As the star and key power player on House of Cards, Robin Wright had to face one of Hollywood’s biggest scandals. She tells Chris Harvey how what she’d learnt from two divorces and her own MeToo moment helped her deal with the fallout.
Robin Wright does not want to talk about Kevin Spacey. This has been made abundantly clear to me by the PR for the House of Cards star, who is in London with her business partner to promote their sleepwear range. When I pitch up at the hotel where the photoshoot happened the day before, there is another directive: ‘You can’t ask her if people are scared of her.’
That question, of course, is related to her sometimes terrifying turn in Netflix’s political drama as Claire Underwood, who began House of Cards as the wife of Kevin Spacey’s Machiavellian Congressman Francis Underwood but, over the course of six seasons, took control of the highest office in the land. It’s a performance that has left an impression so indelible that when Robin flew into London, she tells me, she caught the Heathrow Express and noticed a passenger eyeing her shyly. Finally, he made a small gesture of salute and spoke. ‘Hello Madam President,’ he said.
We are in the hotel room, the PR is sitting right beside me and the particularly large elephant is, inevitably, in here with us, too: the high-profile, real-life scandal surrounding House of Cards that threatened to eclipse its on-screen storylines. Two episodes of the upcoming season had already been shot with Spacey in them when historical sexual assault allegations were made against the actor. Both episodes were scrapped; Spacey, not only the star of the show but also its executive producer, was fired. Accusations of inappropriate behaviour continued to emerge.
Robin has previously said that she and Spacey ‘knew each other between action and cut… I didn’t know the man’, but, of course, what we all want to know is did she, as one of the executive producers on the show, have a hand in her co-star’s sacking? And, given that eight crew members came forward to accuse Spacey of sexual misconduct while on the show, including one production assistant who alleged Spacey cornered him in a trailer and sexually assaulted him, had there been on-set talk about his behaviour, and had any of that reached Robin’s ears?
Certainly, when he was artistic director of London’s Old Vic, rumours circulated of predatory behaviour, so gossip may have been hard to avoid. But I won’t get to ask about any of this.
I do want to ask Robin whether she felt personally betrayed by his behaviour after so many years working together, but knowing that the words Kevin or Spacey might see me ejected from the room, I ask her if she feels that what happened, and almost ended the show, felt like a betrayal of trust. ‘No, not at all,’ she says quickly. ‘The climate at the time was very hot and there was a lot of shock in the world and what do we do with this information? It was sensitive, and we really needed to ruminate on it and go, “What do we do with this? We’ve got 600 people employed here, we’ve got a show that the fans are expecting us to finish, and that’s a responsibility.”’
It was Robin who said, ‘Guys, let’s really think about this.’ She was thrilled that Netflix decided to ‘resume and finish off the way we always intended’ – although the necessary intense rewriting meant that the series was reduced from 13 to eight episodes and became the final season.
Strictures about what can’t be asked aside, Robin is great company. When I ask her about her physical performance in House of Cards, how you can tell so much about her just from the way she holds herself, the rigid control of her upper body… she bursts out laughing. ‘That’s the Spanx,’ she says. ‘Oh my God, have you ever worn Spanx? Basically, I can’t breathe.’
There’s nothing rigid about Robin in person. She’s flowing and expressive, very serious sometimes, playful at others. She’s dressed in jeans and a soft, pale dogwood pink blouse, with a delicate gold chain. She’s slighter, more physically graceful than you might think from watching her play the indomitable President Underwood, although at some questions she locks a forceful, interrogative gaze on mine.
Next to her is her friend and business partner Karen Fowler, with whom she has designed the sleepwear range Pour Les Femmes. They met through a mutual friend 26 years ago and their closeness is visible. They prompt one another, finish each other’s sentences and make each other laugh a lot. Karen has been a designer for 20 years. ‘We’ve always loved clothes, always dissected them, analysed them; it’s always been like that with us,’ Robin says.
Is it important to have friends who are not in the industry you work in? ‘It’s just who you meet and connect with,’ she answers. ‘All of my friends, with the exception of Sienna Miller, are not in my industry.’
Now 52, Robin has been acting since she was 17. She got her start in TVand appeared in 538 episodes of the US soap Santa Barbara before she was 22. Her big break in movies came when she starred as Buttercup in the enduring classic The Princess Bride in 1987, but she began her career modelling at 14. There’s a fascinating YouTube video of her at 21, very confident and funny, talking about coming into the acting industry, wanting to be respected and not treated as a commodity, because of her experiences as a model.
One in particular shaped her future career. ‘It was in Paris, there was a casting call, and it was, “OK, come on, girls, get in line.” I thought we were just going in to meet the photographer – he’s still a huge photographer today – and the cattle got in the line and we went in one by one. I remember seeing the girl in front of me – I was peeking around the corner – and they were, like, “Take off your shirt.” She took off her shirt, she showed her breasts and they were, like, “Next.” I had to go in and he went, “They’re too small” [she mimics his dismissive hand gesture] because my boobs were too small. I remember the humiliation. You are a commodity, a thing. After that, getting into commercials and movies, I didn’t want to feel that any more, so you start to design your own path.’
