Mahershala Ali talks Remy Danton in House of Cards season 3

by W. Andrew Powell
Mahershala Ali as Remy

The third season of House of Cards debuted on Netflix a few weeks ago, and once again it has fans talking about their favorite characters, and the plight of Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), and his friends and enemies. Among that group of politicians and those stuck between politicians, some characters fall into a grey zone of intentions, even between villain and anti-hero, including Remy Danton, played by Mahershala Ali, who is now the White House Chief of Staff in season three.

Ali chatted about the show recently, and had a lot to say about the clever series, Remy’s role with Frank, and working opposite co-star Molly Parker, who plays Jackie Sharp.

Question: What’s your favorite part of playing Remy Danton?

Mahershala Ali: “I think just playing somebody who is so intelligent and calculated and ambitious. It’s just fun to step into those shoes and get the opportunity to execute some of the things that Beau [Willimon] writes for us.”

Q: What I’m curious to know, in your perception, how does Remy perceive loyalty? Who is he loyal to? Is it himself first and foremost and whoever can get him further, or does he have loyalties to specific people in this season?

Mahershala: “Well I think he, like everyone on the show or in that world, is loyal to themselves because that’s just that world, that’s just that environment. I think you always have to look out for yourself. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself out of the loop.”

“I think he does what he, first and foremost–I believe he’s a survivor, and he does what he has to do to stay relevant and in some way hold on to the power that he has. And then from there, I think he’s just trying to attain his goals and aspirations and be fulfilled as a person.”

W. Andrew Powell: I really wanted to know–it seems like the creed of the show has always been ‘keep your friends close and your enemies closer.’ Is that kind of a theme this season especially, because it does feel like Remy could have been anywhere when we come back to him this time?

Mahershala: “I kind of feel like that’s a theme of the show in general and of that world. Yes. I don’t really know how else to answer that, but I think that we see that to be fairly true throughout the course of the season. You have people who become allies to attain and achieve certain agendas, and I think in large part that’s how a lot of the world works, in my mind.”

Q: Not necessarily in this season, because I don’t want to give too much away, but in the history of the show, what was your favorite scene to shoot?

Mahershala: “That’s a good question. I enjoyed most working with Molly Parker. I think I could really choose any number of scenes that we’ve had an opportunity to work on together, but we have a couple of really nice moments this season.”

“I probably most enjoyed working with her on one of the scenes where there’s something that happens to Remy, and he goes to, kind of to vent and talk to Jackie about what just happened. I just enjoyed working on that team; Robin was directing. Molly is just so supportive and just wonderful as an actor. So anything that we get to do together, but probably especially acting.”

Q: Has playing a role on a series like this made you look at American or world politics in a different light. I know this is a hyper-reality situation, but there’s got to be some kernels of truth in the stories that are being told. Has your perception on things changed at all?

Mahershala: “Not much. I definitely feel like part of the point of the show is to heighten certain things that have gone on in our politics and in that world and make them entertaining. But at the same time they have to have that kernel of truth in order to resonate with an audience and feel like a fantasy world that’s so far out in left field where it doesn’t speak to people.”

“But in terms of it actually affecting my views on politics and what not, I can’t say, at this point, that it’s done that much to improve how I look at politics or to take away in some way of how I view government and politics and people’s agendas and all that. It hasn’t really truly affected anything. At the end of the day, I do understand that it’s entertainment.”

Andrew: Considering where Remy started in the show, did you ever realize how long he’d be around or has Remy’s role so far been a surprise for you?

Mahershala: “I think, for the most part, it’s a surprise probably for everyone outside of Kevin and Robin because they are the most important figures of the show; they’re the anchors. You just take it season to season and then you take it episode by episode and see how the story is laying out, what they’re writing for you, and just grateful that you’re around for, however, long you’re around.”

Q: The tone of the show is just so tense and dramatic most of the time. How does the cast keep it light off-screen? Are there any hijinx?

Mahershala: “What’s great about the show is that you have a lot of veteran actors, people who’ve just been around a really long time. At this point this isn’t anything new in that regard. I’m sure everybody’s worked on projects with relatively heavy things.”

