Michael Kelly is a handsome man. His allure, however, is deceiving. If you were to apply the slightest touch of black makeup to his eyelids, he’d transform into a convincing manifestation of the Grim Reaper, a la Saturday Night Live’s rendition of Steve Bannon. Perhaps we can envision him this way due to his seminal performance in House of Cards as Doug Stamper—President Frank Underwood’s all-around fixer, killer and confidant.
It wasn’t a Machiavellian Stamper that I met in Chelsea on a blustery New York day; it was the antithesis. Kelly is a self-effacing everyman who seems at ease with the swirl around him, unless he’s talking politics, which we’ll get to. We all know someone like him. Someone who’s so nice you think they must be faking it. Their dreams seem to manifest effortlessness before your eyes, while, in contrast, your dreams seem so hard fought.
Kelly’s story could be told as such: boy randomly takes acting elective in college, has natural talent, books a bunch of commercials and ends up on two of the most groundbreaking shows in the past 20 years, The Sopranos and House of Cards. This fable would edit out the meat of the man. We would be missing the grit, hustle and humbleness that are the foundation of Kelly’s real character. Before finding success as an actor, he spent seven arduous years in New York auditioning before ever making a living from acting. After landing one of his first roles, he tells me, “I went right back to work at a consignment shop in Chelsea because I wasn’t sure it would last.”
For someone with a working-class Irish/Italian upbringing, resting on one’s laurels is not an option. The hard work gradually paid off, and his star continues to ascend. Kelly is credited with over 60 film and television roles, and three Primetime Emmy nominations. Most recently, he joined the cast of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan on Amazon Prime for its second season. Not surprisingly, he appreciates the growth of streaming platforms. “I have a very soft spot in my heart for Netflix. House of Cards was the first original programming on that platform, and to [think] that was only six years ago—that’s what absolutely blows my mind.” “Now,” he jokes, “my kids don’t even know where the cable app is on their smart TV.” When asked whether it’s important how an audience watches a program—whether online or over the air—he says, “I don’t think it matters anymore at all.”
What does matter to him in a big way is the state of our country. Sit down and chat with Kelly, and you will soon find yourself talking politics. “I follow politics a lot. I enjoy it: acting, Braves, Falcons, politics—that’s what I read about every day,” he says. Kelly studied political science in college, inculcating himself with American government processes and protocols to prepare for House of Cards, and, if you peek at his Twitter account (@michaeljkellyjr), you’ll see he is not shy about commenting on the current administration and our country’s current state of affairs. “When people come back at me on social media [for my political views], I tell them there is no fence around my house; I am not some leftist elitist—I came from Lawrenceville with $300 in my pocket. I worked hard to get to where I am,” he says.
In sum, given a choice of his daughter over the current occupant of the White House to run our country, he’d go with the former, quipping: “My daughter is 9 years old, and I truly believe that if I put something in front of her and say, ‘What do you think is the right thing to do?’ she would give the right answer far more often than Donald Trump.”
His gravitas as an actor has led to real-life political power. In a town where influence is a careful game of high-stakes poker, he was holding all aces without placing any aggressive bets. Several years into his House of Cards rocket ride, it took a smart lobbyist to show Kelly that if he came to Capitol Hill to push his agenda, doors would open.
And open they did. Inspired by his mother’s Thanks Mom and Dad Fund, which helps senior citizens with all manner of services—from delivered meals for the homebound to adult day care—Kelly walked the halls of Congress to help push the Older Americans Act through a continuing resolution. “I would go twice a year to Capitol Hill and sit down with Republicans and Democrats alike and ask, ‘How do we keep funding for [the Older Americans Act] going?’ The coolest thing was that people would listen.”
Well, most would. Kelly recalled one Georgia senator who had no idea who he was and quickly brushed him aside. “My aide at the time from the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging looked at me and said, ‘I’m so happy that happened to you because that’s what it’s like at every meeting we take—your voice makes a difference.’”
Many actors make a difference in the lives of ordinary Americans. If I were a betting man, and I am, I’d wager Kelly is just getting started on his road as an actor and influencer—no Stamper scare tactics necessary.
Photography Courtesy Of: Udo Spreitzenbarth, Produced by Michael Clements