“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 producers.
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.
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.”
Season three ended with uncertainty for Dunbar and her presidential bid, but it’s hard to imagine Marvel not returning to complete her arc now that Netflix has renewed the series for a fourth season. “Where we leave her is very much at the beginning of the sentence,” Marvel says adding that she has no assumptions about next season. ”For my own selfish reasons, I certainly hope I continue on.”
Though it remains to be seen what happens next, Marvel now has to focus her attention on bringing Annie Wilkes to life in the Broadway adaption of Stephen King’s Misery. “Trying to find a way to represent something that is truly frightening on stage is a fascinating challenge,” she says of the upcoming production co-starring Bruce Willis as novelist Paul Sheldon.
While the press has made immediate comparisons to the 1990 film, which Kathy Bates won an Oscar, Marvel thinks of it as a different exercise, which will allow to do a version of the character that’s all her own. “I don’t worry about it because what she did is definitive,” she adds, focusing on what she’s most excited about performing on stage: “I really like making the pig noises.”
But she shoots down the idea of taking any glee in torturing Willis in his Broadway debut. “I think in Annie’s mind and my mind, it’s not torture,” Marvel says. “It’s correction--and love."
"It's a very funny thing to be straddling Annie Wilkes and Heather Dunbar," Marvel says of the two parts with eerily similar darkness. Yet, only an actress like her could make both roles work.
While Marvel says her character is based on Bobby Kennedy, everyone wants to know if Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright take their cues from the Clintons. Watch as the actors talk about the inspiration behind the Underwoods: