Kevin Spacey in 'House of Cards'
(Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon)

It was a steamy weeknight in July on Centre Street, and the extras in black tie were flagging.

The $100 million series "House of Cards" was prepping a crowd scene outside the Peabody Institute, across from the Midtown BBQ & Brew. For more than two hours, nothing happened. Extras were herded about, lights were adjusted, and onlookers complained alternately about the heat and lack of action on the set.

Then they snapped to attention. A current moved through the crowd.

There was Kevin Spacey, in the middle of the barricaded street.

People edged closer, nudged partners, pointing in the direction of the two-time Oscar winner, who chatted and laughed with members of the crew. He was smoking a cigarette, wearing tuxedo pants and a T-shirt, suspenders hanging down around his knees. And for all the suffocating humidity, he was looking Hollywood-makeup-artist cool and fine between takes.

Star power. You might think gifted Peabody students and professors in the crowd would be mostly immune to it. But not in the case of Spacey, who had been filming on campus for several days.

"I just graduated in May, and going up in Peabody the last four years, all you heard about are all the famous people and cultural icons who have passed through the halls: Charles Dickens, Tchaikovsky and [Leonard] Bernstein," said Robert Sirois, a teacher in the summer program. "But now to see stars like Kevin Spacey. … To witness that is exciting. I'm not going to lie."

Spacey's mere presence was a lesson in star power — a power that executives behind the production hope they can parlay to draw a significant audience to an untested platform for original content: Netflix.

TV that's not on TV

Based on a brilliant 1990 BBC mini-series, "House of Cards" focuses on House Majority Whip Francis Underwood (Spacey), who is promised the job of secretary of state — only to be passed over by the new president he helped elect on the basis of that deal. The drama tells the story of the revenge Underwood extracts from the administration that did him wrong. He is helped by his beautiful and cold-blooded wife (Robin Wright) and an ambitious and ethically challenged reporter (Kate Mara).

The resulting series is the most compelling and wise televised depiction of Washington realpolitik to come along in decades.

David Fincher ("The Social Network") serves as executive producer and as director of the first two episodes. Beyond him and Spacey, much of the talk surrounding "House of Cards" has been about its potential to usher in a radically new business model for the way TV programs are made and delivered to audiences.

As Spacey puts it, " 'House of Cards' is the new television series that isn't on television."

Media Rights Capital, the global production company that financed and put the series together, abandoned the old model, in which producers shop a pilot script around to a network or cable channel, trying to get money to make the pilot.

Instead, once Fincher, Spacey and screenwriter/executive producer Beau Willimon ("Ides of March") were on board, the production company made an unprecedented commitment for two seasons' worth of 26 episodes. And bypassing TV altogether, it sold the first-run American and U.K. rights to Netflix, which began offering its more than 20 million subscribers every episode of Season One streamed online as of Feb. 1.

Welcome to the world of new media. But financing and selling a series with a such a groundbreaking distribution model would not have been possible without the kind of star power Spacey brings to the project.

"There are very few actors alive who can be so intelligent and so charming and so intimidating and so dark and complex," Modi Wiczyk, CEO of Media Rights Capital, says of the 53-year-old actor. "This guy [Francis Underwood] has to be one of the most brilliant and despicable people in the world, and you have to absolutely love him and laugh at every joke he makes."

Underwood is constantly on screen. He addresses the audience directly, a la Richard III. (In a similar Shakesperean undertone, his wife will evoke Lady Macbeth in the minds of some).

"It's an incredibly complex role to play, because we are involved in the show in a way that we are not in others, as he keeps turning to us and telling us what he's going to do. We have a relationship with that character that's very intimate," Wiczyk says. "And there's just no one else who could do it. It was so obvious that it had to be him. When David [Fincher] came on board, the first call he made and we made was to Kevin."

The rise to stardom

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."

The '90s were his breakthrough decade. He won a Tony in 1991 in Neil Simon's "Lost in Yonkers." Then came a number of knockout supporting roles in film, including a serial killer in Fincher's "Se7en" and an Oscar-winning turn in "The Usual Suspects."

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

Spacey likes complicated. The first two adjectives he chooses to describe his experience at the Old Vic are "complicated and challenging" — and he means that only in a good way.

It's a quality that figures into his choice to sign on for 26 episodes of what is essentially a TV series that will be streamed online rather than, say, a feature film.

"I'm a big fan of complicated story arcs. And we've seen over the last 10 years, as the studios have focused less and less on the kinds of dramas that certainly I was fortunate to do in the '90s, that void has been filled by television," he says. "And it makes sense to me that actors, directors and writers would head in that direction."

Still, a schedule that will require him to live in Baltimore six months at a time for the filming of each 13 is a big lifestyle commitment. But he says the end of his term at the Old Vic offers an opportunity.

"It seemed like a perfectly good time to accept a job that is a lengthy one that offered me a fantastic part and gave me a chance to work with a director I have admired," he says.

He also says he likes the city to which he will be returning this spring.

"I think Baltimore has gotten a bad rap. A lot of people talk about Baltimore and they talk about 'The Wire' and they talk about the violence," he says. "It's like, 'Hey, hey, hey, you've obviously been there for a weekend.' Or, 'You only watched "The Wire."' I've really actually gotten to know Baltimore, because I wasn't in and out. I was there for six months."

He's also spent time in Washington and Annapolis, where he's been spotted at Navy games and at restaurants.

"But I really enjoy being in Baltimore, and I'm glad we're calling it home. It's a vibrant, exciting city. You look at what happened on the waterfront. … It worked," he says. "There are so many incredible things going on there … the great diners, the great music places, a couple of really awesome bookstores …"

And now, Kevin Spacey bringing a little star power to old Mount Vernon on a sweltering summer's night.