Harford residents, economy reap the benefits of 'House of Cards'

Kirsten and Kyle Johnson, of Forest Hill, play the First Daughter and First Son of the President of the United States in the new Netflix series "House of Cards," which premieres Friday night. Filming for the show is based in Harford County.
Kirsten and Kyle Johnson, of Forest Hill, play the First Daughter and First Son of the President of the United States in the new Netflix series "House of Cards," which premieres Friday night. Filming for the show is based in Harford County. (Photo courtesy of Amy Johnson, Homestead Publishing)

Check out the trailer of the new Netflix series "House of Cards" and in it you'll see the fictional President of the United States and his two children. In real life, the children are Forest Hill residents Kyle and Kirsten Johnson.

"They're not huge parts," as Kirsten, a sophomore at Bel Air High, says, but "we can definitely see ourselves."


The Johnsons are looking forward to Friday night's debut of "House of Cards," the Washington, D.C., political drama starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. Much of the series was filmed in Harford County, where the series' main studio is located, and in Baltimore.

To see "House of Cards," you have to subscribe to Netflix at http://www.netflix.com. It's not available on conventional cable TV or satellite channels.


While the first season debuts Friday, production crews are already getting ready for season two filming, which begins in the spring, Jack Gerbes, of the Maryland Film Office, said. That means more preparations and more casting calls.

Hundreds of people turned out at the Reckord Armory in Bel Air for two separate casting calls – in June and September – hoping to land extra parts in the first season.

Having "House of Cards" based in Harford County has been an economic boon for local businesses, as well as an opportunity for professionals in the entertainment industry, Gerbes said.

"Any time a film production of this size and scope comes to any specific area, it's going to generate a lot of revenue for local businesses," Gerbes, who lives in Forest Hill, said. "Then there's perhaps something you can't put finger on, the sense of excitement and pride being generated in the county."


Besides the Johnsons getting roles as the president's children and others from Harford being used as extras, Edgewood's Marvin Ruffin was hired as an assistant location manager and the City of Havre de Grace is featured prominently in the third episode, when Congressman Francis Underwood, played by Spacey, returns to his home town of Gaffney, S.C. Havre de Grace was used for the Gaffney scenes.

Acting bug

Kyle and Kirsten Johnson are interested in acting. Kirsten says she would like to pursue it full-time, and hopes to move to California after high school.

"I like to do it, and I'd like to get enough roles to make a living at it so I don't have to give it up because it's so much fun," Kirsten said. "I just like the actual idea of acting because I'm good at it and I like to do it. I think it's fun. It's cool to get to be someone else."

Most recently, Kirsten appeared on "America's Most Wanted," playing a 15-year-old prostitute.

"I got to re-enact a murder. I was a prostitute beaten to death with a baseball bat," she said.

Kyle, on the other hand, is considering a major in business management in college. He's narrowed his choices to five schools and is just waiting on letters back.

"I'm not as excited as [Kirsten] is to pursue her career," Kyle said. "I see it as something I could do on the side. She sees it as more of a career."

The siblings are represented by an agent, who suggested they try out for the role of the First Son and First Daughter in "House of Cards."

"We auditioned, they called us back and told us we got it," Kirsten said.

They're both excited to watch the premiere Friday night, and have already seen themselves on the trailer.

"We're very excited to watch it. It will be cool to see all the people we got to meet on television, because they were all so cool and all so nice," Kirsten said.

Kyle, who plays baseball for Bel Air High, said he likes the technical aspects of the show.

"I think it's pretty exciting just seeing how they fix everything, make you look good to entertain the audience," he said.

Making a whole scene of people when just a couple were used in filming and other technicalities is interesting.

"What they can do with technology these days is crazy," he said.

For "House of Cards," the two spent two long days filming their scenes, mostly singing "Auld Lang Syne" at a New Year's party. They don't have any lines other than the singing.

"It was long days, but it was really fun, because the people there were really nice," Kirsten said.

Both say they loved their roles.

"I thought it was a great experience. All the people were nice," Kyle said. "When you walking in there they made you feel like you were part of the family. It was so welcoming and friendly."

They both liked Spacey, and bowled with him at a cast party. Kyle was impressed that Spacey remembered them the next time he saw them.

"It was just nice to see he remembered us and he referred to us as 'The Bowling Team,'" Kyle said.

Location, location, location

Ruffin grew up in Baltimore and moved to Edgewood, where he bought a condo, in 2008, after wrapping up work on "The Wire," the HBO crime drama based and filmed in Baltimore.

He's been in the film business for 14 years. He started by doing security, then worked his way through the production ranks and has finally found something the likes to do and something he says he's good at.

"The personality I have is good to being a location guy. That's what I've been good at. So far I've been working a lot so I must be good at it," Ruffin said. "I found my calling."

As assistant location manager, Ruffin and his staff are responsible for the "logistics of the movie."

"Without me and my department, the only thing they have is a script and actors," he said.

His department needs to figure out where they'll shoot, what they'll shoot and when, when people can enter and leave an area, getting security – you name, he does it.

"House of Cards," he said, has been "one of the most rewarding shows I have worked on."

"I get a big rewarding feeling out of seeing the city I grew up made into a 13-episode TV show. And make [Washington] D.C. come alive in Baltimore," he said "And I get to work with Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, these people are awesome at their craft."

Havre de Grace episode

As for Havre de Grace, St. John Street and North Washington Street in the city's will be the most obvious to local viewers, Ruffin said Wednesday They're the main streets of Gaffney, population 13,126.

During the shooting, the crew hung out a large sign that said "Welcome to Gaffney" at the crossroads of Washington Street and Congress Avenue. Another sign, at St. John and Green streets, directed traffic to the "South Carolina Route 120."

Ruffin said the Havre de Grace episode, filmed early last June, was "his baby."

He spent hours searching for just the right places to film.

"Havre de Grace is the spitting image of Gaffney, South Carolina," Ruffin said.


At one point, Harford County Executive David Craig's house on Congress Avenue was going to double as the house of the South Carolina governor, but Ruffin said they ultimately chose another house.


Besides filming at a few other Havre de Grace homes, crews shot a car accident scene on Route 155 at the Hopkins Farm near Level.

Ruffin said everyone was great to work with in Havre de Grace, including Mayor Wayne Dougherty, who got to meet Spacey.

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