“I think for us as actors is, one, you’re always excited to contribute and take on the material. On the other side of that, it’s a job. You go to work ready to work. You’ve got to have a great attitude about everything. You have fun where there’s space and where it’s appropriate to have fun, and lighten it up.”

“A lot of that stuff is really exciting though, when it’s a little bit heavier and even when you have to flush out emotional moments for your characters. In a certain way, that’s the stuff that you get up for.”

“I feel like everyone takes it as it comes and doesn’t seem to have a problem handling that time. I feel like the mood on set is pretty even throughout.”

Q: Will we have an opportunity at all, if it doesn’t come in season 3, to see perhaps, Remy’s more vulnerable side?

Mahershala: “I think that there are a couple of moments where some of what he’s processing or how he processes certain experiences are a little bit more revealing than what they have been in seasons past, for sure.”

Andrew: This is more a general question but, could you describe a little bit about Remy and Frank’s relationship this season because obviously that’s a bit of a tease, almost, of what this season is about?

Mahershala: “I think that there is at a certain point, some fairly obvious tension between the two. Remy does make a comment about not ever really being welcomed into the inner circle, and I think that that particular moment is really revealing about his experience in working with Frank in this capacity. So, yes. There’s definitely some moments there where they’re not absolutely in alignment, and I think that we see that at times throughout the season.”

Q: You had mentioned earlier that there were some scenes that you really enjoyed playing with Molly Parker. Is there anyone else in the cast, or other characters, that you really haven’t had a chance to interact with yet, but you’d really like the opportunity to share some scenes with?

Mahershala: “I would have loved to have worked with Michael Kelly. I think Michael is really talented, and he’s just, off camera he’s a pretty wonderful person, always really upbeat and just terrific energy. I just have so much respect for him as an actor and just really appreciate what he brings to the table for the show.”

Andrew: We’ve heard a bit about Kevin Spacey’s sense of humor. How much of that have you encountered when you’ve been playing opposite of him this season or any season?

Mahershala: “A little bit of it. He’s got a lot on his plate. I think it depends on how much he has going on that day because House of Cards is one thing, but he’s had an opportunity to work with a number of really talented people. But, I’ve got to say, he might be the hardest working person I’ve ever been around. He’s doing stuff off in London with his theater, and he’s a producer and one of the executive producers on House of Cards and an actor. I just don’t know; he’s always making public appearances. He’s just so busy in so many different ways that I’m just surprised that he even shows up for work.”

“Sometimes, depending on how light things are and how comfortable he is, he’s definitely funnier on some days than others but he’s pretty hilarious. But then sometimes he’s really serious and focused, and it kind of depends on what’s on the page for that day.”

Q: Speaking of theater, yourself, and much of the cast has a background in theater. Does that translate to how you rehearse or how you knock out the scenes? Can you talk a little about that?

Mahershala: “Perhaps, I think first Laray Mayfield and Julie Schubert, I think they just do a great job of just casting the project, in general. So, whether someone comes from the theater world and working in film and television for the entirety of their career, I think people come to work ready to really connect with the deepest truth in the scene, and in that way there can be a really collaborative spirit.”

“Perhaps it does affect it; maybe it’s the theater thing. But I think it might be, just more so, the type of actor they tend to cast on the show who’s usually one who does a certain degree of homework and comes to work with ideas and ready to engage and really lift the scenes off the page.”

Q: Has there been, up to this point, a storyline the way that it played out that was really, really surprising to you? I know there’s been definitely some shocking turns, some shocking scenes over the past couple of years.

Mahershala: “For that show, surprisingly, it’s just par for the course. At a certain point, for me at least how I read the scripts and look at things, I’m kind of looking for the surprise and the twists and the turns. At this point, I don’t find myself, necessarily, surprised by any storylines because it’s so expected to me. I do think the Meechum thing in the last season was a little surprising. You could look at the Kate Mara’s character, how she died, or whatever on the show.”

“All those moments are definitely a little bit more of a surprise than some of the other ones. But I really do feel like that’s just an inherent organic part of the show, is that there are going to be these dramatic turns in the story at certain points, which is part of what makes it really great to watch.”

