Just over a week after season three of the hit Netflix show “House of Cards” was released, showrunner and St. Louis native Beau Willimon has returned to his hometown to give a free, public interview at the St. Louis County Library headquarters. Before the talk today, he sweeps into a back room of the library with a set of car keys and a medium-sized QuikTrip coffee, constantly curious and frenetic, fidgeting with a black iPhone. The main room of the library has been set up with rows and rows of chairs, wooden ones clearly marked as “Reserved” with a typed 8 ½ x 11 piece of paper, and plastic white chairs for the rest of the audience. When Willimon gets onstage, he’ll see over 100 people looking at a leaflet emblazoned with a black-and-white photograph of his face, as one has been deposited onto each chair.
“House of Cards,” a remake of the original BBC show, is a precisely measured drama told through the eyes of Frank Underwood, Democratic Majority Whip in the House of Representatives. We quickly discover our protagonist is villainous, selfish, and manipulative, someone Willimon describes as “Richard III, Iago, and Hannibal Lecter all rolled into one” in the pilot script. Acclaimed director David Fincher entrusted Willimon to adapt the character for an American audience, and he then painstakingly retooled Underwood into a Democrat with a Southern drawl and a general inclination to be terrible. Sometimes when you’re watching him, Underwood will stop, look right at the camera and spout out nuggets like: “I pray to myself, for myself” or “Everything is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power.”
Since its release in 2013, the series has amassed a trove of Golden Globe and Primetime Emmy awards, pioneered original streaming content, and transformed itself into a cultural phenomenon. It has also continued for three, soon to be four, seasons on Netflix, with millions of viewers. Its stars, Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood and Robin Wright as his calculating wife, Claire Underwood, were each nominated for Best Actor and Actress at the 2013 and 2014 Golden Globes. Wright won in 2013, and Spacey followed with a win in 2014. “I have an extraordinary time coming to work every day, with brilliant writing from Beau Willimon and his incredible writing staff,” Spacey said onstage during his speech. This is the side of showbiz very few writers get to experience–having an Academy Award-winning actor thank them from the stage.
On “House of Cards,” Willimon does work with a team of writers, but writes the first and last episode of every season himself. [PILOT SPOILER] In the opening scene of the whole series, the screen is black, tires screech, and there’s the horrifying sound of a whimpering dog hit by a car. Underwood runs out of his home to investigate the damage, ostensibly concerned. “It’s the Wharton’s dog,” he says, bending down and tenderly stroking the dog’s head. He then looks up, addresses the camera, and says, “There are two kinds of pain: the sort of pain that makes you strong, or useless pain. The sort of pain that’s only suffering. I have no patience for useless things,” and then strangles the dog off-camera. “There. No more pain,” he says, hauntingly. [END SPOILER]
“We wanted to start with a monster, and then reveal over time that he actually had elements of humanity to him,” Willimon says. “He doesn’t think of himself as a bad person. That’s the key: you have to approach the story through the character’s eyes, and we’re mostly approaching it through Frank and Claire’s eyes. I don’t think Frank Underwood spends a lot of time wondering what is good and what is evil. I think that he sees that as a waste of time. The world doesn’t operate that way. The Earth doesn’t think about good and evil. It just is.” While Frank Underwood’s eventual fate on television remains a mystery, there’s another pressing question to address: who created this monster we can’t stop watching? “Let’s talk about stuff that’s no one’s ever asked me before. Whatever you want. Go for it,” says Willimon.
Willimon’s first fairytale Hollywood phone call came a few years earlier, when his agent called and said Warner Bros. wanted to option “Farragut North,” a play he’d written, for a movie to be produced by George Clooney. “I was driving a car at the time and almost drove it into a ditch,” says Willimon in a 2012 interview. He shared a writing credit with Clooney and Grant Heslov for the screenplay, which became the film “The Ides of March,” also starring Clooney and Ryan Gosling. The writing team was later nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. He doesn’t read the reviews, even when they’re good. “They bring out the most competitive and petty side of me. When they’re bad, they hurt, and when they’re good, they’re never good enough,” he says, quoting someone he can’t remember.
