In a Class of Her Own Life is good for Robin Wright. She is unarguably the most elegant woman on television, playing the indomitable Claire Underwood in House of Cards — a role for which she won a Golden Globe in 2014. But as she will tell you, probably throwing in a few colourful words and a lot of laughs along the way, it has been a journey to reach this point.
After charming audiences with her debut film performance as Buttercup in The Princess Bride and then as the beautiful but tortured Jenny in Forrest Gump, Robin retreated from the celebrity spotlight to raise her son, Hopper, and daughter, Dylan — a decision that she firmly stands by. While being married to, the even then megastar, Sean Penn, made it impossible to completely withdraw, she did her best to shield her kids and provide them with a stable childhood.
Then in 2011, after a tumultuous two-decade relationship, Robin and Sean went through a very public divorce. Though that was no doubt a hard time — she’s been quoted as calling the separation devastating — for Robin it was also the beginning of a new chapter in her life.
Over the past several years, Robin has appeared in a number of well received films such as Money Ball, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Congress, A Most Wanted Man, the poignant thriller alongside the late, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and the adventure drama Everest, and with the incredible success of the Netflix political drama, House of Cards, she has powerfully entered the homes and hearts of audiences the world over with her portrayal of Claire Underwood — a role she had initially turned down. Kevin Spacey, who plays her on-screen husband Frank Underwood, and Robin, have managed to find a natural chemistry together, confirming for audiences, and Robin, that the project was the right choice for her, both personally and professionally. While Claire is often resented for her cold and calculating nature, which stands in stark contrast to the free-spirited, fun-loving actress who plays her — something that was surely on display when Robin performed a hilarious dance skit on Jimmy Fallon’s late night talk show — the two do share certain qualities. Both are incredibly complex, yet simply classic, stoic, yet vulnerable. However, Robin undeniably outshines Claire Underwood, even in her finest form.
With her two children now in their early 20s and on their own, rather than shying away from the spotlight, Robin is embracing it and directing her energy towards causes she feels passionately about, including the Enough Project, which works to stop crimes against humanity in conflict zones. Using her platform as a celebrity to advocate for electronic companies to use only conflict-free minerals, Robin has left the safety and comfort of her world numerous times to venture to countries in Africa, including the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Listening to her speak about the conflict in the Congo, it is impossible not to be drawn in to her obvious devastation at the atrocities impacting the lives of women and children living in these areas. You can sense her burden to make a difference and her commitment to continue ‘the good fight’ until the realities in the DRC change. It is not about press or altruism for Robin, it is about humanity and personal responsibility. And while the actress has protested in the past against being typecast as the soulful and often wounded heroin, she does and will remain to be Hollywood’s princess.
You must have gotten a lot of comments after the dance-off on the Jimmy Fallon show back in 2014? You have some serious moves!
(Laughs) I got a few text messages; I don’t look at stuff on the Internet. (Laughs) That was so much fun with him though! I had never met him. That was such a hoot.
I think that you shocked fans. You presented a Robin Wright not often seen!
It’s true. And I think truthfully, that is why I went on the show. I was like, I’m so tired of being typecast. I love a good time. But you battle in this industry, being in it for so long, [to maintain a position], it’s nobody’s business who I am [personally]; and you try to be very elusive and private, which I do want to be with my life. But if I’m going to be perceived in this whole Internet web sensation … it’s sickening with everybody blogging, everybody’s a judge to everybody. You’re just like, I just wanna dispel all of the presumptions in whatever shape or form so that you’re not labeled, because that becomes very tiring in the world as well.
When people come up to you and they’re like, ‘Oh you know, whatever … say, ‘You’re so serious. Are you like Claire Underwood on the show? You’re so evil! Is that how you are, ‘cause you play it so well!’ And you’re just like, come on! Can we not just be actors and let that display for itself? No! People want to know the person and then they have misperceptions of the person, and so I thought, just go on the show. This is so not like me to do a show like this. But I did say, ‘Just go for it, just be goofy.’ And if anything, I’ll just make my kids laugh. They’ll be like, ‘Mum, you were so dorky!’
