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'House of Cards' star Kevin Spacey blurs cultural lines in D.C.

Kevin Spacey poses for a photo with a portrait of President Frank Underwood (from the Netflix series "House Of Cards") at a press conference hosted by The Smithsonian and Netflix at the National Portrait Gallery on February 22, 2016 in Washington, DC.
Kevin Spacey poses for a photo with a portrait of President Frank Underwood (from the Netflix series "House Of Cards") at a press conference hosted by The Smithsonian and Netflix at the National Portrait Gallery on February 22, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for Netflix)

WASHINGTON — As if the line between entertainer and president was not blurred enough by Donald Trump's candidacy, Kevin Spacey came to Washington on Monday for the unveiling at the Smithsonian of a portrait of President Francis J. Underwood, the character he plays in Netflix's "House of Cards."

As Spacey and the British artist Jonathan Yeo held forth onstage at a press conference about the image, the presidential portrait of Underwood stood alongside where the actor sat. The man was dressed informally in blue sport coat, black pants and blue suede shoes. The character is depicted in his presidential business suit of armor, looking you straight in the eye with a slight smirk on his face.

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The press conference was intended to focus on the portrait, and it is a culturally fascinating creation, which Yeo and Spacey both spoke eloquently about.

But the event was also supposed to cover the "next season of 'House of Cards,'" which arrives March 4, and that didn't really happen — despite the best efforts of reporters on hand. Spacey was giving nothing away on what's in store for viewers. Nor was he sharing his thoughts on Trump and the 2016 election, a question asked several different ways by different reporters ranging from "The Guardian" to "The Hill."

"Listen, I have an election to win myself. I can't spend any time thinking about what's going on [in] the real world," Spacey said jokingly when pressed on Trump and the current field of candidates. "I have a fictional election to win."

When another reporter reminded him that he had commented on the 2016 election in the past, calling it "amusing," he said only, "It's getting less amusing."

He did explain his reluctance to bite on the election when asked by yet another reporter who among the surviving candidates he would support.

"That's an impossible question for me to answer," he said. "Nor do I want to weigh in. Jonathan expressed quite well the melding between fact and fiction [in the portrait and media culture.] I play a fictional character on a television show. I'm delighted that we're able to explore politics the way we are, but that's nothing but a trapdoor for me that I don't want to fall through."

Spacey did open up a bit in reaction to a question I asked about how his relationship to Underwood had changed over the four seasons.

"My relationships with the characters is that I am there to serve the writers, there to serve the story," he said "And I am an actor who does not in any way, shape or form, sit in judgment of the characters I play. That kind of relationship I don't have. My job is to play the character as fully as I can without apology — warts and all. And I'm incredibly delighted and pleased when people refer to a character like Frank Underwood as a three-dimensional person. It means the character has come through. People never talk about me — they talk about the character."

Except Spacey has enormous control in this production, because he is the franchise, and my sense is that the writers are there to a great extent to serve him — especially with showrunner Beau Willimon gone.

But he did explain how he stays jazzed on the character.

"What's been exciting and very dynamic and revealing is that as I've gone long [in the role] and we decide what layer of the onion we want to peel back — or put another layer on — is what I learned about Frank that I didn't know when we first began," he said.

"To me that's a very exciting place to find myself as an actor — not coming to the set every day thinking I know everything about this character and I know how to play this character in every situation, because I don't.  He keeps getting revealed to me as the runway that we're on continues. That's the incredibly exciting aspect of this performance for me: learning what I don't know."

Both Spacey and Yeo offered insights into how the media landscape of today influenced the portrait.

"I think what's really interesting about the portrait is that it almost looks like you're looking through a lens or images in frames, I suppose. There's a sense that it's through something, and I think that's very interesting given that we're streaming," Spacey said, referring to the landmark way Netflix delivers the series to viewers.

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Yeo explained that while the setting of the portrait tries to "mimic the formality of an official portrait," in terms of style, he's "lashed it through with brushstrokes to suggest this as a digital image flickering on the screen.

He said he was trying to suggest with those brushstrokes "what this show has meant to media."

For one last bit of line blurring, Spacey was asked what Underwood would think of the portrait.

"I think that if you compare it to what Frank spends a good amount time of doing, which is looking you directly in the eye and telling you exactly what he thinks, I think this is pretty good direct address," Spacey said. "So, I think he'd be pleased with it," Spacey said.

Now that you're in the "House of Cards" mood, here's  a look at the first hour of Season 4.

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