Being on House of Cards Was One of the Highlights of Patricia Clarkson’s Career

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Patricia Clarkson doesn’t get a flashy entrance when her character arrives at the White House on House of Cards. She greets acting president Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) and Secretary of State Catherine Durant (Jayne Atkinson) in the Oval Office before they’re hurried away to the Situation Room in the throes of a terror alert. It’s not until Jane, huddled in a corner, catches Claire’s eye that we even remember she’s arrived. “How does Ms. Davis have this clearance?” Claire asks, and for the rest of the show, no one can decide on a straight answer. From that moment through the season’s end, Jane is there — always on, speaking in hushed tones, relaying urgent information. She’s a deputy undersecretary with deep ties in the Middle East, suddenly essential to everyone in the room.

House of Cards often goads its audience into trusting the merciless, and Jane’s motives are the most murky. The veil has been pulled back on Frank and Claire by the start of season five — we can anticipate what they want now, and they’re clinging to their power, not reaching for it. There’s an almost conspiratorial quality in many of Clarkson’s performances that works well here: She’s a D.C. operative who’s nakedly ambitious, we just have no idea why or what for. Clarkson talked to Vulture about playing the smartest woman in the room, why Robin Wright is Hollywood’s next great director, and gave some details from the set of her next project, HBO’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects.

So, how did you get to play Jane Davis? Who approached you, and what made you say yes?
Just the normal channels. My agent called and said they want to offer you this seven-episode arc on House of Cards. I haven’t done a lot of television but I adored Jane Davis from the moment I read her, from her first entrance. I called my agent and said yes, and I think he was surprised and he said, “Okay, let’s go.”

I thought the writing was brilliant and I thought it was a complicated character that was going to take me on a journey I hadn’t been on as an actor, and it’s one I’m very thankful to have been a part of. Just being a part of the show has been one of the highlights in my career.

Jane’s entrance is really surprising on a show like House of Cards, which has had the same core players for so long. She just sort of appears at the White House in episode seven, meets Claire, and then they’re all whisked underground because of a terror threat. Even Claire asks someone, “How did she get here, and how does she have this kind of clearance?”
I know. My phone is blowing up about Jane every day because I’ve never done a show that drops all 13 episodes. Some people watch and I have friends who are just getting to seven or eight and they’re texting me or emailing me every episode along the way. I’m like, all right, simmer down.

She is an impactful character. Jane Davis is a true power of writing in television, and that’s not false modesty, it just is. She’s just a woman, and I think what’s most wonderful about her in this day and age is that she’s Mata Hari–esque, but she’s not. She’s a manipulator, a facilitator, but she has a certain amount of feminine wiles and she relies on that in a very small way. What Jane has in spades is intellect. She’s often the smartest person in the room, she has hard-earned contacts, she’s worked her ass off in Washington. She knows everybody, she knows how to open any door at any time, and she gets in because she’s competent, beyond competent, and it’s a rare combination of skills that she possesses. And she has a great sense of humor at times.

She does. There’s a quality in your acting in this and in other roles of yours that feels very mercurial. Where do you think that come from?
I don’t know. I’m not sure.

Were you like that as a child?
I was a little naughty. I don’t possess the depths and breadths and intellect and fierceness that Jane has, I’m just too much of a wuss. Maybe it’s because as actors we bring parts of ourselves to every character we play, but there is a moment when the self and the character have to depart and you do have to reach for something different. With Jane, I’m reaching for a higher place.

How do you see Jane as different from other smart, connected women you’ve played?
Great characters stand alone. They don’t bleed. Shooting Jane was a very specific character, and every day I went on set, I was in Jane mode. I was privileged to work with Robin [Wright] and Kevin [Spacey]. Jane just had such a specific relationship that was slightly shifting in front of your eyes. Some of [her actions] surprised her, which were some of my favorite moments because I don’t think Jane is often surprised, and that’s what I was most drawn to: the things that actually catch her off guard.

My favorite scene this season was in the last episode, when your character is talking to Claire Underwood and says, “I’m shocked to the degree to which you and your husband stole this election.” What a great moment.
Oh, yes, she says it just casually over breakfast. She knows where every body is buried — she’s seen it all. She has a line with Frank where she says, “I’ll be here long after you’re gone.” She will be. She’s a survivor, she’s worked with many presidents, many politicians.

Two of your episodes were directed by Robin Wright. What’s she like as a director?
Robin is a great actress, so she knows how to create a very conducive environment for you to work, which is an environment that is relaxed and open, and she has a great sense of humor. She’s an amazing director, terrific for our industry. I’m so thrilled. She will continue to act, but she really understands the TV world: We have a lot of dialogue, we don’t have unlimited time. You have to make sure you’re getting the scene right because [on House of Cards] these are crucial scenes, fierce scenes that have to play in a certain way. She has great rhythm, Robin, and I think that’s reflected in how she directs.

What do you think Jane sees in Claire Underwood?
I think Jane views most people as simple-minded, but I think in Claire she’s found a true companion, patriot, and intellectual equal, which is rare for Jane.

And yet, when Claire asks her to be in her cabinet, Jane declines and says she’s better off in the world.
But she could also change her mind, which could also be a surprise. Jane lives for the fight, for the unexpected, and I don’t know if she could ever live a structured life. She has incredible discipline and she has a powerful life. I just don’t know if she could ever sit behind a desk from 9 to 5 ever.

You mentioned that you’re on set – what are you working on right now?
I’m shooting this mini-series for HBO called Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn, with Amy Adams.

Oh, yes — you’re playing Amy’s mother?
Oh! I can’t say too much about it because we’re in the middle of it right now, but we have been shooting with it for several months and we’ve still got some time left, so I haven’t really processed it. It’s hard to really speak about a character that you’re right in the middle of. I have no objectivity, just really big hair. It’s a very dark journey, this mini-series with Jean-Marc Vallée.

You’ve played a lot of cool moms — in Easy A, the “Motherlover” music video — what’s the secret to building rapport with your onscreen kids?
I’m always the mother of beautiful people! It’s daunting, but I’ve been fortunate to work with these lovely and talented actresses. Amy Adams is beyond comparison and I just adore her and it’s been so far a beautiful journey with her and I’m thankful for it. You can only fake so much, you do have to have some kind of history, you do have to have some kind of love or affection for your child, even if it is a fictional child.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Patricia Clarkson on House of Cards and Robin Wright