As far as Jay Carson knows, none of the 435 representatives and 100 senators who make up the United States Congress has resorted to murdering reporters. “But then, there are so many of them,” he jokes. Still, with 15 years in politics under his belt, including his current stint as senior adviser to Bloomberg Philanthropies, the consultant on Netflix’s House of Cards understands why lawmakers have fallen in love with Kevin Spacey’s murderous Machiavellian despot Frank Underwood. “Frank’s ability to get things done, even if some of his actions aren’t so legal, might actually be a nice antidote to the gridlocked Washington we have right now,” Carson insists. “He’s a man of action, as (showrunner) Beau (Willimon) says. He runs up against a wall and he’s not thinking, ‘Oh well.’ He’s thinking, ‘OK, I can go under it, over it or knock it right down.’ ”
Carson and Willimon met while in college at Columbia University. The seeds that became House of Cards were planted when Carson started interning for Chuck Schumer’s successful Senate campaign. “No one thought he would win,” says Carson, who brought Willimon onboard. “We became this inseparable duo. You can see from House of Cards how important it is to have someone around you can trust.”
The pair worked together on Senate campaigns for Hillary Clinton and Bill Bradley, as well as Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in 2004, which inspired Willimon’s play Farragut North. Carson’s political career developed further—he became the press secretary for Clinton’s presidential run in 2008—and it’s in Carson’s mold that Willimon created Ryan Gosling’s character in The Ides of March.
Bringing his best friend to consult on House of Cards was Willimon’s thank you for the exposure to politics. “From the very beginning, Beau was dedicated to making the show as accurate and plausible as possible,” says Carson, whose involvement on the show begins with conversations with Willimon. “We talk constantly: ‘So in (episode) 302, we have Frank doing this; would a president do that kind of thing?’ ” he says. In the writers room, Carson consults on outlines and sends back drafts when things aren’t feeling right. “There are probably eight or 10 or 12 drafts before we’re ready to shoot. I don’t write anything; I just help out when I can.”
Speculating about whether the show’s characters have been based on real people has become quite the watercooler topic in the corridors of power—apparently even President Obama is a fan—but Carson insists there’s no direct mimicry involved. “I’ll certainly pull from real incidents that have occurred to me and the stories I’ve heard,” he says. “Everything you see on the show could happen—that’s our rule. It’s not that it has happened, just that it could.” And if a pesky reporter needs getting rid of, that’s where the leash on plausibility can be loosened. Because, as Carson says, “if what was actually going on in Washington was this exciting, Netflix would just put up 13 hours of C-SPAN and save everyone a lot of time.”