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Down the Call-Sheet: Christian Camargo in 'House of Cards'

(Down the Call-Sheet is a weekly "discovery" of a great performance by an actor/ actress whose name may not be currently known to the public but deserve some special notice.)

Christian Camargo is one of those actors whose varied work in prominent projects ('Twilight: Breaking Dawn', 'Dexter') can sometimes slip by unnoticed due to the mere fact the actor does such a great job. It is one of the ironies of the profession that if you really immerse yourself into a character the audience fails to notice you from one project to the next. Meaning, the better you do your job the more elusive you become. It is also a by-product of our ever expanding media landscape that an actor can light up an episode of television or a scene in a movie but our collective attention is pulled in too many directions to remember them.

This week's spotlight of 'Down the Call-Sheet' would like to focus on a phenomenal performance by Camargo as Michael Corrigan in the series 'House of Cards'.

(Spoiler alert) In the episode titled simply 'Chapter 32', the now POTUS, Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), is in a tough series of negotiations with the President of Russia, Victor Petrov (an obvious stand-in for the real-life Vladimir Putin) Frank is there to levy the balance of missile defenses through-out eastern Europe in exchange for the release of an American citizen, Michael Corrigan, who was detained for speaking out against that country's laws pertaining to same sex relationships.

In a torn-from-the-headlines plotline, Petrov is reluctant to release the man without losing face to his people and demands that Corrigan sign a confession that recants his activist stance against Russian's anti-gay propaganda laws. Things are going well when Frank sends his first lady, Claire (Robin Wright) to Corrigan in his cell to presage any complications. Then the unforeseen happens. Corrigan not only will not sign the papers but actually seems determined to face the dire consequences such a defiance will incur.

As a guest star in television it's one thing to hold your own in a scene with a series regular who makes their home on that set. It's quite another to take that regular to the mat with the weight of the entire episode placed upon your performance. Add to that scenario the regular is the formidable Robin Wright and you have something impressive.

From the moment we find Christian's character in his cell we enter a new reality. The space is as pallid and silent as the actor himself. Drawn and lean, Carmango is economic with his delivery and movement. The noisy bustle of the Russian entourage is suddenly countered by this Zen-like inmate who has come to terms with his new reality. Seeing herself as benevolent savior, Claire is quickly on her heels when Costigan frames his release as a betrayal of everything he stands for.

What follows is a profound back and forth between the two ideologues about the nature of leadership, sacrifice and compromise. Claire speaks for the establishment and the nature of compromise to achieve a change. Michael is the voice of revolution where compromise equals another meaningless gesture that dismisses all those who have sacrificed with and before him. Make no mistake, without great writing, these actors aren't able to pare down their performances and accomplish such intimate work. The ideas being debated aren't new but their context here is entirely fresh.

The writer, Melissa James Gibson, slyly has Michael parallel his marriage to Claire and Frank's. In a same sex relationship for 20 years, he observes the romance and loyalty inherent to that marriage as well as his own failings to that ideal. When Claire counters that her marriage is as strong as ever he calmly states he knows that isn't true. How? Because he has reached the point where his marriage has now become a symbol to a movement more than a living, breathing thing. He knows that Claire is just as locked into a life which is more about what it represents than its actuality.

The impressive feat of watching Camargo is how he uses his stillness and reserve to constantly go under Wright's delivery. The more poise he commands the more she is caught stammering to contradict. (see my previous post on the power of silence) When the episode concluded, I found myself seeking out his background. A little scratching about and one finds, as always, a seasoned and well trained actor coming to the surface.

Christian Carmago is a third generation actor. His grandfather, Ralph Camargo, was a veteran actor of the 50's and 60's. His mother, Victoria Wyndham, is an actress and artist most known for being a long-term regular on the daytime drama, 'Another World'. Attending Julliard, Camargo enjoyed a variety of acting techniques, noting that they were "wonderful in that they (Julliard) don't pick one way of working. There is method...and a lot of attention to Shakespeare and verse."

It caught my eye that the actor was married to a Juilet Rylance. In the theater world the surname Rylance is like royalty. It's a bit like hearing an film actor has the last name of Day-Lewis, as Mark Rylance is commonly known as one of the greatest stage actors alive. In fact, yes, Juliet is the daughter of Mark which makes him Christian's father-in-law. So here is a man which whom acting is not just a profession but a family affair.

It should also be noted that Christian was a part of the 'Bridge Project' which was a classical trans-Atlantic rep company brought to fruition by Kevin Spacey, Sam Mendes and the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). The goal was to merge the two styles of acting "across the pond" of the US and Great Britain so they could glean approaches from one another. It is clear that Camargo is the beneficiary of both. His masterful control of the text allows him the powerful reserve of movement and diction. Poignantly, when called upon, he is able to shatter that poise with indignant outrage and the force of a new revolutionary. It is the blissful combination of simple behavior and the grand verve that classical texts demand.

It is also a perfect demonstration that great technique and life on the stage need not have a foreign relationship to acting on television.

'Chapter 32' of 'House of Cards' is in season 3, episode 6 available on Netflix as an original series.

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