While Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood played with people like puppets and served up savory speechifying, Corey Stoll emerged as the ace up House of Cards‘ sleeve. As Peter Russo, he played a congressman who was caught in the wrong place at the wrong time and thusly steered into a tumultuous arc, one with valleys as deep as the peaks high. Here, the actor — whose previous TV credits included NCIS, Law & Order: LA and The Good Wife — hails the “embarrassment of riches” afforded him and the thrill of helping Netflix break new ground.
(Only thematic spoilers follow, for those who have yet to queue up the acclaimed drama.)
TVLINE | There you were, invited to populate this bold new venture, a Netflix original series. Was any anxiety you had offset by the collective pedigrees of everyone involved?
Absolutely. The fact that it was Kevin Spacey, and the quality of the scripts.… [Being a Netflix series] didn’t give me pause at all. In fact it was exciting, to be part of an organization that was doing something new.
TVLINE | Was Peter presented to you as almost the “root for” guy in this piece?
I don’t think it was presented as such, but I saw him like that. I had a basic idea of what the arc was going to be, but I didn’t have the details. What was really exciting is the character could have ended up being a villain, but you really didn’t know going into it. I think he ends up sympathetic just due to the fact that the story ends [where it does]. I feel like if the story were to keep going, he could be a villain — and then maybe he’d be sympathetic again. [Laughs] His weakness is in his selfishness. His follies weren’t going to go away.
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TVLINE | Did your heart break as you read the later scripts? I always find it hard to watch even a fictional character not just fall off the wagon but get forced off.
Yeah, but as an actor I was salivating. I remember when we read the final two episodes that I was in, I was just so excited. Every scene was different and exciting to play. Really juicy.
TVLINE | Amidst all these steely, calculating characters, Peter was the closest to the warm beating heart at the show’s center. A guy who could follow in Frank Underwood’s footsteps or stand on his own and “fight the machine.”
Right. He has some idealism, but not enough to overcome the realpolitik he’s in the middle of. Ambition is the overriding force behind everything he does, so he shares that with a lot of the characters, but he doesn’t have that ability to “disconnect.”
TVLINE | What was one of your favorite scenes? I enjoyed when Peter told the vice president how it’s going to be.
That was fun, that scene — especially because I had spent most of the season up until then being just suffering one humiliation after another. It was fun to find someone powerful, articulate and high-status in the same role. In the short arc of my character was an embarrassment of riches, all the stuff I got to play.
TVLINE | Even your quieter moments resonated, like Peter reconnecting with Christina toward the end. It wasn’t the longest scene and barely anything was said, but you felt like she was this life raft to him as he struggled to stay above water.
Yeah, and Kristen [Connolly] is so angelic in that part, it wasn’t hard to play that scene.
TVLINE | The way Netflix released all 13 episodes at once…. Does that benefit the actor, because you don’t see the first episodes on air while still shooting? There’s no opportunity to start rethinking your performance?
I think so. It’s much more like doing a movie, where you’re sort of sequestered and doing your thing. And the people whose opinions you’re listening to are the people who are also invested — the writers, the directors, the other actors and producers. Plus, the fact that Season 2 was a given — they bought 26 episodes straight out — was such an incredibly luxury. We really did feel like we were given the keys to this really nice car, and we were allowed to open it up and drive it as hard as we wanted to.
TVLINE | House of Cards obviously was a defining experience for you. What was one of the most important things you came away from it with?
Good writing is everything. You can make bad writing “OK,” but…. You really need to start with a good script, and with characters that are three-dimensional, and with great dialogue. It’s a difficult lesson to learn, because good writing is hard to come by, but it’s definitely worth chasing.