Were you warned? Did you know that the skit would include dancing?
Yeah! Just about, yes … would I be willing to play a game? And I had never watched the Jimmy Fallon show, so I had to get on to YouTube and see what kind of games they usually play. And when I saw Halle Berry roll — she did a human somersault, you know — I thought that was pretty funny.
After Forrest Gump and all of the resulting attention, you’re quoted as saying, ‘I turned down so many films, because I just wanted to be a mum, that they stopped offering.’ You made a decision to step back from everything and focus on being the mum that you wanted to be. Looking back now, was that the right decision for you?
Yeah. Because I was able to be home with the kids while they were in school. That was a no-brainer, you know. I was trying to organise the career life around their summer break, where I could take them with me or just do a little cameo or do a movie that didn’t shoot for many days during the school year, where I could come home on the weekends and only work 10 or 12 days on a film, things like that. That took organising and, no, I couldn’t take everything I wanted or that I was offered because it would take me away from home for too long. And I didn’t want to uproot them.
First of all, it was too difficult, even in the summers, taking them out of school and bringing them to whatever country or state out of home [where I was working] and have them sitting in a hotel room with a nanny while I worked. ‘Oh yeah, let’s go to the zoo again while Mum’s working, we can go see her for lunch.’ That’s miserable! Yeah, and then you know, it’s different chapters in your life and the new chapter and post-40 and you get offered different roles then, and I did!
And House of Cards came about, and I did such a fun part, a cameo in the movie Everest, with Jake Gyllenhaal and Josh Brolin [who plays my husband]. It was so much fun. I got to really create this character from Texas, and we had a blast working together. I was only on that movie for a week, and then I started shooting season three of House of Cards the following week. So that kind of stuff I welcome with open arms. I love doing that kind of thing.
Were you nervous at all taking on a TV project being a film actress?
Yes, completely. That’s why I didn’t want to do it. And David Fincher assured me, he said, ‘The times are changing Robin.’ He goes, ‘First of all, it’s not TV, it’s livestream.’ And I was like, ah, ha ha. Oh yeah, I was completely against it, to tell you the truth. I don’t watch TV. I never have watched TV, but it worried me, it concerned me. It was going over to the other side, having been in film for so long. I know I’ve done some of the most exciting stuff in film since being on [House of Cards]. A Most Wanted Man and Everest — those were great fun characters to play. So, yeah, I think again, we can dispel all those negative rumours now. I don’t think there’s anything to worry about. And also, to be a part of a group … you know, a David Fincher production and Kevin Spacey and Beau Willimon, who writes our show who’s so intelligent. The quality, it’s so sophisticated anyway, and it’s shot like a film, it’s beautifully shot.
The West Wing was seen as the political drama of the early 2000s, and House of Cards seems to really be the one for this period. Do you think that House of Cards is playing a role in actually interpreting the real political landscape?
(Laughs) We went to D.C. for the first time and then we went to the Correspondents’ Dinner after the first season. One of the politicians said … we posed the question: ‘How accurate is our show, by the way?’ And he goes, ‘About 99 percent accurate.’ Really? 99? We asked in response, ‘What’s the one percent that’s inaccurate?’ He says, ‘The only thing that’s inaccurate is that you’d never get an education bill passed that quickly.’ (Laughs) And so we were giggling, going, ‘Wow! Murder …’ But all of the tricks and how you get from A to B and who you have to shit on to get there and stab in the back — all of that’s true, come on!
How did you shape Claire Underwood? How do you see Claire since you’re the one bringing her to life?
She’s sort of evolved over time, I have to say. I didn’t really have a clue. I went towards the physical first. I was watching animals.
For me, I’ve just found that you give me the clothes, the hairdo and pick an animal of some kind — and I couldn’t find Claire. I knew she was statuesque. I remember David Fincher saying she is the bust that will be in the foyer of a mansion and she’s very stoic. So I was watching the American eagles, to tell you the truth, and how they preside over that dominion of fowls. They are the leaders and they’re very statuesque and regal — and the way that they would scan the perimeter when they would land on a branch and hold their wings.
