Jason Isaacs interview: The Death Of Stalin

We said hello to Jason Isaacs, before chatting about The Death Of Stalin and Star Trek: Discovery...

Jason Isaacs has been on our screens a lot of late. The former Lucius Malfoy actor is currently gracing online streaming services around the globe as Captain Lorca in Star Trek: Discovery, and his hilarious turn as General Zhukov in The Death Of Stalin will be lighting up a cinema near you very soon.

As part of his promotional tour for the aforementioned Russian romp – which has satirical mastermind Armando Iannucci (Alan Partridge, The Thick Of It, Veep) at its helm – Isaacs sat with us for twenty minutes in a swanky London hotel to have a ruddy good chat.

As I shuffled in and sat down, Isaacs explained that he’s a little on the tired side, because he stayed up late the night before to watch the new Star Trek: Discovery episode (the fifth one). I thought I’d leave the subsequent bit of chit-chat in, as it was quite a nice place to start…

It was a good episode, wasn’t it?

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It was alright! Have you seen it? Did you watch it this morning, did you?

Yeah, I watched this morning. I thought, if it’s a particularly Jason Isaacs-heavy one, I’ll want to have that in my head.

I liked it because it introduced Rainn [Wilson] and Shazad [Latif], who plays Ash, which is a great part. It becomes a really important, great part. It was nice to, finally… I’ve done lots of publicity with Shazad, and people haven’t got a fucking clue who he is. So, finally they got to meet him, which was good.

So, we’re here for The Death Of Stalin today.

Yes! Absolutely!

Looking at other interviews that you’ve done over the years, what’s obvious is that you are always very keen to know what’s going on behind the eyes of your characters –

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Well, that’s what acting is. Acting is never learning lines and doing the things that are in the script. It’s building the 99% of the character that is not in the script, i.e. what’s that person thinking and meaning and after. And how do they change their plans as other things happen all around them? So, who are they inside? Because what people say and do is very rarely a pointer to who they really are.

And I’m guessing that you take that approach even when it’s something funny and lighter?

It wouldn’t be funny if it wasn’t truthful. The only thing that’s funny, and the only thing that’s comedic, is truth. You just turn truth up to eleven. So, if you can’t find what’s really going on, no one’s ever going to laugh. I mean, there might be the odd dry one liner, but real comedy that comes out of the situation – and the terror and the tension in this thing – only happens when you know what the dynamic is.

So did you do a lot of research into the real Zhukov, to try to get to know him?

I didn’t need to do much, actually. I knew that he had won the Second World War, for Russia and maybe for the Allies too, and that he thought that he had won it mostly singlehanded. And I looked at the photographs, and I saw a man who chose to wear a hundred thousand medals across his chest. And history tells me that he was the only one who was allowed to speak bluntly to Stalin. Anyone else got killed, and their entire family, and anyone they knew, and their dog, got killed.

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When I was offered the job, I phoned Armando [Iannucci]. I read the script, and there was a note from him with his phone number on. And I phoned him and I said, “We’re not doing Russian accents are we?” He said, “No, of course not.” And I said, “Good, can I do it Yorkshire?” And he said, “Errrrr, why?” And I said, “Because, Yorkshiremen are the bluntest people I’ve ever met in my life. And this guy is completely blunt, and unphased, and unworried about what anyone thinks of him.” And he went, “You know, Buscemi’s doing it Brooklyn, and Jeffrey Tambor’s doing it Californian, and Paul Whitehouse is cockney. I don’t see why not.”

And then I knew what he was. I knew he was a guy that Tom Wolfe described as the big swinging dicks of Wall Street. He’s the big swinging dick of the Politburo.

And he walks in, you know, it’s a late entrance to the film, and he just takes charge, because he’s got the army, and everybody who wants to be in charge needs the army on their side. And so I just kind of waltzed in and took control.

I do love the accent, I must say.

Thanks very much. I literally can’t imagine it any other way. If he’d said to me, “Oh, I’d rather not”, I might have had to just go, “You know what, I’m not sure I’ll be able to do it.” Literally, I read it, and in my head I heard that voice, the first second I laid eyes on the page.

Was it an easy one to keep up on set?

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Yeah, I guess so. It’s easier when you can keep an accent all day. Because in Star Trek I’m American and I stay in that accent all day, and I have done that with every American television series or movie. I didn’t walk around talking like Zhukov all day, no… it would have been intensely annoying for everyone.

And what do you think motivates Zhukov as a character? Is it just kind of holding onto as much power as he can?

