It’s so confusing when people play themselves on TV! If you’ve binge-watched through the fourth episode of House of Cards’ second season, you’ll know that [spoiler!] Claire Underwood grants a sitdown interview to news anchor Ashleigh Banfield in which Banfield asks Underwood if she’s ever had an abortion, and Underwood reveals that she has, and that she did so because she was raped years ago — by a college classmate who’s now a high-ranking general. CNN’s Ashleigh Banfield played herself in that explosive scene. Apparently a little too well.
“It’s clearly drama, right? It’s clearly scripted, and she’s clearly not a real person, that Claire Underwood lady,” said Banfield when I ran into her at this week’s launch party for the New York Observer’s redesign. “But these viewers are emailing me like, ‘How do you sleep at night? That is such an inappropriate question to ask a woman of her caliber!’ I’m like, ‘You know she’s not real, right?’ I truly had to retweet and tweet back viewers, ‘That was acting! And that lady wasn’t a real lady!’” Really? That seems a little absurd. How many tweets did Banfield have to send? “A lot! Like a couple dozen!” And since people are watching the Netflix series on their own time, she said, shaking her head, “It’s gonna keep happening.”
If she were really interviewing the wife of the vice-president (the Second Lady?), Banfield says abortion would only be fair game as a question if Underwood had been using abortion in a platform. Still, the amount of viewer outrage means that Banfield’s acting must have been pretty good. “I was so astounded that people thought it was real,” she said. “At first, I was a bit annoyed and then I took it as a badge of F-ing honor. I’m that good, baby!”
And it was acting that Banfield was doing, or at least some amorphous, difficult thing between playing a character and being oneself. “It’s way harder than I thought, so I have a huge new respect for actors,” she said. “You know, I always thought it was sort of a fun job, and it’s really hard. It is extraordinarily hard.” She got to chime in a few times to add her thoughts on how a real interview would progress, like she does as a consultant for Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, but for the most part she had to stick to her lines. “The hardest thing is that I never do anything the same way twice, and when I’m on the air, I’m very unscripted and I’m very comfortable in that role. So me being scripted is not a comfortable place for me.” Then try doing the same thing over and over again for 12 hours. Since Banfield had only one day in her schedule to spare, the show shot 18 pages in single day, which — Banfield hears from her cousin, Breaking Bad co-executive producer Melissa MacLaren — is unheard of. “They usually do five pages, or six or seven on a big day,” said Banfield. “They only had me for one day, so we did 12 hours straight with eight cameras. No retakes, no reverses. Twelve hours of shooting and almost no breaks.”
Kevin Spacey himself offered Banfield the role, she said. “He called my newsroom and said, ‘Can I speak to Ashleigh?’ And then they laughed and said, ‘Some guy named Kevin who says he’s Kevin Spacey is calling.’ I was like, ‘Well, I did just interview him last week at the Boston Marathon bombing. Maybe it is him. Put the call through.’ I’m like, ‘Hello?’ ‘Ashleigh, it’s Kevin.’ We’re not on a first-name basis! Kevin who? But it was great. He was like, ‘How would you like to be on my show?’ I said, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ve seen that show.’”
She hadn’t actually seen the show. And her plans to watch it before the shoot were spoiled by a broken iPad. So she walked onto set not knowing the plot or who any of the actors were. “ I was like, ‘Yeah, you guys are great! The show is so great. And you are particularly great at your … job.’ I didn’t know anyone there! No idea. Honestly, I’m a hockey coach and a single mother of two who commutes. I don’t watch TV. I watch news, and that’s it!” She only recognized her scene partner, Robin Wright, from The Princess Bride.
Banfield has since, however, made up for the lapse and, like the rest of America, binge-watched the entire series. “I was like, ‘Hey, this is a pretty good show!’” As for her own performance, though, she has less than glowing reviews. “I hated it. Awful. Oh my God!”