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From the Archive: The Death of Stalin with Simon Russell Beale

Nothing Concrete text
17 Mar 2021
20 min listen

In this archive episode, we experience a play for power in Armando Iannucci’s absurdist drama The Death of Stalin, back in 2017 when Ben Eshmade spoke to Simon Russell Beale. 

From the Archive sees us dig into our extensive contemporary and classical music and cinema podcast archive as we rediscover interviews and discussions with artists, with our long-standing producer and presenter, Ben Eshmade. 

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Ben Eshmade: Hello and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast

I’m Ben Eshmade and on this week’s archive edition we experience a play for power after a dictator unexpectedly kicks the bucket in Armando Iannucci’s absurdist drama The Death of Stalin.

Clip: What is this lust for power, it’s a very fascinating thing isn’t it? Lust for…other things, power is the most mysterious isn’t it? I’ll not have a word said against Armando I think he’s just well I think he’s a genius really. His eye and ear is absolutely impeccable.  –  Simon Russell Beale

BE: The Death of Stalin is a satire about the days before the funeral of the leader of the Soviet Union in 1953. This film is by Emmy award-winning and Oscar-nominated writer/director Armando Iannucci creator of The Thick Of It, Veep and previous to this the director of In The Loop.

The film’s star studded including Jason Isaacs, Rupert Friend, Andrea Riseborough, Steve Buschemi, Jeffrey Tambor and Michael Palin, all of whom fight to control the country after Stalin’s death. 

Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khurshchev: Our actual general secretary is lying in a puddle of indignity. I mean, I think he's saying "get me a doctor now!" 
Jeffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov: No, I don't I don't agree. I think I think we should wait until we're quorate. 
Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khurshchev: Quorate? The room is only 75% conscious. 
Simon Russell Beale as Lavrentiy Beriya: Are you wearing pyjamas? 
Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khurshchev: Yes, so!
Simon Russell Beale as Lavrentiy Beriya: Why?
Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khurschec: Because I act, Lavrentiy. Decisively and with great speed. 
Simon Russell Beale as Lavrentiy Beriya: 'I said you'll be tested and now you're being tested by a shouty man wearing pyjamas. 

BE: Simon Russell Beale plays Beriya, the head of the Secret Police. He joined me to discuss this dark but achingly funny if historically truthful film.

BE: Okay, so at the start of the film, Joseph Stalin is about to kick the bucket. There is a vacuum of power and Beriya seems very keen to fill it.

SRB: I should say. Yes, Stalin is all based on fact, as you know. And Armando was quite strict about all that. And the only thing that's changed is this sort of timescale, he's sort of squashed it together. Anyway, Stalin famously had this massive stroke, so he was left lying on the floor in his room. And then the first person I think, to go in other than the housekeeper was, was Beriya. Yeah, he was brave enough to go in.

BE: And then they all argue about getting doctors? 

SRB: And then they argue about getting doctors. Well Stalin killed a lot of doctors, of course, just before the famous doctors plot. And so I mean, yes, so they had to get doctors and, and Khrushchev, who of course, ended up being the next Head of State, I think, was quite a junior member of the Politburo. So you had Malenkov, who was now the new Head of State, and you had Beriya who was very senior, and this pipsqueak called Khrushchev, wins. 

BE: You've had an incredible career, but you haven't done as much in film. 

SRB: No I haven't. I've done a bit, but no, not a lot. It's passed me by really. So this is a new venture for me. 

BE: And how was that different? I mean, how did you... I think there was some similarities in the sense that Armando was very intense in this sort of rehearsal process. 

SRB: Well, oddly, talking to people about the film, they say it's quite theatrical, which I haven't really thought about it, but I suppose it is, and they're quite long scenes aren't they. And they're quite verbal scenes. And I suppose that's what Armando plays with also in The Thick of It and Veep. And, and we had two weeks rehearsal beforehand, which, of course, for me is, is great, because I, sometimes I have gone on set and thought I have no idea what I'm doing. I had no idea what they want. So to be able to talk about it for two weeks beforehand is is is great. He sort of used improvisation, there's not a lot of improvisation, but he used a bit to change the script all the time. So we were never quite certain what we're going to say to him on the day. 

