Interview: 'The Death of Stalin' actor Jason Isaacs
Directed and co-written by Armando Iannucci (Veep; In the Loop), The Death of Stalin is a fitting showcase for the comedic talents of Steve Buscemi, Michael Palin, Jeffrey Tambor and...Jason Isaacs?
Yes, the man who brought Lucius Malfoy to memorable life in the Harry Potter films and has made a career of playing villains and heavies was just as surprised as moviegoers to be offered a spot in the film and recently spoke with me about the experience.
Edwin Arnaudin: Hey, Jason! How’s it going?
Jason Isaacs: Terrible, thanks! How’s it going with you? [Laughs]
EA: [Laughs] Also miserable. Thanks!
JI: Excellent! I’m so glad. [Laughs]
EA: So, I don’t know if Danielle [Freiberg, press contact for IFC Films] told you, but I’m based in Asheville, North Carolina.
JI: I was in Rock Hill, South Carolina for six months making The Patriot.
EA: Did you make it over to North Carolina while you were there?
JI: I did. We made ways to Charlotte for ribs.
EA: Have you ever been to our mountains?
JI: Sadly not. I’m waiting for the call. I never go anywhere unless I’m filming there because when you go somewhere and you film, you really connect with the place and the people, and when you go to visit you don’t. So, I’m waiting for someone to come and get me a hotel room and a person to be and I’ll be there in a heartbeat.
EA: Well, whenever that happens, we’ll welcome you with open arms, just like we did with the Three Billboards [Outside Ebbing, Missouri] cast a few years ago.
JI: Oh, that’s where that was shot. No, I’d love to come. I love the accent as well. I love an accent. Me, I like to get my tongue around a different voice.
EA: Excellent. So, how did you become involved with The Death of Stalin?
JI: I’ve no idea, to be honest with you. I got an offer to be in the film and I opened up the brown paper envelope, which is how it always starts. My agent said, as they always do, “There’s a script in the post,” and it came with a note from Armando Iannucci, and I said, “That can’t be right.” A. I’ve never done comedy and B. I’ve never met him. And I read the thing and I thought…and C. It’s a good part. It must be a typo. They must have meant to send it to Jason Statham or Jason Bateman or something.
And so I instantly took the job and then I called him and I asked him if I could do it in a silly voice, which is…I always start with the voice. I phoned him and I said, “Hi, it’s Jason. First of all: Thank you. Yes — before you change your mind. And secondly, we’re not doing Russian accents, are we?” And he said, “Oh, fuck no.” I went, “Good. Could I play it Yorkshire?” And he said, “Absolutely.” And that was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, as they say in the movies.
EA: As you noted, like most moviegoers, I’m used to you playing serious characters. How often are you offered comedic roles?
JI: Well, the thing about the film is it’s a comedy of terror and discomfort, so actually they’re all not only serious, they’re all deadly serious. They’re fighting for their own lives and trying not to be killed and they are also people meeting in large numbers. The characters were very serious, but the film is hilarious.
And, no, you’re right — I can think of one other comedy I’ve been in, and I can reference it, but you’ll never have heard of it because it took about seven seconds in the film. So, it’s not really a change of direction for me. Like most people, I try and make my friends laugh all the time, but I’ve never been paid to do it.
EA: Have you received more comedy offers since The Death of Stalin debuted?
JI: Ooh — no, actually. But the thing about it…if the film is hilarious, then obviously you have to have the timing to take a lot of truthful situations and play them truthfully but see where the laugh is. But [Field Marshal Zhukov] is a strong man and rather terrifying and ruthless, and those are…that’s very much in my wheelhouse.
EA: I definitely agree, but I was still impressed with how you conveyed the character’s seriousness and still nailed the jokes. I’m curious how you were able to balance the character’s and the movie’s explosive balance of humor and atrocities.
JI: Well, it’s like I was saying, there’s no…I mean, he’s a funny guy — funny enough. He’s what Tom Wolfe called “a big, swinging dick.” He’s the guy in the room…he owns the power in the film because he runs the Red Army and nobody’s going to stage a coup or take power if Stalin dies without his backing. And so, he’s not a funny guy. He’s your worst nightmare with a poor sense of humor.
All I had to do was look first of all to the script, obviously. I mean, 99 [percent] of it’s in the script. But secondly, history tells me that was the case. I didn’t do the research — Andrea Riseborough was talking on set about reading this massive tome called Stalin, this doorstop of a book. I glanced at the Wikipedia page and I passed over a couple of sentences that said [Zhukov] won the second world war, essentially, and he was the only person who could speak [with Stalin bluntly].
There was a photograph of this man with a huge barrel chest, puffed out with about a thousand medals on it. And I thought, “What kind of person wants to wear a thousand medals on his chest?” And the only other person I could think was Idi Amin. So, it’s not about finding or ever trying to be funny. It’s about playing the most grotesque truth of the situation, which is why Veep is such a success and why Armando has been heralded as a comedy genius for decades in England, because the only things that make us laugh are grotesque truths that we recognize about life.
EA: I agree. Now, your character enters around the halfway point of the film, but where did your scenes fall in the production schedule?
JI: Well, they’d all rehearsed together. They knew each other pretty well, so it was an odd thing to come into this group of people who were very familiar with each other. And doubly odd because the screen is packed with my comedy heroes — people I’d normally go a bit starstruck in front of. But I had to metaphorically and literally grab them by the balls and spit in their faces. So, I was introduced, I abused them all horribly and [Armando would] go “Cut,” and I’d go, “Oh, hello. I’m such a big fan.”
