Macon native brings expertise to ‘House of Cards’

pramati@macon.comFebruary 21, 2014 

When Jay Carson graduated from Macon’s Central High School and later Columbia University, his goal was to work in the political arena.

And he succeeded. Carson has worked for political heavyweights ranging from Hillary Clinton to Tom Daschle and Howard Dean.

Helping to create one of the hottest television properties around was the furthest thing from his mind.

“It never, ever occurred to me,” Carson said.

But when his college friend Beau Willimon set out to update the classic 1990s British miniseries “House of Cards” for American television, Carson, 37, was an early recruit to help give the series -- which debuted its second season last weekend -- a sense of realism.

“If not for Beau, I never would have gotten involved,” said Carson, who would end up meeting his wife, writer Sarah Treem, during the creation of the series’ first season. “This show was coming together, and I was becoming more and more involved.”

Willimon had based his script for the 2011 George Clooney-Ryan Gosling political thriller “The Ides of March” on aspects of Carson’s life as a political strategist. Carson said he didn’t have much input on that production, but when it came time to create “House of Cards,” Willimon needed someone who knew what life was like inside the Beltway.

“Beau is incredibly knowledgeable about politics, but with the show having this much intricacy, he wanted to make sure he got the details right,” Carson said. “He wanted everything from parliamentary procedure to the sets to look exactly right. He wanted something from the very beginning that would pass the smell test.”

Carson said Willimon used to visit him in Macon, and the two often would go out to eat at places like Nu-Way Weiners and H&H Restaurant.

Even though he’s still under 40, Carson’s political resumé is impressive. He made a name for himself working on Charles Schumer’s successful Senate campaign in 1998, followed by working for former Sen. Bill Bradley’s presidential bid in 2000. After working on Dean’s presidential campaign in 2004, he was the communications director for the William Jefferson Clinton Foundation. He later served as press secretary for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2008. In 2009, he became Chief Deputy Mayor under then-Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

It’s fair to say “House of Cards” blew up the model of how television shows get made when it debuted in 2013. Netflix, the streaming video service, hadn’t made any forays into creating original content before “House of Cards.” But Netflix went all-in with its gamble, ordering two 13-episode seasons before a pilot was even created, banking on series creators Willimon, David Fincher and Eric Roth to come up with something that would get people talking.

Enlisting major stars like Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright as the conniving husband-and-wife political team, the show became an instant hit thanks to word-of-mouth praise and social media. The show was nominated for Best Series at both the Emmys and the Golden Globes, and Wright won a Golden Globe as Best Actress in a Drama.

Because Netflix airs the series by putting the entire season online at once, viewers have been able to “binge watch” the series in mere days and weigh in on social media without worrying about the show’s various twists being spoiled.

“It’s an interesting thing to be involved with from almost the very beginning,” Carson said. “It’s the kind of thing that’s now a global sensation. Everybody is talking about it.”

Carson, who went from being a consultant on the show in Season 1 to a producer this season, has a dual role with the series. Part of his job is to work with the show’s writing staff to come up with ideas for the season. Then, once the staff starts producing scripts, he goes through them to make sure the stories and dialogue have the necessary sense of realism.

Carson said making the series is a delicate balance between creating a realistic world that portray stories that could happen in real life, but also using artistic license to tell the stories in a dramatic way that’s conducive to a television episode.

The show is a hit not only among the critics and viewing public but also with political figures, Carson said.

“Certainly inside the Beltway, the show has become an obsession (with his political contacts),” he said. “We did our job in terms of believability.”

In fact, the show is so popular in Washington that the producers had to turn away some political figures who wanted to be in a special video the producers were making for this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner.

Carson said the staff is getting ready to start writing Season 3, and he’ll continue to serve as the show’s political adviser. That’s in addition to his regular day job of working for former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s charitable organization, Bloomberg Philanthropies, as well as raising his and Treem’s 1-year-old son.

Treem herself left “House of Cards” after Season 1 and is now working on her own series for Showtime called “The Affair.”

While Carson said he doesn’t have the time to serve as a political consultant for any other series or movie full time, he does lend his expertise when asked. For example, actor Reid Scott, who portrays a political strategist on the HBO satire “Veep,” sought Carson out for his advice on how to approach the part. Carson said both shows shoot in the Baltimore area.

Carson said he has to be careful when he talks about “House of Cards” because he doesn’t want to let any spoilers slip.

“It’s hard not to get confused sometimes, because Season 2 is now out. But we’ve done a whole outline for Season 3,” he said. “It’s a relief when the season comes out.”

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.

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