02/12/2014 12:57 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

House of Cards 's Molly Parker Talks Complex Characters and Unexpected Plot Twists


Photo courtesy of Netflix

When we last saw Congressman Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey), he was one step closer to claiming the U.S. Vice Presidential seat, and he and his wife and political confidant Claire (Robin Wright) were enjoying a late-night victory lap around their quiet neighborhood. While things seem to be going smoothly for the moment, House of Cards fans know this is merely the calm before the storm. In Season 2, premiering this Friday, February 14 -- a perfect Valentine from Netflix to us -- someone new might get in the way of Francis' relentless thirst for power.

Enter Jacqueline Sharp, played by Deadwood's Canadian actress Molly Parker, a two-term Democratic congresswoman from California who "comes out of military intelligence," Parker explained, and is a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, who possesses a "ruthless pragmatism" that Francis admires. "What was interesting for me," Parker said, "was this question of what it takes for a woman to ascend to this level of leadership in a political world."

She noted the fact that while more than half of college graduates are women, a very small percentage hold high positions in office -- roughly 18.5 percent of Congress is made up of women. "I was interested in what the cost is for a woman to operate in this milieu," she said.

To prepare for the role, Parker read several autobiographies of prominent political women, including Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice. "[Jackie's] come up in the military, which I think is a patriarchal system, and she's risen through the ranks of that system," Parker said, "so I have to assume that she is comfortable holding her own in rooms of powerful men."

So comfortable in fact, she may present a challenge for the series' anti-hero.

"No question, [Jackie] is capable of a ruthlessness," Parker said, "but she's surprising because in some ways we think that she's going to be this good soldier for Francis, and yet-" she stops, wary of giving away too much of the plot. "I really can't."

While Parker couldn't provide more details about the upcoming season, she did express excitement about joining a show of which she herself is a big fan -- binge watching all 13 episodes in about three days -- and playing an emotionally rich and interesting character like Jackie.

"Part of what I like about the writing on the show," she said, "is we're initially introduced to these people and shown all of the worst of them first and then as time goes on, their humanity is revealed."

She describes Jackie as "a very strong, smart woman who is ambitious," an ideal character for Parker, who has made a career of portraying complex female characters, beginning with her breakout role as a necrophiliac in the 1996 Canadian film Kissed.

"What I want is to play characters who are complicated and complex human beings," she said. "It doesn't mean necessarily that these are women who are good women or kind women or strong women, but my hope is that they are written with some complexity."

Jackie goes head-to-head with Francis, who is apparently as terrifying a character on set as he is onscreen.

"[Kevin's] really funny and he jokes around a lot," Parker said, "but when he is playing Francis, he's terrifying. He has an incredibly powerful energy as an actor." But the fear induced by Francis' icy stare is combated by Jackie's ferocity. "She aspires to be fearless. It's really fun to play such a powerful woman."

While the show -- originally based on a 1990 British series of the same title -- is set in Washington, it "transcends its locale," Parker said. "It's a show about power and the power dynamic implicit in all relationships, including [Francis and Claire's] marriage, which is the central relationship of this story, and it feels to me Shakespearean."

And just as in Macbeth or Richard III, the audience can expect some surprising plot twists from the second season of House of Cards.

"I can tell you that as a fan of the show and an audience member, I was surprised as I read the script," revealed Parker.

So this Valentine's Day, cuddle up with your boyfriend/girlfriend/friend/cat/pint of Chunky Monkey, and prepare to be shocked by a new season of House of Cards.