Kevin Spacey is good at being bad in House Of Cards

The baddie roles Kevin Spacey played include conniving politician Frank Underwood in House Of Cards (top) and a sadistic boss in Horrible Bosses (above left, with co-star Jason Bateman).
The baddie roles Kevin Spacey played include conniving politician Frank Underwood in House Of Cards (top) and a sadistic boss in Horrible Bosses (above left, with co-star Jason Bateman).PHOTOS: MRC II DISTRIBUTION COMPANY, WARNER BROS
The baddie roles Kevin Spacey played include conniving politician Frank Underwood in House Of Cards (top) and a sadistic boss in Horrible Bosses (above left, with co-star Jason Bateman).
The baddie roles Kevin Spacey played include conniving politician Frank Underwood in House Of Cards (top) and a sadistic boss in Horrible Bosses (above left, with co-star Jason Bateman).PHOTOS: MRC II DISTRIBUTION COMPANY, WARNER BROS

Portraying cunning and ruthless characters has served actor Kevin Spacey well. He won a Golden Globe for his role in the drama House Of Cards

For turning ruthless and ambitious politician Frank Underwood into the anti-hero you love to hate in the drama House Of Cards, American actor Kevin Spacey has picked up a Golden Globe as well as a Screen Actors Guild Award for best actor.

The honour he takes most pride in, though, is something else altogether.

"I cannot tell you how thrilled I was to discover the other day that I have become a muppet," he says, speaking from London in an international media conference call recently.

In The Sesame Street scene he refers to, Frank Underwolf huffs and puffs his way to the white brick house. From the folks at Lego to American talk-show host Jimmy Fallon, plenty of people have put their own spin on the popular show.

Spacey, 55, gives all these House Of Cards parodies the presidential seal of approval: "They are just wonderful ways in which people are, in very humorous and embracing ways, paying homage to the show and having fun with it. I love it."

At the end of Season 2, Underwood had made it to the Oval Office as the most powerful man in the United States. Season 3, which comprises 13 episodes, was released on Netflix on Feb 27.

In Singapore, RTL CBS Entertainment channel served up all 13 episodes back-to-back over the weekend. It is now airing the show on Wednesdays at 9.55pm.

The parodies, awards and nominations are all indicative of the show's popularity. For its debut 2013 season, it received nine Emmy Award nominations, the first original online-only series to do so. It eventually won three.

While Netflix does not release numbers, broadband data company Procera estimated that 16 per cent of all Netflix subscribers on one American cable provider watched at least one episode of the second season of the show in the first 24 hours it went live. That is an eight-fold increase from the 2 per cent who watched a single episode from Season 1 on its first day of release.

There are 39 million Netflix subscribers in the US.

With Underwood now the president, how will Season 3 continue to hook viewers?

Spacey was tight-lipped, perhaps because there had already been an inadvertent leak of new episodes last month.

But his reply teases the idea of Underwood creating a legacy: "To reduce someone's ambition to just wanting to seek power for its own sake, but not actually wanting to achieve anything once he achieves power, is to have a very narrow view of what someone wants to achieve."

The trailer for the new season also suggests that cracks appear in the close relationship between Underwood and his equally ambitious wife Claire, played by Robin Wright.

Pressed by Life! on how the dynamics of that relationship changes, Spacey, who is also an executive producer of the show, concedes: "It wouldn't be inaccurate to say that almost every relationship goes through changes, good times, difficult times and challenging times. At the core of their relationship is an unabiding love, affection and respect. They are better together and they know that."

He adds that working with Wright continues to be "sublime".

What makes the series so riveting is also, of course, Underwood himself and the ways and means he will resort to in order to get ahead. While the character has been called every unsavoury name from backstabber to scumbag, Spacey himself does not believe in labels.

"For me to judge the character I play is to ask me not be able to play him. Doesn't mean you have to like every character you play or agree with everything a character does - that's not my job. I don't judge them, I just play them.

"My role is to serve the writing and portray this character as openly and honestly as I can and let the chips fall where they may."

Spacey, who is known to be pally with former US president Bill Clinton, says he did not get any advice on portraying Underwood. "I got no tips from any living politician on how to play him because he's not based on any politician."

The American series is based on the 1990 BBC mini-series of the same name and the 1989 novel by Michael Dobbs, who had been a senior adviser to former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and a member of Britain's House of Lords.

Unlike the mercurial and glib-tongued Underwood, Spacey is polite, and thoughtful and measured in his responses, even when touching on topics he could be weary of.

Gently, but firmly, he corrects someone who suggests he had left Hollywood for London in 2003 as he was tired of playing the bad guy. Says Spacey - who broke out in 1995 as a twisted killer in Seven and a criminal mastermind in The Usual Suspects, two of the most talked-about movies that year: "I wasn't running away from anything. I was walking towards something and that's quite a different attitude from the one you presented."

He also points out that his films include the feel-good drama Pay It Forward (2000) and the drama American Beauty (1999), which won him an Oscar for Best Actor for playing a suburban father in the grip of a mid-life crisis.

He went to London to take up the artistic director position of the venerable Old Vic theatre, as well as tread the boards in a number of productions. They include Eugene O'Neill's A Moon For The Misbegotten, David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow and Sam Mendes' adaptation of Richard III, which travelled to Singapore in 2011.

"The roles I played, the directors I worked with, I hope have gone into making me a better actor. And I just don't think of my career in the pigeonholed way some people talk about," he notes.

Apart from the top-notch acting and writing on the series, House Of Cards has also changed the way drama series are consumed. Netflix presents viewers with a full-on buffet of the entire season and you can take up the invitation to devour it all in one sitting.

Spacey demurs that they cannot take sole credit for shaping viewing habits and notes that binge-watching began about five years before House Of Cards' debut with the popularity of DVD box-sets.

"I remember talking to people and they'd say, 'I stayed home for two days and watched four seasons of Dexter or two seasons of Breaking Bad.'"

He sees in House Of Cards' success a lesson on piracy that the music industry largely failed to learn. "If you give the people what they want, when they want it, in the form they want at a reasonable price, the chances are they'll buy it and they won't steal it."

bchan@sph.com.sg

House Of Cards Season 3 is showing on RTL CBS Entertainment (StarHub TV Channel 509 and Singtel TV Channel 318) on Wednesdays at 9.55pm.