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Interview: Jason Isaacs on subversive comedy 'The Death of Stalin'


One of the year's most brutally subversive comedies, "The Death of Stalin" sees filmmaker Armando Iannucci ("In the Loop," HBO's "Veep") finding laughs in historical horror. The caustic political satire observes with deadpan wit the bloody power struggle that erupts in the aftermath of the titular Soviet dictator's sudden death. Eager to fill the power vacuum, the leader's trusted inner circle -- including Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), and Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) -- desperately jockey for supremacy and control of an empire.

In a film filled with memorable performances, British actor Jason Isaacs stands out amongst a cast of comedic titans. Despite not appearing until fairly late in the film, he makes a big impression in the crucial role of General Zhukov, alpha dog of the Soviet Red Army.

Speaking with Isaacs by phone, CITY chatted with the actor about laughing in the face of evil, what it feels like to be banned in Russia, and why sometimes it's good to play the villain.

CITY: What was it about the script for this film that attracted you?

Jason Isaacs: Well, it was funny as fuck. That's really the first and last thing, I would say. It was a hilarious script from [Armando], who's been the master of satirical comedy for a long time. And although it was clearly potentially explosive subject matter, it made me laugh like a drain. If there's anybody who can steer a course through the delicate tone it needed, it was Armando.

The film walks a tricky tone -- equally hilarious and horrifying.

Well, it reminded me of the kind of guts and skill it took to make "Dr. Strangelove" or "The Great Dictator," taking enormously controversial subjects and making it funny, but also tragic and horrific.

Like a lot of Armando's work, it also has a fairly bleak outlook on the world of politics; it's not hard to read some current real-world parallels into the story. What benefits do you think there are to looking at these situations through the lens of comedy?

Oddly, we keep getting asked if it was written about the Trump administration and the cabinet ministers around him getting fired or having to lose their souls. But it was made in June 2016, a long time before he was [president]. Other people at the time thought that it was written about Downing Street and Britain; somebody else felt that it was about Robert Mugabe and Zimbabwe. So clearly there's something timeless about pulling the curtain back on politicians, and reminding us that most are venal, self-serving, childish, narcissistic, and they've lost their moral compass a long time ago. And we should never take them at face value.

The film actually ended up being banned in Russia. What was your reaction when you first heard that?

It was incredulity, to be honest, it was very hard to believe, that in the modern day and age anybody could try to ban something. Of course they failed dismally, because it's now the most popular underground film in Russia. Everybody in Russia watches things illegally as it is, streamed or pirated DVDs.

The film was granted a license at first, and it was getting phenomenal response from the press there. And it was the day before [the release] that apparatchik and the culture ministry decided to issue the statement saying it was the gross insult to Russia, and it was a blatant attempt to interfere in their election. Which I can only hope he meant humorously. I don't quite know why they did it -- one of the cinemas didn't believe it either. They went ahead and showed it, then were raided by the police. Armando's optimistic that the ban will be lifted, though as far as I'm aware, pretty much everybody under 30 in Russia has watched it already. So we'll see.

You're not an actor most people immediately associate with comedy, and here you're thrown in among this group of performers, some of whom are comedy legends. How was the experience for you coming into that environment?

I'd like to say I was terrified, but the fact is the script was actor-proof. It was incredibly funny. My part is a fantastic, upstaging sort of part. Most people who know me know that I will do anything for a cheap gag, and that I'm so unlike any of the characters I play on screen and desperate to try to squeeze a gag out of even the most tragic situations. So it didn't feel that alien to me. But you're right, the thing that was challenging is I'm surrounded by comedy gods and people I am absolutely in awe of. But since my character comes in and metaphorically -- and literally, in some cases -- grabs them by the balls, I didn't have too much time to pause for fangirling.

Was there room for any ad-libbing, or were things pretty tightly scripted?

Watching the film, people think a lot of it is improvised because it has a slightly anarchic feel to it, but actually it was all incredibly tightly scripted. There's very, very little improvisation -- certainly not when the camera's rolling. We might have done some in rehearsals, or made a suggestion, but Armando has honed this to a fine art with his writers. He has a couple writers who hover next to him with yellow legal pads that have the most toe-curlingly disgusting, obscene selections of potential insults that he chooses from. And so there's very little improv, and if you were going to suggest something, it needed to be brilliant because it had to be better than what he'd come up with. And that's very rare.

Tell me about creating the physical look of the character. The medals are based on fact, as absurd as they seem.

That's absolutely right. I saw a photograph of him. And there was this man standing like a peacock, puffing his giant chest out wearing about 10,000 medals. And so when I went down for a costume fitting, I said "Can we stuff my chest and puff it out?" And they all looked slightly askance, and I kept on grabbing more and more and more foam 'til I looked like some pneumatic doll. But I realized my arms looked like noodles, so we started stuffing my arms as well, and by the end I strapped on an upper body like Mr. Incredible. And it made me feel like the bull in the China shop that I am in the film.

Did you get to keep any of the medals?

I did not get to keep anything at all. Not even my pride.

You've played a lot of memorable villains throughout your career, Captain Hook to Lucius Malfoy. Is it more fun as an actor to play characters who are overtly evil?

The most fun thing is to have a good script. If you have a good script, people think you're a good actor. It's got nothing to do with the actor; you're only as good as the material. So when something is three dimensional, like "Black Panther" -- which I saw recently and I thought was magnificent -- the antagonist is a brilliant part and brilliantly played. Because you know what he's doing and why he's doing it, and you sympathize in a way. But on the other hand, he has to be stopped because he's dangerous. Lucius Malfoy is a racist white supremacist, and he's using the same language about Muggles that unfortunately you see all over the internet at the moment. Captain Hook is a man who's terrified of getting older and that he's irrelevant. God knows, as a middle-aged actor I could identify with that.

So I try to take parts that aren't wafer thin, and if I'm lucky enough to get one that's three dimensional, I end up getting showered in praise that doesn't belong to me. But the same is true of heroes. You play a one-dimensional, vanilla hero, and it's incredibly dull and wallpaper-ish. If you play someone who's got something going on, that's complicated and emotional, I'm happy to play that because there's something to get my teeth into. Really, I just try to look for something in which I won't suck.