Film

Interview: Jason Isaacs Plays a Man With a Chestful of Medals in The Death of Stalin

Image courtesy of Gene Siskel Film Center.

If you’ve been paying any kind of attention to film or television in the past 25 years or so, you’ve likely seen actor Jason Isaacs in something. From early appearances in director Paul W.S. Anderson’s Shopping to his current run on “Star Trek: Discovery” as Capt. Gabriel Lorca, Isaacs is the classic definition of a working actor—more specifically, a working character actor who sometimes lands himself a lead role along the way. He’s also one of the most utilitarian actors working today, able to slip in and disappear into a role, regardless of age, nationality or the side of the good guy/bad guy spectrum on which the character might fall.

Among his credits are roles in such works as Event Horizon, Armageddon, The Patriot, Black Hawk Down, the Showtime series “Brotherhood,” Green Zone, Fury, the “Star Wars: Rebels” animated series, in which he voiced The Inquisitor), A Cure for Wellness, and perhaps most memorably as Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter films.

And beginning today in Chicago, he can be seen in The Death of Stalin as Field Marshal Zhukov, the real-life Soviet military hero whose Red Army held off the Nazis, thus effectively ending World War II in Europe. Zhukov status as a bona-fide national hero also made him untouchable, making him one of the few Soviet citizens who could say whatever he wanted to or about Stalin and not fear retribution. Directed and co-written by Armando Iannucci, The Death of Stalin tracks the power struggle among Stalin’s inner circle (played by the likes of Jeffrey Tambor, Steve Buscemi, Michael Palin, and Simon Russell Beale) immediately after the dictator’s demise. Zhukov comes into the story late, but when he arrives—with a puffed-out chest filled with medals—he runs roughshod over the political weasels jockeying for position. It’s a monumental performance in a movie filled with them. (The film screens during the Siskel Film Center’s EU Film Festival.)

I had the chance to speak with Isaacs recently about the film, being a part of the “Star Trek” universe, and the rest of his career. I had actually spoken with him in Chicago about 10 years ago for a film called Good, in which he co-starred with Viggo Mortensen, and he was just as easy to talk to and wonderfully personable as I remembered. With that, please enjoy my chat with Jason Isaacs…

Hi Jason, how are you?

Hi, Steve. I’m good, thank you.

This film is remarkable. And the character you play is a real person, hugely important in Russian history…

Hugely important in global history. He ended the second World War.

Indeed. And if any of Stalin’s inner circle deserved to act so full of himself, it was probably him. What was the key for you to cracking him as a character?

It was a still that I saw. There are stills of him all over the internet, but there was one on his Wikipedia page of this man puffing his chest out like a peacock with a thousand medals on it. When you see the film, you see me bedecked in medals, head to foot, and actually he wore more than we could fit on, because he had a bigger chest than me. I thought “What kind of person wants to wear that many medals?” And it’s a man who is just brimming with confidence. It’s because he’s the only person who could speak the truth to Stalin. Everybody else got killed for even looking sideways or not laughing at his jokes, and Zhukov could say whatever he wanted because he had the Red Army behind him.

I’ve seen the photo you’re talking about. I do remember thinking when I saw the film, “Wow, that’s a lot of medals.” I thought maybe it was exaggerated until I saw that photo.

One of the weird things about the film when people see it is that it’s full of insane episodes, just surreal, absurdist episodes, none of which Armando made up. All of the crazy stuff is what really happened. The more normal things, like him walking from room to room where he might have compressed the timeline a bit, but I don’t want to spoil it for whoever is going to watch it, but around the shadow of terror of this cult of personality, people behaved in the most absurd ways. I now feel like I want to go and tell you what they are, but it will ruin it.

I did the research after I saw the film, and I realized immediately that most of the film is historically accurate, and you’re all playing it straight for the most part, which almost makes it more terrifying. The absurdity of the truth is what provides the laughs. It’s a strange and effective way to work.

It is. Armando was sick of American politics. He’d done so many seasons of “Veep.” He felt like he wanted to get away from it, but he was aware that there was a movement in the world lurching towards the right, toward these very strong personalities, and he was sent this French graphic novel called The Death of Stalin, which documents all of the madness in the film, and there it all was on the page. There was what he’d been looking at. It told the story of a dictator, about a delusional narcissist, and how people around him were conflicted and lost their souls, and found himself drawn towards it.

