“One thing I know about this world is that when somebody is running…if they seem hurried…they’re losing control. If someone glides in and tell you what leverage they have over you, smiles and walks off…that’s a very dangerous person,” said House of Cards writer and producer, Beau Willimon to series newbie Sam Page, during an early conversation about the actor’s character, Connor Ellis. And, as his performance in season two demonstrates, Page took Willimon’s advice and ran with it.
As Ellis, the slick media consultant turned Communications Director, perched in second lady, Claire Underwood’s (Robin Wright) corner, Page amps up the smarmy D.C. shark vibe, and dials back the prep school charm permeating roles past, including his Greg Harris character on Mad Men — fiancé and husband to Christina Hendricks’s Joan, and also delightfully apparent in guest heartbreaker stints on Gossip Girl and Desperate House Wives. Really, such polished charm is only to be expected of a Princeton Man such as Page — he earned his B.A. degree in ecology and evolutionary biology before moving to New York to pursue a career in acting.
A gushing fan of season one, Page shares his excitement to join the cast of Netflix’s most critically successful binge watching experiment. “It’s just a brilliant show…from the first page of the first script on,” says the actor. Coming in during the second season of such a popular show, one would think Page might have been a bit nervous with the heavy weight of audience expectations on his shoulders, but as he shares, any nerves he might have suffered from were quelled by his regard for the series’ creators. “I knew that the writing was so good that I just needed to trust the writing.”
What Page also trusted was that he was going to be a part of entertainment history. “The entire future of television changed in that moment,” declares Page, as he recalls being on the House of Cards set in Baltimore when the 2013 Emmy nominations were announced. Nominated in nine categories, with David Fincher going on to win the coveted Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series award, the nod from the Emmy academy signified that House of Cards — an original online-only web series — was in fact, “television.” A point resoundingly reaffirmed at the 2014 Golden Globe Awards, where the series earned multiple nominations including Best Television Series Drama and Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series Drama for Kevin Spacey’s turn as the duplicitous Francis J. “Frank” Underwood, while Spacey’s onscreen wife, Robin Wright, took home the award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series Drama.
“It was the beginning of what we are going to see for years to come,” says Page of the nominations and awards. “Netflix took a huge risk financially, but what that bought them was…well, they cornered the market. Everybody is in their rearview mirror at this point.”
Risk taking is something Page too prides himself on professionally. Translation: no typecasting for this one. “You always want to be as diverse as possible,” affirms Page. With season two of House of Cards streaming now, and having recently wrapped a guest spot on the primetime comedy, The Mindy Project, it would appear Page is doing well at mixing things up. The only thing missing from his reel, according to the actor, is an action blockbuster. He says laughing, “The ironic part of what my career has been is that I’ve gotten to do all these highly intellectual shows like Mad Men and House of Cards, but all I really want is to run around with a gun, scream, yell, and do stunts.”
Well, if he can do it in a suit, we’ll happily wait in line to see that movie. Still rushing on the glow from the premiere of House of Cards season two, we caught up with Page to talk about his role on the Netflix series, the creative mavericks at the helm of the production and an actor’s never ending endeavour to perfect their craft.
A LITTLE TIME HAS PASSED SINCE THE PREMIERE OF SEASON TWO OF HOUSE OF CARDS LAST MONTH, BUT THERE’S STILL TONS OF BUZZ IN THE AIR. IT MUST FEEL GREAT TO BE A PART OF SUCH A POPULAR SHOW.
It’s really cool. When I went out for the show in the first season, I knew at that point that it was a very special situation: it was going to be streaming on Netflix, it was original programming, but it was also the first time that it was going to be on that kind of level with [David] Fincher, Beau [Willimon] and Kevin [Spacey]. So I was really excited to get in on the second season. I was a huge fan of the first season.
THE ANTICIPATION FOR SEASON TWO WAS SO HUGE IT’S IMPRESSIVE.
Yeah, the amount of intrigue that surrounds the show, and certainly when it’s released, people are so interested.
NETFLIX HAS REALLY CHANGED THE WHOLE LANDSCAPE OF MOVIE AND TELEVISION PRODUCTION, AS WELL AS CONSUMPTION. WHAT DO YOU MAKE OF THE ONLINE ORIGINAL SERIES PHENOMENON?
