If you’re reading this you’ve probably already binge watched season four of Netflix’s award-winning drama, House of Cards. While there are a range of elements that make the show great, Kevin Spacey’s brilliant portrayal as the conniving, power hungry Frank Underwood has become synonymous with the show, and with the new season comes a whole bevy of new questions. What antics will Frank get up to? Who will he betray? Who will he choose to take part in his next super awkward threesome?
With all these pressing questions, it’s hard to fully concentrate on one single aspect of the show. There’s plenty of interesting facts about House of Cards’ creation that you may have missed out on while tuning in to witness Frank and Claire’s political machinations. So, whether you’re recovering from your binge, preparing to begin the new season, or even just starting out — we’ve compiled 15 Things You Need to Know About House of Cards.
15. Rachel was originally a one-off character
When actress Rachel Brosnahan (who plays Doug Stamper’s tortured call girl/Achilles heel) was originally cast, she was set to appear in only two episodes and recite a total of five lines. Showrunner Beau Willimon stated:
She had done such a fine job those first two episodes that I started exploring what it would mean to bring her character back and fully three-dimensionalize her. Rachel was so fantastic…I just wanted to write for her more and more.
Rachel plays such an integral part in the series that it’s difficult to imagine the show without her presence. Her relationship with Doug is such a huge point of interest in season three, especially, that it’s almost unfathomable that she was initially just an ancillary character. The writers took a massive chance on an actress with very few credits, and she evolved into one of the most interesting characters on the show.
14. It’s based off a BBC miniseries
As freshly original as House of Cards may seem, it’s actually based on a BBC miniseries from 1990 of the same name. The British original series took place after Margaret Thatcher’s period as Prime Minister and went for four episodes, and was itself an adaptation of a series of novels by Michael Dobbs. So for the American version, the Conservative Frank Urquhart from the British miniseries became Frank Underwood, a Democrat from South Carolina.
The initials are not the only similarity between the two Franks — both share the same drive and obsession for power, both are betrayed by their party leader in their quest to become Secretary of State, and both take their revenge. The two even share dialogue: during one of his signature fourth wall breaks, Underwood says: “Now you might very well think that, but of course, I couldn’t possibly comment,” a phrase lifted straight from the BBC’s version.
13. Family Connections
There is quite the familial connection in the House of Cards White House, as Michael Gill and Jayne Atkinson (President Garrett Walker and Secretary of State Catherine Durant, respectively) have been married for nearly 20 years. Their marriage was actually unbeknownst to Fincher, Spacey and the rest of the cast until after they were already hired. Hired within five days of each other, Gill told the New York Post, “When we got to set none of the cast knew we were married.” Let’s hope none of the on-screen friction crept into their personal lives.
Marriage within the cabinet isn’t the only family connection in the show. Kate Mara actually asked her sister Rooney to put in a good word for her while working with David Fincher on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Rooney must have had quite a relationship with Fincher after also working with him on The Social Network, as Kate was offered an audition within a month. Kate excelled as Zoe Barnes, and the role has helped propel her career to the next level, most recently starring in The Martian.
12. Kate Mara’s a huge NFL fan
A relative of both New York Giants owner John Mara and Pittsburgh Steelers chairman Dan Rooney, football runs through Kate’s blood – she’s even sung at games for both teams. Mara even once joked that, “If I’m mad at my mom I root for the Giants, and if I’m pissed at my dad I root for the Steelers.” So it crushed Kate in 2006 when she was forced to miss the Steelers play in Super Bowl XL due to work commitments.
Since then, Mara has strived to never have a situation like this arise again. She’s achieved this by adding a clause in all future contracts that she gets to leave and attend the Super Bowl if the Giants or Steelers are playing. Kate has chosen two phenomenal teams, as the clause has already been invoked three times — the Giants victory in Super Bowl XLII, the Steelers victory in Super Bowl XLIII, and the Giants win in Super Bowl XLVI. It seems like it pays dividends to be supported by Kate Mara.
11. It’s shot in Maryland and has connections to The Wire
Fans of HBO’s critically acclaimed series, The Wire (which is shot, and set in Baltimore), would have noticed many familiar faces and places in House of Cards, which is no coincidence. Although the show is set in Washington, the vast majority of it is filmed on a 300,000 ft soundstage in Joppa, near Baltimore. The soundstage boasts recreations of the Oval Office and the House of Congress, as well as numerous offices and room interiors for the shows’ use.
The connections don’t stop at location. Doug Stamper often finds himself in covert meetings in a Baltimore diner that was a haven for detectives throughout The Wire’s run. You also can’t call yourself a House of Cards fan without knowing that Frank indulges his craving for ribs with the help of BBQ joint owner Freddy, played by Reginald E. Cathey. Cathey played Norman Wilson in The Wire seasons four and five, who was a campaign advisor for city councilman Tommy Carcetti (Aiden Gillen). Perhaps these connections shouldn’t be too surprising, as showrunner Beau Willimon has stated that The Wire is his favourite series of all time.
