In Conversation With... is our interview series where we talk to someone of the most well-known and respected actors and directors about their career, filmography, influences, what they make of the industry nowadays and everything in between.
Although he's primarily known to most audiences as Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter franchise, Jason Isaacs has built up a sizeable career in both television, film and theatre. His most recent credit - and the reason we were lucky enough to get to talk to him - was his scene-stealing performance in Armando Iannucci's The Death Of Stalin. Playing Marshal Georgy Zhukov, the bullish commander of the Red Army and one of the conspirators involved with the coup following Stalin's death, Isaacs makes his first real foray into comedy - and does it with a flawless Yorkshire accent, as well.
We began by asking about that very point...
The first thing I noted about your character, and a lot of the characters in The Death Of Stalin, was how their accent informed their characters as much costume. It sounded sort of like a Bradford accent?
Sheffield I was thinking, but certainly Yorkshire.
Was that your choice or did it come from Armando?
No, that was me. First of all, I thought he (Armando) had made some terrible mistake. He obviously meant to offer it to Jason Statham or someone, and I said yes to my agent quickly. As I read the script, I heard this voice in my head and I thought, "Oh I wonder if he'll let me do it like this." So I called Armando and I said, "We're not doing Russian accents, are we?",and he said, "Fuck no, of course not!" So I said, "Well, can I do mine in Yorkshire?" And Armando says, "Well, Buscemi's doing Brooklyn, Jeffrey Tambor's doing Californian, Paul Whitehouse's doing Cockney, so yeah, I don't see why not. But why?" Because Zhukov was blunt. He was the only person who could speak the truth to Stalin and everyone else - fearlessly - because everyone needed the Army and Yorkshire men are the bluntest men I've ever met in my life. If he'd said no, I don't know what I'd have done because I read it and I only heard it one way.
You're from Liverpool originally, was that where it came from?
No, see that's about being witty. Everyone in Liverpool is a standup comedian, even the least funny people. Yorkshire men aren't interested in that - they're absolutely blunt and straight on with you. I actually had Brian Glover in my head when I was doing it.
With the likes of The Thick Of It, or any of Iannucci's work, it has the appearance - because it's so well-written - of being improvised. Was that the case here?
Yeah, it's all written. We wiggle around the edges of it and come up with the odd line, but it has to come up with approval. He's got people either side of him with a yellow legal pad and goes, "Oh we need a different insult," and they'll come back with twenty different insults and he'll go no, no, no, no - yes! That one! So, if you did come up with something, it'd have to pass muster with him and the other people with the pads.
I always think with comedy - and correct if I'm wrong - but my understanding is that if you're doing a take five, six, seven times and you're still laughing, you're on the right track.
I'm going to say no, I don't want to contradict you, but if you're laughing, you're on the wrong track. The audience should be laughing, or Armando should be laughing because these people are operating at a very high octane level. They're full of rage, or insecurity or something, and the stakes are life and death. The comedy comes from how heightened it is, but it still has to be truthful. If you're sniggering while you're doing, the audience won't find it funny. It's your predicament that's funny.
Does that then make it less enjoyable for you?
Luckily, for me, my character is so swaggeringly confident and is what Tom Wolfe (author of Bonfire of the Vanities) used to call a big swinging dick, he comes in late to the story. The rest of them are jockeying for power, and ultimately either terrified or bullying. He comes in, and in his head, he's fifteen foot tall and weighs ninety-eight stone, you know? The bull that can't be stopped. I found it enormously enjoyable to be that powerful around all these people who were cringing and running around like rats.
So there's that, but there's also the fact I'm looking in the faces of people I worship and had to stop myself fangirling in front of - at least in the first week or so. Jeffrey Tambor; I could recite every syllable he's ever uttered professionally. Michael Palin; obviously, I could quote every episode of Python or movie, but every book he's written. Steve, all of his lines from Reservoir Dogs. I had to be very, very careful that to pretend that I felt like an equal colleague until we all felt like mates, then I could let on that I wasn't fit to clean their boots.
What's Jeffrey Tambor like? I'll be honest, The Larry Sanders Show is one of my favourite shows of all time.
Me too! He was very, very indulgent. Once I started wanted to talk Hank Kingsley, he was happy to talk forever about Garry Shandling. Jeffrey Tambor, unfortunately for him, can't help but make you want to wet yourself laughing. We're hanging out at lunchtime, and he wants to tell you some tragic story about his dog dying - and you're bent over laughing before you realise, "Oh, sorry! Shit, you're serious! How awful!" He's not close to, but he looks and sounds like some of the characters you've adored over the years, so it's difficult to separate the person from the characters he's played and you've loved for so long.
Yeah, that deadpan humour of his is so finely tuned, you're not even sure if he's being real with you.
But also, in comedy, he's incredibly truthful. He's easy to well up with tears and gratitude or sympathy, and that's what his characters do too. He uses a lot of himself in things. Y'know, I remember doing an episode of Entourage, and I'd watched all of it up to that point and loved it, and it took me a long while - maybe until I finished - to remember that they weren't Vinny or Drama or Turtle, they were Adrian and Jerry and Kevin. Luckily, I'd long enough for that stuff to wear off and for them to become my colleagues.
