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Corey Stoll on House of Cards and How to Play Drunk

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You might not recognize Corey Stoll without the wig, or the mustache, or the ridiculous quotes about how drinking whiskey in thirties Paris is the brave and honest and true thing to do. Yes, that was Stoll playing Hemingway in Midnight in Paris, and now he’s back with another scene-stealing (and not quite sober) role: Peter Russo, the alcoholic congressman on Netflix’s House of Cards. Stoll spoke with Vulture about the new series, working with David Fincher, and how exactly one plays a convincing screen drunk. Fair warning: If you have not finished all thirteen episodes of the series, then you should close this tab now. Major spoilers await.

If my Twitter feed is any indication, this is going to be big for you. What kind of feedback have you been getting?
I get a lot from friends of mine who have started it and watched the whole thirteen episodes over a 24-hour period. I think they’re all suffering a collective hangover. [Laughs.] I’ve gotten a lot of mock-angry e-mails blaming me for eating into their time. People seem to love it, and they seem to really be surprised by how attached they get to my character.

How did you create the character [who is from from Philadelphia]? Was he based on anyone real?
He was not based on anybody, definitely not.

Do you say that for legal reasons?
No, not at all. Looking at a lot of talking heads and congressman and reading about current and past politicians, there are little bits and pieces. But there’s nobody quite like him, and I feel it’s all on the page. What’s very funny to me is that everybody says, “Oh, the first three episodes, he’s just completely despicable and not likable and then some days he becomes so likable.” I guess there’s something wrong with me because I really liked him from the beginning.

Oh, I thought he was always super charming, despite his issues. But that’s the interesting part of the character. Is he supposed to be the good guy, do you think?
No, I don’t think so. I don’t know if that term really even applies to the show. There are good people, but none of them are really powerful or smart enough to really get that high. And I think — if they go ahead, in subsequent series, and create a hero — I think that’d be a great tragedy, because that’s really not what this is about.

Do you think he’s a good person?
I do. I don’t even know what that really means — compared to Underwood, everybody is a good person. I think he’s not a sociopath. I think he has the ability to empathize, but I do think he’s just … he never grew up. He’s self-centered. I think he got into politics for some of the right reasons and a lot of the wrong reasons.

Why does he agree to run for governor? He’s obviously kind of a screw-up, but he is managing his life in a way.
I think he thinks the governor job matches his abilities better than representative politics. He came up as a nuts-and-bolts guy, and he was sort of the Alfonse D’Amato of Philadelphia — he would get the potholes fixed and knew how to make things happen. Once he showed up in D.C., he could get along, but he had no idea about the kind of sharks he was swimming with. I think he thinks that [being governor] is something of more consequence, and he’s somebody who’s so local, so attached to his hometown, he thinks that being a governor would maybe, somehow save them. But also, on the downside, it’s more attractive to his ego.

Is part of it an attempt at rehabilitation, to try to make good? Or is it more about the ego for him?
I think those two things sort of intertwine. I don’t know how seriously he takes the whole rehabilitation thing to begin with. His succeeding at the rehabilitation is another accomplishment; it’s another thing to achieve and get approval for.

I wanted to believe that the trap they set for him actually wouldn’t work, because he was so invested in his recovery. But maybe I’m just looking for anything positive in the show, and the trap sort of makes sense.
It does, and you know, everything I say should be taken with a certain grain of salt. The way I play the character … he really is somebody who lives very much in the moment. He believes everything he says, he believes when he lies, and he really holds on to that. So when he convinces himself that he’s ready to run for governor, he really does convince himself, he really does believe it with his whole soul. He lives in a world where he can say to Christina, with all of his heart, that he loves her and then go flirt with another girl or sleep with another girl.

Is he more a victim of himself or is he a victim of Underwood?
Underwood sort of uses aikido on everybody. Underwood targets people who victimize themselves, that’s sort of how he operates on everyone. So, you know, we felt complicit.

Until the very end.
Well, even then, it’s a miracle I didn’t drive into a telephone pole. I’m like, I shouldn’t be alive, I am driving around completely piss drunk and high and … I mean, I happened to have sobered up enough to turn myself in, but that’s almost by chance. Yes, it is murder, without a doubt. But it’s not like he wasn’t suicidal.

I think I’m just super mad because I was rooting for that character
I am glad I knew the character was going to die before I took the job.

Did they give you the whole script ahead of time?
They didn’t have it written, but they knew the basic arc. I read it on tape with the casting director and then when I met with Fincher, he told me. My heart sank at the meeting, but it was also incredibly exciting. For me, in my experience, it’s not really a TV show, but it’s a very big long movie with a very distinct beginning, middle, and end. That’s sort of satisfying in a way that an open-ended character isn’t.

Speaking of Fincher, did he make you do the endless takes?
You know, it wasn’t that many takes, especially because he was working a lot faster by necessity. You lose track because he can get a lot more takes in during a day than a normal director can because he keeps the cameras rolling. So you’ll do a series of takes, and maybe you’ve done ten takes but it’s only one cut, and so you’re sort of living in it. I think I read an interview where he said he’d done an average of fourteen takes, which is a lot.

You had a lot of scenes that were pretty tough to watch. Which was the most difficult to film?
The scene where I am calling my children in my car, is the one … you know, it was hard to even read it, it was so bad. I mean, to be that alone in the world — to be rejected by your own children is brutal. But, you know, it sort of churns itself. I think the most difficult scene for me was actually in episode five, when I confront Underwood. It’s just such an arc within the scene — being vengeful and murderous and then sad at the end of the scene, it’s very hard to do that.

You do have a bit of a screen history of playing drunks at this point. Obviously the Hemingway was for comedic effect, but this was pretty real and hard to watch. How do you practice that?
Well, there are certain just sort of sense-memory things that you can do, and I don’t mean, like, remember what it’s like to be drunk, but things about balance and focus, making things harder for yourself. But then it’s about the resistance; it’s about trying to be as sober as you can be while the earth is shifting beneath you. And sometimes I’ll just spin around in a circle before a take. I don’t know if that’s a cheap trick. [Laughs.]

Seems like it works, though.
It doesn’t work for stage. Spinning around in a circle would only last for the length of the take, so you can’t just run offstage and spin around again.

So you’ll have to figure something else out for theater.
Well, I’ll have to actually act.

* This post was updated to correct a transcription error.

Corey Stoll on House of Cards, How to Play Drunk