Trying to get Robin Wright to say anything about the new season of her show "House of Cards," which premieres Friday on Netflix, is about as easy as it is to outmaneuver the character she plays in a game of political chess. For what it’s worth, Wright is a whole lot friendlier about it than the intimidating Claire Underwood.
“I can’t answer any of that. I’m such a party pooper,” she says.
Even the vaguest and most open-ended questions about where her character – the conniving wife of an equally conniving politician, Frank Underwood (or “Francis,” as Claire usually purrs) – is going in season two is met with laughter, but an insistence that she “would actually have the guillotine come down on my head” if she misspoke.
(Having signed a confidentiality agreement before being sent the first four episodes, I also have a legal guillotine hanging over my head as well when it comes to spoiling their many plot twists).
Wright, fortunately, is more verbose when asked about Claire’s fashion sense: a mix of sleek, minimalist dresses, neutral-toned power suits and crisp, white button-downs – even her running clothes are très chic.
“I just said, I don’t want to be too matronly and I want it to be tastefully sexy, not seductive. But you know, you want her to have clout,” she says, crediting the premiere season’s costume designer Tom Broecker for creating the look. “I want her to be woman and not just be the political, the D.C. look – to veer away from that without being too risqué.”
But of course, when it comes to veering away from D.C. stereotypes, Claire Underwood is more than just the sum of her designer wardrobe. With just one glance that shoots daggers from Wright’s striking blue eyes, her character kills any remnants of the idea that political wives are merely podium props – a notion also being challenged with shows like “The Good Wife,” “Scandal,” and oh yeah, the presumed presidential candidacy of former first lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“I didn’t emulate anyone in particular. I wasn’t watching politicians’ wives to get to Claire Underwood,” Wright says. “We kind of created as we went along, even though we had a template which was Lady MacBeth to his Richard III.”
Together, Frank (played by Kevin Spacey) and Claire Underwood are fictional Washington's most feared power couple: he as the House majority whip who cleared a path to the vice presidency; she as the head of a nonprofit that gives her the leverage and cover to do much of their behind-the-scenes string-pulling.
“They wield different swords. They have a great ability and compatibility in that she picks him up or sticks a hot poker in his you-know-what when it’s needed, and he for her,” Wright says. “That to me is a beautiful union.”
In addition to its Shakespearean inspiration (Frank often addresses the audience directly a la Richard III), “House of Cards” is based on a British series of the same name, as well as the experience of its creator Beau Willimon, who has worked on number of political campaigns.
“I’ve learned mostly from him, just in the ranks, how does this actually go? There’s a protocol to things,” she says, but adds that “House of Cards” is a sensationalized and fictionalized serial drama at its core.
“We really don’t know the machinations of what goes on behind the closed doors,” Wright says, but that hasn’t stopped her from asking real-life political players if they thought the show was accurate. “They said, ‘Yeah it’s pretty accurate,' with the exception [of] I don’t think he would ever get an education bill passed that fast.’”
President Barack Obama has echoed a similar sentiment about the Underwoods’ ability to get things done in a judicious amount of time. "Some people will ask, 'Would you ever be in politics?'" Wright says. "No! I would be so frickin' frustrated because nothing would get done. You would get steamrolled and road blocked. You can't win."
Wright does do some advocacy work, particularly concerning conflict minerals in the Congo.
When she and Spacey signed on for the show, which premiered last February, much of the conversation focused on the gamble they were taking: two major movie stars signing on to do not just a TV show, but one for an Internet streaming company that hadn’t yet proven itself capable of making quality original content.
“It’s not something you think about when you go in,” she says. “But to have the response be what it’s been – we’re very excited and I feel very proud to be part of this.”
And part of that response includes Wright’s Golden Globe win for the role in January. This season she will also sit in the director's chair, though she says from day one figuring out the character of Claire has been a collaborative process.
“The writers basically lay the foundation and then we get to build different stories of that house," she says. “A lot of that is evolving as we go. They come up with ideas. We come up with ideas. Things are generated out of scenes that we do. We go, ‘Bing! Light bulb went off. Let’s do this. What about this?'"
And what about a run for office for Claire Underwood?
“Maybe she could. Maybe she will. There [are] endless opportunities for us to build, of where this show go.” Wright says, and indeed, Netflix has already renewed “House of Cards” for a third season. “But do I think she could handle that? Of course. I have to believe that as her.”