Outside the library, it’s 60 degrees and there’s snow on the ground–typical St. Louis. Tomorrow could be a beautiful California-sunshine type of day, or a blizzard, but Willimon is familiar with this. His family moved to Missouri when he was 10, after his father decided to get a law degree at Washington University in St. Louis. Before they settled here, they lived in Washington DC, Hawaii, San Francisco, and Philadelphia–his father was in the Navy, and the family was constantly moving around. After settling in St. Louis, Willimon began seventh grade at John Burroughs School, which also lists alumni like Ellie Kemper and Jon Hamm.
At Burroughs, Willimon painted, performed in school plays, played on the football team, participated in Model UN, was an Eagle Scout, and earned his pilot’s license. “He was good at everything,” says Stephanie Sanditz, an LA-based actress and screenwriter who also attended Burroughs and graduated with Willimon. “We were in a film club–we’d skip school and go to movies. He made these weird avant-garde films on the weekends.” In seventh grade their drama teacher, Wayne Salomon, taught them transcendental meditation and the Meisner technique during acting classes, a prerequisite for preparing them to successfully inhabit someone else’s story. “Pretty remarkable stuff for a bunch of little kids,” says Willimon. “Burroughs changed my life.”
Jon Hamm, famed for his portrayal of Don Draper in AMC’s “Mad Men,” was also teaching in the drama department when Willimon was in high school. “Then he left, and the girls were still talking about him for years afterwards,” says Willimon, chuckling. “We run into each other from time to time. I love Jon. He’s so talented, and he’s such a nice, down-to-earth guy. We remember, with great nostalgia and warmth, our good old days in St. Louis.”
He returns to St. Louis frequently to visit his family, but is primarily based in New York, where he lives in Brooklyn with his girlfriend. He then checks into a hotel in Baltimore for 200 days when “House of Cards” is shooting. “I’m not famous. I’m not. I can still easily walk into a grocery store and buy my Cheetos,” he says. “I wouldn’t want that kind of fame. I can come speak at a library and some people will show up and it’s fun to have that experience. But most of my waking hours are just like anyone else’s. I do my work, I walk the streets, I go to the grocery store. It’s pretty normal. There’s not much glitz and glamor to it.” He takes a sip of coffee and glances out the window, past the stack of what looks like a hundred DVD’s he must sign before tonight’s event. “It’s a little stuffy in here–let’s go for a walk.”
Willimon heads out to his car, a silver sedan in the library parking lot, and rummages around in the front seat before re-emerging. After a few minutes, his parents and girlfriend pull up, arriving for the talk and cocktail hour. His father wears a grey blazer, gently puffing on a hooked wooden pipe as he walks up to greet his son, graying hair carefully parted down the side and his face framed with thick black glasses. Willimon’s girlfriend, Michelle, has long dark hair that rests in a knotted bun at the nape of her neck, and he rests his hand on her lower back. The bit of platform in her grey suede boots renders her slightly taller than him. His mother wears flowy, tan-colored pants and a metallic gold clutch with a chain that hangs over her shoulder. “Beau’s always been imaginative,” she says.
His mother remembers when he called her very early one morning and said he’d been nominated for an Academy Award for “The Ides of March,” alongside Clooney and Heslov. “He apologized for calling so early but said when would he ever have the chance to call us again to say he had been nominated for an Oscar,” she said in an interview with the St. Louis Post Dispatch. “I was crying, of course.” They all walk together towards the library door, and upon preparing to open it, Willimon remembers it has been locked until the event begins tonight. He instinctively takes out his phone and calls Carrie Rob, the library’s program coordinator, who has been frantically organizing the event all day to be sure it goes off without a hitch. “Uh, we’re by the door that says ‘No firearms,’ Willimon informs her. His parents laugh, and he hangs up the phone. “Got your switchblade in there?” he jokes, motioning to his mother’s gold clutch. “Ok. Now I’ve got to go sign a shit-ton of DVD’s.”
He walks back down the library corridor and starts signing them with a Sharpie marker, making a distinct, loopy “B” on each one without it looking pretentiously illegible. “I practice every night,” he jokes. When each one has been signed, Willimon walks back through the library and towards the space where he’ll soon be up on stage. Now there are giant speakers, a sound guy, and several assistants scampering around as well. Willimon soon makes his way into a reception room, where attendees have paid $125 per ticket to attend a lightly catered private reception to meet him before the public talk.
