Long before he was cast as the casually terrifying Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov in The Death of Stalin, the critically acclaimed, shockingly funny black comedy directed and co-written by Armando Iannucci (In the Loop, HBO’s Veep), Jason Isaacs already had quite a few rogues on his resume. Chief among his credits: Col. William Tavington, the sadistic British officer who makes life miserable for Mel Gibson’s reluctant Revolutionary War hero in The Patriot; a demented researcher at a dubious rehabilitation clinic in A Cure for Wellness; and, of course, the dreaded Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter movie franchise.
But in Iannucci’s film, which expands its slow-rollout run into Houston, Nashville and other markets today, Isaacs dials the intimidation level up to 11 — while clearly having the time of his life.
His Zhokov struts into a maelstrom of shifting loyalties, competing power plays and ever-increasing paranoia that erupts in 1953 Moscow following the demise of Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin), the Communist leader who ruled and nearly ruined his country with a whim of iron while demanding, and receiving, sycophantic support for his reign of terror. The Russian tyrant’s sudden death generates fear and loathing — and, in some cases, unbridled ambition — among a Soviet Central Committee that includes the malleable deputy general secretary Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Machiavellian secret police commander Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale); anxious foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin); and the improbably savvy (or perhaps just plain lucky) Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi). Zhokov looms large above them all, with all the sneering authority and brass-balled confidence of a kingmaker who controls every situation — and, not incidentally, commands the Red Army.
Be forewarned: The Death of Stalin is a brutally hilarious comedy about an unstable despot who inspired adoration even from those he exploited and oppressed, and the movie doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the atrocities committed in his name by his loyal lackeys. But don’t let that keep you away. “As Stanley Kubrick did with Dr. Strangelove,” critic Bilge Ebiri wrote in The Village Voice, “Iannucci has built a satire not by twisting the truth but by nudging reality just a few inches further in the direction it was already going. It should not be incumbent on people of good sense to hold their laughter in the face of such absurd evil. If anything, laughter should be a requirement — because only in well-observed ridicule can we sometimes find a power strong enough to put such monsters in their places. And make no mistake about it: These are monsters, not ghosts. The Death of Stalin might be set in 1953, but you don’t have to look hard at it to see today.”
Isaacs phoned me a few days ago to talk about The Death of Stalin, the movie’s surprisingly compelling contemporary relevance, and the sheer joy that comes from portraying a character who always is absolutely certain — with ample justification — he is the smartest and scariest guy in the room. Here are some highlights from our conversation.
How much did you know about this period in Russian history before you signed on to play Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov?
It was unknown to me. I didn’t know anything about Stalin — and I certainly was shocked to find out how much of the film is true. I’ve seen audiences fall out of their seats laughing — and it is incredibly funny, albeit the comedy comes from tension and terror — but so many of the insane episodes in the film happened. Stalin did make them all sit and watch cowboy films all night long. And the orchestra did have to record [a symphony performance] three times for him. His son did lose a whole hockey team. And when he woke up after they thought he was dead and pointed at a strange painting, they did try to interpret his gesture for hours. And he did lie in a puddle of his own urine for days because they were too frightened to get a doctor — in case they got the wrong doctor, and he came back to life and killed them for it.
Years ago, I talked to Malcolm McDowell about his portrayal of H.G. Wells in Time After Time. In that movie, Welles was depicted as painfully shy around women. But when McDowell picked up a biography to do research, one of the first things he read was that Wells really was a notorious rake. So he figured, well, he’d better toss the book aside and just play what was in the script. Did you do much research about Zhukov?
Well, if you talk to Andrea Riceborough, who plays Svetlana Stalin, she’d say she read a giant weighty tome, this book called Stalin’s Daughter, and then looked in various other tomes. Me? I glanced at a Wikipedia page — and what became clear instantly was that Zhukov was the only person that could speak the truth to Stalin. The only person who wasn’t in any way fearful. And that was reflected in the script. And then, most usefully to me, I saw a photo of him. I noted this man standing like a peacock puffing out his giant chest, on which he wore 10,000 medals, and I thought, “Who does that?” And apparently he was one of the first people ever to do that, and then it was a fashion picked up by Idi Amin and various other people. And I thought, “OK, I know everything I needed to know. This is a man without whom a coup is not going to take place.” So, whereas everyone else in the story was still terrified of Stalin’s size, of his shadow, Zhukov is a guy who knows that they’re all after [his approval]. Without the Red Army, no one can be in charge. And that was all I needed.
I don’t want to give away any spoilers…
Well, Stalin dies. I think it’s safe to say that for a start.
True enough. It’s kind of like Death of Salesman — you know where that one is going, too. But there’s a scene in Death of Stalin where you’re suddenly really scary. And then, when you see how much you’re terrifying someone, you let them know you’re kidding. And the poor guy is so relieved, you can’t help thinking he might pass out anyway. When you read a scene like that in a script, do you find yourself thinking how much fun it will be to play?
Well, funny enough, that’s the one moment that I remember from the entire shooting that I came up with. Everything else — look, I know the film feels and looks improvised. And when we’ve done stuff with the media and Q&A’s, as we’re doing at the moment in cinemas, people always ask, “How much of it was improvised?” The answer is, none of it. It was all incredibly tightly scripted. But that bit, I came up with. There was just something about playing this character, and about this plot. It’s cheap therapy for anybody who’s a people pleaser to be someone who doesn’t give a flying fuck what anyone else thinks of him, because they hold all the cards. It’s a very juicy thing to do.
Of course, it’s kind-sorta ironic that this movie is coming out at a time when there have been, ahem, questions about what nefarious connections Russia’s current leader might have with the current U.S. President.
