The stakes have always been high for House of Cards. The show was Netflix's first foray into original content as the company dove headfirst into a business it would soon spend billions on. In a moment from 2011 that foreshadowed how entertainment was about to change, Netflix ordered two seasons — 26 episodes — of House of Cards sight unseen, outbidding several competitors. Deadline wrote at the time the deal "could change the way people consume TV shows," and they were right.
With the heavy expectations placed on the show's early years, the set was a nerve-racking place to be — especially given the high level of talent involved. It had been movie director David Fincher's idea to adapt the 1990 BBC miniseries with Kevin Spacey to star as Francis Underwood, a devious, murderous congressman who would eventually scheme his way to become president. Spacey was to executive produce as well.
The stories that have emerged about Spacey in the past week paint a picture of a man who has behaved with sexual impunity, even when he was in a professional environment. During House of Cards, because he was so central to the project, he appears to have seen himself as untouchable — and therefore felt he could flirt brazenly with young male employees in front of the cast and crew.
But now the future of the show, and the hundreds of livelihoods that depend on it, is in jeopardy because of Spacey's conduct.
On Oct. 29, BuzzFeed News published an interview with the actor Anthony Rapp, who alleged that Spacey made a sexual advance toward him in 1985 when he was 14 years old. In the week since, a number of men have accused Spacey of sexual misconduct. CAA and Spacey's publicist have dropped him. Netflix announced Friday that it was cutting ties with Spacey and would not proceed with the show with him still involved. The phrasing of the company's statement seemed to confirm Variety's story that the show is looking into ways to kill Frank Underwood and continue on without him. A spokesperson for Netflix offered no further comment on the show's future.
Before Spacey's publicist quit, she announced on Wednesday that Spacey was "taking the time necessary to seek evaluation and treatment" at an unspecified location. After the story about Rapp story was published, Spacey tweeted that he did not remember whether it had happened, adding, "But if I did behave then as he describes, I owe him the sincerest apology for what would have been deeply inappropriate drunken behavior." As more people have come forward, Spacey's lawyer has denied all allegations of assault. BuzzFeed News contacted Spacey's lawyer twice to tell him about the allegations in this story, but did not hear back.
BuzzFeed News spoke to more than half a dozen people connected to House of Cards for this story, three of whom had worked on the show in varying capacities and spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of professional repercussions.
All three sources, as well as two other people who spent time on the set, described an atmosphere in which Spacey was sexually inappropriate with young men who worked on the show. "He would be on set and he would make tons of jokes at young boys' expense about them in flirtatious ways," said a higher-level source who worked on House of Cards early on. "If it was wanted attention, it would still be inappropriate, because you're making flirtatious comments in front of a group of 150 people; 'Come sit on my lap, you know you want to’ — not to a gay man, but to a young, pretty-looking guy. That happened all the time."
On Thursday, CNN reported that Spacey had allegedly sexually assaulted a production assistant during an early season of House of Cards, with the actor putting "his hands down the production assistant's pants" and then continuing to harass and make "inappropriate contact with him."
Media Rights Capital (MRC), the company that produces House of Cards, told CNN that executives there knew of one incident involving “a complaint about a specific remark and gesture made by Kevin Spacey” during production of the first season in 2012. The company told CNN in a statement: "Immediate action was taken following our review of the situation and we are confident the issue was resolved promptly to the satisfaction of all involved. Mr. Spacey willingly participated in a training process and since that time MRC has not been made aware of any other complaints involving Mr. Spacey." A spokesperson for MRC clarified to BuzzFeed News that Spacey's misconduct in Season 1 was not the alleged assault on the PA, but a separate "gesture and comment" made by him. In the CNN story, Netflix said the company "was just made aware of one incident, five years ago, that we were informed was resolved swiftly."
But among staffers on the set, Spacey's professionally inappropriate conduct was often a topic of discussion, as they wondered what action might be taken. "They knew about his behavior toward younger men specifically on set," one longtime member of the crew said. "They were all watching at video village and they see behavior on camera and off camera that was uncomfortable and unprofessional. Unprofessional for a set, to be honest." (On a TV or film set, "video village" is a group of monitors where the director, producers, and crew members can watch what the camera is filming.)
One source, who was in his mid-twenties when he worked on the show's second season, said he was warned about Spacey by a friend. "He told me that if Kevin asks you to play video games in his trailer, you have to bring someone with you," this source said. "I didn't even need to ask any more."
"He touches and feels anyone he wants to," said the higher-level staffer.
Crossing Spacey could make things complicated. According to a fourth person who worked on House of Cards for only a few days during its run, but had knowledge of what went on there through the IATSE union, which represents crew members, a production assistant was fired during Season 2 after refusing Spacey's advances. This man was "repeatedly harassed," the source told BuzzFeed News, to go on Spacey's boat, and after the PA refused he suddenly no longer worked on the show. When reached on Wednesday to discuss his departure, the former PA wrote over text: "My lawyers told me to wait to hear from them before I talk to anyone. I apologize. Maybe tomorrow." He then stopped responding.
Beau Willimon, the House of Cards creator and executive producer, who ran the show for several seasons, issued a statement on Monday after Rapp had leveled his allegation against Spacey in BuzzFeed News. It read: "Anthony Rapp’s story is deeply troubling. During the time I worked with Kevin Spacey on House of Cards, I neither witnessed nor was aware of any inappropriate behavior on set or off. That said, I take reports of such behavior seriously and this is no exception. I feel for Mr. Rapp and I support his courage."
All three sources who spoke to BuzzFeed News disputed Willimon's account. "Bullshit. Utter bullshit. 100%," said the higher-level source, who saw Willimon witness Spacey's behavior.
"I saw that Beau said he had no idea, which I know is completely false," said the crew member. "They had production meetings about Spacey's flirtatious behavior toward crew and cast, and it never made it any further than that. It was like a joke."
"They all knew what was going on," said the source who worked on Season 2. "The PA who got assaulted? Everyone knew. That's what upset me so much is seeing Beau and all these other people deny it."
After prolonged negotiations with his representative, Willimon declined to comment on the record for this story. However, after the CNN story, Willimon told Deadline that he hadn't been told about the Season 1 incident for which Spacey was reprimanded — which MRC confirmed to BuzzFeed News. Willimon added to Deadline, “I am heartsick that anyone on the crew had to endure this sort of behavior. Clearly we as an industry, particularly those in a position of power, myself included, need to be more perceptive and proactive."
If House of Cards can somehow figure out how to survive without Spacey, who for years has been so central to the dark DC drama, but whose alleged predatory behavior is now threatening hundreds of jobs, that might be a twist not even Frank Underwood could see coming.