What’s odd is how many people ask him if it’s about Trump and Trump’s administration, and of course, it was shot before Donald Trump was officially nominated. It was shot in the summer of 2016. When we were doing it, Brexit had just happened and David Cameron had just resigned. On one of my days off I went to take part in a commemoration of the Battle of the Somme, the first World War battle, and I met [former British Prime Minister] David Cameron. He asked what I was doing, and I said I was doing this film about a power struggle after Stalin died and how everybody was running around stabbing each other in the back, and he said, “That’s better than Downing Street. They’re stabbing each other in the front.” It really could apply anywhere where there’s a vacuum.

It’s a hell of an achievement, because when I read it, I thought “This thing could be a complete catastrophe.” I think it’s funny but that’s because I’m sick and twisted. I wondered if it was going to work. And Armando just walks this tightrope of tone to make it respectful, horrific and hilarious, and that’s not easy to do.

I have to imagine being a part of a film like this gave you an appreciation for just how dirty political trickery can be sometimes. They took it to a new level in the Soviet Union.

Well, they also killed tens of millions of people. They sent them off to the Gulag and they murdered and raped, and the film is very respectful of all the people who suffered and points out all of the people who made that happen. What you see is how the shadow of the terror of this man made them all lose themselves. Morally, they were all so conflicted at that stage, there was no going back, but somehow Armando manages to find the funny. He’s a guy who just has funny bones.

As you said, your character was one of the few people allowed to be very blunt both to and about Stalin. We don’t actually see them together in the film, so how do you get across that idea, that level of arrogance?

Well, I’d like to take credit for all kinds of things, but the fact is that it was in the script. It’s a brilliant script. When you watch the film, it feels like it’s improvised. It’s got a chaotic, anarchic feel to it, because that’s how people work. They let Stalin lie there [after the stroke that ultimately killed him] for a day and a half in a puddle of his own urine, because they were too scared to get a doctor, because he’d killed all the decent doctors, because he thought there was a Jewish doctor plot against him, and nobody wanted to get a doctor in case he survived and said, “Why did you get that bad doctor for me?” They scripted it incredibly tightly, and I was empowered by Armando to just take charge, so I just charged in like a bull in a china shop, and I bully everybody and I’m sarcastic to everybody; it was very cheap therapy for me.

I’m guessing you weren’t there for a lot of the film being shot, because your character comes in very late in the story. How was it to step into something that had been going on for a while with these other actors?

Well, they’d all rehearsed quite a lot together. Like a smart person, Armando doesn’t want to waste time on set discussing scripts and things because there’s hundreds of people standing around. So they had a bunch of rehearsals, but on my first day, I literally just storm in and take charge of everybody, which is an odd thing because there’s a nanosecond where you look around and go, “Oh my god, there’s Michael Palin, there’s Steve Buscemi, there’s Jeffrey Tambor.” There are all these people whose talent I’m in awe of, and I just have to bully them and smack them around and insult them. But that’s my job [laughs]

That’s the character too, so that’s appropriate.

Yeah. They were very nice about it, of course.

Zhukov is also in an interesting position in that he is the only one not jockeying for power, because he’s already got it. Did that make it a little easier that you didn’t have to kowtow to anybody?

It did, because all the other actors are playing, appropriately, terror. They’re all terrified and anxious. They’re maneuvering to try and take power or at least not be killed, because if they don’t play their cards right, they and their entire families will be shipped off, as many, many people had been before them. They’re all operating at this low level of anxiety, at least on camera, and I wasn’t. I was like a kid who’d had too much sugar at his birthday party. I owned the set and I walked tall, and one of the things that helped me was that costume with all those medals on it. Zhukov had a big, barrel chest, so I got them to stuff the jacket until I looked like Pamela Anderson, then I look like I have very weak arms, so they stuffed the arms as well, and I would strap on this huge upper body like Mr. Incredible and cut a swath through them.

There are things going on in the background of this film that are funnier than 90 percent of what’s going on in the foreground of the comedies I see in a given year. How do you even keep it together when that’s going on around you?

It’s not easy. I’ve got to say, there are a few lines in it where I just couldn’t make eye contact with other actors because they’re just insanely funny. The thing about acting is, it’s a simple job. You just have to pretend to be someone in another situation, and those people have got other concerns on their mind. So the trick was just stay focused or look at the ground. And of course in the bits where we did start snorting with laughter or spraying saliva everywhere, they cut out. I know there’s one bit where Steve Buscemi just doubled over with laughter. And they used some of their CGI budget to literally wipe the smile off his face.

