“Wow!” is all a bushy-bearded Michael Kelly can say while looking outside the window as the small propeller plane accelerates down the short runway of Lukla Airport located in Nepal, one of the most dangerous in the world. Seated nearby, his costars Josh Brolin and John Hawkes are among the other passengers apprehensively clutching their seats as the plane powers up towards takeoff. The props whirl outside, wind beating the plane’s thin metal frame as it gains speed. The ledge is rapidly approaching. This is it. The wheels lift just in time. Brolin can be heard yelling in the back of the cabin. Looking down into the deep valley below, Kelly breathes, “Holy shit.”
That’s when the video ends. Kelly puts his iPhone back in his pocket.
“It was the most dangerous shoot I’ll ever do,” he says while taking a sip of his espresso in the slightly more cozy atmosphere of a downtown Manhattan café, speaking of the soon to be released Everest. Clean-shaven, he’s back to looking like his most recognizable role to date, Doug Stamper on House Of Cards. In a days time he’ll be returning to Baltimore, Maryland, to work on the show’s fourth season, and then fly to Los Angeles to the Emmys where he’s been nominated for Best Supporting Actor. The nod comes as the culmination of three seasons playing one of the most compelling characters on TV. Well, not TV. Netflix.
Beyond his stare, Kelly bares little resemblance to the menacing character he has become most known for. Kelly is a good hang. There’s no better way to say it. He strolls and talks with a surfer cool. Dressed in Levis, sneakers, and a light grey Uniqlo sweater pulled over the kind of athletic frame that comes with being married to a physical trainer. More often than not there’s a childish grin creeping on the edge of his mouth. But despite these differences he gets recognized, often, with more than one passing stranger yelling, “You’re great on that show!”
Kelly has lived in Lower East Side for over a decade, often commuting back and forth from Maryland to spend his off days with his wife and two children. But during his last hiatus he signed on to play award-winning writer Jon Krakauer in Everest with one of the most star studded casts of the year: Jason Clarke, Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Emily Watson. Based on the 1996 event that garnered national attention and press, the film was to be a fictionalized interpretation shot on location on the mountain itself. (The director Baltasar Kormakur has said he took the cast “as far up as the insurance companies would let me.”) Filmed over three months under grueling conditions, the result was an experience that Kelly will never forget.
Did you get to meet the real Jon Krakauer before you took the role?
I would love to have heard some further insight from him about what happened, but I didn’t get to meet him. I was so bummed. I tried to find a time to see him, was going to fly myself out, put myself up, but it just didn’t work out. He’s someone that I so respect as a writer but also, when stepping into the character and watching all the videos. I feel like I got to know him better through all that, and just found myself thinking, “What a cool dude.” Brilliant. He hadn’t been higher than 17,000 feet and he climbed Everest.
What was it like to be filming on location?
We were in the Himalayas for two weeks and got all the beautiful tracking shots, the scene over the suspension bridge, all those shots before we get to base camp. Then we flew to Val Senales, which is part of the Italian Alps and stayed in this little cottage together. We all had our own rooms, but we all ate together. The only other restaurant in the area was closed, so we would sit around a table and drink bottles of red wine. It was a feast. We’d get up at five in the morning, take a 30-minute drive to the base of the mountain and then put on all of that gear. Then we’d jump into these snowcats for a 45-minute drive to the top of the mountain. When we finally got there we’d take snowmobiles to the various locations, climb and film for about an hour. There was a tent that everyone could hang out between scenes. You couldn’t feel your toes by the end of shooting. Then we’re take the long trip back down and do the whole thing over again the next morning.
What kind of altitudes were you guys filming at?
We were staged roughly 12,000 feet when we were filming in the Italian Alps. In the Himalayas we were at about 13,000 and then we would do helicopter jumps daily, gradually getting higher until we hit 16,000. We were only able to do that altitude for about three hours, because we didn’t properly acclimatize, and we were hurting. The crew guys were feeling it just like all of us. Luckily we didn’t really have to talk much. If it had been up to our director we would have done the whole thing and summited with the entire cast.
How did you do acclimating to working at those heights?
For me, getting used to the altitude was super tough. I had a really hard time. A few of us did. Then there is someone like John Hawkes, who smokes, and had no problem at all. It was interesting to see how everyone reacted to it differently. We all went through such highs and lows throughout the process. There was a day when one of the actors went to the producers and said, “How much to get me off the mountain. I don’t want to do this.” He stuck it out, and we all were there to support him. Throughout the months you’d see it again. Someone would start to go, and we would pick him back up. That was a bond we all created. We went through hell together. Nothing like the real guys ever did, but for a shoot it was incredibly hard.
Did you have a favorite view while you were up there?
The first time I got to see Everest. We were hiking up a big suspension and they told us they could helicopter us to Namche Bazaar or we could hike. I was like, “I’m hiking this.” A bunch of us did, including the director Baltasar. He’s a badass. He had to be the first up. I called him, “The Viking”. The man is a monster. There was a moment when we rounded the bend, and I could just see that top piece of Everest, It made me understand the drive to be a climber actually. Up there, every time you saw something new, something above you, something inside said, “I want to go there.” I admit that everything that I conquered, from the first lead up a line to the first time making it to the top of a peak.
What kind of training did you do to get ready for the shoot?
I try to stay in pretty good physical shape year round but my wife helped get my cardio up. I know Josh, Jason Clarke, and all those guys without little kids were able to do some climbs before, but I had just got one with six months of House Of Cards and only had a small window of time to spend with my children before I left them for three months. It was tough.
Did it give you any desire to climb Everest for real?
Would I want to summit? No. I have kids. The real Guy Cotter, who has climbed it before, and worked on the movie, asked me, “Would you want to do it?” I asked if he thought anyone of us would be able to make it up and he said, “There are a bunch of you I would give a 99-percent chance if you didn’t get Delhi Belly or something like that.” But I like living. [Laughs.]
While you were in the mountains, House Of Cards was released and it didn’t look for Doug Stamper at the end. He was hit in the head with a brick and left for dead. Did you think it might be over?
The script said that Doug was breathing, but barely. It said, “Will he make it?” I couldn’t even watch the final episode because I was on the mountain but my dad wrote me an email that said I looked “pretty dead” to him. My business manager messaged, “It was fun while it lasted.” The first press person who wrote about it said that Stamper was dead, and everyone started picking that up. I started believing it myself. I didn’t find out until I was back here. They sent me that script for the first episode and Beau asked me to read it with him. I couldn’t walk into the room until I read it all before outside. It was amazing, but at the same time I was intimidated by it. I knew it was going to be a big challenge.
How long could you see yourself playing Doug Stamper?
My day of work last week was as great as my first. We’re on season four now. I can’t say anything about the next one, but I’m really excited for everyone to see it. I love going to work. I’ll do it until the day they say we’re done.
What kind of reaction do you get from the crowd in Washington?
When I go to DC it’s probably the craziest fan reaction I get out of anywhere. The young staffers love to come up to me and say, “That’s us! I know a guy just like you.” It really gets me worried sometimes, though usually they add that the guy hasn’t killed anyone.
Have you gotten to cross paths with The President?
I met Obama for the first time this year. I’ve been lucky enough to be invited to the Correspondents Dinner since the show started and I love it. I met one of his young staffers who said, “You know how much the President loves you right?” He was shocked that I hadn’t met him yet. He took my email, got me security clearance so I could meet him the night before the dinner. When we were announced to the President he turned to Michelle and said, “Don’t worry Michelle, I hear he’s not nearly as diabolical in real life.” Michelle said, “We love your show!” It was all really hard to wrap my head around.