There are two types of people in this world: Those who believe Dan Stevens steals Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga right out from under the rest of the cast … and those who believe that Dan Stevens almost steals it right out from under the rest of the cast. Playing the grandiose, booming-voiced, hypersexualized Russian disco-god Alexander Lemtov, the actor certainly breathes explosive, whip-cracking life into a character who might have easily become a one-note comic-romantic nemesis for Will Ferrell’s Lars Erickssong — to the point where Lemtov ultimately becomes one of the more touching figures in the film.
All this despite the fact that it’s not even Stevens singing; Lemtov’s operatic voice comes courtesy of Swedish singer Eric Mjönes. Stevens certainly can sing — he proved that on Beauty and the Beast — and the plan was apparently for him to also record vocals for the film so that his singing could be blended with Mjönes’s. (Something similar had been done with Rachel McAdams and the Swedish singer Molly Sandén.) But the pandemic prevented that.
How did his performance come together, and how deep does Stevens’s love of Eurovision go? I talked to the actor about his favorite moments from the contest, its unique position in the U.K., and the instantly iconic figure of Lemtov.
Were you a fan of Eurovision before making this movie?
Oh, God, yeah. I mean, it’s hilarious to me that over here [in the U.S.], it’s not something that’s necessarily in the cultural consciousness. If you grow up in Europe, it’s just part of your year. Whether you love it or hate it, it’s something that comes around once a year. People throw parties — viewing parties — and it’s just a part of the cultural calendar. My wife and I always used to host a viewing party when we were in the U.K. We’re super into it.
And it’s been around since the late ’50s, so our parents grew up with it. In the U.K., Graham Norton is now famously the voice of Eurovision. But before that, it was an Irish TV personality and talk show host called Terry Wogan, and he was such a national institution, and his commentary was so wry and funny.
It’s just very funny to me, to have to explain it to adult Americans. When they realize what this thing is, they can’t believe it. It’s like a part of the planet that they just have no awareness of, and it’s kind of wonderful to have to explain it to them.
This is a weird comparison, but it’s sort of like the Super Bowl in that way, no? Whether you’re into the sport or not, it’s this giant thing that you have to contend with in the U.S. and probably even watch, even if you’re not a fan.
Yeah, especially if you’re from the U.K. We’ve had a couple of notable exceptions over the years, and I think we’ve won Eurovision a couple of times since the ’50s, but generally, in recent memory, we’ve been pretty terrible. And famously, each country votes for everyone else, and you go around, and they allocate 12 points all the way down to zero, and the U.K. is just terrible every year. But even if you don’t watch the show, you become aware of who our entrant is and just how bad they are this year. And then you might become aware of the winner, this extraordinary act from some other European country. You can’t really get away from it in the U.K., and I think increasingly, people are becoming aware of it over here. There were a lot of people on the movie who weren’t necessarily aware of it as a thing. Some people thought it was made up. And you couldn’t make this up.
Do you have a favorite Eurovision memory, or moment?
I mean, there are so many wild ones. There was an extraordinary Ukrainian act a few years ago, called Verka Serduchka that was pretty extraordinary. There was an amazing Israeli act a couple of years ago, called Netta. They had an amazing song called “Toy” that was really cool. Conchita Wurst was a pretty sort of landmark performance. Actually, in preparation for the movie, I did go down several Eurovision holes, where you just watch a whole year of acts. Another amazing one was a Finnish act called Lordi a few years ago. They had a song called “Hard Rock Hallelujah,” where they came on all dressed in these incredible prosthetics and looked like ghouls. They had a heavy metal single. Oh, my God, I could literally just like reel off for hours.
What’s extraordinary about the night is that it ranges from the most sublime to the ridiculous. So some countries will enter something that is maybe very beautiful, very earnest, might have an element of their country’s folk song about it. It might be very sweetly sung by a solo performer. And then you go to the other extreme, and there’s a country who’s entered a song that is almost entirely gibberish, that is maybe in a made-up language, with the most outlandish costumes you’ve ever seen, and just like insane staging. Eurovision is so difficult to define, because it constantly defies definition.
And some countries are actually trying not to win. Because if you win, you have to host the next year. Ireland, for example, is famous for beautiful singers, and for a while they kept winning, and it almost bankrupted the country, because it costs a lot of money to host Eurovision — hundreds of thousands of people coming to your country every year for the competition. And so they were like, “Okay. We cannot win again.” So they entered an act called Dustin the Turkey, and it was just this like turkey puppet, singing this ridiculous song! Needless to say, they did not win that year.
It’s also quite a long night. I can’t remember how many countries are involved now, but it’s a lot. And they now include Australia and Israel and Russia, and it’s a lot of countries to get through. You get through all these acts, and then you have to sit through the voting, which is a whole other kind of performance. It gets very kind of political — groups of countries voting for each other in a spirit of camaraderie or sort of making up for old wounds or whatever. It’s this sort of amazing array of politics and music and talent and absurdity all kind of mixed into one.
I remember from watching it as a kid that there was always a sense of, “Oh no, is this country that is our historical rival now going to screw us over in Eurovision voting?”
