'Urquhart is deliciously diabolical': Kevin Spacey is back in a remake of House of Cards

The actor has just completed his world tour as Richard III. Villainous king? Scheming whip? They're two of a kind, he tells Sarah Hughes.

The general rule of remakes is never touch something that's considered a classic – and if you absolutely have to then you'd better make sure you get it right.

Thankfully, David Fincher's much anticipated new take on the iconic 1990s BBC drama House of Cards, which will be available in its entirety on on-demand internet streaming company Netflix from 1 February, manages to create a compelling, original drama without trampling over our memories in the process.

In part that's because the show's creators Fincher, Kevin Spacey, who takes the lead role of Francis Underwood (aka the original's Francis Urquhart), and Oscar-nominated scriptwriter Beau Willimon were careful to work closely with both Michael Dobbs, author of original novel, and Andrew Davies, who wrote the BBC series. Both men are executive producers and Dobbs says he was delighted with the level of involvement: "I've known every step of what's going on, they've asked my opinion about everything."

True, you can't help but draw breath as Kevin Spacey's saturnine House Majority Whip looks Kate Mara's naive young reporter in the eye before remarking: "You might very well think that, I couldn't possibly comment" but this is a show that pays homage to the original while adeptly building its own darkly cynical world of double-dealing Washington power junkies.

"We've used the British series as a launching pad but we go off in all kinds of different directions," says Spacey, who signed on despite his workload as artistic director of the Old Vic because of Fincher (they last worked together on 1995's Seven. Spacey was also an executive producer on The Social Network). "Working with him is sublime…there's a shorthand he and I have which means I trust him."

That trust was doubly important given the risky nature of Fincher and Spacey's new venture. Netflix, which launched in the UK in January 2012, is the world's leading on-line film and television subscription service with 33 million members in 40 countries. Those subscribers can currently stream existing shows such as Breaking Bad and Modern Family to their computers or to televisions via a PS3, Wii or Xbox 360. House of Cards, which is estimated to have cost the company upwards of $100m, offers something completely different: a highly anticipated, must-watch drama series, available only to Netflix subscribers.

"We really wanted to make sure our first project allowed us to enter the market loudly," says Ted Sarandos, the company's chief content officer. "We're working with probably the finest director of our generation in his first venture into television and one of the greatest actors of this time from a script by an Oscar nominee. That tells the world we're serious."

Indeed, so keen were Netflix to make House of Cards their first piece of original programming that they offered Spacey and Fincher complete creative control and a straight order of two seasons, each consisting of 13 episodes, without any need to view the pilot, a move that Spacey describes as "pretty awesome".

Yet it's not surprising that Netflix took that risk – there's more at stake here than simply producing an original drama series. By releasing the entire first season on 1 February and allowing viewers to decide whether they gorge over a weekend or spread the 13 hours out over a longer period, Netflix intend to usher in a new era: the dawn of instant television.

"This is an on-demand generation," says Sarandos. "People want to watch things when they want to watch them not when television networks tell them to. Watching something once a week is out of step with consumer habits."

Spacey agrees. "If you talk to your friends they'll say I stayed in this weekend watching three seasons of Breaking Bad or two seasons of Game of Thrones," he says. "People are increasingly consuming large chunks of stories and plotlines. This wasn't the first time I've been offered TV or the first time David's been offered it but while we were a bit nervous about the confines of some television, this seemed like the right project."

He was also unable to resist taking on a role partially based on Richard III at a time when he'd just completed a world tour playing the original. "When I saw the BBC series, I thought it was just delicious that it was sort of based on Richard III," he admits. "Francis Urquhart is diabolical in such a delicious way."

That said, there are differences between Ian Richardson's Urquhart and Spacey's Underwood. "Francis Urquhart was really one of the first anti-heroes to appear on television," says Willimon, the writer of acclaimed political thriller Ides of March. "That's what made the original so electric. We're now used to seeing that and one of the things we get a chance to do because we have more time than the BBC mini-series – 26 hours to their 12 – is really explore his humanity.

"That's not to say he's a good person, obviously like Francis Urquhart before him he's remorselessly self- interested, desiring power for power's sake, but the question posed is: is that so bad if he gets things done? To me, this is very much a new show, a reinvention rather than an adaptation."

Certainly Spacey swiftly manages to banish memories of Richardson's wicked twinkle, presenting us instead with a more quietly menacing man, hiding his rage behind Southern charm and old-fashioned courtesy. There is a larger role too for his ice-queen wife, now called Claire and imbued by Robin Wright with an almost terrifying froideur. This is the power couple as brand and you are aware that she will not hesitate to pull the trigger, should her husband falter.

"It's an even stronger relationship than in the original," says Dobbs. "It drives the first season. It's such a compelling relationship, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth."

Similarly, the original's innocent young journalist, Mattie Storin, is here transformed into the ambitious though still naive Zoe Barnes, a writer desperate to land her own blog and filled with all the self-obsession of a generation raised online. "The world's changed a lot in the last 20 years," says Willimon. "The internet wasn't around, people weren't texting each other or sending emails and while you did have a version of the 24-hour news cycle in 1990 that has become the modus operandi of news now. People really mainline their news today and it was interesting to tackle that."

Willimon believes that the project's real strength lies in the fact it isn't bound by television's confines. "Showing all 13 episodes at once makes it more like an unusually long movie," he says. "And because of that we didn't have to rely on weekly cliff-hangers to draw people back in. The pressure was off and we could spend time on characterisation."

For Spacey, the key to whether this multi-million dollar gamble will be a success is even simpler. "When David Fincher gets obsessed about something it's really good," he says.

Tomorrow, the rest of the world – or at least that part of it with a subscription to Netflix – will get a chance to find out if he's right to be.

All 13 episodes of 'House of Cards' are available on Netflix from tomorrow

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