Robin Wright Plays The Long Game
On the latticed patio of a down-tempo Santa Monica restaurant, an idyllic harbor for the polo- and pastel-clad doing lunch, Robin Wright raises her voice above the contented murmurings. She’s just learned that I have never so much as thumbed through The Art of War, Sun Tzu’s revered fifth-century textbook on the fine practice of annihilating one’s enemies. “You should!” she says gleefully. “It’s a guidebook. Like, this is the way you have to think about the enemy. When to be premeditated in your actions. When not to. It gets into the psychology of it, like you would get into a serial killer’s.”
We have yet to order food. And the obliteration of any enemy, or the inner workings of a killer, is a jarring thought to have at this table, 100 yards from the inviting Pacific. Wright pays the discordance no mind as she sits across from me, absorbing the soft tufts of sun like the California Girl she’s been since moving to La Jolla from Texas as a teenager. The moment moves by quickly, and so does Wright. Before our coffees touch down on the table, we’re discussing the civil war in Congo, blood minerals, mass consumption, and the futility of international criminal courts. In our quick patter, she makes a confession of her own: She has never seen Titanic. Incredulous, my voice rises in turn.
That Wright has avoided watching a classic Hollywood gut wrencher yet studiously ingested a text revered by generals and tacticians helps explain this precise moment in her reborn career. It’s the busiest year she’s had since before she became a mother more than two decades ago. On May 30, she returned for her fifth season of House of Cards; this month, she’ll star in the DC Comics summer blockbuster Wonder Woman; and in October, she’ll appear in the much anticipated sequel Blade Runner 2049—all while maintaining her full-throated international activism on behalf of women in war-ravaged Congo. For Wright, intimacy with The Art of War is the telepathic route to the ruthless and cunning core of her House of Cards character, Claire Underwood. She’s also making use of its koan-like directives in her own life, moving deliberately through the din and reluctantly reveling in her newfound success. You can practically see the page of the dog-eared copy she’s working from: “In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.”
The reason Wright, at 51, has become one of the most formidable actresses in the world is the cold alchemy of Claire. She’s a singular force on television, like the Terminator in Louboutins and Chanel, capable of stirring up equal portions of awe and hate in viewers. The formula is working. After her first year on the job, she took home the 2014 Golden Globe for best actress in a drama—and she has been nominated every year since. Still, it’s striking to me in this moment, after witnessing 53 episodes of Wright embodying a tense, precision-guided vessel of feminine ambition, just how preposterously comfortable she looks. Although, it could just be her hair, which is much longer than that famous crop, now brushing against her broad shoulders. “I feel like Angie Dickinson in Police Woman,” she says with a punctuated laugh. Sensing that the reference is lost on me, she doles out my second assignment of the day. (I discover later that the comparison is apt in the most fetching of ways.) Yet Wright’s regular points of reference for Claire—a marble bust and a bald eagle—are less flattering and more immediately reminiscent of my great aunt’s living room mantel.
“Claire barely moves,” Wright says. “It’s so not me. I really never stop moving, which makes it hard to play her.” She assumes the position. “I have to sit up straight and hold my hands just so.” She emphasizes each word with the lilt of a precious debutante, just maybe mocking her alter ego’s dry demeanor. She is, in her own words, a goofball. “A super funny chick,” agrees Patty Jenkins, who directed her in Wonder Woman. During lulls in our conversation, Wright absentmindedly calls out to the birds chittering above us. (“Hi there, birdie!”) A cosmic empathy colors her opinions, even when it comes to Claire’s mendacious nature. “I bet that the American eagle cries sometimes,” she proposes, “but doesn’t let anybody see it happen.”
This newest season of House of Cards is premiering in a media landscape grappling with a real-world political drama just as sensational as anything a team of writers could hatch—and that’s after a season in which Frank Underwood took a bullet and Claire performed an assisted suicide for her dying mother. “We go beyond sensation in the show,” Wright says. Very much like The Art of War, the show is a guidebook for American politics. “How you step on one rung to get to the next,” she says. “Why wars exist. Ego. Greed.”
In addition to earning an executive producer credit on the show, Wright now directs; she sat in the chair for this season’s finale. Considering the exhausting “mother bear” role that is acting and directing, Wright is grateful that she’s been given the chance to cut her teeth on home turf. “I’ve had cinema school the past three years,” she says. Her costar, Kevin Spacey, who’s witnessed the gradual evolution of her creative role on the show, says the transition has been indiscernible. “It’s the most sterling compliment I can give,” he says. “As a director, she’s as determined and clear about what she is interested in exploring and achieving as she’s ever been in her work as Claire.”
