Forget Right And Wrong: 'House Of Cards' Is About Pragmatism And Power

Originally published on April 14, 2015 3:05 pm

["Spoiler" alert: This interview about House of Cards discusses plot points from first two seasons, as well as themes addressed in the third season.]

In the pilot of the Netflix series House of Cards, politician Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, strangles a dog that was hit by a car. According to creator and showrunner Beau Willimon, there was a big debate among the producers whether to show the dog or not.

"Eventually, we landed on not seeing the dog," Willimon tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "We thought it was much more chilling if you just heard the dog's whimpering offscreen."

But then, Willimon says, there were people involved in the production who said, "You can't kill a dog in the first 30 seconds, we'll lose half our audience!" So Willimon approached David Fincher, who directed the first two episodes, and the team gathered.

"And he thinks for a second, and he goes, 'Well, I don't give a crap,'" Willimon says, (though he adds that Fincher used a different word than crap). "I said, 'Me either, let's do it.' "

"It's not that we were being cavalier," Willimon explains. "As much as we came to the conclusion that whoever watches that scene and still keeps watching is the right audience for our show and whoever watches that scene and says, 'This isn't for me,' — at least we've given them the benefit of knowing in the first 30 seconds the show isn't for them. So why not provide that litmus test right at the beginning?"

The show is now in its third season. In the first season, Underwood is a Democrat from South Carolina and the House majority whip. He expects to be appointed secretary of state. When that doesn't happen, he plots to take down the man who did get that position. In season two, Underwood is the vice president. In order to reach the top, he traps the president in a scandal, and when the president resigns rather than being impeached, Underwood becomes the leader of the free world without the bother of being elected. In the latest season, in spite of Underwood's expertise in the use and abuse of power, he's having a hard time getting his signature legislation passed — a bill to fund a program called America Works, which he insists would create full employment. But he wants to drain entitlement programs to fund it.

"A lot of people think of the president of the United States as being an incredibly powerful person, which he or she is, but with that power also comes a lot of constrictions, limitations," Willimon says. "There's the harsh glare of the spotlight."

Underwood has come into office without a single vote cast for him, he's tarnished by political scandal from the previous administration and he has a whole host of worries at his feet, Willimon says.

"If he were to come in and for it to be easy, that would've been false to our story," he says.


Interview Highlights

On the significance of the dog scene

[Underwood is] giving you his worldview off the get-go. What he's saying to us is, "This dog is suffering in a way that is useless. I don't have patience for useless things. What is the point of allowing this pain to continue? The dog is going to die anyway; I might as well end this useless aspect of its suffering now." It's not even right or wrong, and he doesn't really operate on a right or wrong spectrum, he operates on a useful/useless spectrum. So let's remove one more useless thing from the world.

On the way Underwood directly addresses the viewer

One of the beautiful things about the direct address [in which Underwood faces the camera and does a soliloquy], which is something we outright stole from the BBC version, which they stole from Shakespeare ... it gives us access to [Underwood] in ways that the public can never have access to. We get to look behind the façade. ...

We've heard him talk about his father before on several occasions. And one of those times is when he's giving a sermon in season one and he's talking about how deeply he loved his father and how heart wrenching it was when he lost his father. And then he turns to us and he tells us how little he cared about his father and he's sort of glad that he died, but that doesn't make for a good eulogy. And so what we're playing with there is the stories, the narratives that politicians often create in order to sell themselves. There is a big aspect of theater to politics, to what is the story I'm presenting that will make me seem powerful or compassionate or someone who feels your pain. And politicians, since the beginning of politics, have found ways to manipulate those stories — and here we just get access to the manipulation.

On the relationship between the president and the first lady, played by Robin Wright

We know that the ascendency of Frank and Claire Underwood is due in large part to the mutual strength that they share, that they make each other stronger and they rely on each other for counsel, for all sorts of things, and love. The only person's whose approval Frank really cares about is Claire's and it's deeply important to him. When we started thinking about the third season, we [asked] ourselves, "What is the most significant journey we can take over 13 hours; what is the thing that is most important to the story and how can we take it the farthest?" Probably the most important thing to the story is this marriage and if we've seen strength for two seasons, the most scary thing for us to do was to question what would happen if that marriage dissolved, if it broke apart under the stresses that come from the White House?