People munch on refreshments, ask each other about the show, and talk excitedly about season three spoilers. A photographer with a pencil behind his ear and a gigantic camera wanders around the room, asking people to get together with their arms around each other for photos in front of trays filled with catered food: lemon cookies with white icing, chocolate macaroons, smoked salmon with onion, and vegetable wraps. In a neighboring room, a photograph of Einstein with the phrase “Knowledge is power” hangs on the wall facing out into the young adult nonfiction section. Willimon later discusses how he spent hundreds of hours in this exact library, reading Whitman, Yeats, and Ginsburg. The first time he read Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself” was here. “This library is a very special place to me,” he says.
He animatedly talks to everyone who wants to meet him, and rolls back and forth on his heels a few times amidst the throng of people. His levity will come as a shock tonight for the fans wanting to know the dark, twisted soul who brought Frank Underwood to their computers and television screens. “I’d always known I was going to do something in the arts,” he says. “If I didn’t, I would go bonkers. I wouldn’t–I would have no mooring. I would have no meaning.”
In the late 90’s, famed playwright Eduardo Machado, head of Columbia University’s graduate playwriting program, refused to let a young recent grad, named Beau Willimon, take a class he was preparing to teach. Willimon, no longer a registered student, had just spent three months abroad working for the Estonian government, where he’d been tasked with translating a 10,000 page document into a 10-page packet, written entirely in Estonian, for the country to become part of the EEU. “I thought, that at least puts off three more months where I have to make decisions about anything,” he says, laughing.
He’d also had a nervous breakdown, returned to New York, was drinking heavily, and had no idea what his next move would be. “There’s a running joke in my life: in retrospect, it looks like there was some sort of plan, but I never had one. Responsible college students line up a job, maybe do an internship. But I had no plan,” he says. Some sort of venture in the arts was the closest he’d come to creating a plan. In high school and college he studied painting, abiding by the notion that he would one day be a painter. But creatively, he’d hit a wall. “I thought, maybe if I try [writing], I’ll get myself out of this creative funk,” he says. “I loved the theater, and didn’t know how to write a play.”
The first piece of writing he ever wrote to be performed on stage was a short monologue he assembled as an undergraduate student at Columbia. “A girl I had a crush on in college was taking a director’s class–she wanted me to audition, because she wanted to put me in her scene. And she told me this the night before the audition.” That night, he went to the library and picked through a succession of potential monologues to memorize and perform, but couldn’t find the perfect one–so he wrote a piece to perform himself, which turned into a strange rant involving Muhammad Ali. He wrote and memorized the piece that night, auditioned with it, and was cast in two director’s scenes, but not one with the girl he had hoped to impress. “It totally didn’t work in that respect,” he says, laughing now. But he was inspired to write his first play, called “The Goat Herd,” set in South Carolina where his family had a small goat farm. “It won a little prize at Columbia, I think because I was likely the only person to have submitted something … it was a very strange and bad play,” he says. “Yeah–‘The Goat Herd.’ Terrible.”
It wasn’t long after he graduated from Columbia that he walked up five flights of stairs and begged Machado to let him audit the class, to which Machado swiftly replied, “No.” Willimon traipsed back downstairs, and with one last-ditch effort to convince Machado, he ran back up and said, “Please, if one person doesn’t show up, let me audit.” Fortunately, one person didn’t show up. “He let me audit, and then he invited me to be part of his graduate program,” says Willimon. “So I thought, ‘Great–now I have some semblance of a plan.’ I was really pursuing writing full-force, and realized that’s what I wanted to do with my life.”
Willimon, a creature of travel, then spent the summer living in Vietnam before starting the graduate program with Machado, which began one day after he returned home. “I was a terrible, terrible student. I was the worst student in the group by far. I had not been writing, like a lot of my classmates, since birth. I had not found my voice,” he says. “But Eduardo was a great teacher. By the end of that program, I think I wrote something that you could call a play. And after that, there were a few years of complete and utter obscurity, and every odd job under the sun.”
