Molly Parker was into House of Cards before she was in it.
I had seen the first season when it came out I watched it in three days, like everyone else, Parker said of Netflixs Washington, D.C.-set political drama. Based on a British series of the same name, Cards debuted in February 2013 in a 13-episode fell swoop that capitalized on, and furthered, the binge-viewing craze.
The crash course Parker took for pleasure served her professionally when she was asked to meet with Cards producers regarding a key role in the series second season as a congresswoman Parker blew us away at the meeting, Cards creator Beau Willimon said and later, in joining an established show.
And not just established, but credited with rewriting television history when it became the first Internet-only show to win at the prime-time Emmys (its three awards included David Finchers for directing).
I have never joined a show after its first season, said Parker, a 41-year-old Canadian actress known best for playing widow and gold-mining entrepreneur Alma Garret on HBOs Deadwood. The good thing about this show is that I had seen it, and liked it, and I knew what the tone was going in.
The tone of Cards, the second season of which began streaming Friday, combines brisk legislative procedural, deep political and personal intrigue and touches of whimsy. It suits Parkers still-waters style.
Parker brings the same straight posture and air of mild amusement to Jackie Sharp, a Democratic California congresswoman and Iraq War veteran sought out by crooked House Majority Whip Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) as a political ally, that she did to Alma and to 1970s suburban homemaker Susan from the short-lived but beloved 2008 CBS series Swingtown.
Alma was addicted to laudanum and involved with the married sheriff of her frontier town. Susan was a nascent husband swapper. Both remained models of decency in viewers minds because of Parker.
The actress played these characters more wanton or impulsive behaviors as only small parts of their lives, and lent such authenticity to the bursts of emotion and passion within their reserve, that the candor of her performance ingratiated her to audiences.
Jackie too has secrets, Parker said by phone from New York City during a recent Cards press day. She is a woman really interested in power and being in leadership. And she also struggles with her own personal demons and her past.
Parker speaks in broad terms because Netflix is keeping details of the second season under wraps until viewers see it for themselves.
But it gives nothing away to say, based on four Season 2 episodes availed to the press before their debut, that Jackie is another contained yet beguiling Parker character. On a scale of Cards characters that runs from unethical (Kate Maras journalist Zoe) to sociopath (Francis), Jackie seems comparatively moral.
She is capable of ruthlessness, (but) she is not a sociopath, Parker said. She is principled certainly from the perspective of having been a soldier, and what that means to her, and what kind of values that are contained in that life.
Jackie is cut from the same cloth as Francis in terms of their ruthless pragmatism, said Willimon, whose series was renewed for a third season a week before its second became available for streaming. But her approach is not as oily nor overtly intimidating.
She has a disarming warmth, Willimon said of Parker as Jackie. Her smile is the equivalent of the sirens luring the boats to the rocks. There is a sort of psychological seduction that throws people off balance. Its a very powerful tool if you are a politician.
Willimon said he had admired Parker on Deadwood, which aired from 2004-06. When you have to dramatize a character who has an addiction one could go very two-dimensional and obvious, Willimon said. What Molly did was bring such nuance and vulnerability that it was revelatory.
That speaks to what Mollys biggest strength is, her fearlessness her ability to explore the less-obvious facets of the characters and really bring them into the process.
Fearlessness has characterized Parkers work since she played a necrophiliac in the 1996 Canadian film Kissed. What might have been a career-killer for a less-nuanced actress was a breakthrough for Parker, winner of Canadas Oscar-equivalent Genie Award.
A veteran of Canadian and American indie film, Parker has lived in Los Angeles for 13 years. Cards s six-month shoot in Baltimore last year meant a weekly commute to L.A., where Parkers 7-year-old son attends school. (Parker shares custody with her ex-husband, film director Matt Bissonnette).
The show has a huge cast, so its possible to be part of it and not work all the time, Parker said of Cards.
Raised in British Columbia by parents who owned a seafood shop, Parker paid little attention to politics in her youth. Though had a a general understanding of American politics going into Cards, she studied up on the particulars of the legislative process in preparation for her role.
If she had specific questions about terminology in the script, she would consult Willimon, who once worked on political campaigns, including Howard Deans 2004 presidential bid.
I also was very interested in this idea of what it costs a woman to ascend to positions of leadership, both in politics and business, Parker said. Right now, its the most women who have ever been in (the House), and its 18 percent, she said. Even if it is not part of the story line, whats interesting is it becomes a part of what I do because (Jackies) a woman.
Parker said she read autobiographies by former secretaries of state Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton and other prominent D.C. women.
Sartorially, Jackie hews closer to first lady Michelle Obama and the fictional Claire Underwood (Robin Wright), Francis Lady Macbeth-esque, gorgeously outfitted wife on Cards.
Its a TV show, Parker said by way of explaining her characters sleek wardrobe of beautifully tailored dresses and suits. But Parker also researched what todays congresswomen wear and found that a lot of them are pretty good dressers, she said.
Executive producer Fincher (Zodiac, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) directed Season 2s first two episodes and oversees the whole production, Parker said. Finchers signature muted tones, which favor black, gray and navy clothing, kept some of Parkers research findings from coming to light.
One of the things I noticed when I started doing research was how many women wear red how many women in the House and Senate wear these strong colors, Parker said.
Finchers aesthetic trumped reality.
I was told there was absolutely no way I was going to wear red, Parker said with a laugh.
Call The Bees Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.