On comparisons between Frank and Claire Underwood and Bill and Hillary Clinton

People are welcome to draw any parallels they like. I can very honestly say that we are not trying to base our characters on any one person in particular or couple in particular. The Clintons are fascinating. They are an enduring, decades-long aspect of the American political landscape and we would be insane not to think about them the way we think about all the other politicians alive and dead that we look at. If what you're trying to get me to do is say, "Oh yeah, Frank and Claire are supposed to be stand-ins for Bill and Hillary," that's not the case. I think if we went that route it would be very limiting for us because then we'd just be doing satire — and that's not what we're trying to do.

On Willimon's experience working for political campaigns

Aide is a generous term; I was either an intern or a lowly advance man. I was not weighing in on policy or big decisions — I was more logistical in my duties. The first campaign I worked on, I worked as an intern on Chuck Schumer's first Senate race in New York. And subsequent races that I worked in, I was an advance man, which sounds fancier than it is. But the advance man or advance-woman shows up in a small town and finds the junior high school gym that you're going to do the event in and gets the risers and the microphones and gets the crowd and figures out all the logistics. And the candidate swoops in and you're just making sure nothing goes wrong — that the lights stay on and the sound is good and then the candidate is whisked off to the next event. It's not rocket science, but it is fast-paced and adrenaline-filled.

In my case, my best friend Jay Carson, who I went to college with, I sort of based the movie Ides of March and the play Farragut North on him — [he's] this wunderkind political operative. By the age of 26, he was Howard Dean's national spokesman for the '04 race. And two years before that at the ripe old age of 24, he had been [Tom] Daschle's press secretary when Daschle was Senate Majority Leader. He had access to a great deal of power. He was in the inner sanctum. He was weighing in on all sorts of big decisions. And, through him, I got a bit of a bird's eye view, so I had my in-the-trenches perspective, but through Jay I could climb up the mountain a bit and peek at the summit.

I've used all of that to inform House of Cards.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Now that campaign season has started, it's a great time to talk about the most ruthless politician - Frank Underwood, now President Underwood on the Netflix series "House Of Cards." My guest is the creator and showrunner, Beau Willimon. He also wrote the political drama "Farragut North," which he, George Clooney and Grant Heslov adapted into the film "The Ides Of March."

In the first season of "House Of Cards," Underwood, a Democrat from South Carolina played by Kevin Spacey, was the House majority whip. In the series premiere, he was at a New Year's Eve party with all the Washington power players, including the new president. And as Underwood walked through the party, he introduced us to the cast of characters.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOUSE OF CARDS")

KEVIN SPACEY: (As Francis Underwood) Oh, President-elect Garrett Walker. Do I like him? No. Do I believe in him? That's beside the point. Any politician that gets 70 million votes is tapped into something larger than himself, larger than even me, as much as I hate to admit it. Look at that winning smile, those trusting eyes. I latched onto him early on and made myself vital. After 22 years in Congress, I can smell which way the wind is blowing.

Oh, Jim Matthews, his right honorable vice president, former governor of Pennsylvania. He did his duty in delivering the Keystone State, bless his heart. Now they're about to put him out to pasture. But he looks happy enough, doesn't he? For some, it's simply the size of the chair.

Linda Vasquez, Walker's chief of staff. I got her hired. She's a woman, check, and a Latina, check, but more important than that, she's as tough as a $2 steak - check, check, check. When it comes to the White House, you not only need the keys in your back pocket, you need the gatekeeper. As for me, I'm just the lowly House majority whip. I keep things moving in a Congress choked by pettiness and lassitude. My job is to clear the pipes and keep the sludge moving. But I won't have to be a plumber much longer. I've done my time. I've backed the right men.