We're talking about characters and truthful personalities, and you've made a career of playing authoritarian characters. I don't want to get in your personal life, but is that the case for you?
It could not be further from who I am in real life! (laughs) I do whatever my wife or my children or my dog tell me - and sometimes not even in that order. I kind of... I'm one of those people that builds a character from scratch. So I looked at what there was available on Zhukov, obviously there were a lot of records on him as he was the head of the Russian Army and won - as far as he was concerned, singlehandedly - World War II for Russia and everyone else. Not only that evidence, but you look at that photograph - he chose to wear 7,000 medals across his barrel chest that he puffed out. I had them build inside the jacket I wore. He's a man that doesn't have any confidence issues. It's cheap therapy for me.
There's a through line between Captain Lorca in Star Trek Discovery and General Zhukov, no?
(Laughs) Well, they're both military people. Lorca's the first captain we've met during a time of war. As far he's concerned, he's either surrounded by, if not idiots, then people who are not qualified to do what he's been tasked to do - and that's frustrating for him. The overlap is only that Zhukov has seen more horrors than any of these people are likely to present to him and none of them are a threat - but they're a threat to each other. He has a slightly more bemused detachment because he doesn't have a pressing threat. Lorca, on the other hand, is fighting for survival of everybody in the Federation - not just his crew, but the many hundreds of billions of people on the planets that'll be overrun by Klingons if he doesn't get his shit together and get a technological edge from these bunch of scientists. Zhukov's enjoying himself, Lorca isn't. Zhukov's going to be in the charge of the army, no matter what. He has this unshakeable, swaggering arrogance that none of the rest of them have.
Was there another character in the script of Death Of Stalin you'd loved to have played?
No, I wouldn't even think of it - they all seemed so perfectly cast to me. I'd no idea Rupert Friend was so funny, he was hysterical! He had this faraway look in his eyes that reminded me of Gene Wilder. All of them seemed so perfectly cast to me, and so different, I can't now remember what it was like reading it because I can only remember the cast.
Because your background wasn't necessarily of a comedic nature, did you find yourself trying to keep up?
You're not playing it for laughs, you know? Comedy is truth turned up to eleven. You've got to find what's truthful and trust that Armando knows where the funny is - because he's got funny bones - and that the other people will make you funny. That scene when I asked Jeffrey's character if Coco Chanel took a shit on his head, and he very casually says "No, he didn't..." I think that's one of the funniest throwaway lines in the film. Sometimes, they just set things up. But if you ever think, "I'm going to do this, it's going to be funny," you're dead. If you go to it truthfully, I'm going to exaggerate, but I'm going to make sure there's truth at the heart of it. We're not doing panto, you know? These things actually happened. The most insane and absurd things in the film actually happened. Stalin's son did lose an ice hockey team, the orchestra thing happened at the beginning, the thing with the doctors was all real. There's so many true things.
I remember reading that thing about the American dialysis machine, that they couldn't use it because...
Yeah, because if he survived, he would have killed them all! What's interesting is that at the time, because there was mass murder in the air, apart from the fact people slept fully clothed in case they were dragged off to gulags, they were also joke books about Stalin circulating, because it was the only way that people could stay sane and feel they had a grasp of their identity was by making jokes about it.
OK, final question. Five films that have had the most impact on you or meant the most to you.
The first two Godfathers. This Is Spinal Tap. You Can Count On Me. Shoah.
I need one more.
Yeah. (pause) Bloody Sunday.
Why Bloody Sunday?
So, Paul Greengrass is a very good friend of mine and he'd just done The Murder Of Stephen Lawrence. Real characters with a couple of actors, handheld, and he won a bunch of awards for it. I asked him what he's going to do next and he said, "Bloody Sunday."
I told him he was mad - there's a royal enquiry going on, it's going to go on for two years, it's not like those guys who murdered Stephen Lawrence, you'll be sued, people will say this isn't real, people who served there will sue you, and he said, "I know what happened. I want to tell the story." Like he did with United 93, he wanted to put a marker down in popular culture in watchable - I don't know if you can call it entertainment - but in film, which is the most mass-communication medium of our era, put a marker down and humanise everyone on every side of it and not let the story be told untruthfully. He's got this obsessive need to excavate the truth and make it exciting and visceral and watchable - and to watch him do that, and see how film can be used for different reasons and powerful reasons, how it can have an impact on people, is a real eye-opener.
Yeah, you think of Bloody Sunday in the same breath as something like Battle Of Algiers. It's so searingly real, you're not even sure if you should be entertained.
Even getting Jimmy (James Nesbitt) who's a Protestant from Coleraine, it was a big deal for Jimmy to play that part and to embrace the complication and the nuance in Ivan, who he was playing, and to open his mind to that day. It made a lot of people readdress things they thought they knew, the two headlines that they thought they knew, about one of the most important incidents in British life in the past fifty years.
OK, we're out of time - thanks again for speaking to us.
Not at all, good luck with the hurricane!