Emmy Talk: ‘House of Cards’ Star Joel Kinnaman on Verbal Sparring with Kevin Spacey and His Upcoming Netflix Sci-Fi Drama


Kevin Spacey and Joel Kinnaman in House of Cards. (Photos: Netflix)

As we enter Emmy season — nomination voting runs June 13 to 27 — Yahoo TV will be spotlighting performances, writing, and other contributions that we feel deserve recognition.

He should’ve gotten Lead Actor love for The Killing. But academy voters have the chance to make it up to Joel Kinnaman with a Supporting Actor nomination for Season 4 of House of Cards, in which he plays New York Gov. — and Republican POTUS contender — Will Conway.

Conway is a charming, highly photogenic family man and military veteran, and despite the many others who’ve gone up against Frank Underwood (and lived, or not, to regret it), he may just be the guy old F.U. can least afford to underestimate. Kinnaman’s confident, layered performance — we just know there’s some big stuff yet to be revealed about Mr. Conway! — made his character and his showdowns with the plotting President Underwood among the best reasons to binge-watch Season 4.

Kinnaman, who’ll star in the summer blockbuster Suicide Squad before continuing to battle Frank in Season 5, talked to Yahoo TV about his playlike face-off with Kevin Spacey’s prez in Season 4, getting the chance to help shape his character with the collaborative Beau Willimon and House of Cards writers, and the surreal experience of Season 4 not being able to out-outrageous real world politics.

Oh, and for our fellow fans of The Killing, Kinnaman has a really great idea about what Stephen Holder and Sarah Linden might be up to these days.

Yahoo TV: Will’s the first character that really felt like a formidable opponent for Frank, the kind of opponent we’ve been waiting to go up against Frank.
Joel Kinnaman: Thank you. That’s awesome to hear. I mean, that was my hope going into it. I thought it was such a great character. Beau Willimon’s writing is just delicious, and it was real cool to feel how, on the outside, they seem very different, Will and Frank, but then when it gets down to it, they’re two very similar animals. They just kind of went at it.

You were a fan of the show, right, before you signed on?
Oh, yeah. I don’t think it ever [took] more than three days before I finished a season when it came out.

What, specifically, attracted you to the Will role?
I mean, probably the position that he was in… a presidential candidate that’s already so far along. When you’re on a show where the writing is so good, you get a little bit of a feel for what it would be like. That’s really interesting. Then it’s the show in general, that I just love the tone of the show, and of course, the chance to go head-to-head with Mr. Spacey. That was also a lot of fun.


I love the scene where Will and Frank meet to talk alone in Episode 9. That must have been incredibly fun to film.
It was. That’s the dream scene in a way, because the scene was stretched out over the whole episode, but we shot it all in one piece. It was almost a 15-minute scene, just me and him in one room, and then you really get into it. It feels like you’re back on stage. Many times when you do TV and film, even if it’s very good writing, you rarely do scenes that are more than three or four minutes. When you do something that’s 12 minutes and it really has an arc, then you really start playing off of each other on another level, especially with someone like Kevin, who’s so skilled and is such an excellent theater actor. Me coming from theater as well, I think that was one of the reasons why we both really enjoyed that so much. We have somewhat similar styles of approaching the profession and material, so I think that was one of the reasons why we had so much fun playing that.

Were you two really playing the cellphone game Agar.io during that scene?
We sure were.

Had you played before?
No, never. I think a day before the scene I found out what it was, and got into it.

The other great thing about that scene is that they’re enjoying each other’s company; there seems to be some respect there. They’re definitely enjoying this back and forth, and it makes you think about how, especially with this year’s real world political campaigning, it really is a performance. If some opponents sat down with each other as people and talked, it would maybe be tough for them to be as adversarial as they are.
Absolutely. I think when certain personality types come into it, and they become dominant, then they kind of set the tone. I mean, that’s what Trump has done more than anyone I’ve ever seen. He’s been remarkable in forcing everybody to play his game, to come down to his level, and it seems to be very difficult to find another route, to take the high road when somebody is like that.

It was interesting [during] shooting, and it’s going to be even more interesting when we go back [to film Season 5], because we’ll be shooting right in the thick of the general election. It’s fascinating when you’re doing something like this at the same time as it’s going on. Especially when you think you’re doing something that’s pretty outlandish. “Is this going to be believable?” And then all of a sudden, you turn on the TV, and you have presidential candidates bragging about how big their d*** is. Then you’re like, “OK, I guess there’s nothing we can do that will be over the top.”

Related: ‘House of Cards’ Season 4: Nathan Darrow Talks Meechum’s Ultimate Heroic Moment, That Hand Tracing Scene, and Being Mr. Freeze

Kevin, Robin [Wright], and Beau — everyone at House of Cards — has talked about what a collaborative process making the show is. How much of a hand did you have in creating and shaping Will?
Beau Willimon was very upfront from the beginning that he wanted to hear input. When you come into a show that’s so successful and has been on for three years already, you don’t come in and tell them, “This is how I’m going to do it.” You come in respectful and follow their lead. Beau really showed me that he wanted my input. I get three or four pages from him — a big, long, beautiful speech — and in any other circumstance, I would have been very content with just learning my lines and playing it, but then I realized that I could actually work with him on it. We’d talk about it, and then two days later I’d get a completely new speech, even better, and with some of the thoughts that had come up during our conversation.

