House of Cards

House of Cards Star’s Real Battle Against Rape

Robin Wright has been battling against sexual violence for years, in fact it was her campaigning that inspired the mission of her character Claire Underwood in House of Cards.

03.07.14 10:54 AM ET

When Robin Wright is staring at you intently, even extending her hand to grasp your arm as she speaks, she has an almost disarmingly warm and earnest demeanor. At a glance, she appears to have nothing in common with Claire Underwood, her character on House of Cards, who never leaves the house without her cruel, icy gaze.

But, as it turns out, she and her on-screen alter ego do have something in common: an activist streak. Underwood, in the show, runs a clean water initiative until she leaves her post to draw up a political battle plan against sexual assault in the military. And Wright, in real life, has been an outspoken advocate against sexual violence used as a weapon of war.

This plot line, Wright reveals, was actually her doing. “Well to tell you the truth, that was kind of my idea, and Beau Willimon, the show runner’s, because I had been involved with this campaign for so many years,” Wright, dressed in all black with her now-signature short hair swept against her forehead, says.

The campaign she’s referring to is also the reason she’s spending her Thursday night in an assembly room at the United Nations Headquarters, while many are probably still curled in front of their TVs binging on the second season of her hit Netflix show. She’s here to talk about sexual violence in conflict zones.

On Thursday evening, Wright sat alongside such dignitaries as U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power and Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Zainab Bangura, to discuss ending rape in war zones at an International Women’s Day event hosted by the Enough Project and a group of UN affiliates. It’s an issue Wright has been working on for the past six years, even traveling to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2011. In December, she was named Goodwill Ambassador for a Congolese women's rights organization called Women's Synergy for Victims of Sexual Violence and the fundraising group Donor Direct Action.

So, when House of Cards was searching for a cause for the second lady, she pulled from her background of activism work, and tapped into an issue she knew wouldn’t be short-term. “Well I know firsthand that this is not resolved quickly, this sexual violence issue,” she remembers thinking.

Incidentally, earlier on Thursday, a bill very similar to the one pushed by Claire Underwood was killed in the Senate. The bill, a longtime passion project of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s, would have transferred oversight of sexual assault cases to independent prosecutors. Instead, a counter bill, which kept military oversight in place, passed through a preliminary Senate vote at the behest of Sen. Claire McCaskill. It almost felt as though life was mimicking House of Cards, with Jackie Sharp and Claire Underwood once again pitted against each other, vying for votes in the halls of Washington. Also conspicuous in both reality and TV: a notable silence from the Oval Office.

The making of Gillibrand’s bill and Thursday’s vote were closely followed by Wright. “How ‘bout that? How ‘bout that?” she exclaims at the similarities. “We predicted it.”

Her involvement in issues of sexual violence began six years ago, when she watched a film about conflict minerals called The Greatest Silence. She remembers being “utterly shocked women were treated this way over what I was holding in my hand—a cell phone.”

After that, she grew to become a leading figure in raising popular awareness of the wars being sparked over mining for minerals, mostly in the DRC, that were used in many electronic devices. “We’re all one, we’re all on this earth, and if we’re fueling a war of that severity by using this luxury everyday, we’re responsible to do something and [be] proactive,” she explained on the panel. And people listened, with reform creeping up through government channels and business ones. Apple announced last year it would set up policing methods for its supply chain, and Intel revealed this January that all its products would be conflict mineral-free in 2014.

“We are crushing it on the normative front,” the ever-blunt Ambassador Power declared. Panel participants agreed the effort to end conflict minerals and stamp out the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war have made large steps recently. And Wright’s tactic, as she described after, is: “The more we push—as the used car salesmen—about what needs to be made aware of, the faster it becomes part of the agenda.”

Inversely, the conniving Underwood’s advocacy proved not to be effective in ensuring her chosen issue’s happy ending. “It just became an implement and a tool for me as Claire to be proactive and then to absolutely sabotage the very bill that I tried to pass,” she says, laughing. “You’ve always got to do that with the Underwoods, right? You’ve got to bring it up, so somebody’s legs can be cut off.” At the mention of the politically backstabbing couple, her eyes twinkle behind black-rimmed glasses.

Claire Underwood may be the ultimate puppet master, but the actress behind her has been even more effective at picking a cause and injecting momentum into it. As the panel host and Enough Project co-founder said in her introduction, “If someone’s heart actually burns in pursuit of trying to make a difference, it would be Robin’s.”