“Where we leave [Heather Dunbar] is very much at the
beginning of the sentence,” Elizabeth Marvel tells ETonline about the House of Cards role that went from being
an uncompromising special prosecutor at the end of season two to Frank
Underwood’s (Kevin Spacey) ruthless nemesis and challenger for the Democratic presidential nominee in season three.
Even after the first table read, the 45-year-old character actress
had no idea what she was in for. “It wasn’t until after we read through the
first episode that they took me into the office and said, ‘You know, we have a
lot of plans for you,’” Marvel says of the conversation she had with the show’s
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In the matter of a day--at least for those who marathoned all
of season three when it debuted on Netflix--Marvel became a breakout star, going
toe-to-toe with Spacey. Her name may have not been largely familiar at
that point, but audiences surely recognized the face that has “wandered around a
lot on television” for the past 15 years with notable roles on CBS’s The District, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and Nurse Jackie.
While Dunbar is the kind of role would be welcome
for any actress early in her career, Marvel admits that the past decade of TV
work--as well as her notable presence on stage and on screen in films, like True Grit and Lincoln--gave her the life experience she needed to play it, or the “ability
to find her gravitas,” as she puts it.
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That deft was especially needed for episode 11’s intense debate between Underwood, Dunbar, and Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker, Deadwood). Each take of the scene was filmed in real time from beginning to end, with the actors sinking their teeth into it. “There was a certain amount of improvisation going as well,” Marvel reveals. “The script is fully represented--we did what they wrote. But I know Kevin and I shot some volleys back and forth because we got real into it.”