Before Frank Underwood can start haunting the West Wing on this season of "House of Cards," he needs to fill his old job as House majority whip. Preferably with someone useful.
Frank's choice -- though he won't be publicly backing her -- is Jacqueline Sharp, a third-termer from California with a military background and a spine of steel. She's photogenic, popular, way too green and she knows it.
"You chose me for a reason," she tells him after he suggests she take on the job of keeping House Democrats in line. "I'd like to know what it is."
Frank's reply: "Your ruthless pragmatism."
Actress Molly Parker, speaking recently by phone, said playing Sharp required some research into Washington's leading women.
"I asked myself, ‘What does it take for a woman like Jackie to become a leader?' " said Parker, a Canadian best known for her role as Alma Garret in HBO's "Deadwood." She brushed up on the American legislative process and devoured biographies of Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice: "Eight hundred pages of Condoleezza Rice!" Parker said, laughing. "But she's fascinating."
Parker's crash course in U.S. civics, paired with the fact that women still make up less than 20 percent of Congress, drew a clear picture.
"There's still something holding people back," she said. "For women, there's a cost."
In some ways, Jackie Sharp is still in the process of paying that price. Her campaign for the whip seat reveals a poise and a chilling ambition that Frank would, and does, approve of.
"She's a soldier," Parker said. "She knows how to be taken seriously in a room full of powerful men."
With most of those men, Jackie is more likely to turn on the daughterly charm or ruthlessly twist arms than bat her eyelashes. She wears armor-like suits and dresses in navy and black, and she unbuttons her jacket when it's time to concentrate or negotiate.
"I was interested in the physicality of her having been a soldier and how she uses her sexuality -- and how she doesn't," Parker said. "I was aware of how I stood, let's say that."
Bouts of guilt
Despite pulling out all the stops at the vice president's urging, Jackie can't coldly cast aside her allies without wrenching bouts of guilt. Parker said viewers shouldn't assume corruption cancels all conscience, even for Frank Underwood.
"These characters initially maybe strike us as dark and deceitful," Parker said. "But then later we get to see their humanity."