It was strange, but the set was really like a — "frat house" is the wrong…what’s the word I’m looking? — It was a very collegiate atmosphere. All these people, you know, Michael Palin brings the whole legacy of Monty Python and Steve Buscemi has been in independent films and comedies. And then the other people that the American audiences won’t know, are all enormously famous in England. There’s lots of big TV comedians. Simon Russell Beale, who plays Baria, is probably Britain’s most celebrated. So there’s this atmosphere and everybody felt like we were sharing a dorm. The hardest thing about making this film for me was deciding who to sit next to at lunch.
EA: [Laughs] Did you have to flip a coin every day or draw names?
JI: Well, I rotated because I wanted to talk to Steve about every film he’s ever been in and talk to Michael about every — and Michael was infinitely patient. He was happy to talk Python, happy to talk his post-Python life. And then there’s people I’ve been laughing at on screen since I sat in front of a television, a bunch of them, and everybody was happy to revive the greatest hits of their career. Plus, Paul Whitehouse, who’s a famous TV…I can’t even describe what he is. Anyway, Paul Whitehouse, who’s a very, very funny man, had a guitar all the time and essentially, when we weren’t filming, we were singing karaoke to each other and trying to out-cheese each other.
EA: Now, your character makes quite the entrance.
JI: He does.
EA: How many takes of that epic jacket toss did you do?
JI: Oh, only…I’m going to say two. The first time, I just entered and Armando, who’s often not prevalent enough as a director because he’s the creator, so he’s talking about the content, but he has a very sharp eye. And he went, “Great, let’s do that again in slow motion.” And I thought, “Oh, thanks. Sucks to that.” And now I get this sort of [additional sound effect with the medals] that make such a noise and they cascaded and they were such...they’re a character of their own, and so he features them in my entrance.
EA: So, the movie opens in Asheville on Friday [March 23] at our art theater, and then on Monday a fellow critic in town and I are hosting a screening of it where we introduce it and do a Q&A with the audience.
JI: Oh, really!
EA: They always love factoids and behind the scenes anecdotes about the films we show, so I wondered if you had some favorite ones to share from this production?
JI: I do! One of the weird things that is not fun or good publicity or good journalism is to give away [what’s historically accurate and what isn’t] in the film. And actually, almost every time you think back to, “It couldn’t possibly be true — they must have made this up for comedy’s sake,” it really happened. So, the orchestra thing happened. In fact, it was three conductors. But until you see the film, you won’t know what that means — but he didn’t put three in because it’s unbelievable. And Stalin really did lie there in a puddle of his own urine for day and a half while they had a committee meeting around him, deciding whether to get a doctor or not because they were terrified that if he revived, he’d have them all killed for getting one of the bad doctors because he’d killed all the good doctors.
And it’s that kind of surreal, Kafka-esque thing throughout the film. His son really did lose an entire…the national ice hockey team took off in a storm because he insisted. All died and he covered it up and he got a bunch of ringers in and pretended they were the original people, not to kill anybody he knew. And that kind of utter madness permeates the film and it of course permeates in Stalin’s Russia.
Another thing is, there’s a moment — sorry, it is a backstage moment — but there’s a moment in the film [laughs] where his son tries to spit at someone and it lands on his own face, and Rupert [Friend]…Rupert practiced that for so long. In fact, he made video of himself doing it in the trailer, to prove to Armando he could do it without needing to do it in CGI. And Armando still has the video.
EA: [Laughs] Maybe it will be included in the extras of the DVD.
JI: Excellent. Now look, there’s also…the other thing to mention too about CGI is…it was very, very hard to keep a straight face all of the time. I found it incredibly difficult because [I was] surrounded by people who just know comedy and have done comedy so well for years. But I didn’t lose it onscreen because the situation is so serious. It’s funny for the audience — it’s lucky for them. I remember Steve lost it, and in a big set piece, which is expensive. So they used some of the CGI budget to literally wipe the smile off his face.
EA: [Laughs] Oh, that’s great. Well, Jason, I appreciate you talking with me about The Death of Stalin. What’s next for you?
JI: Well, you’re talking to me in Los Angeles, where I have just woken up because I was shooting ’til 7 in the morning. I’m doing the second season of The OA, the Netflix show. And of course they start shooting Star Trek[:Discovery] in a few months, but who knows what the hell’s in that?
EA: Actually, the other local critic who’s my co-host on Monday’s screening is longtime friends with your [Star Trek: Discovery] co-star Anthony Rapp.
JI: Oh, really! Well, Anthony’s a hero. I mean, not only is he a wonderful actor but he really stuck his neck out recently and obviously it turned out to be a virtuous thing to do, but he was out there on his own for a while and I was tremendously…we all admire him and tried to support him as best we could. It turned out to be a very noble thing.
EA: I’m glad to hear that. Thanks again for talking with me about The Death of Stalin and I look forward to seeing it again, this time with an audience.
IJ: Well, I’ll tell you what — of course, I’ve been to so many of these screenings now and done lots of Q&As, but I pop my head in to the back of other screenings and it gets spontaneous rounds of applause, which is such a weird thing when the filmmakers aren’t there and it’s not premiering. The last film I remember getting spontaneous applause at the end was The King’s Speech. It’s an odd phenomenon, but I love that it gives people such pleasure.
(Photos: IFC Films)