10. It’s expensive to make
David Fincher and Kevin Spacey (who’s also an executive producer) began developing House of Cards without a network backing it. After shopping the show around to the likes of HBO and AMC, Netflix eventually won out the bidding war by signing on to a two season commitment right out of the gate. The streaming giant spared no expense, allocating $100 million for the first 26 episodes, though with the shows success, costs have skyrocketed — that’s now the cost for just one season.
The cast has quite the price tag too, especially Kevin Spacey, who boasts a salary of $500,000 per episode. If $100 million sounds like a lot to you, it has proven to be challenging for Fincher. Fincher is a renowned perfectionist director (the opening scene of The Social Network infamously took 99 takes), and during the shooting of season one he actually threatened to walk away from the show if the budget wasn’t expanded. Luckily, the disagreement was eventually sorted out, and the show has gone on to be one of the biggest successes on TV.
9. It’s grounded in real world politics
Kevin Spacey has said that Bill Clinton once told him that “99 percent of what you do on that show is real.” What’s the one percent that the show gets wrong, you ask? “You could never get an education bill passed that fast.” While Bill may be exaggerating a bit as to how real the fictional show is, there certainly are elements of truth.
In season one, Frank argues that power is more important than money, in the sense that it’s less fleeting. That might be true broadly, but there’s no doubt that money rules Washington. Winning an election is largely dependent on how much a politician spends on campaigning. One just has to look at Donald Trump to see how far money can get you in politics. Another thing the show certainly nails is the egotism and thirst for power in Washington; it’s all about who you know, and what favours you can do for other people. Perhaps most importantly, as much as people love to neglect the fact, House of Cards shows that politicians are people too. The Peter Russo character (Corey Stoll) reminds us that politicians are subject to the same frailties and imperfections as the rest of us.
8. The writing team knows their stuff
The writer of the source novel, Michael Dobbs, didn’t have much extra research to do for his book. On top of being a writer, Dobbs was Margaret Thatcher’s chief of staff in 1986 and 1987, and the deputy chairman of the Conservative Party from 1994 to 1995. Keeping the material grounded in reality for the U.S. version became the job of series creator Beau Willimon, who is no stranger to the inner-workings of Washington. His resume boasts stints working under political figures like Charles Schumer, Hillary Clinton and Howard Dean.
To ensure he got the tone and politics just right, or as he so eloquently put it: “to make sure we didn’t totally embarrass ourselves,” Willimon acquired the help of his college friend Jay Carson as a political consultant. Carson is a political advisor and strategist who has worked with Bill and Hillary Clinton, Michael Bloomberg, and alongside Willimon with Howard Dean.
The writers aren’t the only ones who did their homework: Kevin Spacey once spent a few days shadowing Kevin McCarthy, the Republican House Majority Whip from California. While the show has steadily become more dramatic and less grounded, there certainly is a high class political pedigree amongst the staff.
7. The entire cast were first choice picks
In the commentary track for the first season, executive producer David Fincher explains that when he first got the cast in a room together, he took the opportunity to impart some wisdom on the group: “Every single person in this room represents our first choice, so don’t f*** this up. If you do, I will never forgive you.” In other words, it was an easy breezy work environment from Day 1.
Luckily, they had put together a group of (mostly) experienced actors who weren’t too intimidated by the words of the two-time Oscar nominee. It’s remarkable that the show was able to employ their first choice actors in every major role, let alone stars like Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. It’s difficult to imagine characters played by Kate Mara, Corey Stoll and Michael Kelly being portrayed by anyone else at this point. It seems House of Cards was dealt a great hand in the casting department.
6. It’s a big hit in China
House of Cards has found a massive audience in China, where it streams on the Chinese equivalent of Netflix, Sohu TV. The streaming service has reported that House of Cards was ranked first among the American programs that they stream. According to Sohu TV, the majority of the 24.5 million people that tune into the show in China are from Beijing, and are government employees and leaders of the Communist Party.
It is unsurprising that a show portraying America’s’ political machinations would be relatable in a country with a long history of back-stabbing leadership manoeuvres and inner-party struggles. Many in the Chinese public perceive the only goal of governance is to consolidate power and wealth. Though some experts in the U.S. fear that it’s so popular because of the unflattering portrayal of American politics, and how this affirms the Chinese government’s propaganda about American superiority and bullying. Seeing as how much of season two involves China, and not in the most positive light, perhaps their interest may wane.
