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Beau Willimon’s Series of Schemers

The writer and showrunner behind "House of Cards" understands characters who are sly manipulators - and every bit as entertaining as they are cunning.

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Beau Willimon. Photo by Kevin Winter (Getty)

Beau Willimon started his career in professional politics. He didn’t stay in that world long, but he seems to have absorbed a career’s worth of inspiration, starting with his play “Farragut North” (adapted into the movie “The Ides of March” directed by George Clooney and starring Ryan Gosling), and he created the Emmy-winning Netflix series “House of Cards.”

“House of Cards,” debuting a second season on February 14th, is a dark and clever political drama, starring Kevin Spacey as Francis Underwood, a cunning Congressman with his eye on higher office at any cost. Mr. Willimon joins us to list some other sly manipulators that have caught his eye.

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Hi. My name is Beau Willimon. I’m the showrunner for “House of Cards.” Season 2 of “House of Cards” just went up on Netflix – all 13 episodes on the same day, Valentine’s Day. Nothing more romantic. The show centers on a political power couple played by Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright and their ruthless ascent to the ranks of power in D.C.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about scheming outside the realm of politics. So here’s a short list of schemers who have influenced me.

Girl Talk

Girl Talk - Unstoppable cover image 2004

So my first schemer is the DJ mashup artist known as Girl Talk. The music is an assault on the senses in all the best ways. It is mashing together R&B on one hand and classic rock and death metal. What he’s doing is playing with expectations in ways that make you rethink all of your experiences with these songs by placing them in a new context.

In “House of Cards,” Francis Underwood, the main character, it’s not as though he’s looking 15 moves ahead and playing a game of political chess. In fact, in Washington it’s much more like jazz. It’s chaos. It’s reacting to what you can’t control and trying to mold it into something that you can, and with Girl Talk you see something similar. He is taking all of these memories that people have had with these songs to form a new experience. You’re casting a spell, in a way like playing God. It’s a form of power.

 

Honoré de Balzac

And now for something completely different, I want to tie more back to the 19th century and the great French novels. Balzac’s “Lost Illusions” is one of the great novels of western civilization. It centers on an ambitious unknown poet who makes his way to Paris and finds that really the only way to achieve artistic success is to lie, cheat, steal, and in so doing really loses his soul and his artistic vision.

There’s something attractive about the climber, even when they’re being their most dastardly you sometimes find yourself rooting for them despite yourself. We all wish that we could dispense with the rules. Those of us that try to follow them or pretend to follow them see in these characters people that are not shacked to convention or to the law, and we can’t get enough of it.

 

Miley Cyrus

Now, I think that there is someone else in the world of music, who is in a lot of ways equally subversive and transgressive, and that would be Miley Cyrus. I love Miley Cyrus. You know, she’s gotten a lot of praise lately and a lot of detractors as well, and I think that’s exactly what she’s after.

You look at Miley right now, who has got her short hair and sticks her tongue out and seems unable to wear clothing, but if you compare that Miley to the one who sang “Jolene” in The Backyard Sessions, one of the great covers of “Jolene” ever done. Seeing that song and switching over to what she did at VMAs, it is this great act of chameleonism, on par I think with Madonna or Michael Jackson. And if she didn’t have the goods, if she didn’t have the talent, then it would seem desperate or a stretch, but she has the pipes.

We are now in an age that is inundated with videos, blogs, streaming services, public radio. There’s a lot of competition out there. So you have to scheme to a degree in order to get your talent out there, and she has done a pretty remarkable job at accomplishing just that.