What’s really ironic about this is that [Death of Stalin] was written and shot a long time before Trump was even a candidate. But other people have made other connections. Since it’s been out there, I was at a screening where somebody came out of the audience and said to Armando, “Thank you for telling our story.” And it turned out they were from Zimbabwe. They saw it as about Mugabe, and the climate of terror around Mugabe, and what the cult of personality had done to that country.
And in fact, when we were shooting, Brexit happened. I had the day off to go and take part in the commemoration of The Battle of the Somme — and I met David Cameron, the British Prime Minister who had just resigned because of the Brexit vote. He asked me what I was doing and I said a film about the scrabbling for power in the absence of Stalin. And he said, “Sounds like my daily life in Downing Street.”
So there are all kinds of shadows. With the Orange Oompa Loompa in the White House, nowhere was that more obvious than during that extraordinary cabinet meeting that he held where cameras went around and everyone had to pay homage to him in the most cringe-worthy way. But in fact, it could be any situation where the cult of personality and the strength of one character means that everybody else loses their moral compass.
Can you see a day in the not so distant future when someone makes a black comedy about Donald Trump?
The problem with Trump is that he’s beyond satire. He is his own satirist, Donald Trump. The whole thing is some strange kind of Andy Kaufman performance art with monumentally cataclysmic consequences. At the time of Stalin, people lived in utter terror. Because let’s not forget, and the film doesn’t forget, that he sent tens of millions of people to their deaths. But the one thing people had to save their sanity was jokes. And people would circulate joke books about Stalin. Even as they slept full clothed facing the possibility that they’d be spirited away in the middle of the night and shipped off to a gulag. Thankfully, we’re not quite there yet with Trump.
Death was so arbitrary at that time that the slightest joke, even a bad joke, could do you in. Stalin was delusional, narcissistic to an extraordinary degree. Nobody was safe anywhere. In fact, only Zhukov was. The parallels of course to the White House, and the turnover of staff, are extraordinary. They might not get sent to a gulag and shot, but they’re sent out into the media wilderness. Which I suppose is worse for half of them.
Have you ever worked with a director you thought was as mercurial and dictatorial as Stalin?
Oh, God yeah. I’m not so professionally suicidal as to tell you who I’m talking about — but yeah, I’ve worked with some crazy despots. With directors, you see, we’re all parts of their train sets. And they can be as benign as they want, or they can be monstrous. And I’ve worked with all types.
Is it at all difficult being in a situation where you’re playing a character who spooks the hell out of just about every other character? Does that affect how you interact with the other members of the cast?
No, because I was surrounded by heroes of mine. Comedy gods. The hardest thing about doing that film was to decide who to sit next to at lunch. I’m a massive fan of all of them, and I was desperate to talk to Jeffery Tambor about The Larry Sanders Show, and Michael Palin about Monty Python, and then Steve Buscemi about everything he's ever done. The thing is, everybody is so great at their job, and from so many different disciplines. The lead in the film in many ways is Lavrentiy Beria, played by Simon Russell Beale, who’s a massive superstar of the theater in Britain, but unknown to film audiences. And I’ve seen almost everything he’s done — he’s played the lead in all the Shakespeare plays and all the Russian plays — and I knew he was hilariously funny. The whole experience of making the film was embarrassingly enjoyable.
Of course, this isn’t the first time you’ve played an unpleasant character. Do you ever encounter people in public who confuse you with the roles you’ve played? Like, after all those nasty things your character did in The Patriot — did total strangers walk up to you on the street and spit at you?
[Laughs] You know what, I’ll tell you what’s odd — and I still don’t understand it to this day. I’ve been doing this job for a very, very long time. And I’ve found that they may do that when you’re on television, but they don’t do it when you're in films. They confuse you with television characters all the time. I have a friend who was in a show and got beaten up on the subway in England, on the tube, because his character had stolen someone’s purse. With me, instead, they come up and they say, “So sorry, don't take this the wrong way, but I really hated you in The Patriot.” Or, “I was scared of you in Harry Potter.” But they never confuse me for the characters. It doesn’t happen. People love the bad guys. They love to hate, they like the fact that they get riled up.
Finally, you’re a native of Liverpool. How do you think that prepared you for your career? What do you think growing up there gave you?
What did it give? Well, first of all, everybody in Liverpool is a standup comedian — even though only three percent of them are funny. Everybody is always trying to entertain. Literally everybody. You get into a taxi at Lime Street Station, and it starts, and it never switches off until you leave. So, it’s a culture down there, and there are certain cities that are always like that.
And the other thing, I suppose, is it inadvertently gave me is ability to do accents. Because I used to talk like [a Liverpudlian] until I was a teenager. But you can’t really survive as an actor if that’s your accent, so you’ve got to learn to do other voices. So I learned early on. We moved to London when I was a kid, and I was incredibly self-conscious of my accent. So, overnight I went from sounding like a Beatle to sounding like Ray Winstone. Then I went to university, and they all sounded like Hugh Grant. And so did I in a couple of days. And I’m speaking to you from New York, but I’m currently working in Los Angeles shooting a film. I’m playing an American, and I do the accent all day. And I find myself at night in a restaurant, and I’m halfway through a conversation with someone before I think, “Shit! This isn’t my voice!” That’s when I go, “OK, I’m talking like myself again.” But the fact that I came from Liverpool made me very mobile when it comes to dialects.
Really, I’m unbelievably well paid to put on makeup and do silly voices. It’s stunning to me. But I’m glad — because I’ve got no other skills.