‘I didn’t know the man. We had a working relationship’ — Robin Wright on working with Kevin Spacey

·7-min read
 (Rory Payne)
(Rory Payne)

It’s 10am on a Sunday morning in Atlanta and Robin Wright is laughing hysterically at something I thought she’d find offensive. I have asked about the time the director David Fincher persuaded her to star in the Netflix political thriller House of Cards (which ran from 2013 to 2018 for six seasons) reportedly with the words, ‘You’re not getting any younger.’

‘I think I said that to myself!’ she clarifies, taking a mouthful of her home-made smoothie. ‘I don’t think he said it. I wouldn’t put it past him to tell you the truth.’ More laughter. ‘But that sounds like something I’d say to myself. You’re over 40, you’re hitting 50, it’s security that you don’t have a guarantee of in this industry, ever.’

Wright is 55 now and wears it well. Talking over Zoom, she is bare-faced apart from a pair of wide-rimmed Jacques Marie Mage glasses and looks lean in black workout gear she has pulled on for an online barre class. Her career-defining role as conniving, ice-cold Claire Underwood in House of Cards may have come to an abrupt end following sexual misconduct allegations against her on-screen husband, Kevin Spacey (more on that later), however it paved the way for a new chapter as a director.

Having cut her teeth directing 10 episodes on House of Cards (where she was also an executive producer), she is currently directing the fourth and final season of acclaimed Netflix drama Ozark, starring Jason Bateman and Laura Linney, in Atlanta. Hence why she is alone and talking to me from a rented apartment on (US) Mother’s Day, thousands of miles from her Los Angeles home, her husband, the French fashion PR, Clement Giraudet, and two children (from her previous marriage to movie star Sean Penn): Dylan, 30, and Hopper, 27.

Behind the camera for her new film, Land (Daniel Power / Focus Features)
Behind the camera for her new film, Land (Daniel Power / Focus Features)

Conversation feels relaxed and easy, punctuated by Wright’s dry sense of humour (‘I’m not making fun of you,’ she says at one point, in her best English accent. ‘My stepfather was from Cheshire’), which is unexpected for someone who has worked in Hollywood over five decades since her big break as Buttercup in cult classic The Princess Bride in 1987. I wasn’t expecting the notoriously private star behind some of the most iconic (Jenny in 1994’s Forrest Gump) and formidable (Amazonian warrior Antiope in the recent DC movie franchise) roles to be quite so chirpy. Especially when what she is promoting today — her directorial feature debut, Land — is anything but.

The film centres on Edee (played by Wright), a grieving woman who retreats to a cabin in the wilderness following an unimaginable tragedy. There is little dialogue, a lot of nature (‘We shot the movie in 29 days, 8,000 feet up a mountain in Alberta, Canada, with unpredictable weather’) and while it’s unbearably sad, it’s ultimately a film about hope and resilience. Frankly it couldn’t have come at a better time.

Reviews in the US have been mixed but Wright is undeterred. ‘There are plenty of people who hate this film,’ she shrugs. ‘But for the people who resonate with it, it’s like a form of therapy.’ The movie was supposed to mark Wright’s permanent move behind the camera and a clean break from acting. ‘I got the directing bug,’ she says. ‘It was never my intention to act in this movie.’ So why did she? ‘We had 48 hours after we got financed before we had to shoot,’ she explains. ‘The producers just looked at me and said, “Robin, you’re going to have to play Edee,” and I was like, “Well, I’m going to be there anyway!”’

Wright has always been a lover of nature (‘I need to be around the ocean. It’s healing,’ she says of living two blocks from the sea in LA’s Pacific Palisades) but I wonder how else she identified with someone who has her entire existence ripped out from under her. How resilient is she? ‘Very,’ she says. How did she discover that? ‘Being a child of divorce. I was three or four. When that happens at a young age you grow up very fast.’

Did that divorce affect how she approached her marriage to Sean Penn? The pair wed in 1996 after meeting on the set of the 1990 action movie, State Of Grace, and divorced in 2010. ‘You go into it thinking, “I’ll never do that,”’ she says of divorce. ‘But you never know. And you never know at that age. I was so young when I got married. I was 24 when I was giving birth to my first child. When I look back, I’m like, “You were a mere child!” You think that forever means something. What does forever mean? I wish we knew that forever was forever, but we don’t.’

Wright in Forrest Gump (Moviestillsdb.com)
Wright in Forrest Gump (Moviestillsdb.com)

Parenting in her 20s meant making career sacrifices; Wright turned down high-profile roles in Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves (1991) and The Firm (1993). While this did no harm to her career longevity, I ask if her move into directing was because, as a woman in Hollywood, she wanted more control.

‘It’s not even about control,’ she says. ‘It’s an instinctual, intrinsic feeling of wanting to work with all of the creatives because they all bring something to the table.’ Was it heartening to see a recognition of female directors at the recent Oscars? ‘We’re in this transitional period of, “We have to hire this woman.” I feel it. It’s in the air,’ she sighs. ‘It’s not just about opening the door to more women; this is cultural. It has been a man’s world for an eternity so it’s going to take time to adjust.’

We move on to House of Cards. Wright single-handedly carried the show through its sixth season (even directing the last-ever episode) after Spacey was fired in 2017 following historic sexual misconduct allegations and further complaints from crew members. She says she was thoroughly supported by the show’s team, who are like ‘family’, but I wonder in this cancel culture climate if the show now feels tainted.

It has been a man’s world for an eternity so it’s going to take time to adjust

‘I’ve never even thought about that,’ she says, after a long pause. That people wouldn’t watch it any more? ‘I don’t think it hurts the legacy of the show. I’m sure there’s a huge collective that will go, “Oh, the show was destroyed,” but plenty of people will become, and still are, fans.’

She has this to say on Spacey: ‘We worked really well together. As actors,’ she says, fiddling with a lamp. ‘We could improvise and laugh our asses off but I didn’t know the man. We had a working relationship.’

As Claire Underwood in House Of Cards
As Claire Underwood in House Of Cards

Wright is equally reticent on the subject of her 2018 marriage to Giraudet, who, at 37, is almost two decades younger than she. It’s understandable after her high-profile divorce from Penn. ‘Never have I had [fame] anywhere close to Brad and Angelina,’ she shudders, recalling how she and Penn raised their kids in Northern California away from prying eyes. ‘Nobody gave a shit who you were there,’ she says, laughing.

Today, Wright and Giraudet seek a similarly quiet life. They have been apart for six weeks because of Wright’s shooting schedule (‘It’s too long! I miss him!’). Pre-pandemic, they were planning to spend a lot more time at their property in France and Wright is keen to get back there and ‘walk in the fields of lavender’.

Following Ozark, Wright will star in an adaptation of the thriller Where All Light Tends To Go, by David Joy, opposite her son, Hopper (a budding actor like her daughter, Dylan). And then? A rest is definitely on the horizon.

‘I love to work and I want to keep directing and acting, but God, I just want more quiet,’ she says, pondering an Edee-style rebirth. ‘It’s been work, work, work, work and I just want to unplug. I need it. It’s been non-stop.’

‘Land’ is in cinemas from 4 June

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