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Elizabeth Marvel on Playing Frank’s No. 1 Enemy on House of Cards, and Bringing Misery to Broadway

Elizabeth Marvel. Photo: Walter McBride/Corbis

The following interview contains spoilers for House of Cards season three.

Heather Dunbar stepped into the spotlight in a big way on House of Cards season three. From solicitor general, whose investigation into White House money laundering forced President Walker to resign last season, to becoming a candidate for president this season — she’s now Frank Underwood’s No. 1 enemy (outside of his own marriage, at least). Vulture spoke with Elizabeth Marvel about Dunbar’s moral dilemma, playing Annie Wilkes in a Broadway adaptation of Misery, and being Allison Janney’s doppelgänger.

Were you surprised to see Heather Dunbar run for president this season? It’s kind of a huge leap to go from solicitor general to the Oval Office.
It was! It was a quite a surprise. I was very excited, of course, because it’s a lot of fun to play that stuff and have all of those scenes. But it is extremely rare that people have approached presidential politics from the legal field. There aren’t too many people that have done that.

One of Dunbar’s best scenes happens during the debate in Iowa. She’s double-teamed by Frank and Jackie, which she knew she would be, and then is attacked by Jackie for being sexist and allegedly a bad mother. What did you make of that whole encounter?
It was absolutely thrilling to play something like that. The way we shot it — it was about 12 or 13 pages of dialogue, which is a lot, and she [director Agnieszka Holland] had about eight cameras working. The space was exactly like the CNN debate space; they basically built one in a huge airplane hanger. She would have us do the entire debate from start to finish in one take. And we would do that all day.

I think what they were reflecting — the woman attacking the other woman, hitting below the belt and attacking on issues of motherhood — shows the sorry state of a lot of women in politics. And the fact that the argument can be based on issues of motherhood instead of [issues like] job reform. I appreciate that they highlighted it on the show because I think there’s truth to that. It’s a very interesting time with so many women in the field. It’s very exciting, but it’s also very interesting to see where this conversation goes. Because I don’t know if America is ready for a woman [president] yet. I think Americans still want their daddy. And I think that’s just the state of affairs right now. It’s an interesting time to be representing on a TV show a woman in the political arena, but also an interesting time to watch the real women in the political arena.

It’s striking to watch two female candidates go up against a male incumbent in that debate. I’m not sure if it’s ever happened before, but it’s certainly rare. Was it something that stood out for you?
Something that is striking to me is when I go to work there [on
House of Cards], I look around and I see about five other women. I’m 45, and there’s a large group of women my age — a little older or younger, but we’re all roughly in the same territory — who are getting to be strong, smart, and complex. And that’s very exciting because, on TV, once you’re over 30, you’re basically the sitcom mom. That’s what’cha got. And now there’s a whole universe of strong, complicated, smart women — which is very exciting.

As far as the actual debate of two women against a man, yes, it is interesting. It’s funny that you say that, because I didn’t really think about it that much while we were doing it. I didn’t think about it while we were playing it until the sexism argument came to the fore and then, of course, it became very acute. But it wasn’t something that was in the forefront of my thoughts. What was in the forefront of my thoughts was, I need to take this man down. [Laughs.]

Dunbar’s heart seems like it’s in the right place, but then, toward the end of the season, we see her crack under pressure and resort to Frank’s devious ways by using the truth of Claire’s abortion as leverage. Did it seem like she was acting out of character, or just simply playing the game?
It’s interesting because a lot of the research I did for this character — I read
a lot about Bobby Kennedy and that’s where my head was at with her. [She also] followed the path of law and humanitarian politics to the political arena, which is uncommon. When you try to think of a Bobby Kennedy in the current political arena, it’s kind of a fascinating thing to contemplate: where would he be at? The thing that I think is so crazy now in American politics is what we expect these people to do. Because it’s such a dog and pony show that we put them through. They’re on camera, in the public eye 24/7 for months at a time on this campaign trail, pulling ridiculous hours, having to be on 24/7 and be smart and be charming and look great. It’s ridiculous … And [it’s] even twofold for women, the expectation is even higher. It’s really crazy.

So I think anybody who enters into that arena has to have a certain appetite, because it’s just an insane position for a sane person to put themselves in.  And I think to think otherwise is naive — even if their main goal is altruistic, even if they do have a great humanitarian drive and really have a righteous cause. I still think underneath that there has to be an appetite for power. And this is a woman who’s not had any of these experiences before, so she’s new to all of this. She’s lived in a world of the mind and then she enters into a whole other way of existence, where she has people following her and getting behind her cause that’s about her, not just the law, but her personally. I think that must skew or change a person. I think what you’re watching with Heather Dunbar is someone who’s evolving. And what she evolves or devolves into, I don’t know, because we’re sort of mid-sentence with her. We’re actually at the beginning of the sentence with her at the end of season three. I don’t know what these forces will do — if they’ll pulverize her or feed her, I don’t know.

