Michael Kelly’s Ascent


Over three seasons of House of Cards, Doug Stamper has had one of the most fascinating character arcs on television. He begins the show as the loyal assistant of Majority Whip Frank Underwood, and his devotion gives the self-serving Underwood a heart: if Doug can care about him so much, there must be something there that can reciprocate. Then, in Season Two, everything changes. Doug’s kindness towards a call girl named Rachel turns into an obsession; he starts drinking; he makes rash decisions. By the end of the 13 episodes, he is lying facedown in the woods—presumed dead—with a giant gash in his head from a desperate Rachel. In Season Three, things change yet again. Doug is in the hospital, banished from Underwood’s inner circle, and recovering from traumatic brain injury. He befriends a nurse and starts to redeem himself, but the stability is short-lived. Soon he is doing backdoor deals, drinking, and working for Underwood’s rival—perhaps out of spite, perhaps as a double agent. He ends the season back in the oval office.

Doug’s ability to keep the audience wavering in their sympathies has earned actor Michael Kelly his first Emmy nomination for Best Supporting Actor in a Drama. It’s a crowded category—Alan Cumming, Peter Dinklage, and Ben Mendelsohn are all among the nominees—but Kelly has a real shot.

The character of Doug has opened other doors for Kelly, too. This autumn, the Georgia-raised, New York-based actor has two films slated for release: Everest, based on the 1996 Everest disaster, and Secret in Their Eyes, adapted from the 2009 Oscar-winning Argentine film of the same name. Both are ensemble dramas with impressive casts, from Keira Knightley, Jason Clarke, John Hawkes, Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Emily Watson in Everest to Julia Roberts, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman, and newcomer Joe Cole in Secret in Their Eyes.

EMMA BROWN: How long you have been living in New York?

MICHAEL KELLY: I moved here right out of college in 1994, I think. It’s been over 20 years.

BROWN: Did you move here to become an actor?

KELLY: Yeah. I was studying political science in college, and I took this theater class—it was my minor and then my major. I was actually the first person in my college who graduated with a performing arts degree. I was just naïve enough to think, “Well, that’s my degree. That’s how I’ll make my living. I’m an actor!” It took me a good seven years before I started to make a living doing it and even then I was working odd jobs.

BROWN: Do you remember your first New York audition?

KELLY: If it wasn’t the first, it was certainly very close to the first. I didn’t get it, but I remember this one audition distinctly. It was out of Backstage magazine when you used to go buy it—I think it was every Tuesday morning. I had all these headshots and I would handwrite my letters and send it all in. This was the first one that I went in for and it was a short film; it must have been crazy low budget. I remember thinking, “Wow, this is how they do it in New York. I’m just going out for movies now!” It was a tiny movie—a director behind a table with someone reading opposite me.

BROWN: That’s funny. When we were on set, you mentioned that you didn’t take any altitude sickness pills while you were filming Everest. You didn’t ever give in?

KELLY: No, I didn’t. In my opinion, and for a couple of the other guys as well, the headaches at night and in the morning, while pretty severe—Josh Brolin was crushing his temples in with his palm—weren’t enough to warrant the side-effects of taking this drug. They talked about a tingling in your fingers and your toes, and your lips maybe trembling. I was like, “That doesn’t sound good for acting…”

BROWN: Did you have a boot camp for mountaineering before you got to Kathmandu?

KELLY: No. When we were doing the rehearsal and script-breakdown process, they had a harness and rope and a guy who was like, “This is how you put on a harness,” but it was more like a break in the day than an actual training session. But then when we got up on the mountain we had all the right guys with us—all these incredibly talented technical climbers who were able to guide us through it all. It’s amazing how after just a couple of days, maybe a week, you start becoming very comfortable putting it all on —the crampons. It became a part of you.

BROWN: At the beginning of the film the guides are upset about how many people are on the mountain. All I could think was if it was too crowded in 1996, it must be terrible now. Were there a lot of people there when you were filming?

KELLY: No. We went in January, which is totally not when you’re supposed to be climbing up there, but we weren’t going through the ice so it wasn’t that bad. It was very cold, but the great thing about it was that there was nobody on the trails. We could use the trails how we wanted to. It was ours.

