Having the chance to work with David Fincher was a "no-brainer" for Corey Stoll.
For Stoll, who had a standout role in Woody Allen‘s Midnight in Paris as writer Ernest Hemingway, the material provided in the scripts for Netflix’s scripted original House of Cards — and the unrivaled pedigree behind the series — factored into his decision to pursue the 13-episode project.
In House of Cards, penned by Beau Willimon, Stoll slips into the role of drug and alcohol-addicted congressman Peter Russo, who symbolizes the polar opposite to Kevin Spacey‘s cool, but manipulative, Francis Underwood. Russo and Underwood form an unlikely alliance, of sorts, and over the course of the season, the repercussions of which slowly unravel.
Stoll spoke to The Hollywood Reporter recently about jumping into a hot project, the pros and cons of binge-watching and the most surprising reaction to Russo he’s come across.
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[Warning: Spoilers ahead.]
The Hollywood Reporter: This was a highly anticipated project. How did this all come together for you and how would this project rank among the others you’ve done?
Corey Stoll: [Laughs] Well, you don’t want to rank things because it’s like picking your favorite child. I’ve been incredibly lucky throughout my career, just in that I feel like my favorite job is always my last job. There were a lot of things about this that were new for me and I was really excited. I really saw this season as a long film and so to have all that time to tell [the story] was really great. And of course, the pedigree was super high. The material is always paramount and that was what really attracted me to the project. I read the script and in talking with David [Fincher] about where the character was going. I feel like I could’ve done this for years. There were so many dimensions to the character that it was a no-brainer to really pursue.
THR: A lot of people who watched the show say they would spend six hours watching six or seven episodes straight. Do you find that kind of funny?
Stoll: Yeah it was interesting. I didn’t see that coming. I was watching the first four and a half seasons of Breaking Bad while we were shooting the season and definitely having that experience of "Ok, just one more, just one more," and suddenly it’s the next morning. But for some reason, when we were shooting House of Cards, I was like "I think this is going to be really good, but I don’t think it’s going to have that same compulsive watching aspect to it." Then when I saw it, I was shocked. It was very difficult to not just watch the next one. I don’t know exactly how I feel about it because on some level it’s great to have a show that people are compulsively watching but then the series ends and you’re like, “Oh, but it took us so long to film that!"
THR: How long did it take you to film?
Stoll: It was six months.
THR: And people are watching six months of work in one day.
Stoll: Right, but you could do a big blockbuster movie that takes six months to shoot and it’s only two hours.
THR: How would you describe Peter Russo? He goes through quite a few changes.
Stoll: When the series began he is a grown-up frat boy. He’s used to getting what he needs through charm and [he has] just a certain innate sense of entitlement, and it seems to be working. The system around him seems to be complicit in his frat boy entitlement — and he gets caught. As the season goes on, it’s about that tension between what’s least painful for him and that side of him that wants to stick his head in the sand and go the path of least resistance, ignoring the reality of what he’s doing, and the side of him that realizes he has the power and the chance to make a difference in his hometown and in Congress and as a partner in his relationship with Christina and as a father. I think, in a sad, twisted way it’s a coming-of-age story. He really is a child and he’s being forced to grow up all at once. That’s what was really exciting was playing that tension between the huge potential this character has and the very compulsive need for immediate gratification and pain relief that he has.
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THR: What’s a standout moment for you? Is there something that really stuck out for you over the course of the season?
Stoll: There were very few scenes that were placeholders, getting you from one plot point to another, like you have to do very often in TV shows. Almost every scene had some sort of dilemma to be worked through and I was very lucky with that. Definitely in episode five when he confronts Francis, that’s really where the internal struggles become external and where the character clicks into a much more active place because he’s been struggling privately. By episode five, they become too painful to bear on his own and they explode out. [It was] a very exciting scene to shoot but very difficult. It showed me where this character could go and that was a big day on set for me.
THR: In terms of?