(APPLAUSE)

SPACEY: (As Francis Underwood) Give and take. Welcome to Washington.

GROSS: Underwood expected to be rewarded for his efforts by being appointed secretary of state. When that didn't happen, he plotted to take down the man who did get the position. In season two, Underwood had become vice president. In order to reach the top, Underwood trapped the president in a scandal. And when the president resigned, rather than being impeached, Underwood became the leader of the free world without the bother of being elected. In the third and latest season, in spite of President Underwood's expertise in the use and abuse of power, he's having a hard time getting his signature legislation passed - a bill to fund a program called America Works, which he insists would create full employment. He wants to drain the entitlement programs to fund it. In this scene, he's pitching America Works to his party leaders.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOUSE OF CARDS")

SPACEY: (As Francis Underwood) Now, you all have the overview. But what we have here today is the comprehensive breakdown of...

LARRY PINE: (As Bob Birch) Sir, before we begin...

SPACEY: (As Francis Underwood) Look, Bob, I know you have some serious doubts about this program, but just let me flesh it out first, and then I promise we can address any questions that you might have.

CURTISS COOK: (As Terry Womack) Mr. President...

SPACEY: (As Francis Underwood) Ten million jobs - can we all agree that that's a good thing for this country, universal employment? It's the key for our keeping the White House in 2016. It's the only chance we have of winning back majorities in Congress. Now, the election's only 18 months away. We need to do something bold, something decisive. We need to redefine our party.

PINE: (As Bob Birch) Actually, that's what we wanted to discuss. You're right, we do need to redefine the party.

COOK: (As Terry Womack) We need to do it with a fresh face.

PINE: (As Bob Birch) In 2016, we don't want you to run.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) You weren't even elected to the office in the first place.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) The pardons hurt you. Approvals are low.

PINE: (As Bob Birch) We're not casting blame, sir. We just believe that this is best for the party.

GROSS: (Laughter). Beau Willimon, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, it's so funny, like, the Frank Underwood character has kind of connived and manipulated his way to the top. His dream has come true; he's now president of the United States. Now that he's the president, it's like he's totally stymied, you know? He can't pass his legislation because Congress is so blocked. His own party leadership doesn't want him to run - you know, to run for the presidency in the next election. He's stymied by the Soviet president. He's sometimes stymied by his wife. It's as if you're making a joke about American politics that when you reach the top (laughter) like, you can't do anything.

BEAU WILLIMON: A lot of people think that the president of the United States as being an incredibly powerful person, which he or she is, but with that power also comes a lot of constrictions, limitations. There's the - you know, there's the harsh glare of the spotlight. And I think for a president like Frank Underwood, who's come into office without a single vote cast for him, tarnished by political scandal from the previous administration, you know, and a whole host of worries at his feet, if he were to come in and it were to be easy, that would've been a false to our story. And I think it's also probably false in real life.

GROSS: So Frank Underwood, who's the president by the third and latest season, is a ruthless politician who really cares only about power. Now, he's a Democrat (laughter). Why did you make him a Democrat and not a Republican? What went into that decision?

WILLIMON: Two things really; the first is that the conventional wisdom about Hollywood, which I think is probably supported by fact, is that Hollywood tends to be more liberal than conservative. And if we had made Frank a Republican, I think a lot of people would've assumed that we were trying to take potshots, that we were trying to say something about the Republican Party. By making him a Democrat, we insulate ourselves from that. And it also points to the fact that it doesn't really matter whether Frank is a Democrat or Republican at all because he's non-ideological, which leads into the second reason. The tradition of the Southern Democrat, the Democrat that builds his or her power base on personal relationships and local politics and the maneuvering through government as opposed to pure ideological stances, seemed right for Frank.

GROSS: And Frank is from South Carolina, which is, I think, where your father's from?

WILLIMON: That's right. My whole family on my father's side is from South Carolina, going all the way back to the Revolution.

GROSS: Did you draw on that at all in creating your version of Frank Underwood - well, your version. I mean, in the British - your version of "House Of Cards" is based on the British series, but he wasn't named Frank Underwood in that, and he certainly wasn't the American president (laughter) so...

