Interview: Michael Kelly on Memorizing Dialogue, Acting Advice and His New Film, ‘All Square’

Actor Michael Kelly Interview

“I always say to actors, if you don’t get something, there’s a reason. It’s okay. It sucks in the moment. But it’ll all work out.” – Michael Kelly

Michael Kelly
couldn’t be farther away from his character, Doug Stamper, in House of Cards. He’s quick-witted, friendly and tells a great story, as you’ll see in the interview below.

He’s currently starring in the new film, All Square, about a down-on-his-luck bookie who befriends an ex-girlfriend’s son and begins taking bets on his little league games. His character is far removed from most of the roles we’ve seen him in and as he told me, that’s the reason why he wanted to do it. But, “I was scared to death from the get-go man because I was doing something different,” he said.

I talked to Kelly about All Square, how he memorizes dialogue, and why the quote, ‘everything happens for a reason’, is something he takes to heart.

I grew up in Maryland and you’ve worked there a lot over the last couple of years.

Michael Kelly: Man, I have felt so blessed to be able to live there for six months out of the year for the last six years. It’s just been such a treat. I’m gonna miss the hell out of it man. I live right near the harbor down in Baltimore.

That’s awesome. You threw out a pitch at the Orioles game last year.

Michael Kelly: I did. I’m a die-hard Braves fan. But they are definitely, without a doubt, my American League team.

How did it go? I would be excited but super nervous that I would pull a Baba Booey and throw it erratically.

Michael Kelly: It’s so funny. The writer Timmy [Timothy Brady], he’s a baseball player, the writer of All Square. So, the whole time we’re filming, it was a crazy shoot. We’re memorizing 100 pages a day, so it was really tough. But every day, we would just go out and throw the ball because I was so scared. I just don’t wanna be news. I just don’t want it to be news. Cause if you’re not news, that means you did an okay job. I just didn’t wanna 50 Cent that shit.

I’m with you on that.  

Michael Kelly: It was nerve wracking. It skipped. It touched the ground before it hit his glove. But it was right down the middle. So it was alright.

For All Square, was it just a fluke that you guys filmed this in Maryland?

Michael Kelly: Yeah. Because I spend all my time in Baltimore already and I’m really tight with the whole House of Cards crew. Timmy sent me the script while I was there. The first person I gave it to was Lorenzo [Millan], who’s won Emmy’s for his work in sound. He read it, and said, “Dude, I love this. When are you gonna do it?” And I said, “Well it takes place in Delaware, but I’m thinking I really want to shoot it here.”

I talked to Timmy and the more people I gave the script to, this crew, like I said, six years, we’re really tight and I consider them family. And, so many of them jumped on board, and I was able to bump many of them up a position to give them a credit that perhaps they didn’t have before.

They were all totally capable of doing it. These are some of the best in the industry. So we were able to, on our budget, make a film that looks a lot better than the budget. We were able to extend our budget by getting the best of the best, is what I mean.

And then I was able to talk to people and try to get some money from the state. So, we spent the summer in Dundalk, Maryland. We were living in White Marsh actually.

I really liked the movie. I was thinking this throughout the whole film, but especially with that last scene, it could be a prequel to The Bad News Bears, and you’re Buttermaker.

Michael Kelly: [Director] John Hyams always said it was 70’s style movie. Slap Shot. Bad News Bears. Where you don’t necessarily have … It’s not like Pam Adlon’s character and I get together in the end, and we raise a kid together. And he becomes a great pitcher. Everybody just shifts a little bit.

I think John put it best when he said, “Your character goes from being an asshole to being a dick.” You don’t really grow a lot, but the whole movie is about this guy who is turning into his father. And, how do you stop that cycle when he’s not necessarily the brightest bulb? I think he explores that at the end. It’s just a nice little slice of life. Everybody changes a little bit. No big revelations. No big happy ending. It’s just everybody’s gonna be alright kind of thing.

I think what made me like it so much more is the way it ended. Like you said, they didn’t get together, and he didn’t stop doing what he does.

Michael Kelly: Yeah. And I’m glad that’s the ending. We did a couple different endings. We played around with a couple endings. One with me and the boy at the end. One with where he’s with me for that moment. And there was one where originally written, I think it was, I do it and the kid comes with his buddies onto the field and you can see my truck pull away. I really like this ending though. I think it’s the version that we have.

And it’s definitely a type of character I would think people haven’t seen you do.

Michael Kelly: Yeah. That’s certainly one of the things that … I mean the script originally, of course, drew me to it but that’s exactly it. When he sent me the script, I read it and it wasn’t like he sent it and offered it to me. He just sent it to me. He always sends me things and most of it was half-hour spec scripts and a lot of theater, which you can kinda tell with the dialogue.

I remember reading the last words. And I was like, “Timmy, what is this? It’s so good, dude. Where did this come from?” He was like, “I decided to write something that I wanted to write from my heart instead of what I think everyone thinks I should.” And, I was like, “Well it worked. Can I show it to my team?” And he’s like, “Yeah, of course.”

