Robin Wright on being typecast as an actor and life after House of Cards
Hollywood star, Netflix sensation Robin Wright on life with, and after, House Of Cards
"Petrified," isn't an emotion you'd instantly associate with Robin Wright, especially given her steely-cold exterior as Claire Underwood (nee Hale) on the Netflix flagship show, House of Cards (HoC). But that's really how she felt as she called up executive producer, auteur David Fincher, night before a shoot, towards the end of the series.
Why's that? Over the show's six seasons, while Hale had transitioned from being Congressman Frank Underwood's wife, Vice President, First Lady, to the President of the United States; personally, Wright herself, besides earning unprecedented global fame and a Golden Globe for Clare's part, was turning director with HoC's finale episode.
Unknown to most, directing the dark, moody, relatively quiet HoC is a lot like gently tip-toeing around a delicate house of cards itself. For, rules on what you can, and cannot do on the show - no steady-cams, for instance, no hand-held cameras, no tight close-ups, only a specified set of lenses allowed, no use of the (bright) colour red - had been set in stone, by Fincher, when HoC began in 2012, under his direction.
"David is so smart about not conforming to a convention. Would it look like West Wing (a relatively optimistic show; also set in the White House) with lots of movement, pace, activity? He, in fact, created a new portraiture for chaos," Wright says.
Before she stepped into the director's shoes, while still in Claire's high-heels, Fincher told her just one thing: "For every scene, create a (mathematical) fraction (in your head): Behaviour/Time. With everything you look at in the frame, no matter how wide you are; ask yourself: What's the behaviour going on in the room. You can stay in that (pre-determined) wide shot for three solid minutes, if you've got ample 'behaviour' going on. If not, cut out quicker, go somewhere else."
With her last shot for HoC therefore, Wright, 52, didn't just finally move on from Claire, but also moved into filmmaking as a new profession. This is something she appears most keen to talk about, as we meet along with a group of international journalists, on the sidelines of a Netflix slate-event in Singapore.
She starts shooting her maiden feature film as director next winter, the story of which she's uncannily generous enough to share: "It's about a woman who loses her husband and child from a terrorist bombing. Dealing with grief, she goes out into the wilderness, to live in the wilds alone. She feels that she can't re-enter society, or be good for it, being the person she has become. Then she meets an (American) Indian man, who's also suffered tremendous amounts of loss. He teaches her how to live, and love life again."
That's poetic, alright - quite in contrast to psychopathic tendencies of American realpolitik (or politics in general), beneath polite pretentions, that HoC stood for. Rather stood out for: Its uniquely chilling insight into betrayals, lies, deceit that goes on in the White House, or among those desperately wanting to get in. Where, to quote Gore Vidal from the show's fifth season, "Power is an end in itself; and the instinctive urge to prevail, the single most important human trait."
I've used this story before, Wright says, but it's very telling still: "When House of Cards came out, we went to the Democratic National Convention Dinner that year. The actors sat at different tables, with different politicians. Each table was an eclectic group. I was next to a Southern senator. And he went, 'God, I just loved the show. It's so real, so accurate.' So I asked, How accurate? And he said, '99 per cent!' What's the one per cent that's not accurate, I asked. I thought he was going to say, people don't really murder, kill… He said, 'You'll never be able to pass the Education Bill that fast!'"
At this point, of course, one doesn't know whether to laugh, or barf. We laugh. Since it would take at least a year to film the ideas the writers came up with, Wrights recalls, "Sometimes we would shoot a scene, and then that would happen in reality. We would then extract that scene, and reshoot it with another event." The current (Trump) administration though, she exclaims, "Literally stole all our good ideas: Nothing's gonna top that shit!"
The writing process for HoC essentially involved hired advisers in Washington DC to gauge/predict what the repercussion of a particular event/situation on the show could be on Capitol Hill - was it to really happen. This would influence the final scene. Wright adds, "I would then come in, and say, hey, Claire as a character, would only say one of those four lines - she's a man, or woman, of few words. That sort of alteration would help. But that was the easy part." And the hardest part of playing Claire Underwood? "Having to sit up straight, everyday. And I'm not kidding!"
The incessant drama of HoC eventually rubbed off on the show, when in November last year, its lead actor Kevin Spacey (Claire's husband, Frank Underwood) was sacked from the series, following charges of sexual misconduct. Waiting for dust to settle, the show's top management regrouped after Christmas. That they chose to go ahead with HoC, nonetheless, Wright says, were because of two-fold reasons: "One was [to get at] what would be best for the show, its fans, and the five years we put into it. We finished the fifth season with Claire breaking the fourth wall to say, 'This is my turn.' Let's explore that, we thought, as we always intended to.
The other reason was the show's cancellation would've put over a thousand people in the state of Maryland out of employment [that was guaranteed to them for the time]."
Either way, that the final season suffers as a result of Frank being no more, but very much omnipresent in every episode, certainly makes the end of the Underwoods a rather underwhelming experience. It could well be because the graph of the season, at the time of Spacey's exit, must've already been scripted; leaving the writers, producers too little time to start from scratch.
This is still to take away nothing from Wright, as the eerily elegant, President Claire Hale, a life-changing part, she obviously remains grateful for: "To be able to play that fierce character opened doors for me, and why I got Blade Runner 2049, Wonder Woman. I'd been typecast for so many years - being the quiet, pained, understanding wife." I'm thinking her role as Forrest Gump's girlfriend (1994) must have set off that stereotype.
She describes the original intent behind Claire as "being the best of both sexes: a leader in a female body, who is also a man. She simultaneously operates the way a man, and a woman does, within an environment of a very Shakespearean drama." Despite a bit of a hint-hint, wink-wink cliffhanger at the end of HoC, Wright reconfirms Claire - and the series that introduced binge-watching (with all episodes of a season dropping in one go), and redefined television - is definitely not coming back. Having spent over half a decade with Claire, what's she going to miss most? "Her clothes," she says.
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