I think that’s also something that’s very interesting with TV compared to film. With film, you have a set script and the characters are what they are. Then you sort of shape it as you shoot the film. But when you shoot a TV show and the writing process is going on as you are shooting, the writing actually changes. [The writers] see what you bring to the role, and then they start to shape the character in that direction, they start emphasizing it more in that direction, and I could definitely feel that that process was going on while we were shooting as well — that Beau and the writers picked up on what I was bringing to the table, and there was a way that I was playing the scenes that they wrote. There’s always different ways that you can play a scene even though it’s written in a certain direction. How you emphasize it changes the meaning, and I think that they picked up on the way that I was leaning, and then they emphasized what they liked about that.

It feels like there is still a lot we don’t know about Will Conway … like there are some things bubbling under the surface. Like, maybe he has some anger issues? He obviously very much likes to be in control of everything and appears to be in control of his campaign, his family. Is there still a lot to learn about him?
Oh, for sure. I think we just scratched the surface, and that’s how the character was pitched to me — that it was a character that had many different layers — and then while we were shooting it, I really felt like they came through on those promises. I’m really, really looking forward to going back for another run at it.


Kinnaman with Dominique McElligott in House of Cards.

There’s a moment when we really start to get to know Will more. He and his wife are in the bathroom one morning and get a little frisky, and there’s a point where Will turns his wife’s head toward the mirror. Was that a spontaneous or scripted moment? It was a brief thing, but it seemed to say a lot about the character, like his need to control.
Yeah, yeah. No, that was scripted.

What do you still want to know about Will?
I know a bunch of stuff you don’t know, so I can't… OK, I see what you were doing there. I see what you’re doing there. [Laughs] The journalist comes out.

Before we get to see the return of Will, we’ll see you in Suicide Squad on the big screen. In the comics, there are several generations of Rick Flag. What will your Rick Flag be like?
This is definitely the modern iteration of him, where he’s sort of a special forces chameleon. He’s been through every special forces unit there is, and he’s just in the absolute top tier of the American military operators. He’s been working under Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), and she has some very interesting ways to look at the world and at opportunities. Sometimes Rick has to act against his own moral compass. It’s a fascinating character.

The way that [director] David Ayer works, he really presents this whole arena. He sets the table for you with all these people that you get to hang out with, who give you sort of a real-life [idea] of what the character would have gone through. I spent a lot of time with some tier-one operators, former CIA operatives and also Delta Force operators. These are the kind of guys that could have been a Rick Flag. They’ve done some things that I’m sure keep them up at night, and they lost a lot of friends. They’ve also done a lot of good, but at the same time, maybe they haven’t been thanked for it. When you have people that serve their country in this extreme capacity, there’s a lot of psychological circumstances that are very complicated. It was really interesting to dig into that. It’s a moral gray zone that Rick Flag lives in, and he’s a person who’s incredibly ruthless when he needs to be, but also is convinced that he’s still doing something good. Then that conviction is also something that you battle with. It’s an ongoing conversation with yourself.

And you begin production on Altered Carbon, the upcoming Netflix series, after House of Cards Season 5. It sounds like a really great futuristic detective story. What can you tell me about it?
Yeah, it’s amazing. I’m so stoked about this. It’s pretty much Netflix’s biggest endeavor. They’re really going to be able to create a world that’s got a bigger budget than the first three seasons of Game of Thrones. It’s a hard R-rated, sci-fi noir that’s set 500 years in the future, when the human soul — or your memories, all your personality — is saved on what’s called a stack. It’s like a chip that’s put into the top of your spine. Then the bodies, they just become something that you wear. If you get your arm cut off, you put on a new one. If your body dies, you just put the stack in a new body, if you have money, which also means that if you are rich, you are immortal. It’s a future where the possibilities if you are rich are endless, but the realities of life if you’re poor are grim.

I play this man who was actually part of the resistance, a resistance against this new world order that now has prevailed. He’s a special type of warrior, and he gets what they call “spun up,” when they take a chip, a stack that’s just been put aside, and they spin it up in a new body. I wake up in a new body, and I don’t recognize myself 500 years into the future. I get this mission where I could either choose to try to solve this case and help this man out, or I can go back into oblivion. It’s a lot, but it’s going to be something special. It’s something that’s never been done before, and I’m a big fan of intelligent sci-fi. To see a sci-fi show that’s a hard R-rated sci-fi show with a big budget, so they’re really going to be able to create this entire world… I just started drooling at that possibility.

Do you think we’ll see it in 2017?
Yeah, maybe. I don’t know when they want to release it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it gets released in the fall of 2017, somewhere around there. We’ll start shooting it in November, and we’ll be done in early June next year, so maybe, but there are a lot of special effects with a project like this. It could take a little longer.

Where will you film?
Vancouver. I’m going back to The Cou. That’s where I shot The Killing. I know it very well.


Kinnaman with Mireille Enos in The Killing series finale.

Speaking of… Many of us still think about The Killing. We got the happy ending with the finale, Linden and Holder together. What do you think they’re doing now?
Maybe making babies, you know?

Yes! Do you think there might ever be a reunion movie? Would you want to revisit that story again, those characters?
I’d be down for that. I don’t know where it would go. But, hell yeah, a reunion movie.

You’re going to be in Vancouver anyway, so maybe you guys should tack that on after you finish Altered Carbon.
Just shoot it out. Yeah, why not?

House of Cards Season 4 is streaming on Netflix.

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