The excitement of "discovering" Corey Stoll through his particularly powerful performance as Rep. Peter Russo in Netflix's House of Cards quickly evaporated after the requisite IMDB trip accompanying all new actorly obsessions since I'd previously searched him out after equally impressive turns in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris and NBC's short-lived Law & Order: LA.
Aside from underscoring his chameleon-like abilities, this repeated discovery process reinforces the fact Stoll has been delivering attention-grabbing performances for years, simply waiting for the day when one role would break him out. Well, that day arrived this past February when Netflix unleashed 13 episodes of David Fincher & Beau Willimon's masterful House of Cards and Stoll could no longer be ignored; his turn as the self-sabotaging civil servant all-but-eclipsed everyone else in the star-studded production.
The Emmy frontrunner for Best Supporting Actor in a Drama recently rang up ETonline to talk about embarking on such a unique filming experience, why this massive undertaking came unexpectedly easy to him and his favorite scene from the series.
ETonline: With a movie, actors know the whole character arc. With TV shows, it's a constant evolution. What was the case here?
Corey Stoll: It was sort of a hybrid. When I met with David Fincher, he gave me the broad outlines of what the season would be. And then I met with Beau [Willimon, creator] and he clued me in to a few tasty nuggets that I would be doing. I had a basic sense of where I was going, but I actually didn't know, until Beau and I were doing an interview, that Russo would be running for governor! [laughs] That wasn't part of my character in the beginning; there was a lot of material they gave me because it was originally supposed to be another character that they melded into mine.
ETonline: Did you know from the beginning that he would die?
Stoll: Yes. I had one audition before finding that out, and then I learned he died, which was bittersweet in the moment -- I feel like there was so much more to explore with this character. But I think part of the efficacy of his death, in terms of telling his story, is that there is so much more to tell. He died young, younger than he should have. The audience was only getting a sense of who he was, so in that sense, I think it was best for the show.
ETonline: What was the initial appeal for you in playing Peter?
Stoll: I had a run of playing very manly, strong men of a very high status who were very sure of themselves. Those are a lot of fun to play, but what I really got excited about with this character is that while he has some of the trappings of that -- the womanizing and his success -- his weakness is just below the surface, and is instantly clear to Underwood, who gleefully takes advantage of it. Getting to play somebody who wears a mask [to cover] this deep well of insecurity was exciting to me.
ETonline: There are two big ways to look at Frank and Peter's relationship from your character's point-of-view: one is that Peter didn't know Frank was manipulating him and the other is that Peter knew, but so badly wanted to believe Frank believed in his ability to lead the country. What's your take?
Stoll: It's very clear Frank is manipulating him from the beginning, but I think Frank is very good at flattering people into thinking they are playing the same game. It was all very upfront that he is a manipulative person and not out for Peter's best interest, but someone he managed to Jedi Mind Trick me into thinking I could play the same trick on him. He makes you believe that once it's out in the open that we're both manipulating each other it's a fair playing field, when it's really not.
ETonline: What's amazing is that Frank even tricked the audience because there were moments, like the bathtub scene, where even I felt a genuine compassion between the two.
Stoll: Right! And I think there's room for both there because, with Peter, certain paternal buttons are pressed with Frank. It's very clear from the opening scene with the dog that Frank believes in a mercy kill; there's a certain sense that it's a rationalization on his part, but I think there's some truth to it too. I don't want to get too clinical as to whether Frank is a sociopath or not, since he does feel something, but it doesn't stop him from doing horrible things. Although he does seem capable of empathy ... or is able to create an amazing facsimile of it.
ETonline: What was the most challenging part of playing Peter for you?
Stoll: It's an interesting question because what was so great about the role for me is that it felt like a glove. I didn't have to think that much with this character. I don't know what that says about me [laughs], but what I loved about him is that his motivations are so clear. What he wants and his obstacles towards achieving that goal are crystal clear, so, as an actor, that made a certain aspect of the role easy. The hard part was in knowing only what Peter knows. To not get ahead of myself. When a character is being so clearly manipulated, and making so many wrong decisions, there can be a temptation to wink at that a little bit. There is a certain puppy dog quality to Peter where he kind of jumps mouth first at every new thing, and as an actor, you know that if something is going to end tragically, you might telegraph that on screen.
ETonline: How did you approach playing Peter's addiction, because it was painfully real at times.
Stoll: I, thankfully, have not dealt with a substance addiction in my life, but I do understand disappointing myself. I do understand not being as responsible as I would like, or sabotaging myself in any number of ways, as actors are prone to do. And how that cycle of self-recrimination manifests; whether that's in pigging out or being a self-pitying sloth. It doesn't hit the same level of tragedy as addiction can, but I think in acting you don't need to do that. You don't need to have murdered someone to play Macbeth, you don't need to have slept with your mother to play Oedipus. But if you can find something very small that's very real to you and blow it up a bit, I think that's your best chance. What felt so potent to me about the character was his level of jumping back and forth in being so disappointed in himself and letting people down around him and wallowing in that self-pity.
ETonline: Do you have a favorite moment from the series?
Stoll: As an actor it's always fun to cry and do those big moments, but one scene that sticks out, which was not like that at all, was an added scene that David Fincher came back to direct. It's where Peter is being interviewed by the New York Times -- it's Peter at the height of his power, where he's the most sober, thinking the most clearly, sparring with this reporter in an incredibly snarky yet charming and powerful and elegant way. Within such a messy character, to have the chance to play such a competent and self-assured moment was really fun.
House of Cards is available on Netflix.