‘House of Cards’ Secret Weapon: Doug Stamper Tells All
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright may get all the accolades, but Michael Kelly—a.k.a. Doug Stamper—has become the best thing about House of Cards. [Warning: Spoilers!]
He was deader than Slugline.
When we last left Doug Stamper, the icy, Machiavellian fixer to Frank Underwood on House of Cards, he was nothing but a withering corpse, beaten to a pulp by his stone-wielding obsession, Rachel. But the third season of Beau Willimon’s saucy political drama opened with a bit of a surprise: Stamper is back.
Everyone’s favorite Boy Friday, played by the brilliant Michael Kelly, spent the bulk of Season 3 rehabbing from his near-death experience in the woods and working himself back to full strength—all the while, regaining his sinisterness.
[Warning: If you haven’t finished Season 3 of House of Cards, stop reading now.]
After posing as an aide to 2016 presidential candidate Heather Dunbar, Doug eventually works his way back into President Underwood’s inner circle. What’s more, in the jaw-dropping season finale, he finally dispenses of his one loose end: Rachel.
Thanks to the talents of Kelly, Stamper has emerged as a fan favorite on House of Cards—someone who, strange though it may seem, people root for. The actor opens up to The Daily Beast about his indelible character, his killer instinct, and his descent into darkness.
For us viewers, your fate was up in the air last season. Did you always know you were coming back into the fold?
I certainly went through the gamut of emotions. That’s the way that he wrote it! It was always going to be a cliffhanger, and when we shot it I was breathing in shallow breaths and I was alive. It came out, someone wrote, “He’s dead!” and then that’s how it was perceived. And then last winter, I was in the Northern Alps shooting Everest, and I remember I got an email from my dad and he said, ‘Hey, Mom and I just watched the show. I know you think you’re still alive, but you looked pretty dead to me.’ And then I got another email from my business manager saying, ‘Well, it was fun while it lasted!’ And I thought, ‘Wait?! Shit! Maybe they changed their minds?’ And I spoke to my business manager again because I heard people’s deals were being worked on and I said, ‘So… you still haven’t heard anything?’ Weeks went by, and I started to freak out. Anything can happen on our show, and I didn’t want to call Beau. And then I finally got the call.
This season is interesting because when things open, Doug is in a place of great vulnerability, and the entire season is him trying to be himself again.
Yeah. This isn’t about the recovery; this is about getting him back to where he belongs. I visited the writers’ room and Beau said, “I want you to read the first one.” I was honored and petrified, because I couldn’t believe that they were telling a good part of the first episode through my eyes.
So wait. You got the script and you read, “Doug is naked in the kitchen and breaks his arm, and then has to fix it.” It looked like you were completely naked in that scene.
Yup! You know, it wasn’t like I could go to the gym and start lifting weights because the dude was not in shape—he was in the hospital in bed—so it was, “OK, here we go!” Talk about putting yourself out there. The cool thing is that sex on our show is never done gratuitously, so I didn’t sweat it. I knew that they would light it fine… but I was like, “Wow… I have to be completely naked!” And there was another scene they ended up cutting where my phone rings right after I break it, and I have to crawl butt ass naked across the floor. I was very fortunate that they had to cut that scene!
That would have been “The Full Michael.”
I think so!
How would you characterize Frank and Doug’s relationship this season? Frank is pretty much a prick to Doug and really testing his loyalty.
But at the same time, Frank knows that I’m more of a liability at this point. I’m not back. Even though Doug thinks he’s back and fine, he’s not, and it takes a while to get back to that. Maybe it’s the Doug in me, but I never blame Francis for what he does. Doug is great at his job, but he needs to be one hundred percent to be great at it—and nothing less.
Do you have a “method” to get in Doug Stamper mode? He’s so icy, and you are anything but.
It’s interesting because you see the difference between the seasons. In Season 1, Beau said, “I want you to emote nothing, and I want everyone in Season 1 to be like, “What the fuck is going on with that guy?” And we were able to do it!
Beau seemed completely surprised when I asked him this, but there does seem to be an underlying homoeroticism to Doug and Frank’s relationship. He has complete tunnel vision.
I’ve never heard that either! I think Doug’s dedication to Francis—and what you see that as—I think is more of a byproduct of his dedication to his job. That’s what moves Doug forward. He thinks, “I’m going to do my job, and I’m going to do it better than anyone could.”
But if not homoeroticism, there is a paternal aspect to their relationship. There’s that great scene this season where Doug enters the Oval Office and puts his head on Frank’s lap.