He’s canny. Oh no, he doesn’t need to hold onto power, because he’s got the power. It’s… where is he going to place… behind whom is he going to place his support. And he’s not stupid, he wants to make sure he puts his support behind the person that’s gonna end up running the Soviet Union, doing what he says. And so, he’s just watching and biding his time, and working out who to back. You know, it’s all a game of chess, but he’s got five queens and everyone else has got a bunch of pawns.

How familiar were you with Armando Iannucci’s work before this?

It’s rather embarrassing to say, but, when I came out of university, so did he. And he started making comedy when I went to drama school. And I’m pretty sure that I have heard every single world of every radio show he’s ever done. And I was there the night Steve Coogan unleashed Alan Partridge on the world, at the Edinburgh Festival, the first performance.

Oh wow.

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I’ve seen everything Partridge. I’ve seen all of The Day Today. I’ve seen all of The Thick Of It and In The Loop. I probably know his work better than he does, which means I was stunned that I was sent this script. I don’t know him at all. I’m not known for doing comedy. I just presumed my agents had sent it to the wrong Jason. It was meant for Jason Statham or someone. Err, and so, I just jumped on it before he could change his mind.

You are right about it being a late entrance for you into the film. I was sat there watching it today, knowing I was coming straight over to meet you, and I was like, ‘when is he gonna show up?’

When’s he gonna show up? Is he even in this fucking thing? Yep. Fair enough. I needed to hit the ground running. Particularly when, you look around, and you’ve got all these amazing actors there, all from very different schools. All of them brilliant in their own way. And a couple of them [are] already acknowledged comic geniuses. And so, I had to, you know, go big or go home.

And what was it like stepping onto that set and working with these people for the first time?

Well, they knew each other well, because they’d rehearsed together and they’d shot together for a while. So it was a little bit awkward, for about two seconds. But there was an atmosphere in the green room, where we’d all hung out, that felt to me like when I used to take plays to the Edinburgh Festival as a student. It was completely equal, and Paul Whitehouse had a guitar, he was always singing ancient pop songs at the top of his voice. And everyone would unbutton. There were people with bald wigs, people with wigs, fat suits. And we’d all be hanging out, and, literally, their characters would be hanging off them.

And it felt like an old group of friends. We were very quickly intimate with each other, which you need to do, to trust each other enough to do comedy, and rely on each other. The timing of doing comedy together is like dancing together. You’ve really got to be in sync with each other, and so they all have that skill of instantly relaxing and becoming intimate.

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And was there a lot of improvisation on the set?

Very little. Very little indeed, because it’s tremendously well written. That said, because it’s so well written, because there’s such a great structure, Armando would allow you to dabble at the edges. But you’d better be fucking good, because he had two writers either side of him, with legal pads. When he wanted a different insult, they’d come up with hundreds of insults for him to kind of rule out 99 of them. And if something needed changing, they would huddle in a corner. And if you had the balls to go up there and go, “I have an idea”, you’d better make sure it was good. And some of them ended up in the film, and many of them didn’t.

Did you do much of that yourself?

I did some. You know, to be honest, I can’t remember where or which bits. I want to claim the best bits for myself, but it’s probably not true.

Obviously you have the prosthetic scar down your face in this.

I do.

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Was that much of a make-up job?

Well, I had a whole bunch of stuff, because I looked at the photographs of Zhukov, and he made this bizarre choice to wear a thousand medals on his chest, which must have weighed a fortune. But he had this big barrel chest. So I went to the costume fitting and I went, ‘can we give me a chest?’ They said, ‘what do you mean?’ I said, ‘pad my chest out.’ They went, ‘er, are you sure?’ I went, ‘do it. I’ve done it before. And every time they were padding I went ‘more, and my shoulders need matching. Now I need biceps and triceps.’ And I gave myself this huge bullish character underneath. Inside I’m kind of hunched over like an old lady.

So I had that. It was tight around the neck. You had to hold your head up high, just to balance the medals on my chest, I had to kind of lean backwards to stand up. And I had the accent that I’d asked for. And then I thought, ‘well, he’s been to war. He needs a bit of shorthand with these characters, because I certainly come in late. And I went, ‘surely, somewhere he’s got a scar’. I tried to pick an area of my face where I haven’t been scarred before, since I’ve had a scar on almost every part of my body. Er, and no, it took five minutes to apply.

As we’ve touched on already, this is such an incredible cast. Was there anyone in particular that you were nervous or excited or enjoyed working with?