Yeah. Or sometimes despite that, there would be an effort in the voting to counter that somehow. Like, “Yes, we had a war 20 years ago, but now we’re giving you 12 points.”
It’s so much more than just a straight-up talent contest. It’s got extraordinary roots in terms of the European project, but it also just has so many weird layers. And also, there’s always an act that is just so surprising in terms of its style, or what it’s doing musically, or in the costumes, or something. Netta, for example, was a great example of a joyful breaking of the mold, and it really caught fire, I think. It was such a great act.
At what point did you get involved in the film? As a Eurovision fan, were you there from the beginning?
No, far from it. I think they’ve been talking about it for years. Will, ever since he first saw Eurovision back in the ’90s, he was like, “Wow. Someone should make a movie about this.” But he always assumed that someone else would. Nobody did. And then they decided to revisit it. And so he got together with some old SNL buddies, and they wrote this hilarious script. I think David Dobkin had been a fan [of mine] for a little while, and then Beauty and the Beast came out, and they realized I was into singing. He approached me probably a year or so ago, saying, “Look, we’ve got this mad project we’re trying to put together.” And Rachel McAdams was on board, and Will was on board. They already had some extraordinary musical talents involved in writing the music. He played me one of the songs that they had coming up for it, and it was just so funny and clever how they sort of captured the style of it.
Was “Lion of Love” ready at that point?
I think it was. Yes, they’d got somebody to sing it, and I just laughed out loud. It’s just so, so funny, and yeah, it’s absolutely brilliant. I could immediately see the kind of character that he was, and then we looked more into that style of performer. Lemtov is not particularly alien to the Eurovision style, that sort of pop/operatic style, incredibly bombastic, very sort of sexualized staging. It just looked like so much fun.
Did you ever think to yourself, “Maybe I should sing the song?”
Well, I think the plan was that I would go into the booth. I was singing onstage to Eric’s track when we shot it, and I think the plan was for me to go into the booth and sing it, but then the world got turned upside down. And actually, it works really well. Eric’s singing style is so perfect for the song. I think it’s great, and it fits really neatly. I’m delighted with it.
Tell me about the choreography and the performance you do with your male dancers.
Lemtov definitely falls into an almost traditional category of performance in Eurovision, where you have this very sexualized, bombastic kind of thing going on: a lot of whips and leather and lamé. They had an amazing choreography team on the show, really capturing all of the different styles that you get in a Eurovision — some very simple, beautiful, elegant, some just wild and bombastic. They were looking to capture the full gamut of those styles. These guys have choreographed some of the biggest pop tours in the last 10, 20 years. And I think what we achieved with Lemtov’s performance is so funny and so fitting for the song and for the kind of performer that Lemtov is.
The whole movie walks a very fine line, somehow celebrating Eurovision while also indulging in the ridiculousness of it, without ever descending into outright belittling mockery. And with Lemtov, I think you’re walking an even finer line. He’s possibly the broadest character in the movie, but he’s also closeted and we discover there’s a touching, sad inner life to him.
I think it’s important to know that the film was made with a huge amount of affection for Eurovision. And what was great was that we had some actual Eurovision stars come and appear in the movie, and there are some incredible cameos. It was great to talk to them about their Eurovision experience. A lot of them are incredibly talented musicians, and it was a real highlight for them, getting to represent their country, going out there. But the one thing that almost all of them said was just how utterly bizarre the experience was, and just how accurately we seem to have captured just the sheer insanity of it all. However authentic and musical your own act might be, you go into this extraordinary pageant, and it is a deeply weird experience. So, while being very affectionate to the spirit of Eurovision and to the performers, I think there’s something very, very funny to explore about the idea of it. There’s a lot of humor to be mined, I think, in how it all comes together, and the microcosm of the world that it is.
Lemtov is a king in his own little castle, and he seems to be a bit of Eurovision fixture. This is probably not his first appearance. And someone like Sigrit coming in as the ingenue — it’s sort of the classic relationship of, “Let me show you how it’s done. Let me sort of release you from your cage and let you fly and fulfill the destiny that you were due to have.” And so he obviously represents that kind of character within the story.
But, the other thing to note is how important the song contest is to the LGBTQ community. For a lot of countries, it’s one of the rare opportunities that they get to see that shown on a stage, and they get to celebrate it. It’s a kind of safe haven for a lot of people in that sense. They have a huge following in that community in Europe, and around the world. Even in America, I think, it’s known for that. And that’s something that’s really, really celebrated. Obviously, Lemtov is torn because he comes from a culture that doesn’t allow him to acknowledge that. I guess that is his tragedy, and that’s what I thought made him such a well-rounded character, rather than just making him all-out absurd. There’s sort of this sad kind of inner conflict: On the exterior, he’s this wild, bombastic performer, but he’s not actually able to live out his truth. A character like Lemtov in his own country, very few people would have questioned his sexuality. I think if you look back at performers here back in the ‘80s, a lot of people didn’t think George Michael was gay. He was out there performing, and nobody was questioning that, especially in England. How people live their public persona versus their private persona — there are still, to this day, in a lot of cultures, performers who live with that conflict.