WILLIMON: That's right. In the BBC version - wonderful version, based on Michael Dobbs' novels actually, it was Francis Urquhart. And he was - he hailed from Scottish aristocracy. He came from privilege. I was much more interested in the American mythology of someone coming from nothing and working their way up to the presidency. You know, you come from a town called Hope, and if you work hard and put in your time, you, too, can be the president of the United States.

Our town isn't called Hope, it's called Gaffney. And Gaffney is a real town in the 5th District of South Carolina. The mayor of it is Hank Chicken Jolly. He happens to be a Democrat. And I know there's a lot of these towns in South Carolina where, you know, people might never even dream of being president and yet this young man did. I asked my dad, I said - he's from Greenville - and I said what town do you think fits the bill for what we're trying to achieve? And immediately he said Gaffney, and I was sold.

GROSS: So, you know, typically in political speeches, politicians talk about their wonderful family, how - their loving parents, even if their parents, you know, weren't, you're going to hear about how loving they were. Whereas (laughter) in "House Of Cards," when the Kevin Spacey character, the president, visits his father's grave in the small town in South Carolina, he urinates on the tombstone.

WILLIMON: (Laughter) Yeah, he sure does, yeah. And clearly he's been saving up 'cause it's a...

(LAUGHTER)

WILLIMON: ...A long and enduring stream.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WILLIMON: No, I mean, one of the beautiful things about the direct address, which is something we outright stole from the BBC version and which, you know, they stole from Shakespeare...

GROSS: Yeah, by direct address you mean, basically, a character faces the camera and makes a soliloquy. It's an aside to the viewers.

WILLIMON: Absolutely, it gives us access to him in ways that the public can never have access to. We get to look behind the facade. And in that moment, you know, he's talking about, you know, how his father was, you know, loved by none. No one showed up for his funeral. Hey, Dad, when they bury me, they're going to have to wait in line.

We've heard him talk about his father before on several occasions. And one of those times is when he's giving a sermon in season one, and he's talking about how deeply he loved his father and how heart-wrenching it was when he lost his father. And then he turns to us, and he tells us how little he cared about his father. And he was sort of glad that he died, but that doesn't make for a good eulogy. And so, you know, what we're playing with there is the stories, the narratives, that politicians often create in order to sell themselves. There is a big aspect of theater to politics to - what is the story I'm presenting that will make me seem powerful or compassionate or someone who feels your pain? And politicians since the beginning of politics have found ways to manipulate those stories, and here we just get access to the manipulation.

GROSS: So why don't we hear one of the soliloquies? And this is from the first episode of the first season, and it's really the first scene that Kevin Spacey is in. And a dog has been run over by a hit-and-run driver, and Kevin Spacey's character is the first to get to the dog. And this is his little speech about pain and suffering, and it's the soliloquy to the audience. It's the side - it's the aside to the audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOUSE OF CARDS")

SPACEY: (As Francis Underwood) There are two kinds of pain - the sort of pain that makes you strong or useless pain, the sort of pain that's only suffering. I have no patience for useless things. Moments like this require someone who will act, who will do the unpleasant thing but the necessary thing. There, no more pain.

GROSS: And the thing he's acting to do, the unpleasant thing, he's strangling the dog (laughter) to get it...

WILLIMON: Yeah, that's right...

GROSS: ...Out of its pain.

