Jason Isaacs – The Death of Stalin

March 29, 2018 by  
Filed under Interviews

In “The Death of Stalin,” actor Jason Isaacs (“Harry Potter” franchise) stars as Georgy Zhukov, a Soviet Union general who fell out of favor with Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, but returned to prominence when Stalin died in 1953. Zhukov makes his entrance in the film at Stalin’s funeral and immediately begins to scheme with leaders to stage a coup and regain power. I caught up with Isaacs last week to talk about the film.

Was the dry humor evident in the script or did it reveal itself more when you were actually shooting the film?

Oh, [the script] was hilarious. A lot of people think the film was improvised, but it was all on the page. The whole thing was very tightly scripted. I could tell it was funny when I read it, but I didn’t realize how true it was. The real insane and surreal episodes were lifted straight from life.

Was it necessary to do any research on your character since so much of the story is true?

What I needed to know about [Zhukov] is that he felt like he had singlehandedly won World War II. That was apparent from the first photograph I saw of him, which was of this man puffing his chest out and wearing a lot of medals. When people saw the film, they assumed we put more medals on me [for comedy purposes], but the fact is I couldn’t wear as many medals as he wore in real life. I also learned he was the only person who could speak the truth to Stalin because he had the Red Army behind him.

Can audiences enjoy this film without knowing much Soviet history?

I knew nothing. I assume most of the audiences know nothing. I’ve noticed that audiences in Russia laugh louder and longer, but I’ve seen people falling out of their seats laughing in a lot of different countries at least for the first half of [the film]. Of course, it takes a darker turn towards the end. You’re still laughing, but it’s laughing in discomfort and terror.

How did you react when you heard the Cultural Ministry in Russia banned the film and even mentioned your character being “portrayed as an idiot” was one of the reasons it was banned?

It wasn’t the Russians that didn’t like it. It was one individual in the Cultural Ministry probably acting out of fear that [President Vladimir] Putin wouldn’t like it if he found out about it. Rather hilariously, their statement of condemnation said [the film] was an attempt to interfere in their upcoming election (on March 18). It’s hard to believe in a modern world anyone would try to ban a film because they would make it the most popular underground film in Russia. It’s a shame because comedy is best experienced and enjoyed with a group of people in a big dark room. I’m optimistic that the ban will be revoked after the election.

Could you see Death of Stalin filmmaker Armando Iannucci making a film like this about the Trump Administration? It seems like the perfect style and tone to capture what’s happening right now in the U.S.

I don’t think he would, actually. If you think about [writer] Arthur Miller, who wrote “The Crucible” (play and screenplay) about the Salem Witch Trials, that [story is] really about McCarthyism. It’s the same with [Iannucci]. He’s made [a film] about dictatorship and a lack of reasoning that spreads around that kind of terror. You can apply that to any situation anywhere. [“The Death of Stalin”] most reminded me of that press conference where all of Trump’s cabinet was wheeled out to pay homage to this medieval king they are working for.

See, something like that press conference would be amazing to satirize, don’t you think?

Well, the question we get the most now is if [Iannucci] made this [film] about President Trump. The answer is no. It’s timeless. It’s about any time there’s a situation where there’s irrational and terrifying behavior happening. One of the things about the film that I think has worked so well for audiences is that although it’s specifically about the panic and terror in the shadows of Stalin – and the power vacuum that emerged when he died – it’s applicable to so many other situations and so many different countries and politicians of all stripes. We made it in June 2016, so at the time, it felt like it was about Brexit.

I know you live in London, but are you aware how much Americans are inundated with Trump news during our 24-hour news cycle? Do you think you’d get tired of it?

I’m working in Los Angeles at the moment, so I’m well aware that you can live with Stormy Daniels 24 hours a day on every channel. I think many people understand there was a big smoke-and-mirrors act just over a year ago and that the person in the White House is not who he said he was and is unable to do the things he said he could do. I suspect people are bored because we get distracted from serious matters of policy and security. But all of that is overshadowed by the latest insane, middle-of-the-night dribble that comes out of [the White House].

It seems like British leaders are acting like the adults in the room when it comes to anything Russia-related in comparison to Trump.

