While his acting career reaches all the way back to Chatsworth High in the San Fernando Valley where he starred opposite Mare Winningham in the "The Sound of Music," Spacey's rise to stardom did not begin until 1986 when he was cast as the eldest son in a Jack-Lemmon-led production of Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night."
Spacey says "Se7en" is one reason he decided to join Fincher in "House of Cards."
"It gave me a chance to work with a director I have admired who gave me an extraordinary opportunity when I was starting out in film," he says.
The '90s roll continued with "L.A. Confidential," "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" and "American Beauty," for which he earned the best-actor Oscar.
In 2003, Spacey made an extraordinary 10-year commitment to serve as artistic director at London's Old Vic Theatre. He exceeded expectations — in part with productions like the one that recently featured him as Richard III on stage at the Old Vic and as the conniving hunchback in a 10-month worldwide tour that ended just before he came to Baltimore last year.
"I can't think of a better preparation than Richard III, because there's a lot of Richard III in Francis Underwood," Willimon said last year before filming began.
'Bad for the greater good'
Spacey, too, notes the characters' similarities — the ambition and the use of direct address, which he calls "a remarkable experience as an actor."
Recalling his experience as Richard III, Spacey says, "In 198 performances around the world, I was able to look into audiences' eyes in cities as far away as Istanbul and Beijing and see the relish and the excitement and the naughtiness that an audience absolutely adores when they feel they are being let in on something that nobody else [on stage] is being let in on, when they feel they are co-conspirators."
Those memories fuel his work on soundstages in Baltimore, he says.
"In this series, I'm obviously just looking down the barrel of a lens," he explains. "But I do have that memory of lots and lots and lots of faces ... and it really helped me understand how to play it on the set."
Still, he says, "I am not playing Richard III, and I am not doing anything that I did in the play 'Richard III,' which is a big, theatrical, gigantic kind of production. And this, I hope, is a bit subtler."
Other personalities inform Underwood as well. Spacey points out that the South Carolina congressman has hung pictures of President Lyndon Baines Johnson in his office.
"Johnson is a character Francis admires because — while there is no doubt as he ended his presidency he was so tainted by the Vietnam War — what he accomplished as president, two civil rights bills and many other accomplishments, has sort of been forgotten," he says. "But I think he's now being re-examined as a politician. And one of the things that's fascinating ... is that you look at a guy like Johnson, and you say, 'Yeah, he was ruthless. Yeah, he was a son of a bitch. Yeah, he negotiated like a pit bull. But he was effective. He got s--- done.'"
And that leads to philosophical questions that Spacey hopes the series will raise in viewers' minds.
"We have a tag line that says, 'Bad for the greater good,'" Spacey says. "That's an interesting and complicated thing for an audience to explore. It's an interesting thing for America to explore at a time when we are watching and have been watching a Congress that doesn't get anything done.
"So, the questions of, 'Morally do the ends justify the means? Is it OK to be bad for the greater good?' — I think, all those things at this moment in our political life ... are going to give an audience a lot to chew on," he says.
Keeping it complicated