Spoilers ahead for the final season of House of Cards.
The weekend that the Kevin Spacey sexual-assault allegations broke last October remains a fog for actor Michael Kelly. As Frank Underwood’s right-hand man and most loyal supporter on House of Cards, Doug Stamper (Kelly) and Frank (Spacey) shared a lot of screen time. Two episodes of the sixth and final season had already been filmed on a Baltimore set, and everyone who worked on Netflix’s signature political drama was in a daze.
“When it all went down, there were a million emotions going through my head,” Kelly said. “I still don’t know how to describe that period. But I remember one of the first things I was thinking was, We can’t go out like this. I just kept thinking we had to finish it for the fans, for the crew, and for all of us.”
Netflix quickly fired Spacey, the two-time Oscar winner who had been nominated for five Emmys for his leading role on House of Cards, and the producers got to work on re-crafting the farewell season. One of the first orders of business was finding a new antagonist for Claire Underwood, who became the president at the end of the previous season. The writers chose Doug Stamper as her new Oval Office nemesis, which Kelly sees as the gift that emerged from the chaos that Spacey’s alleged misconduct created for production. Ahead of the season premiere, Kelly spoke with Vulture about going toe-to-toe with Wright, learning he was Frank’s killer, and the intense and action-packed final moments of the series.
With Frank Underwood gone, the writers decided to make Doug Stamper the season’s main antagonist. That must have been exciting for you, after everything that had happened.
It was both exciting and terrifying to be, like, Okay, there’s gonna be a lot more shit on your shoulders dude. [Laughs.] But they gave me something every year that terrified me as an actor to take on. And you do it. And you get through it. And it makes you stronger. And it makes you better, and you just feel good about it. I was honored with what they threw at me, and I hope I did them and the show justice.
Let’s get to the juicy mystery of the season. When did you learn that Doug would murder Frank Underwood?
Oh God, it wasn’t even decided until late. I think it was the episode before. We were figuring out the big decisions back and forth, and back and forth, and back and forth. But when they came to me with that one, I was just like, Oh my God. It was like when [Beau Willimon] came to me [in the third season] to tell me Doug was gonna kill Rachel. That he had to. I was like, I don’t wanna, but I know it’s right. It’s what the character has to do. And this was that same feeling. It was one of those feelings. It almost gave me butterflies. It was, like, Of course, he would do that. But it’s also the last person you would think to do it.
When they told you that Doug would kill Frank, did they also tell you that Doug would die?
Nope, that was still being discussed. Typically, you visit the writers room at the beginning of the season, and they tell you what it will be like overall. That’s not what it was like this season.
How did you react when you learned Doug would die?
It was another big range of emotions. It’s upsetting to definitively say good-bye to something because even though the show is over, something can happen years later, whether it’s a movie or a spinoff or this or that. But to definitively say good-bye to the character, it felt good in a way. It was real, true closure. When we filmed it, it felt right.
When Doug arrives, he brings Claire a list of everyone who’s in cahoots with the Shepherds to kill her. Was he playing both sides the whole time, aligning both with the Shepherds and Claire, or did he have a plan?
He can’t stand the Shepherds or anything they stand for. They’re terrible people to him. What he’s wanted more than anything — what he always wanted — was to protect Frank’s legacy. All he wants is for Claire to pardon Frank posthumously. He wants that name to be cleared. He presents this [list] to her, and all he wants is for her to say that she’ll do it. And when he realizes he’s not gonna get that, he can’t bring himself to kill her because there’s a part of Frank alive in her, still. And that’s the final thing for him.
It brought things full circle. Last season, Frank tried not only to get Claire to pardon him, but for her to also admit that she was only in the Oval Office because he placed her there. Doug tries to get her to admit the same thing. But she denies them both.
She just says no. And he can’t take it, knowing everything he did.
It was the last scene of the series, and I understand it was also the last scene you filmed. What was that like, especially since Robin Wright also directed that episode.
Working her ass off, like she always does. She’s incredible at it. She’s really so prepared when she comes to work. She’s already gone through it with our director of photography and visualized how it’s going to look. So then, with just the two of us being in the scene, it was just having a lot of trust in one another. It’s a really long scene. We were running on fumes at 14 hours or more. Mentally, you’re just done. You’ve seen it, so you know how emotionally draining that scene must have been to film. But she just had it in her, man. I am beyond impressed with that woman.
When Claire stabs Doug and he’s in her lap, what was it like to film that? As Doug takes his last breaths, she says, “There, no more pain.”
I don’t know how to put it into words. It was so emotional because that was the last scene we shot. For Doug, there is a certain sense of relief. He’s finally at peace. And she says it. Going back to episode one of the show when Frank said that to the dog, “There, no more pain.” For him, that’s it. He’s no longer in pain. He’s no longer battling his demons. He’s no longer having to live this life that he’s lived.
What happened after they yelled ‘Cut!’ for the last time?
We laughed and hugged. And then the [assistant director] came in and said, “I want everybody in.” And the whole crew came into the Oval Office.
And he said, “That’s a wrap on Michael Fucking Kelly” — that’s what they called me. You look up at those smiling and crying faces, and everyone’s clapping, and I got so emotional, and I stood up and I said, “Look, guys, I’m only gonna get a couple words out, but I want to say how much I love each and every one of you, and none of this is possible without you, and I can’t thank you enough.” I started bawling. And then they said, “Now that’s a wrap on Robin,” and she gave a very nice speech. I’m gonna choke up ‘cause she’s awesome. And then we all just stayed. We were all so exhausted, but everyone stayed and partied. The Oval Office lit up like a disco ball. It was great. Nobody wanted to go home. It was like four or five in the morning when we got home.