DC drama 'House of Cards' returns with full deck for 3rd season (and surprises) on Netflix

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NEW YORK — Michael Kelly did everything he could to stay under the radar.

"For a year, I've had to keep everything so secret," he said. "I feel awful for having to lie, but what else could I do?"

So lie he did. And if you don't know what he lied about, you might want to stop reading right here.

Kelly, of course, rode strong on Netflix's political thriller "House of Cards" in its first two seasons as the sotto-voce psycho Doug Stamper, the glowering henchman to Francis Underwood (series star Kevin Spacey) in his rise from House Whip to vice president to POTUS.

But as Underwood schemed his way into the White House at the tail end of last season, an even more startling thing occurred: Stamper was bashed in the head with a rock by an assailant and left for dead.

Now it can be told: Stamper lives! And he, in Kelly's staunch portrayal, resumes his driven, devilish mission as "Cards" unveils its 13-episode third season Friday on the Netflix website.

Stamper's survival was a secret that, against all odds in this post-secret era, almost went the distance. A consensus held firm among the "House of Cards" faithful: Stamper was dead, with Kelly regrettably out of the series.

In Baltimore, where "Cards" was shooting its third season, Kelly had taken pains to wear a hat and contact lenses rather than his usual glasses when out in public, and if approached with the inquiry, "What are YOU doing here?" he'd explain, "I'm a producer" or "These are my friends I'm coming back to visit."

That was then.

"To be able to speak freely! It's been a year," said Kelly over omelets with a reporter recently. It was his first chance to break his silence, his first chance to explain to "Cards" fans (whose gratitude that Stamper was alive might be unsettled by annoyance at having been misled) that his survival was no cheap trick.

When the scene was shot with Stamper unconscious on the ground in woods outside Washington, Kelly said he got clear directions: "You're breathing. It's very, very shallow breathing," and he demonstrated his near-death status for his breakfast companion, complete with a microscopic twitch of an eye.

From February 2014, when Season 2 premiered, the secret held. That is, until Netflix let its own cat out of the bag. Just a few days after the chat with Kelly, Netflix inadvertently posted new episodes online in what it termed a "technical glitch," very briefly but long enough for alert Web surfers to pounce, turning a leak into a social-media geyser.

As a handful of viewers glimpsed then, and everybody else can behold now, Stamper begins the season in a hospital battered and bruised and suffering from severe brain damage. He faces lengthy rehabilitation, a state all the more cruel for keeping him sidelined from his cherished role as the president's right-hand man.

"He's so different now from the character I played the first two years!" said Kelly. "But when someone suffers a brain injury, the variables of what can happen to that person are so vastly different. Playing him, I was more challenged than I've ever been as an actor."

It was a bit more rudimentary when Kelly won the part.

"('Cards' creator) Beau Willimon told me, 'Here's the deal: I don't want to ever see you emote,'" Kelly recalled with a laugh. "I said, 'OK, I can do that.'"

Born in Philadelphia, Kelly, 45, grew up near Atlanta and, after college in South Carolina, headed to New York and studied at the Actors Studio while making ends meet with jobs that ranged from waiting tables and construction to working in a consignment shop for high-end designers "where women brought in Hermes bags they no longer wanted."

He landed roles in such films as "Man on the Moon," ''Changeling," ''Now You See Me" and "Man of Steel," and the HBO miniseries "Generation Kill," as well as being a regular on "Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior." This fall he will be seen in "Everest," a historical action-adventure film in which he stars as Jon Krakauer opposite Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal and his "Cards" co-star Robin Wright.

He modestly described his career as a slow build, "little step by little step."

But it was a giant step into "House of Cards" and the chilling anti-hero he brought to life. Meanwhile, Kelly's own manner — animated, easygoing — is unexpected evidence of his skill for transformation.

"Every interview I've ever done, they say, 'You SMILE!'" Kelly noted with amusement. "But you want to know the truth? That's all I ever do. I feel so blessed to be doing what I do, it's pretty easy for me to smile."

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EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore@ap.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier. Past stories are available at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/frazier-moore

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