politician Frank Underwood.
“People have asked who I based Claire on,” she says. “What feminist — what icon? But you don’t know these people. You’re never going to be able to delve into the character traits of a Michelle Obama or Hillary Clinton.”
Her solution was unique, putting it mildly. “I went with an animal,” she says. “The American eagle. I saw it on National Geographic, and observed how that bird flew higher than everybody else and looked down on everything and calculated strategy. Very stoic. Very quiet. Closed mouth. Steady neck. Fierce eyes.
“I was like: ‘I don’t know where else to pull from’, I’m not going to go to DC and interview somebody because I’m never going to get the truth, and it helped so much in believing that your environment and your wingspan is broader than everybody else’s and you know how to attack your pray without being caught.”
As season three of House Of Cards gets underway, dastardly Frank and Claire have slithered and bullied their way into the White House. At their back are a trail of lies and corpses — but this power couple isn’t given to introspection. It’s all about chasing the prize — for Frank, re-election to the Oval Office, for Claire, a political career to call her own.
“They are equals,” says Wright of the Frank-Claire axis of ruthlessness.
“They balance one another beautifully. When one starts to crumple and question — or God forbid, fear —something, the other picks them up. That’s a beautiful partnership, right? They work together well in that context — that’s why they succeed.
“When it doesn’t work is when the give and take is interrupted or intercepted by ego, greed or selfishness. When things don’t work out as they are supposed to, then there is hell to pay.”
Wright understands she is fortunate in securing a rare meaningful role for a woman her age. Claire isn’t an archetypal ‘mom’ or a middle-aged woman seeking desperately to hold onto her youth. She is comfortable in her skin, relentless in her determination to bend the world to her will. She’s a villain, sure — but there is so much more to her than that.
“These are strong empowered adults,” she says. “Why wouldn’t you want to follow them? Is it premeditated [that House of Cards presents a middle-aged couple as dynamic and ambitious]? No — that’s who we are. We can’t go backwards.”
She is as surprised as anyone that Claire has emerged as one of the centrifugal characters of the series. When offered the part by producer David Fincher, she was inclined to turn it down — on the grounds that she didn’t want to play ‘the wife’.
“My first response was — ‘no way, I’m too old for this shit’,” she said last year. “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.”
In migrating from cinema to television, she is part of a wider trend in the industry. For actors interested in substantial roles, TV is the motherlode nowadays.
“The Hollywood people live in another country now,” she told me in 2014.
“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 American Beauty came out today, it wouldn’t make nearly as much money.”
Wright achieve recognition as an actress in 1985’s The Princess Bride, having started as a model. But her big break, arguably, was as the love interest in Forest Gump (1994), for which she received a Golden Globe nomination. Marriage to actor Sean Penn saw her step back from acting to raise her children — two boys now in their early 20s.
She and Penn divorced in 2010, having separated and reconciled on several occasions. She is currently in a relationship with actor Ben Foster, 13 years her junior.
Until recently, she has declined to delve into the particulars of her life with Penn (who was previously married to Madonna), but in an interview with Vanity Fair this month she opened up to an unprecedented degree.
“We were learning as we were going along,” she said “We agreed as parents that we’d not work at the same time, so that one of us was always with the kids.
“He was making more money than I was at the time, so it was a simple decision: ‘You go work — I’ll stay with the kids’.”
In the same conversation, she reflected with gratitude on their 14-years together. Their marriage was a lot of things — but it wasn’t a waste of time, she implies:
“I believe we were together not only to have our beautiful children but to learn how to love… for the next time around, the right way. And then, what I’m looking for in people now is kindness.”
Off-set, she has retained Claire’s iconic fringe — a severe slash that accentuates the angle of her cheekbones (her outfit today, beige and nondescript, feels like a subtle rejection of Claire’s moody sensibility).
Some critics have reacted negatively to the emphasis House Of Cards places on Claire’s sartorial preferences — yet again, they complain, here is a woman reduced to, and defined by, her choice of costume. Wright sees the character in a markedly different light.
“Her dress sense is her armour,” she says. “I buy clothes off the rack and change them drastically to conform to her look. There is a design intention involved — big time. Her clothes tell you a lot about who she is.”
House Of Cards season three is available in full on Netflix.