WILLIMON: ...But not on-screen. You can't actually see the dog. We had a big debate as to whether we'd see the dog or not and eventually landed on not seeing the dog. We thought it was much more chilling if you just hear the dog's whimpering off-screen. But there were plenty of people involved in the production who said, you know, you can't kill a dog in the first 30 seconds. We'll lose half our audience. You can kill as many people as you want, but if you kill an animal, you're going to lose people. So I go to Fincher - David Fincher, who directed the first two episodes. He's executive producer on the show and really brought the whole team together. And I say, David, people are saying if we kill this dog, we're going to lose half our audience. And, you know, he thinks for a second, and he goes, well, I don't give a crap.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WILLIMON: And I go, I don't either. And I say - he didn't use crap, he used another word. But (laughter) I said, yeah, me either, let's do it. And we weren't - it's not that we were being so cavalier as much as I think we came to the conclusion that whoever watches that scene and still keeps watching is the right audience for our show. And whoever watches that scene and says, this isn't for me, at least we've given them the benefit of knowing in the first 30 seconds that the show isn't for them. So why not provide that litmus test right at the beginning? And I'm sure we did lose some people from that dog-strangling scene, but the people that stuck around knew what they were getting.

GROSS: And it's not like you're saying this was a good thing to put the dog out of its misery in this way. You're saying that the Kevin Spacey character doesn't even wince, and in fact, it leads him to state his philosophy of life, (laughter) you know?

WILLIMON: Right, I mean, he's giving you his worldview off the get-go. He's saying - I mean, what he's saying to us is this dog is suffering in a way that is useless. I don't have patience for useless things. What is the point of allowing this pain to continue? The dog's going to die anyway. I might as well end this useless aspect of its suffering now. So it's not even right or wrong, and he doesn't really operate on a right or wrong spectrum. He operates on a useful-useless spectrum. And this was a useless thing, so let's remove one more useless thing from the world.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Beau Willimon. He's the creator and showrunner of the very popular Netflix series "House Of Cards." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Beau Willimon, the creator and showrunner of the Netflix series "House Of Cards" which stars Kevin Spacey as a Democratic congressman who rises to president, and it co-stars Robin Wright as the woman who becomes the first lady.

You worked as a political aid for a while. Did that experience leave you very...

WILLIMON: Well, aid (laughter)...

GROSS: Is aid too big a word (laughter)?

WILLIMON: Aid is a generous term. I was, you know, either an intern or a lowly advance man. You know, I was not weighing in on policy or big decisions. I was more logistical in my duties. In the first campaign I worked on, I worked as an intern on Chuck Schumer's first Senate race in New York. And in subsequent races that I worked in, I was an advance man, which sounds fancier than it is.

But the advance man or advance woman shows up in a small town and finds the junior high school gym that you're going to do the event in and gets the risers and the microphones and gets the crowd and figures out all the logistics, and the candidate swoops in. And you're just making sure nothing goes wrong, that the lights stay on (laughter) and the sound is good. And then the candidate is whisked off to the next event. And you know, that's - you know, it's not rocket science, but it is fast-paced and adrenaline-filled.

And in my case, you know, my best friend, Jay Carson, who I went to college with, I sort of based the movie "Ides Of March" and the play "Farragut North" on him, this wunderkind, political operative who - I mean, by the age of 26, he was Howard Dean's national spokesman for the '04 race. And two years before that, at the ripe old age of 24, he'd been Daschle's press secretary when Daschle was Senate majority leader. He had access to a great deal of power. He was in the inner sanctum. He was weighing in on all sorts of big decisions, and through him, I got a bit of a bird's eye view. So I had my in-the-trenches perspective, but through Jay, I could climb up the mountain a bit and peek at the summit. And I've used all of that to inform "House Of Cards."

GROSS: So you know, he did - your friend Jay who is a producer on the show - did work for both of the Clintons, Bill and Hillary. And not to overplay the comparisons here, but Hillary, like the first lady in "House Of Cards," gets a job within the administration. You know, when her husband was president, Hillary worked on the health care plan. People wondered - I'm sorry for - people wondered if they were still sharing a bed, and that's one of the issues in "House Of Cards."

Hillary was actually accused of murdering Vince Foster by conspiracy theorists. I mean, it was, like, a crazy thing to accuse her of, but still, there was this kind of, like, murder conspiracy hanging over them. He was impeached like one of the presidents in "House Of Cards," was threatened with impeachment. So there seems to be this, like, ghost of the Clintons hanging over a lot of the series.