That was on the coolest parts of my experience on House of Cards. The night before the Emmy nominations were announced, there was a major league baseball all-star game (we were shooting in Baltimore ) and I went to a restaurant with Michael Kelly, who plays Doug Stamper and Beau Willimon, and we watched the all-star game, and then at the end of the night, we were all going out separate ways, and we started saying, “hey, so the Emmys are tomorrow…” And then [the show] ended up getting nominations in a lot of categories, but I didn’t realize until later when I started thinking about it, that tomorrow is very possibly the dawning of a new era in television — it’s a new day in entertainment. Is the Emmy academy going to consider this television or not? Because we didn’t know…nobody knew.
THAT WAS SUCH AN INTERESTING MOMENT IN TELEVISION HISTORY. WITH HOUSE OF CARDS HAVING SUCH A DEVOTED FAN BASE, WERE YOU NERVOUS AT ALL ABOUT JOINING THE CAST FOR SEASON TWO?
Yes and no…having had the experience of working on Mad Men. When I joined [that show], it was in its second season, and had gotten its initial accolades and nominations — it had won best show at the Golden Globes and the Emmys. And I had never been on a show like that before, but my experience with that was when you have such good writing and such a strong vision and such good leadership, with the writers, directors, executive producers — and in the case of Mad Men, it’s Matt Weiner and in the case of House of Cards it’s Kevin, Beau and Fincher — you really are so well taken care of, the writing does so much of the actors work when it’s that good.
IT’S MOST CERTAINLY A STRONG TEAM HEADING UP HOUSE OF CARDS. I CAN SEE WHY YOU WOULDN’T BE NERVOUS, DESPITE THE PRESSURE FROM THE SHOW’S DIEHARD FAN BASE.
Yeah, I wasn’t as nervous having worked on Mad Men and having been in that kind of environment before. And the actors on the show are just…they’re so good, but they also make everyone else’s job easy. They’re very welcoming and very generous actors. And they’re constantly working, even when their scenes are done and they’re your coverage, they work just as hard.
YOUR CHARACTER WORKS CLOSELY WITH ROBIN WRIGHT’S CHARACTER CLAIRE, HOW WAS IT ACTING OPPOSITE HER? SHE’S SUCH A VERSATILE ACTRESS.
She’s just constantly, constantly — every single take — working for a better take, while making it look like she’s not working at all. She’s obviously gorgeous, but so posed and professional. She’s exactly what you think and hope she will be…more so actually.
WHEN YOU’RE ON A SET WITH VETERAN ACTORS LIKE WRIGHT AND KEVIN SPACEY, DO YOU FIND YOURSELF STUDYING THEM AT ALL, WATCHING THEIR PERFORMANCES A LITTLE MORE INTENSELY?
Absolutely, that’s one of the most important aspects of these opportunities, to learn and improve. One of the great parts of being an actor is that from the first day you set out on the endeavor, to the last day before you retire, you always should be looking to improve. And when you’re working with legitimate A-list movie stars, there’s a ton to learn. And to see Robin and Kevin work…it’s just magic, you’re seeing the best there is; they do their job and enjoy each other while they’re doing it. It was a unique experience.
WOULD YOU AGREE WITH CRITICS THAT HAVE SAID SEASON TWO IS QUITE A BIT DARKER THAN SEASON ONE?
Definitely it was darker, I think…what, in the first episode [of the series] Frank killed a dog, and he killed a reporter in the second season premiere? So yeah, it did get very dark quickly. In the second season, it’s a much bigger ascension [for Frank] and so they had to go much darker — there’s more at risk. The higher you climb, the farther you have to fall and the less likely you are to survive it.
DO YOU THINK FRANK AND CLAIRE KNOW THAT?
If there’s anything that Frank Underwood and Claire understand, it’s the stakes — at all times, they know what is at stake. And the stakes are up in the second season, absolutely. It had to get darker; I imagine it will keep getting darker.
WITH FRANK LEADING THE PLOT, IT SEEM IMPOSSIBLE FOR IT NOT TO.
He’s a morally compromised person, and if you want him to succeed — and I certainly do — that’s a huge accomplishment for the show…to have the audience to cheer for the bad guy.
THAT DUALITY REMINDS ME A BIT OF YOUR CHARACTER. CONNOR IS QUITE SMARMY, BUT THE AUDIENCE CAN STILL PERCEIVE HIM AS CHARMING AND SOMEONE THEY EMPATHIZE WITH SLIGHTLY. WAS IT DIFFICULT FINDING THAT BALANCE WHEN PLAYING HIM?
No…you have to remember how unaware the character is. I think there is a line of professionalism, that as things get ramped up a little bit, and you get antagonized… you get more professional and dig deeper into your box of tools. Those types are always calm, cool and collected, and people respect them for that.