BE: And that was a challenge for you. I think you've said that before improvisation was something you haven't done? 

SRB: Yes. I mean, to be perfectly honest, I think Armando recognised that and he was very, very kind he did. He didn't force me to do it. Because there was some very, very expert improvisers there like, Steve and Jeffrey. And I think in the end, probably, I didn't improvise very much. What he used to do, Armando, was to do a scene and get it in the can and sort of have it set and covered and all the rest of it. And then he would say, let's just do a version. You know, just for fun. Let's see what comes out. And the first time we did that, actually, nothing changed. It's quite interesting. I mean, we all went 'Sorry, Armando. Nothing changed.' And he said 'No, that's not the point. It's just an easier piece of acting really.' 

Simon Russell Beale as Lavrentiy Beriya: Shoot her before him but make sure he sees it. Oh, and this one...Kill him, take him to his church, dump him in the pulpit. And I'll leave the rest up to you. 

BE: You may hate me for making this comparison but you've obviously done a lot of Shakespeare, but I would argue that Armando and his co-writers - they're pretty incredible wordsmiths.

SRB: Oh, absolutely. And actually talking about the co-writers, of course Shakespeare's a great co-writer as we now know. And Armando, look. I'll have not a word said against Armando, I think he's just, well, I think he's a genius really, and his eye and his ear is absolutely impeccable. It was why I'm slightly wary about using the word improvisation because he would never let his own ear allow something to slip, he would never just say: 'Oh, that's just improvised.' No, it was all very precise by the time we got onto the screen.

BE: I know this is part of your trade already. But I believe in comedy, it's all about the beats and the pauses and letting I don't know, how would you? How would you say, talk about that?

SRB: Well, I think it's different on film and on...or perhaps I'm wrong. In theatre, you're in charge of the beats, aren't you, as an actor? And what I find complete and utterly puzzling is watching great comic actors on film. I don't know how they do it. And let's face it, my part in this is not very funny. You see the great comic, and I don't know how to do it, because I don't know how they can judge it without a live audience there. But they do. And I presume a lot of it is to do with their own rhythm and their own timing. But a lot of it, of course, will be to do with the editing. So, in film, it's a slightly different process, I think you just have to trust playing as truthfully as possible and hope that they'll edit it so that it's comic.

BE: That's interesting, isn't it, that the editing, I suppose in a comedy, though, this isn't necessarily a comedy, but it is important. 

SRB: It was the first thing, the very first bit of filming I ever did of any sort of substance was a thing called 'Dance Music of Time.' For television, it was a big part. And I remember the first scene I did, and that we did the first run of it, and the director just took - 'Can I have a word?' And he took me off and he said: 'You don't have to be in charge of the pace of this scene, because that will be done by the editor and by me and whoever. In other words, you don't have to jump in on cue, you say your line when you feel ready to say it and don't feel obliged to, to think of it like a play.' And that was a big lesson that and you'll see actors on you know, their take their time on film sets, and they're ready, and they'll say it and they know that it can be tightened up and it can be made more comic or whatever. But that's not the actor's responsibility on a film set.

BE: And where the cameras are? I'm asking very basic questions.

SRB: Now that's interesting. I was just talking about the fact I need, I felt, I need to learn more of the craft of it. Yes. And I don't know whether the best thing, I have to ask other actors about this, well, the best thing is to ignore it and just, you know, do what you do, and you'll be caught on camera somehow. Or whether you should be aware of... I don't know what the best...I don't know what the best, best system is really. But I would I mean, I did you know, about two years ago, I sat down I thought I needed to know about film, as well, not only watching famous films, which a lot of which I've never seen like 'The Godfather' I've never seen. But also about the craft of it. So I bought lots of box...a history of film, a couple of history films, and I bought a book which I still can't quite understand about lenses and you know, focal distances and whatever. But I tried, I tried, because I think you should, you should really know about that.

Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khurschec: This is a blatant attempt by Comrad Beriya to buy the support of the public.
Simon Russell Beale as Lavrentiy Beriya: I thought you were in favour of a more liberal approach Comrade Reformer? 
Jeffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov: All those in favour of pausing the arrests, of pausing the executions?

BE: An incredible, beyond incredible, ensemble cast. Again, sort of getting into the minutiae a little bit, but what's it like bouncing off some of those, those comedians, those actors?

SRB: Well look, I mean, what do you do when you're facing Jeffrey and Steve? You know...

BE: You give it your best!

SRB:...just try, try a bit harder. They're amazing, and that was partly to do with this two weeks rehearsal, which I have to say was invaluable for me. But partly that was to do with the confidence thing, you know. Here, Steve, and, Steve's such a generous man. And I think we had the lucht or, by the end of that two weeks, certainly, to know that what our function was within the group. So nobody was playing against another person do you know what I mean? We all had a set, you know, and I knew mine was a sort of serious, evil, horrible person. But you know, Jeffrey was doing his thing, and Steve was doing his things. Jason was doing his thing. So very early on, Armando said, you know, 'This is a black comedy, but the seriousness of their situation and the seriousness of the history is too big to ignore. So I think, you know, these are people responsible for a lot of unhappiness and pain and, and death.

BE: There are no Russian accents, which erm...

SRB: Yeah, I don't know. I mean, I knew I somehow I knew he wouldn't want a Russian accent. And I sort of knew that, he never said it. What I think is more unusual is the fact he didn't want any of us to change any of our accidents. Because I said, you know, Stalin and Beriya are both from Georgia - 'shouldn't they be the sort of same?' And I remember, I started trying to speak with em, accents, not my strong point. Besides trying to speak with a sort of London accent, because Adrian, who's playing Stalin, had a London accent. And I thought: 'Well, I better, you know, see if I can do a sort of London accent.' But Armando was interested in that at all. And that that, I think, because, of course I...when I've seen, of course, I'm completely used to it. So those guys just are Malenkov and Krushchev even if they're speaking with an American accent. I don't know what it does, does to the sort of...whether it distances the audience or whether it makes them not, I don't know. 

BE: I think for me, it just made me allowed me to laugh more.

SRB: Yeah, that may be the case, it also means that we can be a little bit more relaxed. I don't, I don't think anybody unless an accent genius finds it easy to play comedy in a different accent, I think that might be rather hard.

BE: Your character does go through a transformation in the film, you know, you're maybe more black and white evil at the start. But it's you kind of become someone that we maybe, admires is the wrong word, someone that we have, we have a little bit of sympathy for.

SRB: It's interesting. They're all very, very, very frightened, aren't they? They're all very frightened. And, you know, he, he must have been frightened along with the rest of them that he was going to end up as he does, being killed. And I, that's interesting you say, I haven't really thought about that. But I suppose these people aren't just all...they suffer fear just as much as anybody else. You know, and I think, essentially nothing about his liberal reforms too, I remember when he goes on about the 'Institute of Liberal Reforms', and of course, Khrushchev says, you know, they were just doing that for political reasons. I don't know. I don't know. I don't know what it's about. I mean, I suspect they probably were for political reasons, but there's a bit of a thing. So isn't that interesting? The irony of this man who is so foul, suddenly going: 'Actually I'm going to release all the prisoners. It's odd, I mean, just odd. 

Simon Russell Beale as Lavrentiy Beriya: So I'll now allow the releases under Article 31.
Jeffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov: Jesus please, please understand that this is not some cynical ploy. I mean, these reforms are correct reforms.
Simon Russell Beale as Lavrentiy Beriya: Ok understood. Are you wearing a corset? 
Jeffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov: It's a girdle. I have a bad back. It's functional. It's not cosmetic. 
Simon Russell Beale as Lavrentiy Beriya: You wear it well. 
Jeffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov: Um...let's make this a test of your discretion, shall we? 
Simon Russell Beale as Lavrentiy Beriya: Of course, of course.