Well I loved working with all of them. Steve and I did Armageddon together, and we had hair-raising stories to tell about that, and it was nice to lay that ghost to rest. Um, but Jeffrey Tambor, I had been a fan girl since… well, many a long year. And I could quote back to him, and did, eventually, once I became friendly with him, every word of Larry Sanders and Arrested Development and Transparent. All of which he was endlessly patient to talk me through, as if he’d never had those conversations before.

And then I couldn’t look at him, because he’s just… he’s so naturally funny, although he’s an acting teacher and a brilliant serious actor as well. Um, but I couldn’t watch him on camera. I just couldn’t be anywhere near him. I couldn’t look in his eyes. And similarly, you’d go to lunch, and he’d come up with tears in his eyes telling you something terribly serious – you know, his dog had just died, or someone had had some terrible medical tragedy – and I’m afraid I found myself crossing my legs to stop wetting myself. He’d go, “No, I’m serious.” And you’d go, “Oh, you are serious.” Very hard to tell with him.

And what was Armando Iannucci like as a director?

Surprisingly restrained. Because, I thought, ‘it was comedy, it’ll be kind of an anarchic set’. He’s done so much of it for so long, he didn’t feel the need – as many younger directors do – to be everybody’s best friend, and to really bond with them. He was steering these… herding these cats, and he would give gentle steering, here and there. Occasionally make a suggestion, or occasionally go in a huddle with his writers. He went off for a nap every lunchtime, which I actually nicked completely on Star Trek.

Because we had long hours, and I would go off and nap in Star Trek as well. So, I feel like I know him through his work, but not one of those people who… the actors wanted to bond with each other completely, that’s what actors do with each other in a very childlike fashion… um, he’s a comedy genius… these tiny little bits of steerage or correction, which made all of the difference in the scene.

Little things. He would take somebody aside and just whisper something to them about what they were trying to do in a scene, or what they weren’t trying to do, or what they were trying to avoid, and then the scene would change entirely, with a tiny bit of direction.

I was reading a Star Trek interview you did, and you were saying that it’s more fun doing the one-on-one character scenes than it is doing the action or commanding on the bridge. So I guess this film must have been a very fun experience for you.

Yeah, it is, to do scenes with all of them. I have scenes with every single person in it, and they are all people I admire. They’re all people whose work I love to watch on screen, or on stage. Simon Russell Beale, I’ve stood in the rain to get returns to watch him on stage. He’s just a brilliant, brilliant actor. Um, but, all of them… if I’m flicking through the telly, and anything that Jeffrey is in is on, I’ll watch it. I could of and did quote all of Reservoir Dogs back a Steve.

But that’s what acting’s about. People sometimes ask, “Do you prefer doing giant budget things or little things?” And there is no difference. It’s you and, normally, another person, and you’re trying to one up them or try and not get put down by them, and you’re engaging with what’s the normal currency of human interaction. And it’s a great release walking in other people’s shoes, particularly when they’re so different from you.

But, on the other hand, it must be fun to punch a Klingon in the face like I saw you do this morning.

Yes, well, the thing about punching a Klingon in the face is, they’re wearing a lot of very, very expensive rubber and prosthetics. You’ve got to make sure you don’t make contact, because it could be a fifteen grand punch, or more. So you have to make sure you don’t touch any of the rubber, in case it snaps off.

Um, the fighting’s good, there’s a tradition in Star Trek of some terrible fighting. If you watch the brilliant Original Series, the fights are appalling. I don’t know what the hell was going on there.

Like throwing rocks and stuff.

Throwing rocks, and just doing… there was one where Jim Kirk jumps and literally bums someone away. He just jumps, turns, and hits them with double buttocks in the chest. Um, but there is a double-punch thing that you see happening [mimes holding two fists out together and swinging them to the side] which is completely ineffective in real life. But it’s a Star Trek tradition, and I managed to get one in this morning, in that episode. And I think I’m gonna get another in later. It is fun.

It saves you going to the gym. On a day where you have to do a lot of fights, it’s great, because you don’t have to go to the gym. You think, ‘well, I’ve had a good workout today, I’ll have some extra Banoffee Pie at lunch’.

You do have a bit of action in this. There’s some shooting, isn’t there?

There’s a bit of shooting. There’s a bit of roughing up Rupert, which was great. I punched Rupert. Yeah.

Have you seen, there’s been some press about – ‘Is the film going to be boycotted in Russia?’ What do you make of all that?

Ha. Well, first of all, we have distributors all across eastern Europe, and they love it. The audiences they’ve shown it to absolutely love it. The noise that’s in the press at the moment comes from the very people that are trying to rehabilitate Stalin’s image. Stalin 2.0, and, you know, kind of redefine him as a great hero of Russian history and put statues up to him. And so, unsurprisingly, they’re saying it’s a disgrace. I have no doubt that the Russian people themselves, when, if they get to see it, will love it. Because they, more than anyone, love puncturing the pomposity and horror of the past with satire.

