Michael Kelly earned his first Emmy nomination for his portrayal of Frank Underwood‘s loyal, murderous consigliere Doug Stamper on House of Cards last year. In season three, the character was forced to redeem himself in Frank’s eyes—by killing the woman he loved, which Kelly reveals was a last-minute change he and showrunner Beau Willimon made to the script. The emotional turn helped Kelly nab starring roles in last year’s Everest with Jake Gyllenhaal and the upcoming BBC and FX miniseries Taboo created by and starring Tom Hardy.
Before the March 4 premiere of House of Cards’ fourth season on Netflix, Kelly spoke to TIME about how Frank’s presidential compares to the real-life primaries.
TIME: What does Doug get out of his relationship with Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey)?
Kelly: He’s an addict. I think Frank and that job are one of his addictions, just like Rachel and alcohol. And Doug Stamper is not a dummy—he knew how to ride to the top.
In the original script for the season three finale, Doug actually lets Rachel go. Beau Willimon consulted you before changing Rachel’s fate. Why did you think Doug had to kill Rachel?
I think that Doug was 99% sure that he was never going to see or hear from Rachel again, but I think it’s that 1% as he’s leaving, where he thinks about going back to Frank and saying the words “We’re good” to him, when that wasn’t necessarily the case. There was that 1% chance that she’s going to show up somehow. It’s just too big of a risk.
And it killed him. Doug loved her. So it was the hardest thing he did in his life, killing her. It killed me as an actor. Rachel Brosnahan is one of the most talented actresses I know. To lose my scene partner broke my heart. And it was so late—we were filming episode 10 when Beau came and talked to me about it, and he [kills her] in episode 13. And he said, “You’ve got to kill her.” And we just sat there for a minute, and I said, “Yep, I’ve got to kill her.” Even Rachel totally understood when we told her. And for an actor it’s also losing a job. She was bummed, but she was like, “Yeah. You can’t let her go.”
It seems like every actor on the show needs to be mentally prepared for the possibility of getting killed off.
Yeah, it reminds me of when I did a small arc on the last two seasons of The Sopranos. The actors would get their scripts right before the table read, and they would flip through it really fast to the end to make sure they were still alive. Beau never tells you anything either. If you ever ask about the future, he doesn’t share information freely. You find out from the scripts. He also kind of makes it up as he goes along. He changes the story. Rachel was only going to do a couple of episodes in the first season and ended up becoming a central character because he sees something interesting and decides, let’s explore that.
How do you think the events of last season have changed Doug?
In some scenes this season I had it in my head. I’m not necessarily thinking about it in the scene, but if I bury it underneath it does come through.
I also read that your kids guest-starred as Doug’s niece and nephew last season. What was it like having them on set?
Absolute hell. It was so stressful. My son was two and screamed the whole time. And they cut around him and used what they could use. My daughter, I think she enjoyed it very much. She’s so funny, a typical actor. When she saw it, she goes, “That’s it?” Their scene was only one minute long.
How did them guest-starring come about?
A couple episodes prior to them coming on, my brother and I have this very harsh scene where my brother offers to stay with me while I recover, and I go, “I’m good, man. Go.” And I said to Beau, “That feels harsh even for Doug.” And he goes, “Why don’t you go at the end when he’s leaving, ‘Send me a picture of the kids, would ya?'” And so we added that one line that made it not quite as harsh.
And then in the next table read, it said Doug’s talking to his brother on the phone, and he says, “Hey did you get the picture?” and Doug goes, “Yeah I’m looking at it right now.” And Doug’s looking at the picture of the two kids on the refrigerator, and that’s all it was going to be. So I said to Beau, “Do you think I can put my kids up just so when I’m looking at it it’s close to home and grounded in reality?” And he said yes. Then later he’s like, “I’m just thinking the story through in my head and maybe they come there.”
House of Cards can be pretty outlandish. Any parallels between the show and real-life politics?
It’s funny that you should say it’s outlandish. I spend quite a bit of time in DC. Every single trip of mine that I go there, young D.C. staffers always come up to me and go, “I know a guy just like Doug.” So, unfortunately, yes.
Have you researched any real-life Doug Stampers?
I did follow or at least spend a decent amount of time with a prominent New York chief of staff that I don’t want to name because I don’t want anyone saying he based it on that person. And it’s certainly not.
Could Frank Underwood beat Donald Trump in a presidential race?
I thought Trump would be long gone by now. And I certainly don’t think he’s going to get the nomination. When real questions are asked and a real answer is insisted upon, I think it’s going to be too difficult for him to keep saying, “I’ll make a deal.” That’s not the way it works, and he’s going to get called out on that. You can’t just make deals because you’re a dealmaker. I think people are going to see through this. At least, God, I hope so. Because the thought of that man being president of the United States is the scariest thing.
Scarier than a murderer being president?
But at least you know Frank knows how to run the country—even if he did push someone in front of a train. I think Donald Trump would be absolutely clueless.
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