Wright had sworn she’d never return to television. After modeling and doing commercial work during high school, her first recurring role came at age 18, when she was cast as Kelly Capwell in Santa Barbara, an NBC soap opera one critic called “the worst program on television … maybe ever.” After three years of the daytime grind, Wright became cult royalty when she starred as Buttercup in The Princess Bride. Between her big-screen debut and her all-American performance as Jenny in Forrest Gump, Wright steered head-on into adult life, Hollywood-style, after meeting Sean Penn on the set of the 1990 movie State of Grace. She was pregnant with her daughter, Dylan, shortly thereafter. Three years later, a son, Hopper, followed. Wright’s desire to have one parent consistently raising the children left that responsibility to her, and the constraint held her to roughly a film a year—as did the couple’s move to Northern California to escape the toxicity of Hollywood—until 2010, when she separated from Penn.
Wright has been guarded on the subject of her marriage to Penn, but when asked about Dylan’s deepening ties to the film industry (the 26-year-old wants to write and direct), she doesn’t hesitate to praise her ex-husband. “She gets her skills from her dad. Sean’s a great writer.” Hopper is also toying around the business, and appeared in Brad Pitt’s War Machine, which was released on Netflix in May. “They call us for advice all the time,” Wright says.
Apropos of nothing, Wright shares with me one of her daydreams. “It’d be great to go back to school now,” she says. “I never did college. I barely graduated high school. I wasn’t smart academically then. I just wouldn’t have survived in that forum. I know there’s a way of thinking or looking at a piece of art, that there’s a right way to do that. I feel like I missed something, not being taught how to read literature.” Wright leans in to confide two words known so well by students past and present, “Now, I get on SparkNotes. I just have to.”
Having mercifully been granted the opportunity to avoid one of life’s more harrowing passages, and then second-guess that reprieve, may seem like privilege to some. But with Wright, it’s retrospective strategy. She has, these days, found herself playing the real-life role of stateswoman and activist on behalf of women in war-torn Congo, frequently sharing stages with global leaders and humanitarian innovators. No doubt, her association with the stateswoman Claire has brought her into these powerful circles of influence—as when she spoke on the conflict alongside former U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power at the Women in the World Summit in New York City in 2015.
The crisis in Congo came to her attention in 2011, when the Enough Project, helmed by John Prendergast, a former director for African affairs under the Clinton administration, invited Wright to accompany the relief organization to Eastern Congo. The harrowing violence meted out by the warring militias in that country is fueled by bids to control the region’s mineral resources, the kind used to manufacture smartphone batteries. I look down at my phone—and across the table at hers. “We’re not going to discontinue consumerism,” she explains. “But we are fueling this war by being consumers. It’s not a fault but a reality. It’s our duty to clean it up.”
On that trip, Wright also met with women who were the victims of rape
perpetrated by soldiers. Shortly thereafter, she signed on as the Enough Project’s spokeswoman, penning op-eds and making media appearances. In 2014, with the help of a lifelong friend, she launched a line of women’s sleepwear called Pour Les Femmes, which reinvests its profits in Congolese women, teaching them a trade and providing safe spaces from the surrounding conflict. “It’s too stagnant being an activist,” she says. “I wanted to do this so every time you buy a pair of pajamas, you know you’re helping a woman.”
Wright’s very public work on behalf of women halfway across the globe has complicated her stance with women’s rights activism in the States. “I’m not a political person,” she claims. “I’m a justice freak. I didn’t go to the Women’s March [on Washington]. I march every day doing what I do.” After a pause, she clarifies. “Don’t get me wrong—the intention I love. I’m a full cheerleader. But I feel like it’s become muddy waters.”
Last year, during a talk at the Rockefeller Foundation, Wright also—somewhat accidentally—became a spokesperson for women’s equality in the U.S. It was May, and the winnowed field of presidential hopefuls was deep into a delirious primary run. The discussion opened on the parallel reality portrayed in House of Cards’ fourth season, overcast with political savagery and a noxious primary race of its own, before veering into the topic of wage inequality between genders. She was, at the time, being paid less—far less—than the reported $500,000 an episode her costar Spacey earned (despite equal screen time and Wright’s Golden Globe). Aware of Claire’s high popularity among viewers, she went to the show’s production company with a backroom demand: equal pay, or else. “I was like, ‘You better pay me, or I’m going public,’” she told the audience at the Rockefeller Foundation. The company, she claimed, ponied up. This triumph triggered a burst of righteous applause from the crowd. With one stark ultimatum, Wright had done what few women had been able to achieve in a lifetime of Hollywood work.
