In the hit series House of Cards, cutthroat politician Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) makes sure he’s always at least one move ahead of his colleagues. As the show makes its return to Netflix for a fourth season, we’ve rounded up some little-known facts about the groundbreaking series that even Frank might be surprised to learn.
1. IT’S BASED ON A BRITISH MINISERIES.
As original as it may seem, House of Cards is actually based on a 1990 BBC miniseries of the same name. The four-episode series, which was adapted from a novel by Michael Dobbs, took place in the time period following Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as Prime Minister.
2. MICHAEL DOBBS KNOWS OF WHAT HE SPEAKS.
House of Cards author Michael Dobbs didn’t have to do a ton of research for his novel-turned-miniseries-turned-Netflix series. In addition to being a writer, Dobbs served as Thatcher’s chief of staff from 1986 to 1987 and the deputy chairman of the Conservative Party from 1994 to 1995.
3. BEAU WILLIMON IS NO SLOUCH EITHER.
House of Cards creator Beau Willimon (who won't be returning as showrunner for the 2017 season) is no stranger to the inner-workings of our own nation’s capital. His resume includes stints working for a range of well-known political figures, including Charles Schumer, Hillary Clinton, and Howard Dean.
4. WILLIMON RECRUITED SOME ADDITIONAL HELP, TOO.
In order to help get the tone and political maneuvering just right—or, as he told Town & Country, “to make sure we didn't completely embarrass ourselves”—Willimon recruited his college buddy Jay Carson, a political advisor and strategist who has worked with Michael Bloomberg, Howard Dean, and Hillary and Bill Clinton, as the series’ political consultant. Carson also inspired Stephen Meyers, Ryan Gosling’s character in George Clooney’s The Ides of March, which Willimon wrote.
5. HOUSE OF CARDS MARKS DAVID FINCHER’S SMALL-SCREEN DEBUT.
Though two-time Oscar nominee David Fincher is best known for his work on the big screen with movies like Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac, The Social Network, and Gone Girl, he made the leap to the small screen for the first time with House of Cards, which he executive produces. Fincher also directed the series’ first two episodes.
6. THE SERIES LAUNCHED A BIDDING WAR.
Though Fincher and Kevin Spacey (who is also an executive producer on the series) began developing House of Cards without a network commitment, it wasn’t long before there was an all-out bidding war for the series, with AMC and HBO among its suitors. In what was an unprecedented move at the time, Netflix won the rights not just with boatloads of money, but by committing to shooting two seasons from the get-go. “We took it around to a lot of networks and they all loved it and they all were interested, but nobody wanted to commit to 13 episodes,” Fincher told Empire Magazine. “So we were kind of dead in the water. In my infinite hubris, I was: ‘Why not? If we’re gonna do it you may as well do 13.’ Because it’s so much work. It’s 100 hours a week to do a sh*t job.”
7. HOUSE OF CARDS CHANGED THE BUSINESS OF “TELEVISION.”
Netflix’s successful acquisition of House of Cards—which was only its second foray into original programming, following Lilyhammer—changed the game (and definition) of “television” by releasing an entire season all at once, and online. “This is a really new perspective … to drop them all at once, but I think that’s how we watch TV now,” Spacey told the crowd at 2012’s MIPCOM, with Willimon adding that “streaming is the future. TV will not be TV in five years from now … everyone will be streaming.”
8. IT’S THE FIRST ONLINE SERIES TO WIN AN EMMY.
In 2013, House of Cards made history when it became the first online series to win an Emmy—three of them, actually: for Outstanding Directing (for Fincher), Outstanding Cinematography (for Eigil Bryld), and Outstanding Casting (for casting directors Laray Mayfield and Julie Schubert). A string of additional award nominations and wins, including Golden Globes for Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, followed and opened up the door for other online-only series like Amazon’s Transparent, which won Golden Globe Awards for Best Television Series and Best Actor (for Jeffrey Tambor) in 2015.
9. KEVIN SPACEY TURNED WOODY ALLEN ONTO NETFLIX.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Spacey shared that he sent Woody Allen a gift subscription to Netflix. “I am one of these actors where I believe very strongly that if you want to get a part, you have to do anything within reason to get that part,” Spacey said. “I admire Woody Allen so much. I was at a point where every time he announces a new movie, I never get an audition and nobody ever calls me to come in. I was like, ‘You know what? I am going to just write Woody Allen.’ So, I introduced myself and sent him a Netflix subscription and said ‘I don't know if you've seen my work, but you might want to watch this series.’ He wrote me back a warm and wonderful letter, and thanked me for the Netflix. He said he’d seen me play lots of different roles and said he absolutely would consider me in a film.” (Allen confirmed his desire to work with Spacey in a 2014 podcast.)
10. FINCHER ENLISTED AN ALL-STAR GROUP OF DIRECTORS FOR THE SERIES.
After setting the tone by directing the first two episodes himself, Fincher turned the directorial reins over to a small group of highly-acclaimed directors, including James Foley (Glengarry Glen Ross, At Close Range), Carl Franklin (Devil in a Blue Dress, Out of Time), Joel Schumacher (Batman Forever, Phone Booth), Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa, The Secret Garden), and Jodie Foster (Little Man Tate, The Beaver). “I felt like we were telling 13 stories that are all part of one big story, and I was handing off movements to people whose work I admire,” Fincher told DGA Quarterly of the show’s first season.