When you first read the script, were you hesitant or worried at all that it would have that kind of response?

I wasn’t sure it would be funny, just because, er, you know, it made me laugh on the page, but I’m pretty sick and twisted. And I looked at who was making it, and it was the foremost living political satirist, in the English language at least. And then I looked at the amazing cast, and I thought, ‘if we’re going down in flames, I’m going down with people that I’d be happy to burn with’. And then I saw it with an audience and they were falling out of their chair laughing, and I thought, ‘oh, it works.’ You never quite know whether things are going to work until you see it with a crowd.

In terms of politics around the world, do you think now is the perfect time to have a political satire like this?

It’s always the perfect time. When we made it, the Brexit vote had just happened, and the Conservative party were stabbing each other in the front, side and back. And I went, on one of my days off, to France, to take part in the 100th year commemoration of The Battle of the Somme. And David Cameron was there. He’d just resigned. And the heads of all the other European countries were there, and I got to mill around and chat with them, as much as you do. Er, and David Cameron asked what I was doing, and I told him. And I described the story, and he went, “My god, it sounds like you’ve been inside Downing Street with the cameras.”

So, is it about them? Is it about Trump White House? Is about Putin? Is it about any one of the million other situations it’s analogous to? It’s, you know… the behaviour of these politicians, the mendaciousness… the venal, self-serving, egomaniacal insecurity… jockeying for power for power’s sake… that’s universal and timeless. And so, yes, we can absolutely apply it to everything. If you switch on the news tonight, you will see lines from or behaviour from our film. But that’s also been true at any time over the last many hundreds of years.

I think that’s what Iannucci does so well. Even in The Thick Of It, where they’re all fictional characters, it still feels like these are real things that are not that far away from what actually could be happening.

They’re not. He’s informed by the fact that he’s completely plugged into the news situation, he’s up to date, and he reads all the papers and stuff. But politicians’ behaviour has never changed, and their motives have never changed. This is just, you know, the stakes are higher in this. It’s death rather than humiliation.

Just to touch on Star Trek a bit more. I heard that, when you first got the script for Discovery episode 3 – where Lorca comes into it – they kind of said “We’re gonna change all of this.”

Well, they gave me three scripts. They said, “They’re sending you three scripts. You’ve been offered the Captain in Star Trek, but it’s not about the Captain this time.” And I go, “Alright, let’s have a look.” And they go, “Just so you know, the character’s not in the first two.” I go, “Oh, okay.” And they go, “And the third one’s gonna change completely, so ignore anything in it.” I went, “So what the fuck exactly am I looking at?” And they went, “No, good point. Good point.”

So I had to Skype them all. Had a chat about what their ideas were for the season, and the characters and all that.

And how much did it change?

Well, that changed completely. But the essential idea for the whole story – which is what hooked me in – never changed.

And with regards to Lorca as well, was that a completely different character than in the original scripts?

No, he wasn’t a different character, there was just some specifics about it: how he was introduced and what his history was. And, most important to me was: what’s he after? How’s he intending to get there? What’s his plan? And how does his plan change? What does he want from Michael Burnham? And how does he see it all playing out? And then, circumstances can change along the way. Like any of us, nothing stays fixed. I just needed to know where I started from and what had happened to him beforehand. We needed to agree on a common narrative, so I, you know…

The camera loves secrets. And cameras love pointing at someone who’s saying one thing and meaning another, but is actually driven by some third thing that we understand about them as an audience, but they don’t get themself. Self-knowledge is never complete. And I wanted to be able to play all those three elements. So I needed to know from them either what their plans were, or to work out the plans with them, which is what we ended up doing.

It was interesting in the new episode today, the fifth episode, where he talks about how he blew up his previous crew.

How he killed them all, right. That weighs very, very heavily on him. There’s a reason why he didn’t have an eye transplant, which he could have had. He wants those eyes. He wants those eyes that saw that, as a legacy.

Is the eye thing challenging to play?

Oh, nothing’s challenging. I mean, for God’s sake, it’s all acting. It’s fun having physical things to do. It’s fun having an accent. It’s fun to remember that bright lights set me off. There was some other point… because you know your character better than anyone else… there are a couple of points much later in the series when I went, “But he wouldn’t be able to look at that.” And they went, “What?” And I said, “Remember?” And they went, “Oh shit, that’s right, yeah.” Because you kind of own all those idiosyncrasies. But they’re great.

