In “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga,” Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams star as an Icelandic musical duo who aspire to represent their country in the movie’s titular event, a hugely popular international singing competition that is considered appointment viewing in basically every country outside of the United States.
But it’s Dan Stevens who steals the show as their fellow Eurovision competitor, the eccentric and ultra-wealthy Russian vocalist Alexander Lemtov.
Stevens, best known for his role in “Downton Abbey,” first proved his vocal prowess onscreen in 2017’s “Beauty and the Beast” remake. But his power ballads from the Disney musical are child’s play compared to “Lion of Love,” his “Eurovision” character’s signature pop-operatic anthem.
The instant classic is one of several songs written for the movie, including “Ja Ja Ding Dong,” a favorite around local pubs in Iceland, that were designed to become instant earworms — emblematic of the kitschy beats that compete at the actual event.
“The joke is that as terrible as a song like ‘Ja Ja Ding Dong’ might seem, there are songs like that, very often from Eurovision, that are just part of people’s childhoods,” Stevens says. “It doesn’t matter how terrible they are, they’re part of the culture.”
Here, Stevens spoke with Variety about the enduring popularity of Eurovision and why most Americans still haven’t heard of one of the biggest events on TV.
How do you explain the event Eurovision Song Contest to people who aren’t familiar with it?
It’s kind of delightful to have that responsibility to make the North American continent aware of the biggest TV event on the planet that happens off their shores. It’s much more than just a song contest, really. It’s such an extraordinary pattern of both musical talents and glitz and glamour. It’s a real championing haven for LGBTQ. There’s often a country that will come with a protest element or some kind of statement with an underlying political context. And then there’s always a ridiculous element as well — some country will submit something that’s really off the charts. There’s nothing like it. There’s very little to compare it to. As an event, maybe the Super Bowl in terms of something that people sit down and watch whether they are into it or not. It’s just a sort of cultural happening. It’s a tricky thing to put into words.
How does the film find its balance between satire and paying homage to the event?
It’s very difficult to parody something that is already quite so bizarre. The movie is made with a huge amount of affection for the contest because it is something that, if you grew up in Europe, it’s just been part of your childhood. It’s just part of the cultural calendar. I certainly grew up watching it.
So I think it’s more about finding characters within that microcosm, as Will does in figure skating [in “Blades of Glory”] or Nascar [in “Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby”]. He’s not out to take down figure skating or Nascar. He’s looking at finding character parody more than taking down the whole institution.
How did you first hear about the movie?
I didn’t have to audition, thankfully. [Director] David Dobkin was aware of my work, and I was a huge Will Ferrell fan growing up. He’s been a massive part of my comedic upbringing, so I was absolutely delighted. The challenge of bringing this extraordinary Russian character to life was just too good to pass up. Once they played me the song [“Lion of Love”], I was all in.
Your character has a very distinct pop-operatic baritone voice. How did you find his sound?
It’s a more European thing. Definitely running through Eurovision, there is a thick theme of Europop. And a big feature of that is the opera-pop crossover. A lot of countries feel that might have the broadest appeal because it will appeal to a lot of opera lovers and pop lovers. Very often, it will produce a character like Lemtov. His spoken voice is very much based on some European characters I’ve met over the years. His singing voice, I would love to take claim for it but in the end, we went with this Swedish baritone whose voices similar to mine. Another element of Eurovision is that he or she who can hit the highest note the longest will impress the most, so he’s definitely going for that.
Did you come up with a backstory for Lemtov? How did he learn how to braid hair so well?
It was just one of his one of his many passions. We kind of liked that he would just keep throwing out these things like, “Oh yeah, I love ancient history. I love Icelandic folklore. I love hair braiding.” He has all these ridiculous hobbies that somehow he found the time to cultivate. But hair braiding just seemed like a great pastime to have, and something that he could be doing while sleeping in bed that wasn’t necessarily sexual.
He’s also really mastered the backhanded compliment.
Yes, that’s the great skill of the bitchy European class. He’s got a certain attitude to the world, which I think comes from ridiculous wealth. His attitude to [Will and Rachel’s] chances of success is pretty funny. He’s definitely looking from the top of the tree down.
Your character has an introspective moment at the end when Rachel’s character asks if he’s gay. He responds that he can’t be gay because he’s Russian. Is it important for a sillier movie to have that kind of deeper message?
It’s always meaningful when you’re able to get a message like that in to what is essentially a fun, sweet, silly comedy. It gives Lemtov some grounding, but it’s also based on a horrible truth. There’s some really awful things that are happening in Russia. HBO has a fantastic documentary “Welcome to Chechnya,” which is all about this horrific human rights abuse that is happing in Russia. A line like Lemtov’s is just a nod to it. People are aware and, awareness is only getting greater, which is a good thing.
What’s it like being on set with Will Ferrell?
It’s a lovely place to be. He keeps things very ego-free, very playful, very silly. It’s wonderful watching him do his thing. His improv style is incredible to watch and to learn from, but he’s also very generous. He’s out for everybody to be as funny as they can be. He leaves plenty of room for people like myself and Rachel and Melissa [Mahut] to really play and bring our thing as well.
Can you rank the following songs from “Eurovision” and “Beauty and the Beast” from best to worst? “Lion of Love,” “Be Our Guest,” “Double Trouble,” “Evermore” and “Ja Ja Ding Dong.”
“Ja Ja Ding Dong” has to be up there. “Lion of Love” I’m deeply fond of, obviously. Oh my god. “Lion of Love” and “Evermore” are probably tied for second. Those are both great soaring baritone ballads written for a voice like mine. “Be Our Guest” is great, but I didn’t sing on that one or “Double Trouble,” but they’re deeply catchy. That’s a hard one. I’ll put those joint third. “Ja Ja Ding Dong” is definitely No. 1.