She was really just getting started on that path when, in 1989, she began dating actor Sean Penn, following his divorce from Madonna. He and the singer had been together since 1985, when he was 24 and Madonna was 26; they married on her birthday that year; she later served divorce papers on him in 1987, then withdrew them, a pattern that would be repeated in Robin’s marriage to the fiery star. Robin was also recently divorced, from her first marriage to fellow soap star Dane Witherspoon. She gave up parts in the blockbusters Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and The Firm, while she was pregnant with her and Penn’s daughter Dylan, now 27, and son Hopper, 25, but returned to work soon after to play Forrest Gump’s beloved Jenny in the 1994 film. Her marriage to Penn, despite its high-profile break-ups and reunions, lasted from 1996 until 2010.
Last August, Robin remarried in a low-key ceremony in Provence – this time tying the knot with glamorous French fashion executive Clément Giraudet, VIP public relations manager for Saint Laurent who, at 34, is almost two decades her junior.
Perhaps after such a public marriage to Penn, it’s no surprise that Robin and Clément keep their relationship intensely private – although it was Robin’s daughter Dylan who appeared to confirm the nuptials when she posted a video of guests dancing to a band with the caption ‘Weddin’ vibes’.
In her 2014 speech at the Golden Globes, after winning Best Actress for House of Cards, Robin described herself as a late bloomer and said that at 48 she felt as though she was 30, and was planning to digress and live her 30s. I ask her what she thinks changed to bring this new confidence.
She pauses, ‘Well…’ Karen looks into her eyes and says quietly to her, ‘Divorce.’
‘I probably shouldn’t say that,’ replies Robin. Then she takes a deep breath. ‘I think it’s probably twofold. It’s having children at 24 years of age. When I had my first I was a baby, just naive and I didn’t get to have my “Who am I?” adult life in my 30s, examining and exploring. I became a mum and a wife… [she clicks her fingers on both words] and then the kids grew up and I took a different path. Getting House of Cards was an open door like I’d never seen before and I think that helped shift who I was into adulthood. It was almost as though I’d started to become a woman at 40.’
She turned down House of Cards at first, not wanting to do television again, but its director David Fincher convinced her it was going to change the way people watched TV. ‘He [also] said to me, “This is great for you because you’re not getting any younger.”’
Fincher’s departure after season one created a new possibility for Robin – as a director. She directed ten episodes of House of Cards including the overall series finale.
I wonder whether Robin thinks that the #MeToo movement is changing the landscape for older women in Hollywood as much as it is for younger women? ‘I don’t know enough about this movement,’ she says. ‘I would need somebody to dissect it for me. But I think things are really shifting.’
Are there things that have happened in the past that she wishes she could go back now and say, ‘I’m not having that’? Karen speaks for her: ‘I remember a time when, if a woman stood up for herself on set she was known as “the b****” or a diva, and if a man did it he had respect.’
‘So many times,’ agrees Robin, ‘where you probably didn’t do it because you’re going to rock the boat, you’re going to get fired, and I think that has lifted. I felt that a lot being a director [on House of Cards] because I was directing my family. The crew, production, cast spent more time together than we did with our own families for six years. Those are intense relationships, and when I got in the director’s chair and as the lead actress, it’s a little bit like, “Who do you think you are?” So I had to navigate those waters. I remember seeing male directors yelling “f***ing shut up, we’re shooting!” I couldn’t do that because I would be the hysterical woman, so it was interesting to find a way to use your voice without being cruel. I don’t believe in shaming someone if they do something wrong – you can be strong, you don’t have to be mean.’
Meanwhile, Robin has been developing a passion project with Karen. The two had long talked about creating a clothing line together and chose sleepwear because, says Karen, ‘We love lightweight cottons and cashmere’ (‘…and sleeping,’ adds Robin), ‘so it just made sense to us.’
They wanted Pour Les Femmes to be a company that gives back. A decade ago, Robin travelled to the Congo, scene of the deadliest war of modern times, an ethnic conflict that spilled over from the Rwandan genocide and deepened into a rapacious struggle between foreign militias to plunder the Congo’s mineral wealth. Gunmen raided villages, raping and killing. The war claimed the lives of more than five million people between 1998 and 2003, and the situation is still not stable.
Robin had been supporting the Enough project in New York, which works to end genocide in Africa, lobbying to raise awareness of how the use of the metal ore coltan in mobile phones was impacting on the conflict in the Congo, where it is heavily mined. While there she met women who ‘no longer had husbands, most of their children were either from rapists or had had to witness their mother being raped. Every single woman I interviewed who had been traumatised said, “We need you to be our voice, because we don’t have one.” That woke me up.’ Each item Pour Les Femmes sells provides a day of work for one of the women, who make a capsule line in the range and hand-embroider some of the accessories.
Our interview comes to an end ten minutes early when Robin’s publicist announces she wants to wrap up. I had been planning to ask Robin if her marriage to Clément was liberating in a way that her marriage to Penn hadn’t been. ‘Can I ask a couple more questions?’ I ask the publicist. ‘If it’s about the brand,’ she replies.