The story went viral in the days following the revelation, placing Wright among a handful of actresses who have been vocal about the longstanding inequities of the film industry, such as Jennifer Lawrence and Patricia Arquette. While the sample size was small, and the industry still overwhelmingly male, Wright’s wager portended a shift in The Way Things Are Done with regards to a woman’s position, and leverage, in Hollywood.
I ask her about her now-famous demand for equal pay—whether she feels she’s had any part in turning the page for working women a full year later. “I’m not that person,” she says with a breezy irritability, shaking her head. “I don’t want to be a spokesperson. That was one of 20 questions they asked me, and it went viral.” Is she at least satisfied having shattered a personal glass ceiling? This triggers a wide pause in the conversation. A plane flying overhead slowly slices through the hanging stillness. “Yeah…” she says, “I don’t think I’m getting paid the same amount. They told me I was getting a raise. But … I don’t think so.”
Media Rights Capital, the company that produces House of Cards and signs Wright’s paychecks, claims pay parity was never a possibility, since Spacey is one of the show’s founding producers. Instead, they’ve offered Wright an incremental form of amends, giving her an executive producer credit and ample directing opportunities. According to one source close to the company, MRC has promised Wright a future production deal that could eclipse Spacey’s.
Still, the complication has left Wright uneasy. “I really don’t like being duped,” she says. “Nobody does. It’s such a male-dominant workforce still. There’s a conditioning. And changing the condition of men is what needs to happen. A reeducation. A new way of thinking. A new philosophy. I think it needs to happen in all of these industries, when we’re doing the same thing that a man is doing, and we’re still getting paid less.”
If an actress wishes to flee the dull confines of the patriarchy, where does she escape to? Maybe the beaches of Southern Italy, flanked by hundreds of Amazonian woman. That’s the first image Wright flashes to when she recalls filming Wonder Woman. It’s a predominantly female affair in which Wright plays General Antiope, an ambidextrous archer and the aunt of Wonder Woman (played by Israeli actress Gal Godot). Jenkins, most famous for directing 2003’s Monster, is the first woman to direct a DC Comics film, as well as the first to direct a superhero protagonist who is female. The expectations are high for the $120 million production (the last DC-inspired film with a female lead was the box-office catastrophe Catwoman), which is dependent in part on male viewers to break even. The movie will be sexy, says Wright, but not the busty, boilerplate sexy churned out by studios. It’s a sexy defined by the women who made the film what it is—like those Amazonians massed on the Amalfi Coast. “The men were just drooling watching all these girls who were fighting—really precision fighting, skilled fighting.” It’s as if, Wright suggests, a re-education of these men was under way, and all it took was some old-fashioned physical intimidation. “These girls had trained for months to become fighters. They had this hormone-raging estrogen strength. The men were kind of pulverized a little bit.” She cracks a satisfied grin. “They were like, ‘I kinda wanna look at [those girls], but I don’t think I should.’”
“Robin is one of my favorite kind of women,” Jenkins says. “The kind who really loves other women and is a good time to boot.” Her comforting presence on the set attracted a stable of friends and followers to her side at all times. “People are drawn to her for her knowledge,” Jenkins says with evident awe. “She’s sort of legendary as an actress.”
In October, Wright will join Harrison Ford and Ryan Gosling in Blade Runner 2049, a sequel to Ridley Scott’s original, directed by Denis Villeneuve and shot in Budapest. Details on the film have been tightly lidded, but straight away she tells me that she plays one of the few humans in the story, which is full of humanoid replicants. The film’s existential prodding—who is or isn’t real, who belongs, who goes—will resonate with viewers, she says. Especially in these times. “It’s about the meaning of existence … I know that sounds so transcendental,” she adds, with a self-aware flip of the hands.
But maybe that feeling is merited. On the set of Wonder Woman, Jenkins recalls, Wright often asked one question of the director: What is needed in this world? “She’s very simple and no-nonsense,” Jenkins says. “If training is needed, she’ll train. If fighting is needed, she’ll fight.”
Wright, though, shrugs me off when I ask whether she’s interested only in weightier, more significant projects now. “Thinking of things in terms of light or dark isn’t a way I discern,” she says, before conceding, “I like to connect meaning to something I do.” This can be a somber prerequisite at times, like when personifying the back-stabbing ignobility of a political system. And in others, it looks like a leather-clad woman shooting arrows on horseback. But no matter what, for her, mastering the art of storytelling means making people think. And that’s a war she can win.