WHAT DO YOU THINK MOTIVATES HIM, IS HE POWER HUNGRY OR IS HE JUST AN A-TYPE THAT WANTS TO SUCCEED AT EVERYTHING?
If he were power hungry, he would have dug his heels in a little more and not let himself be jockeyed out. He got played, but he certainly didn’t lose. I think he rolled with upward mobility in mind, but I don’t think it was a power move.
HOW WAS IT HANGING OUT IN BALTIMORE WHILE THE SHOW WAS BEING SHOT?
I have some family in D.C., so it was good to get down to D.C. It’s funny, my cousin is a senate staffer…
Yeah (laughing), so I would go down there an hangout with him and his friends and they would all say, “Wow, [besides] the way things work and the way people talk on the show, that’s so spot on, but the set-dressing is unbelievable — they got it perfectly right.” There’s a trophy on Frank Underwood’s desk, and he was like, “my boss actually has that award.” So the show has an eye for details.
THE WHOLE SET UP DOES FEELS SO REAL. DID YOU HAVE A FAVOURITE PLACE TO HANGOUT DURING DAYS OFF WHILE ON LOCATION?
I got to go to Camden Yards a few times, and I’m a huge baseball fan. It’s one of the most beautiful ballparks in the league.
YOU’RE ALREADY ON TO SOME NEW PROJECTS I HEAR, SINCE THE LAUNCH OF THE NEW SEASON OF HOUSE OF CARDS. DIDN’T YOU JUST DO A GUEST SPOT ON THE MINDY PROJECT?
Yeah, I did. It was so much fun! I love seeing two actors kind of running a set.
WHAT WAS YOUR CHARACTER LIKE?
I play a guy that Mindy sees on the subway and gets into kind of a correspondence with…I guess that’s all I can say. And, that as is typical with a lot of the roles I play, nothing is quite as it seems.
INTRIGUING. WILL WE SEE YOU ON THE NEW SEASON OF THE SHOW?
They haven’t said there is a plan to, but it could be a very funny character to bring back; a funny character for anyone on the show to run into again.
DO YOU LIKE COMEDY?
I love it and would love to do more of it. Based on the rehearsals and some of the takes, I got a lot of laughs…from the crew anyway (laughing). A lot of comedians say that what’s great about doing comedy, you know whether it’s working or not…with drama, you never really know until you see the final cut.
DO YOU HAVE A PREFERENCE BETWEEN COMEDY AND DRAMA?
It’s good to keep a balance. Part of what I love about the last five or six years is that I’ve done a lot of barnstorming, as far as guest-starring, and getting these great guest star arcs on these great shows. What I love about that is getting the chance to meet so many different actors and work with so many different crews and directors.
IT SEEMS LIKE NO MATTER WHAT ROLE YOU PLAY, FROM YOUR CHARACTER ON GOSSIP GIRL TO HOUSE OF CARDS, YOU’RE ALWAYS DRESSED QUITE STYLISHLY. ARE YOU A FAN OF FASHION YOURSELF?
I guess I’ve become one. I’ve had the good fortune of working on shows that have great wardrobe designers. It’s fun when you’re trying on really nice, perfectly tailored clothes; it forms the character your playing. On House of Cards, the suits are tailored absolutely perfectly. And at my first fitting, they kept saying, “Fincher likes this, and Fincher likes to make sure that this is done and Fincher likes it so that there’s just enough so your top is showing…” and what I really love more than anything else about that kind of situation is that people have a very clear and focused idea of what they want. Fincher has a very clear and focused vision.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR PERSONAL STYLE, ARE YOU MORE A T-SHIRT AND JEANS GUY OR DO YOU HAVE A SOFT SPOT FOR THOSE TAILORED SUITS YOU WERE JUST TALKING ABOUT?
Oh yeah, T-shirt, jeans…those are the two, I love T-shirts and jeans…and sneakers. But having a couple of really nice suits is good. I think wherever you get it, put some money into the tailoring and it will look like a million bucks.
I SEE YOU DID A J.CREW CAMPAIGN A WHILE BACK, ANY MORE FASHION CAMPAIGNS IN YOUR FUTURE?
(Laughing.) That was a lot of fun. We had a lot of fun on the shoot. The clothes are great. I was just in there the other day. I have one of their suits at home and I would put that up against any of the high-end, big fashion houses’ suits that I’ve worn.
YEAH, THEY’RE GREAT.
Wisconsin boy is looking good! Except that hair gel.