SRB: What is this lust for power? It's a very fascinating thing, isn't it? Lust for other things. Power is the most mysterious isn't it? Riches, sex, beauty...power...such a weird one to want and you think that you know, Stalin didn't live in...comparative to a lot of people in this country....he didn't have, you know, fancy yachts and... just power. Pure power.

BE: You just mentioned him in passing but...Michael Palin, is Molotov, it was so nice to see him on the big screen again.

SRB: I know, and he's the nicest guy you'll ever meet! Along with, it's sort of boring this, along with the rest of the cast. We had know, he's just so lovely. He's just so lovely. I'm just about to spend the morning with him doing interviews and yeah, no, he's great. But they all were.

BE: Did you crack up a few times on set?

SRB: Well, we talked about this at lunch. No. Weirdly, I don't remember us...I was saying, I was saying to Andrea, 'Did we laugh in scenes?' She said, 'no we didn't, did we?' We laughed before but I don't think we laughed actually when we were filming at all...I don't know why...perhaps because it's just too dark a subject. I don't know. It would be interesting to know whether they laughed know...'The Thick of It' and 'Veep'. They probably didn't you know, they probably were just so focused on getting this comedy right. But we didn't.

BE: We've talked about this before with Armando, but on set, what, what kind of direction does he give? 

SRB: He's very quiet, never raised his voice to us at all. Very, very eagle eyed. Very kind, very kind to me actually. He was very kind. He understood, I think, where my weaknesses were and he wasn't going to allow that to...And of course, also he started gearing, I think he said this, but he started gearing, his writing to the characters he was seeing. You know, suddenly we were aware that lines, there was Simon lines, and there were Michael lines and there were Steve lines, you know, and that's quite interesting to watch somebody just watching watching, watching, watching, watching, watching. And of course, he was changing the thing the whole time, all the time. So every day we get a new script. I learned the whole script in one go before we started like a play. Rather naively! And he laughed at me about that. And I said, 'Well, no, it's just because you know, it makes me feel safe' and I always think: 'well, whatever happens, at least I'll get on set and do the lines in the right order, a bit like a play.' And he said, 'well, we're not, you know...every day there's gonna be changes.' And indeed there were. So...

BE: Even though it's in Russia, it was shot in London, I believe. Can you talk a little bit about the filming itself? 

SRB: In Slough, actually most of it. There's a big... is it a pine forest? There's a big forest, where they built Stalin's statue. And I think Michael said, that's where they did bits of The Holy Grail, actually. Yeah. So that was where...and the rest of it...yeah...odd places like the Mason's Hall. And then they did a bit in Kiev, I think. But none of us went...none of the actors went out. Well, one actor called Paul Ready, he went out to Kiev, and he got a holiday. And the rest of us yeah, is mostly London and Slough. And this is funny, isn't it?

BE: I read recently that Russia, some reports in Russia that they think this is not very funny.

SRB: Yes. I'm sad about that. I mean, we'll see what happens. I don't think they're still in negotiation about showing it. I don't know quite why that where they're at. Shame. So I think it's, I think, I think it's in in a rather grand tradition of Soviet humour, actually, apart from anything else. So it's part of that culture. And also, I think it's quite a serious film, underneath. I think the last beat is not funny at all, when it gets to a sort of climax of...and also I sort of remember this rather moving bit when when all of...the whole of Russia comes to pay their respects to Stalin's body. And that's not funny. So I think I think it's a more layered film than that, that reaction would allow. And I think it's a shame. 

Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khurshchev: Ask Beriya if he invited the bishops. 
Jeffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov: Don't give me orders. Ask Beriya if he invited the bishops.
Paul Chahidi as Nicolai Bulganin: Did you invite the bishops?
Simon Russell Beale as Lavrentiy Beriya: Yes. 
Paul Chahidi as Nicolai Bulganin: Yes.
Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khurshchev: Well?
Jeffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov: He said yes.
Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khurshchev: I'm going to give everyone in the Red Square a voucher permitting one kick each to his stupid face.
Simon Russell Beale as Lavrentiy Beriya: Is he asking for some delicious hay? 
Paul Chahidi as Nicolai Bulganin: No, he said something quite complicated about a voucher system.

