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Michel Gill talks the thrill of playing the president on 'House of Cards'

Michel Gill studied at The Juillard School of Drama in New York City and The Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, England.
Michel Gill studied at The Juillard School of Drama in New York City and The Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, England.
House of Cards

If you watch "House of Cards" you know it's a show with twists on every turn! With his role as President of the United States on the political drama, actor Michel Gill says those twists are a thrill for him! What does it like playing someone with such influence and power? I recently had the pleasure of speaking with the Juilliard-trained actor who spoke about his on-screen journey as the most powerful person in the country, what's ahead for the new season of "House of Cards", and why he believes Netflix is playing a crucial role in enhancing the creative future of artists.

What are you most enjoying about House of Cards?

Michel- First and foremost, part of the thrill is that I get to do this with my wife. She's playing my Secretary of State, so how lucky are we? That doesn't happen that often. We often do stuff together on stage, but we've never done on-camera work together so that is an absolute thrill. The second thing that I would say is thrilling is that I was elected president by Kevin Spacey and David Fincher. And I gotta say, that's pretty darn thrilling because some presidents are voted in with 50 million votes, I'm just happy with those two! Very powerful people who made it possible for me to then do the third thing that's absolutely thrilling which is to explore a subject and a character that I've actually been fascinated with my whole life. I have always been fascinated with presidents and their behavior as they are and how they're perceived. Since I was a kid I have been observing them. So it's really kind of a dream come true.

So it's like you were destined to play a President!

Michel- Every now and then you have actors who say, "I'm not a lawyer, but I play one on TV." And the thing is it's a very different thing to achieve and to play the part of the president because we know it so well as a culture. More and more as the media has sort of invaded every possible second of their existence, we have such a visual on them. Ten of them have just been in the light of the media. It's hard to play that part so I have to bring in as much humanity as possible in your presence. Plus the characters around you are really help you out by playing your presidency. (Laughs)

I would definitely imagine that's a challenge because like you said we're all so familiar with the image of the “President” and what he is supposed to be like. And you are playing the most powerful person in the world as the President of the United States.

Michel- We forget when we're watching a TV show because we're completely out of it. When we watch Obama or Bush or Reagan- all these presidents; not only are they human beings but they're also walking institutions. They're walking with this huge umbrella of what the presidency is, and that's the most difficult thing to capture when you're acting as the president because none of that comes with you. Your audience looks at you and knows very well that you don't have any secret, and we as a nation and look at that figurehead and know that we're getting very little information in comparison to the enormous amount of information they have that we're just not getting. And then the fascination about that is sort of a thing that we instantly recognize.

Did you watch presidential footage to prepare?

Michel- I did. I watched an enormous amount of State of the Union speeches, interviews, press conferences, personal interviews in the Oval Office, presentations. And I'm always looking for the moment where they're either caught of guard or they're just being themselves, which is a very difficult moment to find. Or also when they don't know when the camera is on and they're joking around and just being who they are, just human beings when suddenly the whole façade disappears and you're faced with just the guy and then boom they put it back on. It's kind of fascinating. The thing is to really explore that behavior and know what's behind closed doors, which is what you see with Walker. That's all you get. Every now and then I'll do a press conference or a speech, but behind that, he's just the guy we never see.

The show is so full of twists and turns. What's ahead for the new season?

Michel- I wish I could you tell everything! (Laughs) The thing that I can say is it's a little bit more of the same. Yet Frank Underwood is now closer to the president. The inaccessibility of the president last season was just because he was really put on the outer banks and he had to make his way back in as he did last season quite well. So now he's pretty close to me and so there's a whole other experience of energy going on there. I think his access to me is more interesting. He's just going to continue with his games.

We definitely know every move he makes is calculated. What do you think it is about “House of Cards” that makes it so interesting to viewers and leads it do well?

