By Lisa Richwine
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - In the new political drama series "House of Cards," Kevin Spacey plays a win-at-all-costs American politician scheming to disrupt the young administration of a president he helped elect.
The setting serves as the backdrop for a series that distributor Netflix Inc hopes will leave its mark by shaking up the television landscape.
All 13 episodes of the show's first season will be viewable starting Friday only through the Netflix subscription video-streaming service and not on any of the traditional broadcast or pay TV channels.
The project boasts A-list movie talent including two-time Oscar winner Spacey with David Fincher, the acclaimed "Fight Club" and "Social Network" director as executive producer.
In "House of Cards," Spacey plays Representative Francis Underwood, an ambitious, high-ranking U.S. Democrat.
Spacey provides the first window into his character's commanding personality in the opening scene when he looks directly into the camera to explain he has "no patience for useless things."
"He's diabolical," Spacey told Reuters, quickly adding that "he's a very effective politician" who knows how to work Washington and operates under the premise of "bad for the greater good."
As the story begins, the South Carolina lawmaker expects to be named secretary of state by the newly elected president. When he learns the White House prefers that he stay in Congress, Underwood sets out on a ruthless mission to accomplish his goals. Robin Wright plays his wife, the equally ambitious head of a nonprofit group - a character loosely based on Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth.
Underwood conspires with a young reporter, played by Kate Mara, who helps the congressman's cause in order to fuel her own desire to rise to a high-profile assignment at the fictitious Washington Herald newspaper.
FROM LONDON TO WASHINGTON
"House of Cards" is based on a 1990s British TV series of the same name that was adapted from books written by Michael Dobbs, an aide to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. An intern at independent studio Media Rights Capital raved about the series to Co-CEO Modi Wiczyk, who enlisted Fincher and Spacey for production of an updated version.
The studio sold the distribution rights to Netflix after talking with cable heavyweights including HBO, Showtime and AMC.
Writer Beau Willimon, a former U.S. campaign operative who penned the 2011 political movie thriller "The Ides of March," moved the setting to a modern American government for the Netflix series and gave Underwood a charming Southern twang in place of the British accent.
For Netflix, the show is part of an effort to attract new customers with must-see content unavailable elsewhere. Only-on-Netflix series coming later this year include the revival of one-time Fox comedy "Arrested Development" and murder mystery "Hemlock Grove," directed by horror movie producer Eli Roth.
Throughout "House of Cards," Underwood pauses to look straight into the camera and give viewers insight into the unraveling drama. The unusual technique - called "breaking the fourth wall" - was a hallmark of the original series.
Spacey said he drew on his recent stage experience playing Shakespeare's "Richard III," a role that uses the same method and allowed him to look directly into people's eyes. Audiences "loved being co-conspirators," he said. "You can create little moments where it's not dialogue, where it's just a look. It's just an 'I know you know what I'm thinking' kind of thing."
The "American Beauty" actor cut back his Hollywood work in 2003 to revitalize the historic Old Vic Theatre in London. With his term as artistic director ending in 2015, Spacey said he is ready to take on more film work. "Captain Phillips," a movie he executive produced about the leader of a ship hijacked by Somali pirates, reaches theaters in October.
Fincher, who directed the first two "House of Cards" episodes, said he was lured to a serialized drama for the first time by the chance to explore a complex character whose personality is revealed over several episodes.
"In movies, you can't build characters who are as gray," Fincher said. Alongside Underwood's Machiavellian drive for power, "there is a kindness to him" and unwavering devotion to his wife.
"They are not morally bereft. They are complicated," Fincher said. "The aggregation of power is a dirty business."
(Reporting by Lisa Richwine; Editing by Jill Serjeant and Will Dunham)