I must say, I think Lorca is the most interesting character in the show. Or the most intriguing, definitely.

Well thanks. He’s certainly got… there’s something hidden about him, and private about him. All the other Captains have wanted to be known and shared and avuncular, and he doesn’t mind distancing himself from the crew and having a different agenda, because they’re not the best crew to do the job that he’s doing. And that’s not something that I’ve seen before in Star Trek.

Another thing that’s unique about Discovery is that it’s the first Trek series to go straight onto the internet instead of TV. And obviously you’ve done Netflix as well, with The OA. Were you at all hesitant to start doing these online-centric things? I feel like some actors might be.

Do you know, there’s not any difference to me. I’m doing exactly the same job. How it’s delivered, whether it’s on subscription TV, or free TV, or a movie, or being shown on the side of a building near you, or in parks, I’m going off to tell a story. So, er, CBS are launching their streaming platform with it in America. It’s Netflix everywhere else. That’s no… there’s essentially no difference.

It’s odd when people contact me online or try and engage with social media and go, you know, “Why are you making us pay behind a paywall?” I’m not doing anything. Why do you pay for HBO? I don’t… I’d like everything I do to be delivered free to everybody. In fact, I’d like all of us to earn an equal wage, I’d be perfectly fine with it. We should all get free medicine and free food.

But it’s none of my business. I tell the story, and if no one ever sees anything I do, as long as I can keep working, I’ll be fine.

There’s an interesting parallel between Zhukov and Lorca. They’re both these revered wartime figures. Is it interesting for you to play these people who, in some way have similarities, but you’ve got to find the differences?

Well, Zhukov’s having a very good time. Lorca’s having a terrible time. Lorca is fighting, as far as he’s concerned, a one-man battle to save everybody in the Federation. Not just the 133 members of the crew or whatever it is, but everyone who lives on any planet that might be invaded or slaughtered by the Klingons. And he doesn’t have the best tools, or people, to do it with.

Zhukov’s got the entire Red Army behind him, and wherever he throws his weight, he’s gonna be at the centre of the Soviet empire for some time to come. So, they’re having a very different experience.

What are you going onto next?

I’m doing, I hope, the second season of The OA. They’re just finishing on it. I have no idea how much I’m in it, if I’m in it, what happens to me. I thought the first season was extraordinary, and I don’t know what they’re going to come up with in the second season. Equally mind-blowing, I’m sure, but it certainly won’t be more of the same.

You’ve got loads of films this year, as well.

Well, one of them is called Hotel Mumbai, and I don’t know when it’s coming out. It’s owned by the Weinsteins, or it was until last week, so I don’t know where that’s going. It’s a brilliant film, from a brilliant filmmaker, so I do hope it gets seen. And the other one is a thing called Look Away, which was directed by the guy that directed Fauda [Assaf Bernstein]. Have you seen Fauda, on Netflix?

No, I haven’t.

If you haven’t seen it, you’ve got to watch it. It’s an unbelievably tense series. My wife, who doesn’t like watching things that are violent or tense… I was in Toronto, I said, “You should take a look at it.” And she phoned me at one point at nine o’clock in the morning, which means it four o’clock in the morning in England. And I went, “What are you doing up?” And she said, “Why did you make me watch this fucking TV show? I’ve got to watch it all the way to the end now! It’s four o’clock in the morning and I’ve got another hour to go!” So you should watch that. And he’s made a film, that I haven’t managed to see yet, called Look Away.

And there’s an animated film coming out. But, it looks like you’re working a lot, but they’re made over a long length of time, and then suddenly they all come out together like buses.

You had The Cure For Wellness this year, as well. Just before I’m ushered out, what was that experience like and what was Gore Verbinski like as a director?

He was more like Ridley Scott than I had imagined, given the kind of romps he’s made. And he came with very complete storyboards. And a very evolved vision, an aesthetic vision of what he wanted to see. It was a real gift, the pictures. I hadn’t expected it to look so sumptuous. Every frame, I thought, was like a poster.

So yeah, he was a different kind of filmmaker than I expected. But, you know, we had a real laugh making it. It’s not a laugh to watch, but we had a lovely time. We filmed in the most haunted building in Europe, so if you asked me to cast my mind back to the experience, it was mostly in between takes at night time, looking firmly down at the ground, and going to the trailer not looking up, because I didn’t want to look in the windows of any of the empty buildings for fear of seeing silhouettes or headless people moving by.

Jason Isaacs, thank you very much!

The Death Of Stalin is in UK cinemas from October 20th.