From writer/director Armando Iannucci and inspired by the graphic novel of the same name, The Death of Stalin follows the Soviet dictator’s last days while depicting the absolute chaos of the regime after his death. In the days following Joseph Stalin’s collapse from a stroke, his subordinates began a fierce and desperate fight for succession to place themselves in a position that would ensure their rivals were disposed of and that they would make it out alive. The film, based on incredible true events, stars Simon Russell Beale, Steve Buscemi, Michael Palin, Jeffery Tambor, Jason Isaacs, Andrea Riseborough, Rupert Friend, Olga Kurylenko and Paddy Considine.
At the film’s Los Angeles press day, Collider got the opportunity to sit down with co-stars Steve Buscemi and Andrea Riseborough to talk about why The Death of Stalin appealed to them, their desire to work with Armando Iannucci, his great taste as a filmmaker, and the fun of doing big ensemble scenes. They also talked about what they look for in a project, working together again, on the upcoming feature film Nancy, which Riseborough also produced, and why Buscemi wanted to play God on the TBS series Miracle Workers.
Collider: When you read this script, with all of these wild and crazy, but very real characters, what was your impression of it?
ANDREA RISEBOROUGH: I was so thrilled by the thought of getting to work with Armando, and was so excited that Steve was in negotiations to be a part of it. That was a huge draw for me. Really, my first thought was, “Who was this woman?” There was so much information on Svetlana, so I truly felt very fortunate, in that way. There’s been a lot written about her, over the years, and you can actually see her talk and move and speak on YouTube. There are public domain clips of her, all over. Getting to know who she was, was a thing that excited me, in terms of playing the character.
STEVE BUSCEMI: I got the script that Armando Iannucci co-wrote and knew who the other cast members were going to be or could possibly be, and then read it and went, “Oh, my god, where do I fit in?! How do I do this?” And then, I had a lovely talk with Armando on the phone and he very calmly, as he does, reassured me that I’d fit in and it would all work out, and it did. I’m glad I did it. I’m glad I got out of my own way because it was pretty intimidating.
So, you believed him when he told you that it would all work out?
BUSCEMI: I did! I thought, “This is a good director! He’s already working with me on the phone.” Even physically, I thought, “How in the hell do I pull this off?!” He said, “Don’t worry about it! We’ll shave your head and put you in some padding, but we’re not gonna put you through hours of make-up because we don’t have the time or the money to do that.” Once I got over that I would be playing this iconic figure and focused on playing the person, that made it much more interesting.
What did you like about working and collaborating with Armando Iannucci? How was the experience of watching him find that tricky balance of humor and drama, on set?
RISEBOROUGH: When we were doing Birdman, we had the same conversations about the balance between the darkness and the light. But when you’re in it, it’s very hard to have any objective relationship to what you’re doing. It doesn’t feel like you’re trying to reach a balance. You’re really just playing the truth, or attempting to play the most authentic version of the scene. Life can be hysterical and ridiculous, and grief is. A bunch of totally incompetent men usurping each other is ridiculous, so there was a truth to it.
BUSCEMI: Life is like that. If you’ve ever gone to a funeral or wake for somebody that you love, but then there’s another family and another wake going on, over there, you look at that family and go, “I don’t know these people, but they’re funny. I know that conversation is funny.” And they’re probably looking at your family and saying the same thing. But when you’re in it, you don’t feel it. I think there’s so much comedy in everyday life, and that’s what Armando knows. He’s not afraid to portray that. The script had a lot of comedy in it, and there were a lot of jokes, too. But whenever a joke got in the way of the truth, he said, “That doesn’t work.” I know he did that in the editing room, too.
RISEBOROUGH: He just has great taste.
BUSCEMI: We had incredible faith in him from his past work, but also from working and rehearsing with him. He had a two-week rehearsal period, which was so important because we got to know each other and become friendly. He would always remind us that friends can turn on each other, in that atmosphere, in a heartbeat. It was all about survival. They had to be that way because they could be on the chopping block.
RISEBOROUGH: Every character was about self-preservation.
BUSCEMI: That heightens the reality and pushes these people to act in a certain way and to be slightly over the top.
This is a great ensemble and we get to see that ensemble together, in so much of the film. What were those big scenes like to do?
BUSCEMI: Those were some of the most fun scenes, when we were all together.
RISEBOROUGH: The sweetest actor in the world plays Stalin, and he spent a lot of time in that bed, with us fiddling around with our lives.
BUSCEMI: The group scenes were really fun. Armando would do these long master takes and play them long, so it really was like doing a play.
RISEBOROUGH: A lot of us are theaters actors and it felt very much like being in a play. The way we achieve the final product in filmmaking is so different from the theater, but it felt like we were playing out these ridiculous scenarios, and they were being captured. There was no constraint, and often there can be. Armando is interested in big comedy, and there’s a lot of that in this film, even though it’s a small film. There are a lot of wide shots, just zooming out and looking at how ridiculous the whole situation is. It’s really timely and a great relief to have right now. It reminds you that society is cyclical. Things happen, over and over again. Despite our best efforts sometimes, we don’t always learn from historical events. We often just replicate them. We’re an interesting animal, aren’t we? I love us, but I think we’re an interesting animal.
Did The Death of Stalin turn out how you expected it would?
BUSCEMI: Yeah, pretty much. I didn’t know how he was gonna do it because the script was really thick. It felt like we were shooting an epic.
RISEBOROUGH: It was Biblical.
BUSCEMI: I couldn’t figure out how he was gonna do it, but he got it down to an hour and 40 minutes, and when I watch the film, I don’t remember a lot of what he took out. There are some scenes that are really truncated. He liked to shoot a lot and have a lot of material, but once he saw it all, he was able to say, “Okay, now I see it. That doesn’t work. We don’t need that. I’m repeating this, so we only need that here.” That’s just part of what makes him so brilliant, on set and in the editing room.
RISEBOROUGH: One of my favorite qualities about the film is that I could keep watching it. I didn’t want it to end. It was mesmeric. It’s a strange comparison to make, but P.T. Anderson films have that same thing for me, where I feel like I could watch them forever.
BUSCEMI: You’re watching characters behave and you want to follow each character.