If Doug hadn’t burned the journal and sided with Frank, do you think Heather would’ve gone through with exposing Claire?
I think that where she begins is that’s not even a possibility, but where she gets to is seriously taking action on that possibility. I don’t think she wants to imagine someone holding the presidential office capable of murder, but I think, in her heart of hearts, when Frank says that he’d “fucking kill me,” I [Heather] believe him. I think she finds herself sort of in the big leagues without realizing what that means until she’s brought into it. So would she use it? I think very possibly she would. I don’t think she would’ve ever thought that possible before she’s where she ends up arriving.

There’s a scene with Justice Jacobs where Dunbar says she didn’t realize how much she wanted the presidency until she started her campaign. Why does she actually want to be president? It seems a little unclear.
I totally agree. And like I was saying before, I think we’re just at the beginning of the sentence with her. I don’t think we really know what’s driving her; they haven’t shown the audience that yet. But I think what initially drives her is very righteous anger and a very righteous cause … But I think when she starts getting in, I think what must happen to a person when they move out of the theoretical and the pattern of the argument with the Supreme Court and move into the human arena of getting up in front of hundreds and thousands of people, and having them cheer your name, that thrill and that exaltation of having so many people behind
you — specifically you and not your theories — must be very heavy stuff. And that is the transformation that we see beginning to happen to her. I think where we leave her is that the ends justify the means, and she’s beginning to say, “whatever it takes, I will lead the country righteously — even if I have to do some things along the way that I’m realizing one has to do to stay in the room.”

The last we see of Dunbar in season three is her losing the Iowa caucus to Frank. Her campaign is dealt a few other blows with the loss of Doug and that journal and even Jackie, it seems, being unable to get Remy on board. Do you think she drops out of the campaign?
I have absolutely
no idea what they’re doing. But in my mind, do I think she’s going to carry on? Absolutely. I think many people who’ve gone on to be very successful also lost the Iowa caucus, so that’s not that big of a setback. I think with Doug, they didn’t get in deep enough to have that take the legs out from under her. At the end of season three, I think she’s stronger and wiser and even more dangerous and threatening. She’s a fast learner and she hasn’t been taken down and, although we don’t see it fully fleshed out, she’s someone who clearly approached their crossroads and said, “Do I keep my hands clean, or do I get dirty and keep my place at the table?” And she made her decision. And she’s still standing, she’s still in the game.

Could you see a Heather and Claire presidential ticket?
Uhhh, I don’t know. That’s kind of a fabulous idea. Sure, why not! It would certainly be fun to shoot that with Robin [Wright].

You mentioned before how female politicians are overly scrutinized for their appearance. There was a lot of fuss made about Claire’s hair color change mid-season, but Heather had a hair change, too. As solicitor general, she wore it pinned back in a bun. But as soon as she announced her campaign for president, she started wearing it down. Was that also a campaign tactic thought up by the show’s the hair and makeup team?
Aaaabsolutely. There were many meetings and conversations about the image transformation — just like there would be for any candidate. It all sends a message and it all has great meaning and ramifications because everything is under a microscope now. So, yes. The wonderful man who does my hair, Michael Ward, I think lost some sleep over trying to figure out the hair story [laughs] because it’s a big deal. And also, she’s a very specific person. She’s not Hillary Clinton and she doesn’t have her hair in some sort of Republican set. She’s a woman who comes from a lot of money who has style, who can afford the stylists, and is trying to be, I think, more modern. But, yes, there was much time spent time on hair.

I’m not sure if you pay much attention to Twitter, but I keep seeing comparisons between you and Allison Janney. Do you get that a lot?
I totally have, many times.

Are you sick of it at this point?
Oh, no, I mean it’s flattering. She’s fabulous, I think Allison’s amazing. So I take it as a great compliment.

Switching gears, you’re set to star in a Broadway adaptation of Misery with Bruce Willis. Tell me about that.
Yeah! It’s a pretty straightforward adaptation of Stephen King’s novel and we’ve done two readings of it. I’ve done one with Bruce, who seems fantastic. And that role, it’s just actor candy. I’m very excited to play Annie Wilkes, ‘cause she’s fantastic.

Have you spoken to Kathy Bates yet about playing this iconic role?
No, I’ve never met her, but I’m such a
massive fan of her. I think she’s one of the great actresses of all time, and have for my whole life. I think she is just extraordinary because she just stands there and tells the truth. She’s just awesome. So, yes, I will steal from her, everything I can. [Laughs.] But we’re very different so I couldn’t do what she did even if I tried.

You’ll have to bring a little bit of Frank Underwood into that role.
Laughs.] That’s interesting, I hadn’t thought about that. I have to say, Kevin [Spacey] is just heaven to work with. He is so generous to play opposite of. He gives everything, whether the camera’s on him or on me. He’s fabulous, and I think he raises everybody’s game.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Elizabeth Marvel on HOC’s Dunbar and Misery