He didn’t have representation. He’s going too shortly but he didn’t at the time. And I showed it to my team, and my agent was the first one to read it. She got back to me and said, “What is it? Did someone offer you this?” And I was like, “No, my friend wrote it. As a matter of fact, he didn’t offer it to me, but I want to do it.” So that started the ball rolling.

And John Hyams was totally on board. He was like, “Look, I know you can do it. You’ve never done this. But I know you can do it. And I have faith in you playing the role. Timmy has faith in you playing the role.” And I said, “Alright look, let’s put it out there, and if you guys get Sam Rockwell, I’ll pull out.”

Most importantly, we wanted Timmy to make this movie. So I said, “I’ll stay on as producer or whatever.” And John Hyams was the same way, he was like, “If you get a good Director, someone with a big name who is gonna make this, then I’ll pull out too.”

I was just so grateful to be able to play something so opposite of Doug Stamper, which everyone knows me for, and many of the other roles that I’ve played. CJ in Dawn of the Dead. It was nice to play something different.

You are in every single scene in the movie.

Michael Kelly: Yeah.

Were you like, “Yes, this is gonna be awesome!” And then, “Oh shit, how am I gonna do this?”

Michael Kelly: I was scared to death from the get-go man cause I was doing something different. But I did trust John and Timmy.

The hardest part for me was that I ended up going right from House of Cards to The Long Road Home. And, I was living on Fort Hood in Texas, and it was a lot of dialogue that I wasn’t used to. You know that military lingo is really hard to memorize, and it takes me a long time to memorize anyway. So, I’m working on that and trying to work on this role, which couldn’t be more opposite than the guy I’m playing in Texas. And it was tough. That was the hardest part for me.

It was just trying to prep both jobs at the same time. Cause I literally went from … I think I had two days after I finished House. I had a little bit of time on Long Road, and I had like a day or two before I was in Baltimore shooting All Square. It was tough.

So, I didn’t have too much time to stress about it because I was pretty busy. So I just kind of jumped in. I really just wanted to understand that character, first and foremost. And, once I bit that off, then I could start grinding away at the dialogue. That’s how it happened and all the beats throughout.

You said you have a hard time memorizing. I do to, man. Once I get it, I’m good. I just have a hard time committing my lines to memory. What do you do to make it stick?

Michael Kelly: I have a really cool tabbing system. You know those little yellow tabs? I tab everything, and I write the scene number on there. And then I asterisk it. A dot if there is no lines. One if it’s easy. Two if it’s somewhat difficult, and three if it’s like, “Oh shit, you really gotta work on this scene.”

So then I have them all tabbed. And then I take my schedule and I write out on the schedule, I write Monday, the 5th, and I write Scene 62, Scene 68, 64, whatever. And then I have the asterisks measured. So, as I go down my calendar of days, I’m always trying to stay a day or two ahead of getting all those words in me. That’s worked for me.

But as far as physically memorizing it, I think the best way for me, especially on House of Cards is that I drive back and forth to Baltimore all the time. And when I go the gym, I record all of my scenes. Both characters. I record everything in a very flat monotone so that I don’t get in my head how I want to do something. And I just listen to it over and over and over. And that helps a lot. And then, I write it out.

But I think for me, as much as a pain in the ass as it is to memorize, it’s probably the best thing for me because when I go over it 30 or 40 or 50 times, I’m always discovering new things as I go. So for me, as much as it is a detriment, it’s an asset. I discover new things all the time. And, I’m like, “Oh my God, that’s what I’m saying.” You know? One of those things. And it works for me.

I was thinking the other day that you have this way … When you have no dialogue in a scene, my eyes always look at you because you’re just not wallpaper in the scene. You can see thoughts going through your head. You know what I mean? I think that’s a huge testament to you because I’m always wondering, “What the hell is he thinking?” You’re just not, “Oh this is an easy scene. I just have to stand there.” You know what I mean?

Michael Kelly: Yeah. Thank you man. I appreciate that because it’s something that I really work on. I did so much of that in Season 1 and 2, even Season 3 in House of Cards, but especially 1 and 2 where I was that guy who would come in and open the door for Francis Underwood and say, ‘such and such is here to see you.’ And a lot of times, I’d have to stay for the meeting.

So I just took it upon myself to know exactly how I felt about everything that was being said in the room. Exactly how I felt about each character in the room. Doing that homework, I feel like … Like you said, it’s easy to go stand in a room. But if you’re not thinking about anything and you’re not doing anything, then you’re just a piece of furniture.

And again, even when those scenes that I had with Kevin in Season 1 where I didn’t say anything, I still recorded those scenes and listened to it.

Oh yeah?

Michael Kelly: Yeah, because they’re my scenes. I take them just as serious as I take the other ones. You don’t have to go over it as many times, but you gotta know what’s happening. So I appreciate you saying that man. That’s really nice.

I think that’s great advice.