There were also what he calls “lost years,” and somewhere in there, he got sober. It’s now been 15 years since he’s had a drink. People tend to congratulate him if he chooses to share this piece of information, but he usually stops them. “It’s what I need to do–like a diabetic who takes insulin. I drank a lot as a young person, and woke up one day and realized if I didn’t stop, I wasn’t going to last much longer on this planet,” he says. “One of the things about addiction is that you have to acknowledge you can’t have complete power over yourself. There are aspects of yourself that are beyond your ability to change. Now, you can control your relationship to that. I can control the degree to which, day by day, I engage with my addictive tendencies, or not. But I can’t change the fact that I’m an alcoholic,” he says, the words coming out comfortably.
“I had the support of a lot of–my family, and good friends. And here I am. Still not drinking, so far. Knock on wood,” he says. Later, in front of the crowd of strangers who will come to hear him speak, he’ll get asked a question about a character on the show who is 14 years sober, and he’ll tell them he’s been sober himself for 15. The audience will clap, but he’ll stop them. “No, don’t. I’m just doing what I need to do to stay alive,” he’ll say. “If you’re an alcoholic and you don’t get sober, you will eventually die.”
One of his friends at the time, Jay Carson, who now serves as the political consultant for House of Cards, was working on a variety of political campaigns, and got Willimon involved. Willimon then participated in campaigns for Chuck Schumer, Hillary Clinton, and Howard Dean, during which he remembers getting calls at all hours of the night, sometimes at two in the morning, demanding things like 200 yard signs in upstate New York. “I did it because I believed in them and I wanted them to get elected,” he says, in earnest. “And probably because I was also unemployed.”
While his experience working on politics undoubtedly influenced “House of Cards,” Willimon says it never made him jaded or cynical. “I really do believe that hard work and imagination can lead to great things,” he says in a 2014 interview with The Telegraph. Even in “House of Cards,” to Willimon, the characters are optimists. “They see progress and momentum as something achievable. Where it becomes complex is how that optimism brushes up against ethics, and sometimes for the sake of progress or the advancement of self-interest you’re forced into ethical choices that are dubious.”
After working on a series of political campaigns, he returned to New York and wrote “Farragut North,” loosely based on Howard Dean’s 2004 Democratic primary election campaign for president. It opened on Broadway in 2008, when Willimon was 31, starring John Gallagher, Jr. in the title role. It was then that the play caught the attention of George Clooney. “‘Ides of March’ is what got me ‘House of Cards.’ And here we are. Sitting in St. Louis County Library,” he says.
It’s a few minutes until showtime and all of the chairs are filled. A blonde woman wearing a fuchsia-colored blazer walks over to a microphone and introduces Willimon to the crowd. Frank Underwood may take the stage during “House of Cards,” but tonight is all about Willimon. He remains sequestered in the administrative section of the library for the moment, waiting to be ushered to the raised stage where all eyes in the room will be on him, hanging on his every word and making judgments, for better or for worse, as though they’re listening to a politician’s speech.
Another woman takes the stage and introduces the nonprofit where all proceeds from tonight’s event will go: the ForWord Fund, which provides books for children in lower-income schools. “Literacy is our leverage. It begins with the act of handing a child a book,” she says, imploring the audience to donate. Finally, Stephanie Sanditz, who is here today to introduce Willimon, walks up to the podium. Over the years, they’ve remained friends. Poised, with a raspy, metered voice, she shares a quick story about him from high school and talks about what she calls her survivalist impressions of Hollywood. He then walks onstage as the crowd claps, alongside local radio host Debbie Monterey, who will be interviewing him tonight. He politely turns, smiles, waves, and takes his seat. “This is the-impossible-to-hate Beau Willimon,” Monterey says into her microphone, echoing Sanditz. Willimon grabs his own mic and says, “I can think of about 10 people who would disagree with that statement.”
On stage, Willimon is effortless, confident, a crowd-pleaser. “The only time I’m nervous, I guess, is a minute to midnight on the night of the release, because here’s this thing we’ve spent a year working on, and now, in a moment, it will be available to half the world. But that moment passes pretty quickly. It turns to midnight, it’s there, and everything feels pretty normal. The world hasn’t self-destructed. And then I go to sleep,” he says.