Michel- We know how calculated he is and that's the delight of it all. The thing is it's not that it is a romantic comedy because it isn't. But the comparison that I draw in on is that when you go to see a romantic comedy you don't go because you want to know what's going to happen, you go because there are two stars in it that you adore and you want to just watch how they get to where they're going. And with Frank and Claire, and in this story that is so Shakespearean, we know there is a rise and a probable fall for the tragedy of Frank Underwood. We know there is this journey that Frank has embarked on. We know that, we just want to see how he gets there. And that's what we delight in. It's not just that we want to see him get there, we want to see the twists and turns and all that wonderful yummy stuff with him and Claire and everybody else.

Is their storyline you had last season with Garrett Walker that has stood out to you as an actor?

Michel- More than the storyline, the journey of really trying to understand that role and that position and relax into it was really the fun part for me. As an actor, because I'm reading the scripts I know what's being said behind my back, but I can't act that so I have to be completely isolated from that and work at it from that perspective. So within that perspective, it's just a journey of the job of the president and getting things done and imagining things that occur and all the advice he's getting and how he manages and makes decisions. I just think the most wonderful part of this is exploring that position in the world today. The lonely role of this man, and I'm sure soon to be woman, who is left all alone at the end of the day to make these very, very difficult decisions, and what that loneliness is all about. And really knowing that everybody has got wonderful things to say and opinions and then they walk out of the room and you're left all alone. Whether they're in the room or not you're still very much alone when the moment comes to make that decision and that's just a really cool thing to explore; the burden and the wait of that responsibility. We can't really understand what that's like. You just have to relax into it and really let it all play itself out. It was fun.

I know that you have some very extensive and impressive Theater experiences and that you studied at Juilliard and the Royal Academy of the Arts in London, what would you say you brought from those experiences to this character on “House of Cards”? Is there one valuable lesson you learned that you always take with you to your roles?

Michel- First of all, the appreciation of what Beau (Willimon) is trying to do here. He's tying Shakespeare into this. He's really bringing traditional, classic theater to the forefront and placing it into our American political system. And I find that fascinating. I love language. And the thing that I learned at school, both at the Royal Academy of the Arts and at Juilliard, and what was really the most delicious part of our times, was language. What I say and what I mean I say. Why I say it. And if I hadn't gone to school, I really wouldn't have necessarily enjoyed that process as much. I learned how to dissect and work around the reasons why a character says what he's saying. What motivates him. And physicality, why he chooses to do things in a particular way physically. All these things were very incorporated at school and I've always taken them with me. Every role that I play I always take the physicality, and the head, and the heart of the character very, very seriously. And I think that's a testament to both of those schools. I learned it during those years and I'm very grateful for that.

If you could go back in time and spend a day in the life of anyone from history, who would it be and why?

Michel- My first blank moment is music. I would have wanted to be somebody that had the ability, almost like Mozart or Bach, to really feel the intensity of music in that way and to express myself through music. I think music transcends and goes straight to your heart in a way that I think is so important to humanity. So it's either Mozart or Paul McCartney, or even Schubert. It would have to be a composer like that. Music really reaches us at a level where we can just all be sitting in a room with complete strangers and all be completely united and unified in a beautiful place just by listening to something.

Any final thoughts you would like to share about “House of Cards” or anything?

Michel- I just think it's a very exciting time for us all as an audience and as artists to be on this Netflix journey that they're forging for us. I think it's really going to open a huge space for talent and creativity that hasn't necessarily been given as much opportunity up to now because the barriers of control is being given much more to the creative team and not overseen so strictly by the networks and the suits. And I think that's going to really create a huge pool of content that will stream. And within two to five years it's going to be a massive amount of shows so that we won't go a year thinking, 'Oh my god I have to wait a year for “House of Cards”!' Because after “House of Cards”, there will be another thing released and another thing and it will just be this big, wonderful warm pool of content and shows and unlike anything we've ever seen. So I'm so proud and honored to be a part of this movement and this journey because I think it's here to say. It's going to be a lovely little place for us all.

The new season of “House of Cards” begin airing February 14th on Netflix.