It could have been just a job — spend six years in Baltimore filming Netflix’s “House of Cards,” then simply move on to the next role.
But that’s not how it happened for Michael Kelly, so memorable (and thrice Emmy-nominated) as Doug Stamper, devoted underling to Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and doer of much of the dirty work Underwood himself couldn’t handle.
Kelly, a New Yorker with roots in Georgia, grew to love the city, he says, living in Harbor East, taking runs along the waterfront to Fells Point, having dinner at the James Joyce Irish Pub. “Now that I’m away from it, and I know that, in my schedule, I’m not going back anytime soon for work, it’s hard,” Kelly says. “Not just for me, but for my family. My kids miss it, my wife misses it. … I can’t even put it into words. It’s a special place to me, and always will be.”
He’s even left the city something of what he calls a “love letter” — “All Square,” a movie set and shot in Dundalk in which he plays a reluctant father figure to a youth league pitcher, whose reluctance diminishes when he realizes there’s money to be made in taking bets on the kids’ games.
“When I read the script, I knew that it was something special,” he says of the film, which closed out May’s 20th Maryland Film Festival and has just become available on demand. “When I was on the last page, I was dialing the writer, my friend Timmy [Brady], saying ‘Where did this come from? This is incredible.’ He didn’t offer it to me, but I said, ‘Let’s make the movie.’ ”
Which they did, shooting primarily in Dundalk during the break between seasons 4 and 5 of “House of Cards.” With Kelly signed on as both lead actor and producer and John Hyams (“Dragon Eyes,” TV’s “Z Nation”) agreeing to direct, the project was good to go. With only one slight tweak.
Kelly wanted the movie set and shot in Baltimore — an accommodation he says Brady, who is from Delaware, was happy to make.
“I was, like, ‘Let’s just make it in Baltimore, man, let’s shoot it in Baltimore and we can have so many of these crew members that I’ve become family with over the past six years. … We can have some of the best in the business join us if we do it here,’ ” Kelly says. “So that was really a no-brainer.”
One reason he was so happy to do “All Square” is that the character he plays is so unlike the dark-souled Doug Stamper, who’s been forever at the beck and call of the even-darker-souled Frank Underwood on “House of Cards.” John Zbikowski may bend the law and give in to the dark side on occasion and not be the best role model a kid could have, but he’s not beyond redemption. And he gets to be funny once in a while.
“I really identified with the character in the story,” Kelly says, “I think more than anything, it was that it spoke to me with real heart. And it was hilarious at the same time. It’s a character that I certainly was not used to playing over the past six years.”
Speaking of the past six years, the sixth and final season of “House of Cards” — which wrapped in May and which totally excludes Kevin Spacey, who was fired from the series last November after sexual assault charges against him went public — will become available on Netflix Nov. 2.
In the wake of Spacey’s firing, Kelly says, the fate of the show was uncertain. But he, and much of the rest of the cast and crew, were determined to see through what had already been announced as the show’s final season. Viewers already knew that former first lady Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) had become president, that Doug Stamper was taking the fall (unjustly) for the season 2 killing of journalist Zoe Barnes, and that the country is on the brink of war with the terrorist group ICO.
“When you have someone like Robin Wright step up, a woman who I hold in the highest regard, as an actor and a person … when you have somebody like that to step up and be willing to take the reins, it took a certain pressure off the situation,” Kelly says. “It became about doing it for the crew and the fans, and for us.”
The allegations against Spacey, he says, were a shock, one he’s still grappling with. “When you hear something like that, you have a million things that go through your head, from shock to disbelief to how, to where, when, what. It’s very hard for me to put into words, and still is, for whatever reason. Maybe because I was so close to everything.”
But even with Frank Underwood dead and buried (that much of his fate has been shown in trailers advancing the season 6 release), Kelly, who’ll be showing up in the second season of the Amazon series “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan,” is confident fans will find plenty to latch onto when “House of Cards” drops its final episodes next month. While he won’t reveal details of his character’s fate or anyone else’s, he promises the series will continue its propensity for wickedly catching viewers off guard.
“I feel pretty confident there’s going to be a lot of people going ‘What!?’ all through the season,” Kelly says. “You can’t wait to see the cards fall, right?”