Q: With a lot of shows of this nature, we often hear stories about cast members, as soon as they get a script they flip through to see if they survive. Is there that type of approach when you receive a script, too? Do you flip through to see, oh, Remy made it through another episode?

Mahershala: “Only if you’re in an episode that goes beyond your episode commitment, your contract. For the most part, I look at it and am more so interested in what I get to do in that episode, and I usually get pretty excited about that. I haven’t been as concerned about if I survive or not, in all honesty. That’s just part of this world.”

“To be totally truthful, I feel in some ways that the show is somewhat of a hybrid of the Sopranos and a West Wing that there are elements of people who disappear and perhaps die and whatnot. And then there’s that heavy political through line that carries you throughout the show.”

“Again, that’s something that is just an organic part of the show, where people are on it for a while, and then their stories might go away. At the end of the day, it’s really about what’s best for the show, what are the choices that they have to make in the writer’s room to really push the story along.”

Andrew: I don’t want to take too much time away from House of Cards, but could you talk a little bit about playing Boggs in The Hunger Games films, because that’s a pretty cool opportunity as well and quite a different role, obviously, for you to play. It seems like it must be a fun ride.

Mahershala: “It was great. It was a great group of folks, which is what I really took away from that whole experience. It’s always been pretty wonderful to be a part of a huge franchise like that. I think House of Cards, for the medium that House of Cards is in, it’s probably equally as big. But it was just great being a part of that cast and being a small part of telling that story as well. I’m kind of looking forward to part two.”

Andrew: Just a quick follow-up. Do you enjoy playing that kind of action role as well?

Mahershala: “Yes. I do, but you’d be surprised that when you do a big action film, how you watch it and how you experience it as an audience is very different from how it’s filmed. Because those films can be so action driven, that on the other side of that, they actually are shot in a way that’s really slow and safe. It has to be taken moment by moment in order for it to all edit and piece together in a way that feels really dynamic and moves forward with a lot of pace and energy.”

“It’s a very different kind of work. I think House of Cards is very cerebral, and something like The Hunger Games is more physical but it takes a lot more time to do it. It’s just different. I enjoy it all, honestly, but it’s just very different.”

Q: This is a Netflix show. What other shows do you enjoy, perhaps, binge watching yourself?

Mahershala: “I really enjoyed Breaking Bad. I thought that was great. There’s a show with Gillian Anderson that streams on Netflix called The Fall, which is terrific. I really like Top of the Lake with Elisabeth Moss. Yes, there’s a few, but those are the ones that, I love Luther with Idris Elba. So, those are the ones that come to mind.”

Q: Remy is definitely a favorite with the fans of House of Cards, so much so that I’ve actually found Tumblr blogs dedicated to him and people creating real creative stuff in that. How aware of you of that fan response online and the tributes to him that are made on the Internet?

Mahershala: “I just got an Instagram account two months ago. I’ve never done Twitter, Facebook. There have been a couple fake pages. The only reason I actually did Instagram was because there was a fake page up for me. I don’t engage in that too much, a lot of my friends and family does. But, I always try to limit, I think for myself, a certain degree of access. That’s just not in my nature, as well. I’m actually not all that aware of Remy’s popularity or what have you. But it’s great to know that he is appreciated in some way; that’s pretty cool.”

Andrew: Considering some of the surprising deaths that we’ve seen in the series, if Remy could die in some unexpected way, how would you like him to go out?

Mahershala: “Hang gliding. Something adventurous–bungee jumping or something. Something fun. Nothing necessarily–no getting thrown in front of the train tracks or anything like that.”

Andrew: I can’t help but say though, it seems funny to hear you say something fun for a way for him to get killed off, when really we haven’t seen a lot of Remy’s fun side.

Mahershala: “Yes. And again, it all goes back to what’s necessary for the show and what works to push the story along. House of Cards was first and foremost about Frank and Claire. I think everyone else has an opportunity to help support that story and move it along. There just might not, organically, be enough space to get to some of that stuff with Remy. And that’s okay. It’s just what it is. I enjoy playing the serious, manipulative, conniving awful stuff is fun as well.”

Molly Parker and Mahershala Ali
Molly Parker and Mahershala Ali

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