I was a dancer for many years, so I was incorporating dance and poise and followed that American eagle — the quietude and the strength and they’re very cunning, the eagle. So I used that, and then everything just kind of followed suit.
And you’ve got the dialogue and the rhythm of the show and the rhythm of Francis and Claire. You know, it’s operatic, it’s Shakespearean what we’re doing on that show.
I’ve heard that you and Kevin have a lot of fun in between takes.
Oh my goodness! We giggle so much. So much so that the makeup artist has to come in every take and wipe off the mascara because he makes me cry with laughter. We have so much fun!
Do you think that Americans are tired of the world’s problems? You guys have so many problems of your own, with high levels of unemployment, unavailable health care, gang violence, illegal immigrants … you have so many of your own issues.
They are! And people announce that. But here’s the difference with this cause in general, as far as causes go. Yes, we do have our causes that we need to attend to in America.We have the biggest dropout rate in the world for an advanced society. (Laughs) I mean, it’s crazy in America! It is our duty to stop this war, to help these women. Over 5 million people have died; it’s the worst war since World War II, and we are purchasing electronics every single day. We use them every single day — our computers and our cell phones and our toasters and it’s in our cars and even the gold that we’re wearing on our wedding ring fingers is being sourced from these mines, where these women are being raped and families pillaged. I think that it’s our duty.
If we’re going to continue to buy, which we are — we are consumers — it’s our duty to clean up the trade. Help clean up the trade and put pressure on these companies to source conflict-free minerals. Intel, HP and Motorola, they’ve led this movement. It has begun. It’s taken a few years of us putting pressure and putting pressure, but look it’s working! Those are three of the top electronic companies. Apple’s 90 percent conflict-free, whatever that means … 90 percent?
To put a human face on it, are there any stories from your time in the DRC or from the girls, the women that you met, that you were particularly touched by — that stand out?
What was the most consistent surprise, believe it or not, is the amount of hope that they [affected women] have for a future. They see it; they visualise new lives. I feel like they don’t have a sense of time the way we do.
They don’t have a sense of time on a calendar to be the doomsayer the way we are. They wake up every day with hope and courage. We have this God-given right to sleep at night feeling safe — they don’t.
Even in the refugee camps that I visited, they don’t feel safe when they go outside of that camp to go get firewood. They don’t know if they’re gonna come back alive because the perpetrators are out there, and then they’re raped when they’re out in the bush getting some wood. I mean, we don’t know what that life is like, so to see that every day you wake up with the courage to live and you envision a sustainable life ahead of you — that was the most inspiring feeling.
That was such an intrinsic wake-up call. We’re such whiners. We just whine and we complain. And they don’t. They’re just like, ‘Heck with this. We’re going to change it!’ (Laughs) You know? And I loved that rigour. They have rigour.
You’re not somebody who chases after the limelight, so you must have liked that the vast majority of them had no idea that you were a film actress. You’re just another American coming in that had a voice and was interested in what was happening in their lives.
Yeah, yeah! Yes, exactly. They saw someone that could be their voice. And that’s what they were told before our arrival; this is an organisation that is dedicated to spreading awareness about your crisis, they want to hear your stories. They were so excited to be heard because their leaders weren’t hearing them.
You’re on a very successful Netflix series, you have a new movie in the post- production stage, Wonder Woman, are you holding your breath or are you just really happy and taking it all in stride? It seems like this is your time.
I feel very blessed, I have to say, that things are going so well. I definitely feel like it’s a gift to have this. It’s a gift, it really is and I’m very thankful every day I wake up, yeah. Holding breath? No, I mean, every day is a new day, and that is a mantra that I try to adhere to. Every day is a new. We don’t know what’s going to happen five minutes from now so why even fret?
You’ve adopted the African worldview!
It takes a lot of practice (Laughs). This does not come naturally!
Destination Magazine, The Interview People