WILLIMON: I mean, people are welcome to draw any parallels they like. I can very honestly say that, you know, we are not trying to base our characters on any one person in particular or couple in particular. You know, the Clintons are fascinating. They are an enduring decades-long aspect of the American political landscape, and we'd be insane not to think about them the way that we think about all of the other politicians alive and dead that we look at.

But I - you know, I'm not - you know, if what you're trying to get me to do is say, like, oh, yeah, that - there's - Frank and Claire are supposed to be stand-ins for Bill and Hillary, that's not the case. And I think if we went that route, it would be very limiting for us because then we'd just be doing satire, and that's not what we're trying to do.

GROSS: I should say, Kevin Spacey was recently quoted as saying that Bill Clinton's a big fan of "House Of Cards" and that Clinton told him, Kevin, 99 percent of what you do on that show is real.

WILLIMON: (Laughter).

GROSS: The 1 percent you get wrong is, you could never get an education bill passed that fast (laughter).

WILLIMON: Yeah, that's right. You know, it's flattering to think that any president would spend 13 hours of their very busy lives watching anything that we make. We know that President Obama has watched the show. I don't know if he's caught up on season three. But when you're writing a show about Washington, of course you're curious whether the people in Washington have watched it and what they think about it.

And we've gotten all sorts of responses. I mean, there are people who really think that, you know, we've got it spot-on in a lot of aspects. I mean, of course, most politicians are not murderers or quite as, you know, unapologetically self-serving as Frank, but in terms of the mechanics of politics and a lot of the research we've done and in some of the venality, they think that it's very accurate.

GROSS: My guest is Beau Willimon, the creator and showrunner of the Netflix series "House Of Cards." We'll talk more about the show and about how the demands of the show have affected Willimon's life as someone who's 15 years sober after we take a short break. We'll also hear Ken Tucker's review of the new Mountain Goats album. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Beau Willimon, the creator and show-runner of the Netflix series "House Of Cards." It stars Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood, a ruthless politician who will do anything to climb the ladder. In season one, he was the Democratic House Majority Whip. By the time season three, the latest season, begins, Spacey has maneuvered his way into the White House and is now President Underwood. The first lady, played by Robin Wright, is just as ruthless as he is. She managed to become her husband's U.N. ambassador, but was forced to resign. As season three progressed, she became tired of always working to make him more powerful and taking a backseat to him. Things came to a head in this scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOUSE OF CARDS")

SPACEY: (As Frank Underwood) We earned this together. I said that to your face the first day I walked in here as president.

ROBIN WRIGHT: (As Claire Underwood) It's your office, not mine.

SPACEY: (As Frank Underwood) I have not made a single major decision without asking your opinion first.

WRIGHT: (As Claire Underwood) But see that's it. You make the decisions - anything that I want, like the U.N. It made me ill, Francis. My stomach turned.

SPACEY: (As Frank Underwood) Why - because you had to resign?

WRIGHT: (As Claire Underwood) No, because I had to ask for your help in the first place, that I couldn't get the confirmation on my own.

SPACEY: (As Frank Underwood): And what is wrong with asking for my help when you need it?

WRIGHT: (As Claire Underwood): The fact that I need it. I hate that feeling. It's not me. I don't recognize myself when I look in the mirror. I do things like I did in the hotel in Iowa. I can even talk with you about it.

SPACEY: (As Frank Underwood): No, instead you want me to slap you around like some animal.

WRIGHT: (As Claire Underwood): That's what we are when we strip everything away. That I can understand.

SPACEY: (As Frank Underwood): It was deranged, begging me to take you like that.

WRIGHT: (As Claire Underwood): And you couldn't even give that to me.

SPACEY: (As Frank Underwood): If you wanted a husband who proved his manhood to you that way, you should have stayed back in Dallas with your mother and married the prom king.

WRIGHT: (As Claire Underwood): Well, at least I would have known where I stood.

SPACEY: (As Frank Underwood): No, you can't have it both ways. You want an equal partner when it suits you. You want a man to take charge when it suits you. And I'm supposed to - what? - just divine when you want which? Stop being so selfish. You're better than that.