BE: And sort of taking it maybe broader...the time that we live in now politically. The question we get asked every time I expect! Yeah, it...

SRB: Look...power struggles, power struggles. They don't go away. And you know, we made this film two years ago, and the world...was it a year ago? I can't remember. Anyway, some time ago, so I remember voting in the referendum during filming. So it was before that, yeah. And power struggles the world over, are these periods of history are the sort of the same, essentially, that's what Armando really is interested in, isn't it? That it's not about policy. It's not even about Stalin, this film, partly because he dies. And it's not about what he did except for instil this terrible fear. And he's interested in power politics really.

BE: I wondered at this point in your career, whether you're enjoying playing some more unusual characters, I really enjoyed you in Penny Dreadful. And obviously, this is quite an unusual choice as well. I mean, are you looking for those roles?

SRB: Well it's what people are asking me to do, really, I mean...I don't think unfortunately, I've got the face and the figure to do... I'd love to do the sort of, you know, the emotional carrier of a film. I have done on stage many times, of course, but slightly different on stage, but I don't think I'm that sort of filmic actor really. So I suppose I'm what they used to call the character actor aren't I? So Ferdinand Lyle, who I absolutely adored doing...ridiculous accent. Yeah, I mean, that's the sort of thing I'm going to be asked to do. And also I think, I think Shakespeare's probably going to fade away a bit because partly because of my age, and the other parts aren't...

BE: King Lear's waiting for you...

SRB: Well I've done King Lear...two years ago, so and I did Prospero...just finished doing Prospero. So I've done the old ones now that I was sitting on a sofa...I'm doing Vanity Fair at the moment...I'm playing Mr. Sedley, and Mrs. Sedley is played by Claire Skinner, who's an old friend of mine, and we were sitting on the sofa, and she said, suddenly went: 'Oh my do realise this is our first grandparent role.' So old characters are now going to be my thing, I suppose. 

BE: Well, I mean, to cheer you up a little bit. I think I think there are some great roles in film and television now. I mean, maybe, you know, especially in the States, you know, so you don't know what's around the corner. 

SRB: No, no, I don't know what's around the corner and I'm, I have sort of decided to open myself a little bit to new experience. Of which this has been, I have to say, you know, as you can tell a complete pleasure. So, if they're all ideas, that's that's fine by me. They won't be of course but you know if they're as pleasurable as this...

BE: I wanted to, I felt it's amiss not to mention the Barbican. You were in The Tempest recently there. A good experience?

SRB: Oh, wonderful. God. I'm sounding like Pollyanna in this interview, aren't I? The Tempest was absolutely wonderful. And it's a play that I've always thought was rather cold and I...I was wrong. And I found it emotionally very satisfying. And of course, there was lots of sort of fancy stuff going on with the computer stuff, which was fascinating. Although that, oddly enough, I had very little to do with that. That was all Ariel. So poor old thing he was spending hours being poked and whatever to make it work. But I just sort of floated around in the Cloud of Unknowing to sort of, just do what I do...straight out to the audience. No, but I had a wonderful time and the Barbican's a very old, an old you know, haunt of mine isn't it? I mean, I've been there for eight years with the RSC, so I know it well.

Rupert Friend as Vasily Stalin: My father was a warm and mighty bear. And we are his 170 million orphaned cubs. Russian cubs, Georgian cubs, Armenian cubs, Lithuania... 
Simon Russell Beale as Lavrentiy Beriya: Oh we'll leave you to it... 

BE: Thanks to Simon for speaking to me. An extraordinary film that manages to be shocking and sorrowful yet at times laugh out loud, funny, quite an achievement.
I'm Ben Eshmade, thanks for listening to this archive edition of Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. We're here to inspire more people to discover and love the arts with weekly episodes of archive finds and themed series. Subscribe to Nothing Concrete on Acast, Spotify or wherever you find your podcasts. And if you can, leave us a review to help us get the word out.

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