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The final season of House of Cards almost didn’t happen after Netflix fired series star and executive producer Kevin Spacey after a bevy of sexual misconduct allegations. However, Robin Wright stepped in and convinced Netflix to give the show a final bow. The final season of the political thriller centered on Claire Underwood’s (Wright) term as president and a tango between her and the Underwood’s right-hand man Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) over Frank’s (Spacey) legacy.
The final episodes lead to Emmy nominations for both Wright and Kelly in the Lead Actress in a Drama and Supporting Actor in a Drama categories respectively. For Kelly, the final season was about the slow breakdown of a man he played for the better part of a decade. Stamper was a man with lost purpose as the season started with Frank’s death. After years of serving Frank Underwood faithfully, and Kelly scene sparring with Spacey, the final season was a new frontier for the character and the actor playing him.
The series ended with a final stand-off between Claire and Stamper over whether Frank’s legacy should be protected or railroaded for the sake of an Underwood staying in the Oval Office. The scene ended with Stamper bleeding out in the highest office in the land, ensuring that it would be the last scene Kelly ever did for the show he says changed his life.
TV Guide spoke with Kelly about his tenure as Doug Stamper, the challenges of a Spacey-less season, and what it meant to make it to the very end of the show.
After playing Doug Stamper for the better part of a decade, what was it like having to say goodbye to him?
Michael Kelly: [It was] one of the hardest things that I’ve ever had to do…Robin and I both asked to film that final scene on the final day. And so saying goodbye to him was also saying goodbye to the crew and my family there. And you know, that. It was kind of everything all at once and together and it was really tough. You know, you get to know these people so well. Your kids grow up together. My son was born when we started the show and he’s seven. So many of the crew members’ kids are the same, and to say goodbye to everything, everything as you knew for the last six years, it was really tough. It was really tough.
What did it mean to you to find out that the end of the series was going to be such a big moment for this character?
Kelly: I was scared to death. Every year I always say the writers find a way to scare me, thrill me, challenge me. Certainly that final scene, sort of trying to wrap up the series in three and a half, four pages at the end there, was an incredible challenge in the highs and the lows that he goes through all within that three to four minutes, right? Going in thinking he’s going to have one thing and walking out, or not walking out, but being with something completely different. It was a great challenge to go through the emotional roller coaster that was in that final scene.
Up until this last season, almost everything having to do with Stamper was tied to Frank. How was it different playing him without having Kevin Spacey there specifically to work off of, even though Frank’s presence was still in the season?
Kelly: Obviously it was very different without him there. What you’re accustomed to, your scene partner, other than Rachel Brosnahan, it was Kevin. To all of a sudden have your scene partner removed and it made for an even greater challenge. I don’t mean that in [a] disrespectful, way at all…I’m grateful that my scene partner, became Robin Wright. When you go from one great actor to another great actor, it made the transition easier. That’s probably the best way to put it.
Doug was clearly unmoored by Frank’s death throughout this season. How did you approach his unraveling as we went through this final arc with him?
Kelly: I think that was one of the less challenging aspects of it because Doug’s entire adult career has been to serve that man. So even in death, he continued to serve that man. It’s because he believed in everything that they were doing. He always believed they were doing the right thing for the good of the people. You know, the old saying bad for the greater good. No one believed that more than Doug, and obviously he was willing to kill someone he loved to continue the good in his mind, you know? So for him to continue to serve that purpose, to protect that legacy, it was a challenge, but at the same time, it’s the only thing that made sense for Doug Stamper because his entire being was building that legacy. Now it’s all going to go away and he couldn’t handle that.
Why is it that you and Robin wanted to save the death scene to be the very last thing that you shot?
Kelly: God, I mean, so many reasons. In retrospect, I bet both of us would say, “I wish we’d have done it in the beginning because we might’ve got an extra day to do it.” But we didn’t. We wanted it to be the end because it is the end. And you know, the Oval Office got really messy that night. And it was, you know, I wanted to be sure to be there on the last day. She wanted to be sure to be there with the crew on the last day. And it was really important for both of us to say goodbye together. We figured what better way to do it than with that scene — finish the show with the ending of the show.
I’ve heard that it’s every actor’s dream to have a great death scene. Is that true for you?
Kelly: Yeah. I’ve had quite a few death scenes I feel like. Playing that type of character, you end up dead more often than not. I was just incredibly grateful to last to the very end of the show. Going back to Season 1, I would read to the end of every single script, and be like, “Whew, I made it.” We lost a lot of people on that show. To make it to the very end and then to actually go at the very end, it was really satisfying because there was talk for a while there about a Doug Stamper spin-off and people asked about it all the time and “Is Doug going to be president? Blah, blah, blah, blah.” And I’m just like, “You know what? It feels really good to have this finality. This true ending for me, for Stamper.”…To make it to the end felt incredible, and then to truly end it with finality felt even better.
What has this experience as a whole of playing Doug Stamper meant to you?
Kelly: The world. I mean, I can honestly say my entire life changed because of this incredible gift that I was given as an actor to play this guy. The gift of playing that character, you know. There’s a million of us out there and I happened to be the lucky one who got that role and it is truly meant the world to me. It changed my career. It changed everything. I’ll forever be grateful for it.
House of Cards is now streaming on Netflix.