11. KEVIN SPACEY DID HIS HOMEWORK.
In order to better understand Frank Underwood’s position, Kevin Spacey spent some time with Kevin McCarthy, the Republican House Majority Whip from California. “I don’t envy him [or] the position,” Spacey told George Stephanopoulos of McCarthy. “It’s not easy. But it was very fascinating [for me] to go to a couple of whip meetings and actually see what the agenda is, what they’re going to put out there, how they do it.”
12. MOST OF THE SHOW IS SHOT IN MARYLAND.
Though set in D.C., the bulk of House of Cards’ locations—including much of The White House—were built on a soundstage in Joppa, Maryland. “We're making it to last for what will hopefully be a very long run,” executive producer John Melfi told The Baltimore Sun in 2012 of the massive sets they were building. “This is a Hollywood studio back lot.”
13. MOVING THE CAMERA IS FROWNED UPON.
Though Fincher set the series up to be a director-centric one, he did establish an informal set of rules for how the show should be shot—and doesn’t think that handheld or Steadicam shooting should be a part of that. “I remember David saying something like he would only move the camera if there was a damn good reason to,” James Foley, the series’ most regular director, told DGA Quarterly. “So I found myself with a self-imposed discipline to work within because I felt it should be stylistically consistent.”
14. FINCHER TOLD THE CAST NOT TO F*** IT UP!
In a commentary track for the first season, Fincher swears that every one of the show’s principal actors was the first choice for the role. And as such, “I walked in and I got to say the thing I've always wanted to say to a cast, which is ‘Every single person in this room represents our first choice, so don't f*** this up. ‘Cause if you do, I will never forgive you.'”
15. RACHEL POSNER WASN’T SUPPOSED TO BE A REGULAR CHARACTER.
When actress Rachel Brosnahan, who plays Doug Stamper’s tormented call girl/Achilles heel, was originally cast on the show she was set to appear in just two episodes and recite a total of five lines. “She had done such a fine job those first two episodes that I started exploring what it would mean to bring her character back and fully three-dimensionalize her,” Willimon told the Chicago Tribune. “Rachel was so fantastic when we brought her back that I just wanted to write for her more and more.”
16. PRESIDENT WALKER AND SECRETARY OF STATE DURANT ARE MARRIED.
In real life, Michael Gill and Jayne Atkinson (who play former President Garrett Walker and Secretary of State Catherine Durant, respectively) have been married since October 3, 1998—a fact that was unknown to Fincher, Spacey, or the rest of the cast until they were hired. “I had four auditions. All on tape,” Gill told the New York Post in 2014. “Never met Kevin, never met David. We both got it within four or five days of each other. And then towards the end [of the audition process], they realized we were married. When we got to set none of the cast knew we were married.”
17. WILLIMON'S LOVE FOR THE WIRE IS ON FULL DISPLAY.
Fans of HBO’s critically acclaimed series The Wire (which was also shot in Baltimore) have probably recognized some familiar faces in House of Cards, which is hardly a coincidence. In a conversation on Twitter, Willimon told a fan that “My favorite show of all time is THE WIRE. BREAKING BAD = Genius. Also love SURVIVORMAN as far as reality-TV goes.”
18. CASHEW IS ACTUALLY THREE GUINEA PIGS.
There’s no doubt that the breakout star of House of Cards’ second season was Cashew, the meme-tastic guinea pig BFF of hacker Gavin (Jimmi Simpson). The role is actually played by a trio of guinea pigs—Oscar, Lucas, and Encore—though trainer Carol Rosen told Vulture that it was Oscar who was used for about 90 percent of the scenes.
19. CHINA LOVES FRANK UNDERWOOD.
House of Cards has found an enormous audience in China, where it streams on Sohu, the Chinese equivalent of Netflix. In 2014, the company reported that, of the 24.5 million people who watched House of Cards, the majority of them were government employees. Wang Qishan, one of the Communist Party of China’s most powerful leaders, is reportedly one of the series’ most ardent fans.
20. PRESIDENT OBAMA HATES HOUSE OF CARDS SPOILERS!
One day before House of Cards’ second season premiered in 2013, POTUS took time to tweet a warning to his tens of millions of followers:
Tomorrow: @HouseOfCards. No spoilers, please.
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) February 13, 2014
(Which we guess also means that even the President can’t get an advance copy.)
21. ONE OF FRANK UNDERWOOD’S MOST ICONIC LINES WAS QUOTING FINCHER.
Early on in the first season, Frank Underwood breaks the fourth wall to tell the audience: “You know what I like about people? They stack so well.” Though it was Willimon who was responsible for writing the line into the script, the dialogue itself was taken from Fincher. It was reportedly his direct response to a line producer who, on the set of the disastrous Alien 3, suggested the notoriously meticulous director try to be more of a “people person.”
22. UNDERWOOD’S PORTRAIT IS HANGING IN THE NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY.
At the premiere of House of Cards’ new season last month, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. unveiled its latest acquisition, a portrait of Frank Underwood, which will hang alongside its collection of presidential portraits through October.