Beginning the interview, he tells the audience how David Fincher first came to him with the idea for “House of Cards.” When Monterey asks how it all began, he says he wasn’t interested in writing for television at the time. Worst-case scenario, he wouldn’t click with Fincher, and he could work on something else. “I’m almost hoping we don’t hit it off,” he tells the crowd. But within seconds of their first phone call, he concluded that Fincher was one of the more brilliant minds he’d come across. “It became clear I had no choice,” he says. He worked on the pilot script for the show for a year, gathering inspiration from the BBC version, but adapting the story so that it felt new and refreshed, with little allegiance to the plotline of the original. Before shopping it around to networks, Fincher and Willimon sent the script out to Robin Wright and Kevin Spacey, who came on board soon after reading it.
Willimon’s first job ever was at The Shady Oak Movie Theatre, which closed in 2000, where he inadvertently saw Wright in “Forrest Gump” as Jenny around 45 times. He took the job because his ex-girlfriend worked across the street at Library Limited, a multi-story bookstore that has since folded. “I was trying to get back together with her,” says Willimon, smiling. “So I’d go in, have a coffee–I was an obsessive freak,” he says, to collective laughter from the audience. “At work I would get bored, and then go watch the movies–‘Forrest Gump’ happened to be playing, and I saw Robin playing Jenny,” he says.
Wright was adamant that she wouldn’t sign on merely to play Kevin Spacey’s arm candy. Willimon, who’d never spoken to her in his life, got on the phone with her and told her he’d be leaning on her to help him create the role of Claire, someone with complexity and a rich story of her own. “I told her, ‘I’m depending on you bringing your creativity to this role. We’re asking you to take a leap of faith here.’” She was on board.
The show also makes it a point to portray the struggles of female characters in male-dominated industries, particularly politics and journalism. In an episode he co-wrote with writer Keith Huff, they give a young female journalist this line of dialogue say to one of her male superiors: “You think when a woman asks to be treated with respect, that’s arrogance?”
“I get asked questions a lot about writing strong female characters, and I take issue with the question. I’d never get asked about writing a strong male character,” says Willimon. “Why do we have to put the adjective ‘strong’ in front of ‘female?’ Is that to say that a strong female is a rare thing? Everyone exhibits strength and everyone exhibits weakness. Some people are stronger than others, whether they’re men or women.”
Once Wright and Spacey were attached to the project, the awkward dance between show and network began. “In an incredibly hubristic way, we said, ‘We want a whole season,’” says Willimon. One of the responses they got was, “We didn’t even do that for Scorsese with ‘Boardwalk Empire’–we made him do a pilot,” Willimon remembers. Then along came Netflix, who immediately told them they wanted at least two seasons and would not be giving any notes. Willimon recounts the story, laughing as he remembers how he and Fincher tried to play it cool. It sounded too good to be true–no notes? Total creative freedom? This was supposed to be Hollywood. But Netflix told them, “We don’t have a single content editor–we don’t have that staff. We want you to make the show you want to make.” Willimon remembers. “It was a big gamble. We thought, ‘They’ve never made a television show before–but to be fair, we’ve never made a television show.’”
Sanditz remembers when Willimon first told her about the conversation with Netflix, when he came by her apartment in LA one day. He dropped a mangled messenger bag on the floor, looked at her, and said, “I think something happened that doesn’t really happen in Hollywood very often. You know that TV show I might have told you about, it’s called ‘House of Cards?’ Netflix–you know, the video rental company? They said, ‘We’ll guarantee you two seasons, pay you double, and let you write whatever the hell you want.’”
Sanditz was floored. “I wanted to cry. It was so satisfying that–like the American Dream, it gave me hope that the system can work. There is a linear progression. And you can stay a good person,” she says. “He went through a ton of schooling–Columbia undergrad, graduate school, Juilliard–all for writing. He paid massive dues.” Three years ago, it was a profoundly strange notion to stream well-respected content online–they wondered if that would even be considered television, and how they’d call up Kevin Spacey and say, “Do you want to do this on the Internet?” “We did not set out to be streaming distribution pioneers. We were just as oblivious as everyone else. It was the right place, right time,” says Willimon.
