'House Of Cards' Star Wright, Creator Willimon On Love And Power

The Netflix original series House of Cards launches its second season Friday. Morning Edition co-host David Greene talks to series creator Beau Willimon and star Robin Wright, who plays the ruthless Claire Underwood and directed part of the new season.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Happy Valentine's Day to "House of Cards" fans and your gift: a weekend of binge-watching. The political thriller is an original series produced by Netflix. And today, all 13 episodes of the new season, the show's second, are available.

Our own David Greene got a sneak peek.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

"House of Cards" paints one nasty picture of Washington. It's the story of Frank Underwood, a cold and calculating congressman. His wife, Claire Underwood, is just as evil. The couple thirsts for power and usually gets what they want. Right from the start of Season 2, we see Claire as her manipulative self. She's confronted by a former employee who is suing her. The woman is pregnant, in need of medication. Claire has arranged to cut off her health care to pressure the woman into a deal.

(SOUNDBITE OF NETFLIX SERIES, "HOUSE OF CARDS")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) You realize what you are doing is...

ROBIN WRIGHT: (as Claire Underwood) Is civil, criminal.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) Have you thought this out 'cause when we go to court...

WRIGHT: (as Claire Underwood) You mean six months from now? You're expecting in four, no? That's four months without the medicine you need. I'm willing to let your child wither and die inside you, if that's what's required. But neither of us wants that. Now tell me, am I really the sort of enemy you want to make?

GREENE: Robin Wright plays Claire Underwood. She earned an Emmy nomination for the role. She and the creator of the series, Beau Willimon, came in to chat with us. Welcome to you both.

BEAU WILLIMON: Hi.

WRIGHT: Hi.

GREENE: Robin Wright, I want to begin with you. Do you like the character you're playing here? She's evil.

WILLIMON: Oh, I don't see her as evil. She's just very responsible.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: OK.

WILLIMON: I have to like her. I love playing it. Actually, it's the most fun to be a scheming and calculating and successful. How great.

The characters certainly don't see themselves as evil. Frank and Claire don't necessarily operate on the same ethical spectrum that a lot of people do. The choices they make are for political expediency and the advancement of their own ascent to power. And one of the big questions that "House of Cards" asks is: What are these two people capable of? It's a question that they're constantly forced to answer, both to themselves and to us, the audience.

GREENE: Well, Beau Willimon, what is your fascination with power?

WILLIMON: Power is something that pervades all of our lives, not just in the workplace but at home between our loved ones, and sometimes in very simple ways. If someone butts in front of you in line at the grocery store, that's an act of power. You know, with this show, what we see are two people who make a living masterfully playing the power game.

GREENE: You bring up the interplay between Frank and Claire. And this marriage, I mean it is so transactional in a way. It's so calculating. Can love exist in a relationship like that?

WILLIMON: First of all, I'd say all relationships are transactional. Love is transactional; how much you give yourself to someone, how vulnerable you are willing to let yourself to be. And that's no different for Francis and Claire. I think they deeply love one another. There's extreme mutual respect and they rely on each other's strength. If they didn't have love then I don't think they would be able to persist the way they do for as long as they have.

WRIGHT: A great quote that I read that did the article on Beau, for the New York Times, I think. And he said that the new vows for Francis and Claire Underwood would be: In ambition and venality and mutual gain for ever and ever.

(LAUGHTER)

WRIGHT: You couldn't sum it up better than that.

GREENE: Very nice - not a wedding I'd want to go to. But it's - but there do seem, Robin Wright, to be some moments where love doesn't feel transactional, where there's a real purity and vulnerability to it.

WRIGHT: I mean yes, absolutely. And if you're referring to Season 1, what was beautiful in that that Beau wrote is how it came to the surface, how it started to emerge, the vulnerability. Which is at the end of the day, we're all human as venal...

(LAUGHTER)

WRIGHT: ...as it can be and corrupt, they're still human underneath it all.

GREENE: In the first season there was one character, a female reporter, who tried to sleep with the Congressman Frank Underwood to get scoops. And ultimately she was basically being used, being played by him. There were some female journalists in Washington who suggested that that wasn't a really accurate portrayal. I mean what do you think overall is this show's betrayal of women?

WILLIMON: Well, we're not trying to portray all of media through Zoe Barnes.

GREENE: She's was the reporter, right?

WILLIMON: She's not meant to be a prototype for the way that all journalists work. And I actually think you characterized it a little wrong in terms of the relationship with Francis, because she does show up that first time to his house. And when she tries to play the sexual card that does not impress him, he has no interest in that. And it's her intelligence, her insight, her perceptiveness that ultimately makes Francis think that she might be formidable.

And the bargain is not necessarily one of: If we sleep together you get your scoops. It becomes a complicated dance between these two people, one who has power and one wants access to it.

GREENE: Robin Wright, did some of that criticism get to you at all?

WRIGHT: No. Because, you know, we're doing a fictionalized serial. It's a political drama. Yeah, it's sensationalized in many ways. And it's also, it's a great template like any fictionalized piece. You know, don't they get so personally...

(LAUGHTER)

WRIGHT: ...even though it's true. In Washington, had a couple of people - politicians approach me - and I said can you tell me what is inaccurate about the show? And they said: Well, I have to tell you tell you it's about 99 percent accurate, if we're talking about...

GREENE: Really?

WRIGHT: It's like an instruction manual almost for D.C. And I...

GREENE: That's a little frightening.

(LAUGHTER)

WRIGHT: What's the 1 percent? And he said: You wouldn't get an education bill passed that fast.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: Oh. You know the series that your show is often compared to is "West Wing." And in the late '90s, some people saw that that show portrayed the Washington that people were dreaming of at that time. What role does "House of Cards" play, if we think about Washington at this moment?

WILLIMON: There's something very attractive about a congressman like Frank Underwood. You may not condone what he does but you cannot deny the fact that he gets things done. He poses the question, or the show does: Do the ends justify the means? We don't answer that question but at least there's ends there. And right now, in Washington, we often don't even have the ends.

GREENE: You feel like you're tapping into a certain frustration with Washington right now that some people feel.

WILLIMON: I think so. I mean there's also something delicious about a character - well, and this is true of both Francis and Claire - who refuse to play by the rules. We often wish that we could unshackle ourselves from rules and convention. And these two people have. We see two liberated people. That doesn't mean that they don't brush up against reality all that time, they don't have obstacles they need to overcome or push through. But they themselves are bound to no one but each other.

GREENE: Well, "House of Cards" the second season is released by Netflix today. We've been speaking to the show's creator Beau Willimon and actress Robin Wright. Thank you both so much for taking the time. We appreciate it.

WRIGHT: Thank you.

WILLIMON: Thanks for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

I'm Steve Inskeep.

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