WRIGHT: (As Claire Underwood): I'm not being selfish.

SPACEY: (As Frank Underwood): You are. We're in the middle of an election, and look at us.

WRIGHT: (As Claire Underwood): That's exactly it. Look at us, Francis. We used to make each other stronger, or at least I thought so, but that was a lie. We were making you stronger. And now I'm just weak and small, and I can't stand that feeling any longer.

SPACEY: (As Frank Underwood): All right. What do you want? What is the damn alternative? Please, Claire, tell me because I don't understand. All I am hearing is it's not enough, that the White House is not enough, that being first lady is not enough, not enough.

WRIGHT: (As Claire Underwood): No, it's you that's not enough.

GROSS: Let's talk about the relationship between now the president and the first lady. In this season, you've decided that the president and the first lady will have some friction in their relationship. She wants more independence. She wants more power of her own. She wants more authority that isn't dependent on his authority. So what made you want to head in that direction? And I'll preface this by saying a lot of marriages have this same issue.

WILLIMON: Yes. Well, it wasn't so much that we were heading in a direction for the first time. When we really looked at the story, we realized we'd been heading in this direction all along. We know that the ascendancy of Frank and Claire Underwood is due in large part to the mutual strength that they share - that they make each other stronger. They rely on each other for counsel for, you know, all sorts of things and love. You know, the only person whose approval Frank really cares about is Claire's, and it's deeply important to him.

And when we started thinking about the third season, we always ask ourselves, what is the most significant journey that we can take over 13 hours? What is the thing that is most important to the story, and how do we take it the farthest? One of the - or probably the most important thing to the story is this marriage. And if we've seen strength for two seasons, the most scary thing for us to do was to question what would happen if that marriage dissolved, if it broke apart under the stresses that come from the White House.

We've seen times where Claire and Frank have had a great deal of friction, largely due to the same issue of her suppressing her own ambitions and goals for the sake of his. And the argument always is that his goals are their collective goals, and if he achieves the presidency, then they both can do what they want with their lives. And I think she's coming to terms with that fallacy that she herself has convinced herself of, but this is the first season where we actually see that pressure break the marriage.

GROSS: So I'm wondering if this has any personal connection to you or someone you know. There's a character in "House Of Cards" who has served as the president's chief of staff. The character's name is Doug Stamper. He's played by Michael Kelly. And in season three, he is recovering from being hit on the head with a brick several times. I won't go into the background of that, but he has, like, a, you know - he has some brain injury that he's recovering from. And it's partly cognitive. It's affecting his ability to move his legs. And, you know, there's a lot of time that's spent on his recovery. And it made me wonder if you had someone you were close to who you watched go through some kind of, like, brain injury.

WILLIMON: Not a brain injury like that, not a traumatic brain injury. I, like anyone, I'm sure, have had relatives and people close to me who have dealt with pretty intense convalescence and recovery for whole host of different things - you know, family members that have suffered strokes or friends that have suffered other infirmities - life - these life-changing moments that are rooted in, you know, one's health. And added to that, you know, a big part of Doug's story is his ongoing recovery having to do with alcoholism. That's a storyline that we explored with Peter Russo in season one and, in an ongoing fashion, have explored with Doug throughout all three seasons. And that's something I know a lot about because I am a recovering alcoholic.

GROSS: You went through a difficult period before becoming a writer. You worked in Estonia for a while doing what?

WILLIMON: (Laughter) Yeah, I'm one of those people that really had no plan. I graduated college and looked in the mirror and said, wait, hold on a second. What am I doing? And I managed to get a fellowship called the ST (ph) Fellowship, where I went to work for the Estonian government for three months doing things that I had no business doing, like, you know, going through thousands of pages of immigration and asylum law to help Estonia, in my own little, tiny way, get into the EU. I was 21 years old. I had no experience in any of that stuff, but for some reason, they put it on my plate.