I know this has come up before, but no one is using a Russian accent. In most cases, all of the actors are using their own accents, which almost makes it more absurd. What was the thinking there?

Well, if you have a Russian accent and you’re walking around speaking like this [puts on a generic Russian accent], then you’re speaking a second language, and none of those people are speaking a second language to each other. And the other thing is, they actually had a million different Russian accents because they came from all over the Soviet Union. Stalin was Georgian, for instance, and he was very self-conscious about how uneducated he sounded. If he ever thought that anybody sounded posher than him, he’d have them killed. And they came from thousands of miles apart and had grown up speaking different languages, so it wouldn’t have made any sense a), because they’re speaking their own language, and b) there is no uniform Russian accent, not for those people.

Are you putting on any kind of accent?

I am, because Zhukov is so blunt and so direct and so rude, that I did a Yorkshire accent, which, in Britain, is shorthand for don’t “bleep” with me. When I read it, I heard it in the accent and I phoned Armando, and I said, “Can I do a Yorkshire accent?” He said, “Buscemi’s doing Brooklyn, and Jeffrey Tambor’s doing California, and Paul Whitehouse is Cockney. I don’t see why not.” So it just further adds to the sense that this is a mix of people from all across the continent, and the only thing they have in common is they’re trying not to die.

Of all the other actors you get to work with in this, the one who would terrify me the most, even though he seems like a very nice man, in Michael Palin, only because he is in many ways a godfather of this very intelligent type of comedy that can also be very silly. What was he like to share a scene with?

He was—they all were, in fact—completely delightful. The whole thing felt collegiate. It felt like we were jumping in the back of a van and improvising a play at an arts festival somewhere. Paul Whitehouse is a very, very famous British TV comedian that American audiences won’t know and he had a guitar, and any time they shouted “Cut,” he would start singing, and it would turn into karaoke. The whole thing felt like a bunch of friends putting on a show, including Michael Palin. At some point, Michael Palin became very famous in Britain after Monty Python for presenting travel programs.

I love his travel shows.

They’re fantastic. I mentioned that we were going to possibly go to Africa, and did he have any recommendations? And he sent me the loveliest, longest email with recommendations of various hotels and boats and trains to take. He could not be more charming.

Some of your best scenes in the film are with Buscemi, and you guys have worked in the same movie before [both were in Armageddon]. Does surviving a Michael Bay training camp bond actors in a way like nothing else?

[laughs] We did laugh about having laid the ghost of Armageddon to rest, but we barely had any scenes together in Armageddon. We would have had more. You’d be surprised to find out I was asked to be one of the astronauts on Armageddon, but I couldn’t do it because I was busy on something else. I got the booby prize of playing the professor. But this was, let’s say, a very different experience. Let’s leave it at that [laughs].

Talk about Armando’s style of directing. Is he more hands on? Is he more laid back? What suggestions can you make to him?

He’s very laid back. He does a lot of whispering, not unlike a dog whisperer; he’s an actor whisperer. He likes to create controlled anarchy. So he’ll whisper something to one person but not tell the others that someone’s going to do something. When something isn’t quite working for him, he’s got the two writers he works with all the time, Peter [Fellows] and Ian [Martin] next to him with yellow legal pads. He’ll turn to them and go, “I think we need a line about this or that,” and they’ll huddle in the corner and come up with 100 of the most disgusting, hair-curling insults—the most obscene things you’ve ever heard in your life. They’ll rattle them off, and he’ll go, “No, no, no, yes. Let’s try that.” It’s very genteel the way he suggests it, yet the things coming out of his mouth and out of their pens are really amongst the most twisted, dark and filthy-minded things you’ve ever heard.

Has the film played in Russia yet? Have you heard anything?

I do know. It played in England. It was a huge success in England. And it’s doing very, very well here in America. Armando did all the publicity in Russia. They had their screenings, the press loved it, had standing ovations. Then the day before it was supposed to be broadcast, the Kremlin issued a statement. They revoked its license, and they said it was a blatant attempt to interfere in their upcoming presidential election, which is possibly the funniest joke of the entire film, because obviously they don’t agree with interfering in other people’s elections, and for some reason, they’re pretending to be anxious about who’s going to win. I’m not sure anyone else is standing, so there you go. And it was done, of course, in Russia, this country which is pretty good at getting around cyber barriers, and it has made it the most popular film in the country for young people, all of whom are watching it illegally. But somebody Tweeted this fabulous photograph of them watching it on a laptop underneath Putin’s window in Red Square.

