House of Cards' President Walker might be hard to reconcile with our idea of what a commander in chief should be. He can be blunderingly ineffectual, indecisive, and easily manipulated. But when pitted against a political steamroller like Frank Underwood — played with a combination of cold calculation and dangerous charm by Kevin Spacey — who wouldn't be?
That's the argument Michel Gill, who plays Walker, made when he stopped by our LA office to talk about the second season of the Netflix series. The actor, who shares Walker's warmth and charisma, reflected on the inherent "loneliness" of the presidency, the plot twist that shocked him most, and what it's like to work alongside his wife. (Fans may be surprised to learn she plays Secretary of State Catherine Durant on the series.) Read on for Gill's insights into season two's game-changing moments, to discover his predictions for Underwood's and Walker's political and personal fortunes in season three, and to watch a clip from our on-camera interview. But be warned: if you're among the increasingly small number of House of Cards viewers who aren't completely caught up, spoilers are ahead!
POPSUGAR: Let's talk about this second season. With this show, there's a kind of peer pressure: wanting to be caught up so you can talk about House of Cards with your friends.
MG: The community side and the social side of the show, I think, are causing all this binging, as well as just people wanting to naturally binge a show to see chronologically and sequentially what's going on. I think we should put out a House of Cards flag pin with a number on it to indicate what number show you're on. So somebody would know whether they'd be spoiling for you or not.
PS: I like that idea. Speaking of the amazing reach that the show has had, how does it feel to know that President Obama watches you on television? Is that kind of surreal?
MG: It's a bit surreal, and I don't quite get it, because he hasn't called me. And he hasn't said anything in particular about how realistically I am playing [President Walker].
PS: So no lunch date set up yet?
MG: No lunch dates, no notes or memos or anything. But it's a great thing. I mean, how exciting is that that he's watching the show?
PS: In this season especially, you see a very human side to President Walker. He's manipulated, he can be a little bit naive, he's indecisive. Do you think that's an accurate portrayal of what it's like to be the president?
MG: Yes. I mean, the portrayal is that that's how you're perceived. And it's a very different experience when you are in it. That's almost like the difference between me, Michel Gill playing the part, and me, Garrett Walker being the part. So from my perspective as Michel, sure. I see the manipulation, I see the inexperience. As the president, I am so involved, and although you're seeing just one particular storyline, there's the whole White House Administration deal going on. And so I don't see myself, Garrett Walker, as being naive or manipulated. I just see myself as, in the end, really, really getting screwed.
PS: Well, Frank Underwood could screw anybody.
MG: Yes. And he would. He would. I mean, no matter who you are, it doesn't matter; you are not safe. There is nobody who could beat him.
PS: You do see how sad and lonely of an existence the president has? Because he doesn't know who he can trust, and there's no one he can really ask for advice, because he's the last stop.
MG: Right, and that's the loneliness of the presidency. The reality is that, when you make that decision, you're very lonely, whether there are 20 people in the room or whether you're alone at the desk looking out into the garden. That's a given that we should all understand. But then you put Iago in the office who will fool anybody — nobody is safe. Nobody can handle that. This man is a man of honor: he's a great politician, he's got a heart, he's got a human side, he's very devoted to his family. And so that's his weakness: his choice that his family is the most important thing. And he cannot and will not compromise that no matter what, especially when the country will not benefit from his presence. So weighing those two things, he has to make that move to resign, because those are the two most important things: that the country move forward, that it doesn't stagnate, that it doesn't move backward, and that his family does not suffer.
PS: So you see that move as him taking agency even though he's been railroaded?
MG: Yeah, absolutely. You know, I love that our president has dinner with his family every night. I have a wife, a son; I know how important it is when you go away, when you're working, that that does not operate alone, on itself, by magic. You have to work really hard at it, and I think that's one of the most difficult things for the president: to maintain a connection to the smallest part of the world, which in fact is the biggest part of the world, which is your family. So there's this balance and multitasking that these guys have to do. I can act it, but I don't know how the heck, at the end of the day, these guys do it.
PS: You mentioned family; people may not know that your wife, Jayne Atkinson, plays a character on House of Cards.
MG: Yep, Secretary of State Catherine Durant. We've done a lot of theater together over the years — we met in the theater — and we've never been on camera together. And then when we found ourselves in the cabinet, or in the Oval Office, or as we are getting last touches, we'd be looking at each other going, "Really, really? Is this really happening?" And I'd lean over, and I'd give her a kiss and say, "Have fun!"
PS: And then you'd go into the scene, and there is absolutely no sign that you two are a married couple.
MG: Except for one little bit of trivia, which is that the first day that I ever shot in the Oval Office, I walked in and I saw a picture of me with my wife, Jayne. They had asked me to send pictures to put behind the resolute desk, and I figured that they would cut [her] out and put my first-lady wife. And I looked at that and went, "Hmm . . . Should I say something?" So I wrote an email to props, and I said, "By the way — I love that picture — but you should just know that not only is that my real wife, but she also happens to be the secretary of state."
PS: I'm interested to know what your dynamic with Kevin is like on the set, because your characters have this very interesting back-and-forth. Sometimes they're allies; sometimes they are at each other's throats. What's your relationship like, and how do you work together to achieve that?
MG: I have loved every moment of working with Sir — as he should be at this point — Spacey. I have such respect for him. And it grew over the two seasons. First, I've always respected him as an actor. I love his work; I love his focus. I knew the bar was that high, and I couldn't wait to meet him there. And then you discover who Kevin is. I mean, he's an artistic director, he's a director, he's an actor, he's an award-winning actor through all mediums, and he runs his foundation, which is devoted to young talent. I don't know anybody who is working that hard and that across the board. And on top of it, he's just got a wicked sense of humor, so he and I would have a great time. And just before we shoot, inevitably, just before I hear, "Action!", he has this look. And he'll try something to crack me up, or I'll try something, and that really helps the moment as well, because we can't take it too seriously. I also brings that connection, and he's always concerned about that. He wants that to be there; otherwise there are two actors in the room sort of playing without one another.