One of the most distinctive features of the characters Willimon creates is the way an audience can relate to their distasteful choices, even though they are often difficult to watch. “Sometimes they play beer pong,” he says of the characters working in the White House. “They’ve got to put their socks on in the morning like anyone else, and brush their teeth. It’s fun to play with those very mundane, universal things that we all experience, but in the framework of people who are also making decisions that could affect billions.” Frank and Claire’s relationship is also highly developed, a complex and beautiful portrait of a marriage between two selfish people who fundamentally understand each other. “The core of the show, for me, has never been about politics—it’s about power. We all have power dynamics in our relationships. Spouses, bosses, friends–I see love as a transactional thing. That sounds bad, but if I offer you my love, my vulnerability, I’m expecting your love in return,” says Willimon.
A consistent motif Willimon chose for Claire and Frank is having them share a cigarette together at the end of the day, typically in front of a downstairs window of their home. Viewers needed a recognizable ritual that would show them in love with each other, in the midst of their scheming, he says. “It came very close to being a big fish tank, and they’d feed the fish together. I thought, ‘There’d be all these cool shots, their faces, maybe a fish would die, and how would they deal with that …’” he says. Upon thinking about it a bit more, he spoke with a co-writer and said, “Maybe we should just do the smoking window.” He remembers watching Spacey and Wright sit together by the window sill they chose, inhabiting the intimate marriage of the two characters: she with resolute poise, and he lusting after power. “Watching them do it–they established this perfect, fragile thing,” he says.
Audience members look around at each other as Monterey opens up the floor for a few questions from the crowd. A middle-aged woman in a tan sweater stands up, clutching the microphone in her hand and holding a list of questions from her 25-year-old son, an aspiring screenwriter, who wasn’t able to make it to Willimon’s talk. “Can I ask all six?” she asks. The audience groans, but she’s so earnest, hoping to successfully bring back some nuggets of wisdom, something that could help her son’s career.
“How about you pick a number between one and six?” Willimon asks. Someone shouts “four.” “How about number four?” he asks her. “I don’t like that one,” she responds, and he laughs. Eventually she selects a question, takes a deep breath, and reads it out loud, hoping to get everything just right but tripping on some of the words. “Can I give you the rest of these and you’ll answer them on–uh, Twitter?” she asks. He mentions he’ll be answering questions on Twitter with the entire cast on Monday, and she can submit the questions then.
One young woman stands up and asks him, “Do you have any advice for aspiring screenwriters? Because I am.” “Don’t do it,” he immediately warns her. The audience laughs, and he repeats himself in earnest. “Don’t do it. I’m serious … there’s no guarantee any word you write will see the light of day. It’s most likely not going to work out for you. If you ignore me, congratulations–you’re a writer. Because you have to do it.” The crowd laughs again. “No, this is very serious. It chooses you, and it’s because you can’t do anything else. With talent, hunger, and hard work, you have a shot. I hope that helps.”
He oftentimes gets asked his advice for aspiring writers, and this is typically how he responds. “The first thing I tell young people when they ask, ‘What’s your advice for being a writer?’ I say, ‘You want to be? Or you need to be? Because if you just want to be, don’t do it. Unless you’re really a masochist and love humiliation, rejection, self-loathing, self-doubt, and zero guarantee of success. None. Zero guarantee. If you’re not down with those things, then do anything else with your life.’” On the wall of his writer’s room in New York, he keeps a David Carr quote on the wall: “Keep typing until it turns into writing.”
At the end of the talk tonight, he is awarded a giant cardboard library card almost the size of a car window, and says, “I’ll have to get a blinged-out lanyard for that,” proudly holding it under his arm. “I’ll take it to every library in the country.” Monterey then thanks Willimon to a round of applause, and people file out of their seats, holding on to their leaflets. “He’s a genius,” says one audience member to another. Others murmur “brilliant,” and “what a neat guy.” Willimon runs up to his parents, and a few moments later an impromptu receiving line of audience members hoping to meet him has formed. Willimon shakes people’s hands and greets them–he is red-faced, rushing with adrenaline. Afterwards, he heads out to Cardwell’s for dinner with Sanditz and a few friends, still carrying the large library card with him, but soon he’ll be back at it. Working on any one thing for too long makes him restless.
Photo #1 via Politico
Photo #3 via Zimbio