As the newly minted Vice President on Netflix's House of Cards, Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey) is the worst kind of political shark – he has to keep moving upward, or else he dies. In the second season, Underwood's main target is his own commander in chief, Garrett Walker, played by Broadway veteran Michel Gill. A mild-mannered pushover, Walker spends the season caught in the middle of a political war between Underwood and his longtime mentor, energy titan Raymond Tusk ...
(Major House of Cards spoilers below!)
… until the two men eventually team up and force him to resign from office, leaving Underwood the most powerful man in the world. It's an ignominious end for any pol, made doubly ironic by the fact that Walker was one of the few House of Cards operatives to show any sign of a conscience.
We spoke to Gill about playing the president, how House of Cards is like Shakespeare, and why viewers might be a little too tough on his character.
Let's start with the big question of the season: Was Walker a bad president, or was he just caught in a bad situation?
It's very hard to watch this show and handle Frank Underwood. He's crossed a line. We immediately think back to our own political system and think, "Could this really happen? How can the president be so gullible?" If you flash back to the 1600s, when they were sitting watching Richard III, you know they were thinking the same thing: "How can anybody get away with this stuff?" But today, we see it and we go with it. We're not so deeply enmeshed with the political system of the time.
This is a tragedy about a highly sophisticated villain. You've got to realize, at every level of humanity, people are easily manipulated. Presidents have so much advice coming to them all the time. You're watching Walker take Tusk's advice, or Underwood's advice and you think "Oh God!" In my reality, he has a lot of advisors coming in and out – and he makes a big mistake in letting his sources of influence cloud his judgement.
He was vulnerable because of his relationship with Tusk?
He fell into this extraordinary thing, this battle between Tusk and Underwood, and he had to make a choice. This is where things got on shaky ground: They're artful manipulators. He's a husband and a father, and there's weakness there. That's where they nailed him.
A lot of critiques of the second season wonder how he ever got elected in the first place.
All I have to say is, why would Othello be general? Why would Duncan be king? Why would all these people be higher than Richard III? Because Richard III's the guy.
It's easier to play that in a monarchy. Those guys are king because their dad was king.
We do not have the opportunity to see how Walker got elected. But the fact is, he is a consummate politician, he does have strong ideas, but we've put him in a situation where he's being manipulated. If you look at Othello being completely distorted, psychologically and emotionally by Iago, it's frustrating to the audience. But you're still on pins and needles the whole time.
Was it hard playing Walker's weaknesses, while still keeping that presidential gravitas?
It's hard to play the president. When you look at people playing CEOs, generals, congressmen, you can get away with being faceless. You cannot get away with that playing the president. That recognition, that connection to secrets and power: It's very hard for an actor to play that. You have to have Kevin [react to me as] president, and the woman who plays my chief of staff play [react to me as] president, and the Oval Office set [react to me as] president. You have to rely on those sources, so that you can actually sit and make the choices that need to be made.
What was your favorite scene to play?
One of my favorite scenes to play was the one where I bring in the punching bag, and I have Frank come in. It really made me work my weight and get under his skin. Regardless of the actual scene, I also just enjoyed when my wife [Jayne Atkinson, who plays the secretary of state] was on set. We'd be sitting in the cabinet meeting and just before they'd call action, we'd look over and go, "This is kind of fun."
You and your wife, alongside the rest of the cast, have a background in theater. What does that add to the show?
Because this is a very Shakespearean tale, because there is a lot of language involved, Kevin was interested in people with a lot of experience in that. [Theater] helps with the language, and the understanding of what we are imposing on a realistic political system. Buckingham and Banquo – all these characters are steeped in that.
Now that Frank's president, is there anyone in the cast who could be a real threat to him? He has skated by pretty easily so far.
I think Frank is his own worst enemy. With this great power hunger, one undermines one's self. Now, there are formidable characters who could take him down – I think Claire matches quite well – but I think there's no doubt, however long this show goes, it's about his rise and fall.
What kind of president do you think Frank will be?
What kind of president do you think he will be?
It's hard, because he wants power, but the audience thinks: Now what?
I think he was in a better position before. The biggest frustration about being president is walking into the office and realizing that everything is much different than it really appears. You realize the lack of power you have. Frank's issue is going to be how he deals with things he can't get.
What's your dream post-presidential career for Walker?
I think he'd get into global initiatives, like Clinton. He's going to have a very strong career in bettering the world in all kinds of ways. But I can't imagine he would just walk away without having some deep issues with the way things went down.
Let's close with some presidential fan fiction: What would happen if Frank Underwood was on The West Wing as Jed Bartlett's vice president?
Bartlett's down. That's the wonderful thing about a villain. There's nobody he cannot take down. It depends on the personality, and what side of him Frank's chipping away at, but nobody's safe, everybody's down. It's just a matter of how.