I get that. Even when we shot it, it felt like that. But that was Doug at his rock bottom. He’s so exhausted at that moment, and everything is just terrible for him. It’s not so much, “Dad, will you hold me and cuddle me for a minute,” it’s more, “I have nothing left and can’t even hold my head up anymore.” We went from him being with Francis countless times per episode to a season where he sees Francis three times.
And Frank is torturing Doug this entire season by keeping him at arm’s length.
Right. And it just eats away at him that Seth is, Remy is, and everyone else is still in his circle and all these big things are happening. All he wants is to be there, and he knows that he deserves it more than anyone, and he can’t be there. He worked harder than anyone to get Francis into the Oval Office, and he can’t celebrate it with him.
Well, you did get a nice sex scene this season. We all felt very happy for Doug that he got laid.
And it was almost normal, too! [Laughs]
The whole Dunbar situation was very interesting, too. Do you think it was always Doug’s plan to spy on Dunbar for Frank?
It was always part of his plan. It was funny because Beau didn’t tell me that it was the case. I said, “Beau, am I really going to work for her? Am I really going to fuck over Francis?” And he said, “We’re not even going to have this conversation right now. Yes, you are.” And for a good bit—I forget how long it was—Beau said, “No, dude! I just couldn’t tell you it in the beginning because I really needed to have you believe you were going to work with her.”
Why do you think Doug is so obsessed with Rachel? Does he have this paternalism thing where he wants to be her “protector?”
Obviously they had sex early on—he paid for it—but there’s that scene where he puts the money in her mouth, and I think there was something there. And then there was the mom issue, and then she also seems like a daughter to him. She’s so many different things to him, and at the crux of it, she was also his biggest problem. Talk about a conflicted situation for Stamper! It doesn’t get any more complicated than what he has with Rachel. At the core of it, I think it’s just another addiction for him. In whatever form it took—from daughter, to mother, to lover, to infatuation—she was just another addiction. The things that drive Doug to do what he does is that he’s an addict, and she’s just another addiction. And he has to have it.
Do you think Doug even knows why he’s tracking her down? Throughout Season 3, it seems like he’s just doing it out of some impulse, but he doesn’t really know what’s going to happen once they meet.
He does know that it’s the loose end that has to be tied for him to get back to Frank. He believes that he has to find her and deal with it, otherwise he’ll always be on the outside looking in. She does a very good job of convincing him that everything is going to be fine. She says, “You are never ever going to see me again.” And it’s enough for him for a minute, and then he realizes, “No. I have to go back and take care of this.”
Was it always going to play out like that? Was Doug always going to kill Rachel?
No. In an earlier draft, Rachel convinces him. I do think that Doug one hundred percent believes that we will never see her again. She has this new identity, and fine, it’s not the right thing to do, but she’s completely out of our lives. But when he starts to drive and think about it, he thinks, “Well, what if this gets out? What if someone finds her? What if? We’re done! So if I erase that one thing, then we’re in the clear.”
That is the moment though where we’re thrust back into reality and realize, “OK, this is not a good person.” Because throughout this season, aside from casually surveilling her and almost killing a guy in Venezuela, Doug’s a pretty stand-up guy. He’s the most decent character on the show. And then that final scene happens where he’s burying Rachel and we think, “OK, he’s back.” This is about Doug’s descent back to his true self.
That’s exactly right. The arc of the season for him isn’t about him getting better, it’s about him getting back to work and getting to where he belongs. So he had to kill Rachel, otherwise he couldn’t return to Francis, where he belongs.
Is it strange for you how Doug has emerged as a fan favorite on House of Cards? A lot of people seem to not only sympathize with him, but also rationalize his decisions.
Yeah! “Who are you?!” It’s funny, man, girls on Twitter are like, “I love Stamper! I wish I could have a Stamper!” with little heart emojis and stuff, and I’m like, “Oh my god. What is wrong with you? What kinds of issues do you have? That’s sick.” But underneath all his actions, there’s a person there. And for the first time this season, we saw that Doug is capable of having that other life. We see him with his brother and with his brother’s kids, and we realize that he could have that life. But he chooses to turn all that off and just be the machine.
Do politicians or political staffers come up to you a lot and sing Doug’s praises?
All the time. I’ll never forget it. We went to this party after the White House Correspondents Dinner and we walked in and it was just a madhouse. All these young staffers were offering us shots and going crazy, and Corey [Stoll] turns to me and goes, “What the hell, man! It’s like we’re the Rolling Stones!” But for every guy who went up to me and wanted to do shots, there was someone who came up to me and said, “I work for a guy who’s just like you.”