Sakina Jaffrey on the Downside of Binge Watching 'House of Cards'
February 21, 2014 | by APRIL WALLOGA | Talk of the Town
For House of Cards' Sakina Jaffrey, binge watching, while exciting, is no way to "savor" the show. (photo: courtesy of Netflix)
Sakina Jaffrey relishes her role as White House chief of staff Linda Vasquez on Netflix's smash-hit political drama, House of Cards. "It’s a type of character I’ve never played before. I do comedy and I’ve played soulful, responsible people, but I’ve never played this type of power figure," says the New York-bred, Vassar-educated actress.
But it's not just her own character that Jaffrey has fallen for, it's the whole sordid lot. "They get in your blood the way Greek and Shakespearean characters do. There’s so much depth to them," she gushes. The writing, too, has wooed her, "Most of [the writers] are playwrights. So when you have that type of language in your mouth, you don't want to do some of these silly TV shows."
So how does she feel about "binge watching," the rabid TV consumption trend that Netflix has pioneered? In a word, bittersweet. She prefers to take in the show like Francis and Claire Underwood enjoy their nightly, shared cigarette: slowly and deliciously. "[We put] a lot of work into [House of Cards], and I hate having that work gone in 24 hours. I just want to savor it a little bit more," she confides.
But, as a recent article indicates, people just can't wait; it's estimated that more than a half a million Netflix subscribers watched the entire second season of House of Cards during its debut weekend. And while we'll cop to gobbling up season two in a mere three days, we have to ask: is this rate of Cards consumption good for optimum enjoyment? With such talent on and off the camera, watching the entire season in one sitting is kind of like dumping a 13-course tasting menu into a big bowl and eating it like a cheap box of macaroni. You don't have time to digest and you miss things, little bursts of underlying flavor, moments of sheer decadence.
Because we all can't seem to get enough, here's more from our conversation with Jaffrey on binge watching, spoilers, the sometimes "frightening" Kevin Spacey, season three filming, and, oh yeah, that other Netflix show, Orange is the New Black.
Viewers are eating up season two, often all at once. How do you watch it?
SAKINA JAFFREY: I watch it in three episode segments . . . I just want to focus on the performances, the lighting, everything. I just watch it a little bit more slowly.
What about spoilers? They're everywhere, and they kind of force the hand on binge watching, don't you think?
SJ: I don’t even know how to talk to the press about this. I don’t know if I’m supposed to, like, say anything spoiler-wise or not. I feel like the polite thing is to not. I took my son to the premiere and he stared at me in that first episode. He whipped his head around like, 'What?' I was like, ‘Dude, I’m not telling you anything' . . . It’s so delicious, and you just don’t want to ruin it for people. Plus, you know, we signed the contract and bad things will happen if you tell.
What about when you're filming? How much do you know then?
SJ: We get two scripts at a time and that’s what we know. I think there are certain characters that [writer] Beau [Willimon] tells them a little bit more, but I didn’t know what was happening.
All of the characters on the show are so murderously ambitious that Linda, who's no angel, comes off as maybe the most pure of heart. Tell me about who she is, to you.
SJ: I believe that she’s always been sort of pure of heart. I mean, I don’t think there are people in Washington who have a pure heart, they all have ambition, they all have an agenda, but I actually feel she respects the office of the presidency so much. You have to remember that she is an immigrant in this country and, I mean, can you imagine coming to this country as an immigrant and having your child work in the White House, working with the most powerful people in the world? So what I tried to bring to it was that level of respect for the office, and that at all costs she will protect that. I just try to have her approach everything with a certain level of integrity.
Jaffrey says that Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood is downright frightening in person. (photo: courtesy of Netflix)
[Episode eight spoiler alert] That's a football field away from how Kevin Spacey plays Frank Underwood. He is the devil incarnate, but he's also an anti-hero. What's it like acting opposite all that bristling intensity?
SJ: What’s so funny, there was that scene where he is losing it with me, and I swear the walls were shaking; the one where he says I’m nothing but an overpaid secretary. And I came off and everybody was like, 'Oh my God, that was so frightening.' I said, 'You know what, I would have been frightened, but Linda was like, Bring it on, man.' I just felt so powerful in that scene, but as Linda. He could yell until his throat comes out of his mouth. I don’t care. I’m right. And also, I’m pissed!
With the show's dark subject matter, what's the atmosphere like on set?
SJ: I’m, like, such a goofball, and I’ll do anything to make anybody in the room laugh, and Kevin is a ham, so it’s not serious.
And while everyone's having fun, executive producer David Fincher is in the background pulling the strings.
SJ: He’s so brilliant. There were moments in that first episode when I’m telling Francis that he’s not going to be secretary of state where [David] literally had me raise my eyes to a certain height and lower them to a certain height. It’s a physical thing which translates into such powerful emotion . . . He shoots for hours and hours and you’re on your feet thinking, Oh my God, am I going to be fired? Like, what the heck? . . . He’s saying, 'These shoes are a pearly white but I want them to be an iridescent white.' He’s looking at every aspect of everything and choreographing it in a way where it’s so powerful. David is literally the shadow that is falling under your cheekbones.
[Episode 13 spoiler alert] In the final episode of season two, Frank finally claws his way to the oval office. Is there a place for Linda on the show now that Underwood is president?
SJ: I mean, I personally could think of many places. I cannot see her in the administration, but I can see her in Washington. I absolutely can. I hope I see her in Washington . . . [Frank] may need her, or Robin [Wright's] character may need her. I certainly like to fantasize about it, how much they need her . . . Unless you’re on the [train] tracks or you have no life left in your body, we have no idea what characters can come back and how they can change . . . There are a lot of people who are very angry at Francis right now, my character included. So you never know.
At least not until season three we won't. Speaking of which, when do you start filming?
SJ: I have no idea. I wish I knew more . . . I have a feeling it will be some time spring or early summer.
Hopefully we won't have to wait another year to watch it. Netflix's other big hit, Orange is the New Black, is coming back on June 6, about 11 months after season one dropped. So that's progress.
SJ: Totally, wasn’t that fascinating? I am obsessed with that show. I met those girls on the red carpet for Derek and we were all just so obsessed with that show. People asked me what actors would I like to see on [House of Cards] and I was like, I would like to see Gloria. Can you imagine Crazy Eyes in the White House?
Cover shoot: Behind the scenes with Pitbull for the October 2014 issue of Ocean Drive magazine.