Came back to New York and really didn't have, you know, any plan after that fellowship - and all sorts of odd jobs and drinking and drugs and you name it. And somehow, I crawled my way to a playwriting class at Columbia. And the head of the play-writing division, Eduardo Machado, took a chance on me and said if you apply, I will take you into the grad program. And he kept his word. And, you know, I'm a pretty restless person. Maybe it's just the fact that my dad was in the Navy. We moved around a lot. I get kind of anxious if I'm in any one place for too long, so I was sort of constantly on the move after I graduated college 'cause I didn't really want to put down stakes anywhere.

GROSS: Had you been exposed to theater when you were young?

WILLIMON: Yes. Yeah, my parents - you know, I feel very lucky that they started taking me to big road show musicals at the Muny in St. Louis when I was about 10 years old. I think the very first play I saw - a non-musical play - was "A.R. Gurney's Love Letters" at the big Fox Theater in midtown St. Louis. But probably the defining moment for me was seeing Spalding Gray do "Gray's Anatomy" at Washington University. One of my good friends in high school was Elizabeth Gray. She was the niece of Spalding. And Spalding's brother was the husband of my principal, so when I saw Spaulding and got to hang out with him, and that - you know, I don't know if you're familiar with Spalding Gray's work.

GROSS: Oh, very, very. I love Spalding.

WILLIMON: Yean, I mean the idea that a person could sit behind a simple wooden table with a glass of water, and with just the power of his own voice and words, hold you riveted in this incredibly beautiful and terrifying and dangerous and exhilarating suspension of disbelief so simply really showed me the magic of the theater.

I also had a really terrific drama teacher, Wayne Salomon, at my high school, John Borroughs. You know, he was teaching us stuff in seventh and eighth grade that a lot of colleges don't teach. We were doing transcendental meditation for relaxation exercises. You know, Meisner stuff, you know, Lee Strasburg - we were reading Stanislavski. For a lot of 12- and 13-year-olds, that's pretty heavy stuff.

But it really excited, you know, those of us who were drawn to the theater naturally. I mean, it just - it - we felt that it was this place of adventure and possibility. And other people he taught - Jon Hamm, Ellie Kemper - a pretty small school, but they've gone on to do great things. And I think we would all give Wayne a lot of credit for that.

GROSS: So if you don't mind my asking, in giving up alcohol, you still, of course, describe yourself as a recovering alcoholic. When you have this huge pressure of putting out, you know, so far, three seasons of "House Of Cards" and signing up for two seasons when you'd never done a TV series before...

WILLIMON: (Laughter).

GROSS: Like, that kind of pressure can work in two ways. It's very - makes you very focused, and things like, you know, alcohol or other problem things can recede in the background because you've got something really important to put all your energy into. On the other hand, they can make you so edgy and nervous that you feel like you need a crutch, that you need help, that you need a way to relax or get through it or whatever. So what was it like for you to take on a big project like that and deal with still feeling like a recovering alcoholic?

WILLIMON: Well, I'll always feel like a recovering alcoholic 'cause you never recover from alcoholism. It's something that's with you your entire life. That's why it's, you know, a gerund - recovering. It's - you know, I see - I see sobriety similar to the way a diabetic takes insulin. If the diabetic doesn't take insulin, he or she dies. And if I don't remain sober, then I, too, will die. It's - it kills you over time.

And look, for alcoholics, drinking can be a full-time job. I mean, that can be a 40-hour a week job when you think of how many hours you put in each night and the hangovers you have to deal with and all the time you've got to spend cleaning up the mistakes you've made. So when you stop drinking, you've got all this time on your hands that you used to relegate to this other thing. And I guess one of my strategies for that is filling up those 40 hours with more work. I love working 80 hours a week. I love the intensity of that. I love the pressure. Peace and relaxation is something which is not very attractive to me.

GROSS: Well, Beau Willimon, thank you so much for talking with us.

WILLIMON: Thank you so much for having me.

GROSS: Beau Willimon is the creator and show-runner of the Netflix series "House Of Cards." All the episodes from the first three seasons are available for viewing. Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews the new album by The Mountain Goats. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.