Stoll: Just in terms of how expressive this character can be, the size of his pain and his internal emotional life, and also how high the stakes are. This really is life and death for this character. For the first time, the reality of what he’s done to his constituents and the reality the way his actions or lack of actions affect thousands of people on a day-to-day basis was really compelling. It was interesting, even though this show is incredibly cynical, I found myself walking away with a lot more empathy for people in Congress, shockingly. If you’re in Congress, you have to run every two years so you’re in a constant race. You’re constantly raising money, constantly in this mode of selling yourself and in the meantime, you’re actions affect thousands, millions of people. I don’t know how you can switch back and forth between those modes with getting lost a little bit.
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THR: Does this governorship thing play into that?
Stoll: I think there are two sides to that. For Peter, the governorship means redemption to him on a certain level. The race goes hand in hand with the sobriety. It’s a goal to attain and a chance to prove something to himself. But it also represents the more narcissistic side to him too. It’s another brass ring to reach for.
THR: Russo and his relationship with Francis was an interesting dynamic to watch. How did you see it as it evolved over the season?
Stoll: In the pilot, Russo is asked for his loyalty in a very vague way. We decided as a team that for Russo, it’s always easier to say yes. He promises fidelity to Christina, he promises all these things to his constituents and he can deal with disappointed people later, but that’s later. So when he says to [Francis] Underwood, "Yeah, anything," he’s able to mean it in the moment — but it’s meaningless. And as he’s being asked to do more and more concrete things until eventually he has to sell out Philadelphia; he’s pushed too far. He’s pushed the limits of being able to please everyone around him because it’s literally impossible. He can’t please Underwood and his constituents and Christina all at the same time, and he breaks. That’s when Francis offers the idea of the governorship and suddenly, it becomes a father-son relationship; a very manipulative and stern father but one that Peter clearly never had. He responds to that kind of authority and his inner desire to please those around him leads toward continuing loyalty to Francis. It’s a question for Kevin [Spacey] to figure out what his side of the equation was. It’s a relationship that starts out antagonistic and very one-sided but I like to think that the conclusion of my character’s story costs something to Francis.
THR: You had a few scenes that were pretty difficult to watch. Can you recall the hardest moment to film?
Stoll: In terms of the level of pain he endures, when he tries to speak to his children and is rejected. I don’t have children but even reading that script was so painful and I can’t imagine a more humiliating and painful thing to go through than being rejected by your own children like that and know they’re right. It’s the most difficult thing to do but that’s what actors live for: to be able to play such an extreme situation and so tragic.
THR: I know awards season is a bit early but have you thought about an episode that might appeal to those who make those decisions?
Stoll: I honestly don’t know how that all works. In terms of picking an episode, again they’re all my babies. There is a handful of episode where I got to do some really fun stuff but I almost feel like I should let the girlfriend choose one. I lived all that stuff so I’m very proud of the work, so I’m not really objective. The great thing about creating art is that you send it out into the world and other people own it. It’s theirs. I don’t get to tell people how to react or say what their favorite part is. They get to do that.
THR: What the most surprising reaction you’ve come across in terms of the how House of Cards or Russo was received?
Stoll: It’s funny, I’m not on Twitter but I did look a couple times, searching Peter Russo and there are a few people who seem to think he’s some sort of role model. I hope they’re being ironic. I think he might be fun to hang out with for a weekend but I certainly wouldn’t to depend on him for anything.
THR: What was filming like with David Fincher? He’s known to create singular experiences; could you say the same for you? How was he different from other directors you’ve worked with, like Woody Allen?
Stoll: It was definitely a learning curve. [Fincher] wasn’t able to do 100 takes like he did with The Social Network. That’s the thing, he’s working about four or five times as fast as he usually does in terms of pages per day so it wasn’t the full Fincher experience. But he does control the rhythm on set in an incredible way and uses the strengths of shooting on digital in a way that nobody I’ve worked with has and when you walk on set, it’s his set. He moves things along and forces you to focus in a way that few directors can. When you walk on his set, there’s no downtime. Things are constantly moving and adjusting which is very good for everyone involved. There’s a focus on the work that’s rigorous and exhausting but it forces everyone to step up their game.