What do Estonia, small airplanes and a Philadelphia shipyard have to do with the hit series House of Cards?
Kind of a lot, it turns out — because they all have to do with Beau Willimon. Those who only know Willimon as the man who created the show for Netflix — where the show returns for binge-happy viewers on Feb. 14 — are missing out, since his life story is basically a laundry list of experiences that you won’t believe all happened to the same guy. And, he says, those disparate experiences have all helped make House of Cards what it is.
“A lot of people think all I write about is politics, because they know Ides of March or House of Cards, but I actually write about a lot of things,” Willimon tells TIME. “The world’s a vast place. No matter how focused your story is, it can’t ignore the rest of the world around it. I think all these experiences [I've had], in one way or another, inform everything I write.”
So, even though Willimon has never lived in Washington, D.C., for any significant amount of time, and even though House of Cards is adapted from an earlier English series, this incarnation of the show bears the imprints of Willimon’s own life. For example, when Willimon was young, his father was in the navy and the family moved frequently. One of the places they lived was Philadelphia; he says the shipyard that viewers will remember as the subject of a preservation effort by the fictional Rep. Peter Russo was where he spent a chunk of childhood.
Furthermore, Francis Underwood is from South Carolina, which is where Willimon’s father hails from — and Raymond Tusk is from St. Louis, where Willimon lived in junior high school and high school. (St. Louis is also where Willimon learned, starting at age 14, to pilot an airplane — an experience that he says influences his writing in a subtler way, allowing him to write characters who operate in the context of the freedom and danger that come from flying a small plane.)
So, for House of Cards fans who want to guess at what might come next on the show, here are some other tidbits from Willimon’s life:
- In college, his focus of study was painting.
- After college, he worked for the ministry of the interior for the Estonian government, as part of a fellowship. His main job there involved summarizing immigration and asylum law into briefs that would be used for E.U. conferences.
- Not too long after Estonia, he moved to Vietnam to work for a small cultural magazine.
- Just as soon as he returned to New York, he started playwriting in graduate school at Columbia, having been auditing classes off the books before departing for Asia.
- During graduate school, he lived in South Africa for a year on a visual arts scholarship, which he got from a proposal to create 40 lithographs about paranoia. “I got $50,000 and went off to Cape Town and got a motorcycle and traveled the country for a year,” he says. “While I was there, I wrote my thesis play for graduate school.”
- He’s written 12 plays, four of which have been produced, and was nominated for a screenwriting Oscar for The Ides of March. He has a new play going up in New York in March.
- He’s currently producing a documentary about a transgendered surfer, and another about a British paratrooper who has spent 15 years walking around the globe on foot.
But how, exactly, these things will play into House of Cards is information Willimon can’t always share.
“How does Vietnam make its way in? There’s ways that it makes its way in, in Season 2 probably, not literally, but some of my experiences there,” he says. “That, I can’t really talk about because I don’t want to give the story away.”
Can’t he say anything else about the upcoming season?
“If Claire Underwood is one of the reasons you were drawn to Season 1, hopefully you’ll like Season 2 as much or better, because you’ll see a lot more of her,” he says. “That’s as far as I’ll go.”