Michael Kelly: I see it. You see it in guest stars sometimes. They come in, just have a couple of lines. Then they’re not present for the rest. But you look at them, and they look away from you because they don’t … “Oh shit, wait? Was it my turn to talk?” I’m like, “No, man, we don’t like each other. I’m just making sure you know I don’t like you.”

How did you fall into acting? You went to college for a totally different major right?

Michael Kelly: Yeah, I was studying Political Science. It was the beginning of my third year, I went to my advisor with my classes and I said, “This is what I’m going to take this semester.” And he’s like, “Dude, you’ll fail. You can’t take all these. You need to take an elective. You’ll fail.” And I wanted to get the hard shit over with. He’s like, “You can’t do this.” And I said, “Alright.” And, he was like, “What do you want to take?” And, I said, “I don’t know.” He’s like, “Okay, if you want to be an attorney, take this acting class. I heard it’s fun. You might dig it and it’ll be good for you if you want to be an attorney.” And I was like, “Alright.” And I took it.

A couple of weeks in, you had worked with your scene partner. It was time to show your scenes. And the teacher said, “Who wants to go first?” And, I was like, “I’ll go.” And we did our scene. And after class, she was like, “Can I talk to you for a minute?” I said, “Yeah.” She said, “How long have you been acting?” And I said, “I’ve never done this before.” And she’s like, “You got something there. Tell me how you feel.” And I was like, “I love this. This is fun.” And then I made it my minor.

Then eventually I went for a double major, and I missed Political Science by a few classes. And by that point, I knew what I wanted to do anyway. So, it was a total fluke.

I’m so thankful to Coastal Carolina for giving me the opportunity because they literally, in my fifth year, they literally created the program for me to graduate. I was the first person to graduate with a Performing Arts degree from that school. It was pretty cool. Forever grateful.

What’s been your worst audition ever?

Michael Kelly: Hmm. Worst. I don’t know. I can think of countless pilot auditions that I had. Before they do the comedies, they do the dramas, and sometimes you would have three a day. We talked about the memorization problems. So I worked on them really hard but there was no way I was memorizing twelve pages for three different pilot auditions in one day.

I don’t remember anything specific where I was like, “Oh God.” But I remember many times, coming out and just being like… Finishing the scene and them saying, “Okay. Thanks.” I’m like, “Do you want to hear any other scene?” And they were like, “Nope, we’re good.”

Sure you get discouraged, and it’s not easy but at the same time, I always chalked it up to I’m supposed to be doing something else. Not supposed to be doing that one. You know?

I’m sure many of our dads and moms have always said that everything happens for the best and everything happens for a reason. There were times when I was so upset and called my father or my mom. I mean, you get it. It’s between you and somebody else for a movie. Over and over. And it goes on, drags on for two months. And you’re super excited about it. And then they’re like they went the other way. And it wears on you. And I remember many times talking to my dad, “Hey, it’s all for a reason.”

And you know what, it did prove itself once. Josh Lucas, who is in the film with me, did a television show called The Firm and so I auditioned to play his brother. And Josh and I were great friends. Still are, we see each other all the time. And I went in for it, and they really liked me. They flew me out to L.A. I tested with Josh. I was willing to take less, like half of my quote. I was like, “I don’t care.” My manager and agent were like, “Don’t do this. They’re not paying you enough money.” And I was like, “I’ll get to be with Josh. We’ll be in Toronto.” My wife and I love Toronto. And, I’m like, “It’ll be cool man. I want to do it.”

We went down the road and I ended up not getting it. It was down to me and another guy, and they hired the Canadian guy. And I remember being really bummed about it. And then it wasn’t more than like seven or eight months later that I got House of Cards. I would’ve been filming Josh’s show at the time, and wouldn’t been able to audition for House of Cards. So, it was like my dad said. I was like, “Wow, you were right man. You were right.”

So, I always say to actors, if you don’t get something, there’s a reason. It’s okay. It sucks in the moment. But it’ll all work out man. This is what you’re supposed to be doing. It’ll work out.

Leave a Reply
‘Call Me By Your Name’ Star Timothée Chalamet: “What scares me is being boring”
"At a certain point I was able to come to grips with the idea to just 'be.'" - Timothée Chalamet
‘Phantom Thread’ Star Lesley Manville: “It’s so easy to make someone bad look good on film. In theatre, there’s no hiding place”
"Filming is different. You’re getting a moment right. You can go in and create something very good, very quickly. That’s a different challenge to having five, six weeks to rehearse a play.” - Lesley Manville
Chadwick Boseman on ‘Black Panther’ and How He Refocused His Career
"As soon as I came to L.A., things immediately shifted for me." - Chadwick Boseman
Bernadette Peters on Returning to Broadway and Why She is Still Trying to Improve Her Craft
"You have to do your best to fulfill the role, not fulfill yourself" - Bernadette Peters
Ellen Pompeo: “Acting, to me, is boring”
"Anybody can be good on a show season one and two. Can you be good 14 years later? Now, that's a f*ckin' skill." - Ellen Pompeo