Well, we just had a couple of people poisoned on British soil and the Prime Minister (Theresa May) made as strong of a response as she could. Every day it seems more surreal and transparent that something really corrupt and dangerous is going on at the heart of American politics. It’s important to be reminded that the people who stand up there pretending to be able leaders are often power-grabbing, narcissistic children behind closed doors. Knowing that, we can then interpret that and act accordingly.


Jason Isaacs – Awake

March 4, 2012 by  
Filed under Interviews

In the new TV drama “Awake,” actor Jason Isaacs (the “Harry Potter” franchise) plays Michael Britten, a police detective who finds himself caught between two parallel universes after being involved in a terrible car accident. In one world, Britten wakes up to learn his wife died in the accident and his son survived. In the other, it’s his son who has died and his wife who has survived. Britten must decide which world is real and which world is only a figment of his imagination.

During an interview with me, Isaacs talked about what kind of stories he likes creating as an actor, and why he doesn’t think “Awake” is as confusing as people are making it out to be.

With the amount of reality TV there is today, not much these days on the small screen is very thought-provoking. Do you think “Awake” is going to fill a void in the overall TV landscape?

God knows. Luckily, the stuff I love and enjoy doing is creating stories in interesting ways so you recognize the humanity of them. That’s what I’ve been trying to do for the past six months from dawn to midnight every day. I’m learning about other stuff like how [the show] collects an audience, what network it’s on, what its lead-in [show] is and what its demographic is, but it’s completely out of my control. Hopefully it is successful because I’m working with really talented people who are doing good work.

Do you think audiences are ready to open their minds and think about something with a little more complexity?

There’s been an odd thing that has happened in the making of [“Awake”]. First of all, the creator of the show (Kyle Killen) was nervous about whether or not they had to make it clearer which world we’re in. Is it too complicated? I have two daughters. One of them was five years old when I was making the pilot. She was explaining the story to her friend in the park and I shot it on my iPhone. I came back and showed [executive producer] Howard [Gordon] and Kyle that my five year old could explain the story in two sentences. I told them, “I don’t know who is going to be watching out there that you’re worried about, but you’re wrong.” The story is incredibly simple.

“Awake” is not only a thought-provoking drama, but it is also a police procedural. Are the police storylines going to take a backseat to the things Britten is experiencing in his mind?

In some weeks it’s very procedural. In other weeks it’s incredibly domestic. In some weeks it goes absolutely wacko. Some crazy stuff happens in [Britten’s] mind that manifests itself in his world. It’s like we’re making an indie movie every week. This season will have 13 episodes. It’s like you’re giving 13 different writers the same brief and seeing what each of them comes up with. I want people to be able to watch an episode without having to watch the others. The studio wanted to give some closure to every narrative every week so people wouldn’t think just because they missed last week’s episode they can’t tune in.

So, you’re not worried about audiences tuning out if the narrative ends up being too much for them?

American audiences are very sophisticated. They made “The West Wing” one of the most popular TV shows in the country for almost a decade. They made the issues of global politics interesting through character. Again, this is a really simple concept. Which of these worlds are real and what would you do if you didn’t know which world was real? Will [audiences] get it? Yeah, I think so. There’s no way we’d make any story too complicated. Is it unlike anything else on TV? Yes. Hopefully it’s original enough to have people come on board. I’m not interested in getting an audience for the sake of getting an audience. I want to make something really good and engaging that’s fun to watch and talk about. If people find it and like it, great; if they don’t, that will be a shame.

Green Zone

March 13, 2010 by  
Filed under CineStrays

Starring: Matt Damon, Greg Kinnear, Jason Isaacs
Directed by: Paul Greengrass (“United 93”)
Written by: Brian Helgeland (“Mystic River”)

While there are plenty of thrilling moments in this political war game, director Paul Greengrass does something he didn’t come close to doing in his masterpiece that was “United 93” – he preaches up a storm. It’s unfortunate that Greengrass can’t play the film down the middle. With a pulse-pounding performance by Matt Damon, “Green Zone” could have been so much more than just some time behind the political pulpit.