[laughs] So the response is clandestinely good.

The response is very good. Actually, one cinema went and showed it anyway, because they just couldn’t believe that in this modern day and age that anyone was trying to ban something, and the police raided the cinema. So that’s what we’ve done to upset their election. It’s a bunch of comedians doing a madcap farce.

If we’d only known it was that easy. You’re involved in the “Star Trek” universe now. How special is that for you?

It’s amazing. Obviously I’ve been in the Harry Potter films, so I know what fandom is like. I’ve met some of the fabulous, passionate fans, but they’ve only been fans since the year 2000. There are many people I’ve met now who have been obsessed with “Star Trek” for 50 years. It’s overwhelming, but it’s a new and wonderful thing. Jonathan Frakes, who played Riker [on “Star Trek: The Next Generation”] and directed some of our episodes, has been my guide and mentor though the madness of it all, and he persuaded me to sign up for some of the truly extraordinary “Star Trek” experiences like going on a “Star Trek” cruise with fans. I said to him, “I can’t imagine anything worse.” He said, “I did it, and it’s great, and you’re coming.” It’s a very eclectic bunch of people, as you would imagine, who have in common only that they love “Star Trek” for different reasons—some of them because they like the ships and uniforms, some of them like the philosophy—but they are drawn from a very, very interesting pool, that’s for sure.

Have you done a convention yet?

I’ve done some Harry Potter conventions recently, and the Trek fans have found me there, but I’ve never been to an exclusively “Star Trek” thing. Subject to work, I’ll be going to Las Vegas this year, which apparently turns into a giant “Star Trek” city for a week. I can’t pretend I’m not looking forward to it. I’ve only met lovely people and had lovely conversations, and they are slightly insane, often, but in a great way.

Well, you also have a toe in the Star Wars universe, thanks to the “Rebels” cartoons. That’s a pretty elite group to be a part of both of those.

Star Wars, Harry Potter, and “Star Trek”—I’m not quite sure what’s left. I should open my own Starbucks franchise [laughs]. But the thing about “Star Wars: Rebels” is that I invariably disappoint the fans, because I don’t really remember anything about it. We recorded in a basement in Burbank, and I didn’t see the artwork. What I’m thrilled about though is I have the coolest light saber in the Star Wars universe, the spinning light saber. Obviously I didn’t see that or have any part in it. But I’ve got a very cool wand as Lucius and I’ve got a very cool light saber. I was after some similar prop as Captain Lorca in “Star Trek,” but no one would help me.

One other thing that you’ve done recently, that I want to know if it’s coming back is “The OA” on Netflix; Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij are two of my favorite creative people that I’ve ever met.

Me too. I absolutely love that series. I’m an unabashed fan of it, because when we shot, I was only in one small part of it. So I watched it and I was blown away by the other sections. I’d only briefly read the other bits once many, many months before, and I sat and binged it for eight hours. Literally, I sat from 9 o’clock in the morning to 5 o’clock at night, and I was devastated by the end of it. We’re currently in the middle of shooting season two.

So it is coming back. It’s been a couple of years.

To make something that good, it takes a little bit of time.

What else do you have coming up that we can look forward to?

Well, there’s a film called Hotel Mumbai, which I play with a Russian accent, because he’s meant to be speaking English. And one of the actors who’s Russian said, “I can’t wait to take you to Russia. They’ll love it there. You play such a Russian character.” And I said, “Yeah, I’m not coming to Russia.” He said, “Why?” I said, “Well, I’ve been banned by the Kremlin, and they particularly singled out my portrayal of Zhukov as an insult to Russia’s great war hero.” He said, “Nah, don’t worry about that.” I said, “Do you read the newspapers?” I’ve got that coming up, with Armie Hammer, Dev Patel, and various other people. It’s a fantastic film.

If I remember correctly, that used to be a Weinstein Company movie. Has that been sold to someone else?

Well, somebody’s releasing it. It’s a big, expensive film. I’m not quite sure who’s going to be releasing it. I can’t imagine something that big, that expensive and that I know is playing so well to audiences won’t be found and released by somebody else, but I think currently somebody somewhere in a room is tearing their hair out, making lots of phone calls.

Jason, thank you very much for talking.

Great to talk to you, Steve, and let’s make sure it’s not another 10 years before we talk again.

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