At the IFC Films premiere in Manhattan, the cast and director talk about Stalin’s cruelty and the parallels of today’s political climate.
It’s Russia, 1953, and General Secretary Josef Stalin has died. His closest ministers are now left to run the country until a new General Secretary is chosen. Among them are Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), and Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale). The vacuum of power drives some of the ministers to do horrific things. General Zhukov, played by Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter films) assists Khrushchev in his scheme to seize power.
Director Armando Iannucci (VEEP, In the Loop) balances dark drama, political intrigue, and comedy perfectly. We all know how the story ends, more or less (“Niki” becomes the next Secretary), but the shockingly true details are rarely remembered.
We spoke with the cast and director on the red carpet in AMC’s Lincoln Square theater.
Q: The film has some dark moments followed by funny ones. How do you transition from comedy to doing some despicable things?
A: I didn’t do anything despicable in the film if that’s what you’re asking. This is how these characters lived. This is how anybody survived under Stalin, in his circle. You wanted to stay in his good graces. You had to be complicit in all the awful things that he was doing. At the same time, the situation was absurd. And I think what Armando was brilliant at was seeing the absurdity and the comedy in these people who are all vying for power once Stalin died, but even just to stay in his good graces before he died.
Q: You play General Zhukov in the film. How did you prepare for that role?
A: I read the script—it was fucking hilarious. I glanced at Wikipedia, and read a bunch of stuff, but what was apparent from one still photograph was this man who took himself very seriously. There’s a swagger even in a still photograph. He’s wearing a thousand medals, more than I even managed to fit on the jacket. He puffed his chest out. People’s body language tells you a lot about them. In the photographs, he looks like he thought he won the Second World War single-handed. It gave me license to strut on the screen. Big swinging dick, and putting everybody in their place, which was enormously good fun.
Q: And there was a bit of a competition in Soviet Russia at that time.
A: Well I don’t think there was all this when [Zhukov] was around because nobody was gonna stage a coup without Zhukov and the Red Army’s backing. He’s the only person who’s completely invulnerable.
Q: You’re generally famous for playing pretty ruthless people, like Lucius Malfoy.
A: He wasn’t ruthless, he was pathetic. He was a loser. In fact, he was castrated at his own dinner table when his wand was snapped.
Q: And you don’t speak with your regular accent in the film.
A: No, no. I read it and heard it in his voice, which is a very broad Yorkshire accent. Because the character is so blunt and rude and direct, and because Yorkshire people are the bluntest people in the world. So I asked Armando, “We’re not doing Russian accents, are we?” And he said, “Fuck no, of course not.” And Steve Buscemi’s doing Brooklyn and all other kinds of accents.
Q: So why was that decision made?
A: Because if you have all the characters speak in a Russian accent, they’re speaking their second language. They’re not speaking their second language, they’re speaking their own language. Plus they came from an entire continent, they came from many different places. So they would have all had different accents.
Q: So this film is based on real events. Why did you choose to do something like this as opposed to the fiction of your past work?
A: I was thinking of doing something fictional. I was thinking of using a fictional dictator, and then this story came along. It’s a French graphic novel. I read it and I thought this was the story. Because it’s true. That’s the thing—it’s true. It’s absurd, it’s horrifying, it’s funny, yet it’s terrifying. It’s all these things. And when people behave through panic and fear they start acting crazily. And that’s what this film’s about. It’s about this craziness. It’s like the drama and the comedy exist side by side because it’s all part of the crazy.
Q: How do you feel about the film being banned in Russia?
A: It’s sad, really. We were very respectful to what happened to the people of Russia at the time. And interestingly one cinema in Moscow decided to show it anyway and it got standing ovations. [The film] is making fun of the politicians and the Kremlin, but not [the Russian people].
Q: It took thirty years for Doctor Zhivago to be available in Russia.
A: And you’d just think in this day and age you can’t really ban anything. What do they really hope to achieve? There was something in The Moscow Times last week that said sixty percent of Russians now want to see the film because it’s been banned. I suspect because there’s an election in a few weeks’ time, I’m hopeful that once that’s out of the way, it’ll be back in cinemas.
Q: And you made the choice to give every character their own accent in the film.
A: Oh yeah, because I wanted to make it feel like this was happening now. And obviously, the Soviet Union wasn’t just Russia. Stalin was from Georgia so he spoke Georgian. Khrushchev was from Ukraine, so actually, there would have been lots of different languages and accents and dialects spoken at the time. So I thought, if we’re gonna do it in English, we’re gonna have a variety of accents, American west coast, and east coast, Scottish, Yorkshire, London.
Q: That adds to today’s parallels in politics.
A: Yeah, and yes it’s about something that happened in ‘53 in Russia. But it’s relevant now, it applies to now, not just Russia, but anywhere where democracy is under threat or is being used or misused.
The Death of Stalin is in theaters March 9.