BROWN: I find the idea that if you die on Mount Everest, they leave your body there quite upsetting

KELLY: Yeah. There have been some expeditions where people have gone on strictly to retrieve the body, but that’s very common practice. There are a couple hundred bodies on the mountain. When you are trekking up the top of Everest, you see them.

BROWN: I read that one of body was used as a trail marker, “You’ll pass the guy with the green boots.”

KELLY: It’s disturbing, but at the same time I think it is very good reminder for people on the way up of what can happen to someone there. That person didn’t die from an avalanche or from rocks falling, you die because there is nothing you can do anymore. It just takes your life.

BROWN: You play Jon Krakauer, who wrote a book, Into Thin Air, about the 1996 Everest disaster. Did you get to meet him?

KELLY: No, I didn’t. I wanted to. He is a man who I admire so much and he is an incredibly accomplished technical climber. He’d never been above 17,000 feet and he summited Everest at 29. Unfortunately we weren’t able to work it out.

BROWN: When did you find out about your Emmy nomination?

KELLY: I was, funny enough, in the Oval Office. We were filming a scene; Robin Wright was directing. The scene was with me, Kevin Spacey, and Derek Cecil, and we had 20 minutes, so Kevin was like, “Let’s go watch in the trailer.” When House of Cards came up, we were high five-ing each other. Kevin came up—high fives. Then Robin—yay. Then they called us back to set. We were about 15 minutes in and ready to start rolling and Beau Willimon walks in and says, “Thank you all for your hard work. The show was nominated for 11 awards this year. Kevin was nominated,” and he pointed at Kevin. “Robin was,” and he pointed at Robin. Then he pointed at me and said, “and you.” Just being with the entire crew that got me there; it was a really special moment. My wife is my rock, but the crew went through the whole process.

BROWN:  I read that Rachel was only supposed to be in a couple of episodes and her part was extended because of how well you worked together.   

KELLY: Yeah. She didn’t even have a name; I think she was just “Prostitute” in the beginning, or “Call Girl.” Then she did great that great scene where I set up Russo, and she was so good with him that they brought her back for another one. Then she and I had this great chemistry and this whole character developed.

BROWN: Do you ever wonder how Doug would have evolved without Rachel becoming this major player?

KELLY: I definitely do. She was literally one of the first calls that I made when I found out that I got the nomination. We have such mutual respect for one another, and I’ve thought about it before, but then I just stop thinking about what it might have been without her.

BROWN: I was reading an interview from last year right after Season Two, and the interview was written as if Doug had definitely died. Did you have to say that Doug had died, or were you just very careful in how you worded things?

KELLY: Unless directly put on the spot, I always tried to word it in such a way that I didn’t have to lie, because as a person, it’s just not in my character. I am not a liar. I don’t like to lie. I let them say what they wanted to say, and because the first thing you read was that Doug Stamper was dead, everyone just ran with that. When I talked to Beau, he just said, “Don’t say anything, it’s a cliffhanger, let them write what they want to write.” There did come a time where I was being asked questions and I had to lie. There were a couple of people that I reached out to and apologized to.

BROWN: How did you get involved in Secret in Their Eyes?

KELLY: My agent called and said, “There’s this really cool film, it’s got a great cast and the director wants to have a conversation about.” I said great! So Billy Ray sent me the script, I read it, and we talked for 30 to 40 minutes. He said, “My wife and I are such great fans of the show, when I was writing this character I really saw you playing it… If you have any questions call me, but we’ll be talking again. Got to go.” I called my manager and he was asking how did it go, and I said it went great. He asked, “Did he offer it to you?” and I said, “No…he said we’d talk again.” [laughs] We had another conversation, and it went really well again. Then casting called and said, “Billy really likes Michael, but there are some names that are coming in that really want to play the role and it would be great ammunition to get you on tape for it.” I never mind going on tape at all. It’s almost better for me, because then I know what I did is what they want. So I did end up putting it on tape and then I got the offer.