PS: I know that you said you did work to base your character on some past presidents. Is there one who stood out to you more than others who really served as an inspiration?
MG: I have to say, because I've been mostly fascinated with John F. Kennedy, I think he's the one that is seared in my mind. Whether I did research on him or not, it's just there, my emotional connection to him, my psychological, intellectual connection; it has always been Kennedy. Bobby Kennedy. The Kennedy Family. But every president since then has been somebody I have observed very closely. And at this point, I really wouldn't be able to tell you which one is more in me . . . in my process. I don't have the kind of five-week rehearsal period in a play to strategically make these choices in a particular scene, in a particular moment. So it's very spontaneous. I have to just trust that I had a bunch of stuff in my bank to play with at the moment.
PS: Playing Walker is so intuitive and in the moment, and I feel like that's the way that a president has to operate too.
MG: That's the secret. The fact is they are the most powerful men, and they're very self-conscious. They really are, when you observe them from an actor's point of view: at a press conference or walking, they know the cameras are on. And then you catch them when they don't know. Those moments were almost impossible to find, so when I did find them, those were the ones I just couldn't get enough of. When you do see these candid shots of their feet on the desks, these are the moments that are captured in the humanity and in the relaxation. And that there's no facade, there's no nothing. They're not doing it for anybody.
PS: As you mentioned, presidents and politicians have to put on a performance themselves, so I think there's some similarities between that and acting. Did you ever have any political aspirations of your own?
PS: And after doing this show, I'd imagine you definitely don't.
MG: I mean, who would want to these days? I'm amazed that actually people are interested or thinking that they could get things achieved by going that route. I mean, it's a stagnant system, and why would anybody want to go into something where they couldn't make a difference? That's what the choice is right now: "Oh, should I run for senator so that I can't make a difference?"
PS: I do feel like it's a little bit scary to hear the political insiders that watch the show say how true to life it feels.
MG: First, that they get the metaphor. They know nobody's going around strangling dogs. They get it, and they are loving it. And Kevin is a rock star in DC. Because it's not as scary as what's going on, that's why they're very pleased with the show.
PS: Right, and it does make politics look kind of cool and badass in some ways.
MG: Well I've gotten emails from people, family or friends, going, "Can you please introduce me to Claire and Frank? I want to work for them," and I'm like, "What?"
PS: They're kind of like the new TV power couple, I think.
MG: Yeah, so there are great sides to them. Obama was saying, "Let's get things done. I wish we could get things done that way, as ruthlessly efficient." And so there's a good part of it, if only they just weren't f*cking crazy.
PS: I know they're writing season three now; do you see any political future for President Walker now that he has resigned, or is he just going to go off the radar?
MG: I don't know. If you're asking me as Michael versus President Walker, I think Walker's going to grow a beard and maybe gain a little weight and win a Nobel Peace or environmental prize or something for a little bit. I think he's really going to turn toward what good can he do. He will not let go of what's just happened, and the question is how that will unfold, but he's gotta move forward and see what he can do. He will do what he can to clean his name. Whether that's on the show or not, I don't know. I know that I will be back in some capacity. I just don't know how.
PS: So you don't think he's going to completely shrink away from public life and pull a George Bush and just go paint a bunch of pictures of cats or something?
MG: No, dogs. Pottery! But I really don't know the answer to that. It depends on how they're thinking, if they're going to stay and continue the sequential timeline of this or not.
PS: When you were reading the scripts for the second season, what was the one moment that shocked you the most? The thing that you really didn't see coming?
MG: Well, I didn't see the barbecue shop closing down. That was really sad, because I had some ribs at the Underwoods', and they were really good. And I remember getting very emotional about that. But I have to say, when there was a little threesome. I thought, "Well, this isn't surprising me, but this is surprising me." I sort of went, "Ooooh yeah!" There's boldness involved in the show. I think Beau [Willimon, creator], David Fincher, and Kevin Spacey have this scientific equation of dramatic shock that they're plugged into. And they take no prisoners. And this again is a metaphor for DC. Every time you see a shock like that, whether it's the strangling of the dog, or Zoe, or Russo, or this. It is a broader picture of the hypocrisy or the "ready to get in bed with everybody, and we will do whatever it takes at any time for the greater bad or good." So I love that.
PS: What kind of president do you think Frank is going to be next season?
MG: I just think he's his worst enemy. At the end of the day, what happens with these guys is that they are their own undoing. They're going to go and achieve great things, and try to achieve great things, and really screw up. Because they can't ever get enough. There is no stop mechanism. The narcissism of it all, it's a black hole. I've also likened it to a romantic comedy. We know how those end. We don't go, because we want to see if Jennifer Aniston and Ben Stiller get together. We know they're going to. We just want to watch the fun journey along the way. We're not here because we want to see Frank and Claire get to the top and stay there. We want to see the journey that's going to take them down, because that's the kind of society we are and always have been. I think Frank's going to do fine as a president, because he gets things done and he scares the patootie out of people. And people know nobody's safe around him. And then it's going to take its toll.
PS: Do you ever see him and Claire going their separate ways?
MG: I can't imagine that. They've been together too long. They know the game. They've got that total understanding that only they have. They can have their lives together, separate. They know what their job is, they know what they have to do, and they can do it together.
This interview has been condensed and edited.