5. Fincher put together an All-Star team to direct
After setting a high bar by directing the first two episodes himself, Fincher trusted in a small group of critically acclaimed directors to handle the reins: Jodie Foster (Little Man Tate), Carl Franklin (Devil in a Blue Dress), Joel Schumacher (Batman Forever), Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa) and James Foley (Glengarry Glen Ross). When asked about the team he’d put together, Fincher said, “I felt like we were telling 13 stories that are all part of one big story, and I was handing off movements to people whose work I admire.”
In order to achieve a certain continuity in the look of the series, Fincher established a set of rules for how the show was to be shot; for example, minimal movement of the camera. Ironically when Joel Schumacher was chosen to direct the fifth episode, he actually hadn’t watched any previous episodes and broke some of those guidelines. Luckily, the famously tough Fincher loved the changes. Fincher’s fingerprints are still all over each episode, he can even claim responsibility for one of Frank Underwood’s most scathing lines. Frank looks into the camera intensely, “You know what I love about people? They stack so well.” This was something Willimon had overheard Fincher say to one of the producers, and he eagerly wrote it into the show. Let’s hope Fincher is a bit less cutthroat than Frank Underwood.
4. It was the first online-only series to win an Emmy Award
All the resources poured into the show and its great cast payed dividends in 2013, when the House of Cards became the first online series to win an emmy — three of them, in fact: Outstanding Director (Fincher), Outstanding Cinematography (Eigil Bryld), and Outstanding Casting (casting directors Laray Mayfield and Julie Schubert). In a similar vein, Robin Wright won Best Actress at the Golden Globes in 2014, becoming the first actress to win for an online-only show.
The total of nine nominations in 2013 helped skyrocket the show into the national focus, officially announcing House of Cards and Netflix as a force in the new economy of television. The awards worked as an important validation of the internet streaming model and backed Netflix’s push into original programming. House of Cards has proven to be a trailblazer for online streaming which has led to more successful original series like Amazon’s Transparent cleaning up amongst critics and at awards shows.
3. It irrevocably changed the business of television
House of Cards was only Netflix’s second foray into original programming after Lilyhammer. It was not only tremendously successful, the show changed how television was traditionally delivered — both online and all at once. Netflix knows that customers hate to wait between episodes of their favourite shows, so in releasing all episodes of the season at once they differentiated themselves from other broadcasters.
With the success of releasing a season all at once, Netflix has continued this tradition with their other shows like Orange is the New Black, Daredevil and Jessica Jones. In doing so, the streaming giant has popularised the idea of ‘binge-watching’ shows, making watching a show more like a long movie than a drawn out season of traditional television. According to Netflix: “There is no reason to release it weekly.” Their abundant success with this model has led to Amazon following suit with series like Transparent and The Man in the High Castle, though other services still mostly stick to traditional releases over time. As Netflix continues its worldwide dominance, and as TV broadcasters rush to keep up with the online audiences, expect to see more companies adopt this approach.
2. Fiction mirrors reality
While the show is fictional, being grounded in reality has no doubt aided its success. In fact, moments in the show have been taken right out of real life. In season one when President Walker signs the education bill, the rooms mise en scene is set up to reflect how the room looked when John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act. Both scenes also feature a neglected Vice President, forced to stand in the back of the room.
Also in season one, when Frank first sees his future mistress Zoe Barnes, he is photographed admiring her behind. This created quite the press frenzy, similar to the real life photograph of President Barack Obama and then French President Nicolas Sarkozy inspecting the backside of a young French delegate. While Obama was exonerated after evidence proved that he was simply turning to engage someone in conversation, poor Frank Underwood had no such excuse. He was definitely enjoying the view of the young political reporter.
1. Real presidents serve as inspiration
With so many great real life political personalities for the writers to draw upon for inspiration, it’s unsurprising that both presidents Walker and Underwood are based on former American presidents. President Walker reigns for the first two seasons, and he and John F. Kennedy share some intriguing similarities. A president running on platforms based on energy and youth, facing domestic and spousal issues, and dealing with cabinets ransacked by internal scandals that threaten to take them down with the ship. These all apply to both fictional and real presidents, though perhaps the most notable and important comparison is that both were attempting to sign landmark bills during their terms. JFK, with the Equal Pay Act, and Walker trying to pass a massive education bill – a significant plot point during season one.
Everybody’s favourite power hungry president, Frank Underwood, has a lot in common with President Lyndon B. Johnson. Both Southern politicians are known for their intimidation, thirst for power, ability to move legislation through the tough to traverse Congress, obvious dislike for the President they usurped (JFK and Walker respectively) and each proceeded to ascend to take the position for themselves. These similarities are no coincidence. In Chapter 13, sitting atop Underwood’s desk is Robert Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power. Hopefully LBJ didn’t quite meet Frank’s level of corruption.
Is there anything else fans should know about House of Cards? Let us know in the comments!
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