Craig Mazin’s five-part adaptation of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 begins with Jared Harris’s Valery Legasov taking his own life. It is, says Harris, the inciting mystery in a story that will examine both the human cost of the event, and the social and political fallout. Freshly wrapped on HBO, the series became as much of a conversation starter as the cabler’s Game of Thrones finale, perhaps because of the show’s unsettling parallels with the disinformation age in which we live. For Harris, Mazin’s scripts were too enticing to refuse.
What are your memories of the Chernobyl disaster? You would have been in the U.K. at the time, right?
I lived in London and I remember news reports about the initial event, once it had been exposed by the West. A lot of anxiety about the nuclear radioactive cloud that was slowly making its way west, across Europe. Living in London, there was a certain point where we were warned not to go outside, and certainly to avoid rain at all costs.
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There were issues, too, with any product that came from grazing animals; milk for example. I think they stopped selling it, and they had to import milk from elsewhere. The market for Welsh lamb collapsed. But then, once the cloud passed over into the Atlantic, I remember it fading from people’s minds. Which of course, when you read this story, and watch the show, you see it was so much more than just that initial event.
Describe that initial reaction to Craig Mazin’s scripts.
I mean you know very quickly, as you’re reading it, that it’s the sort of thing you always hope is going to land on your desk. It was so well written, and you could tell it would make a good show. A pretty good barometer, also, of whether something is well-written is that actors talk amongst themselves, and very quickly everybody was talking about this script. It was something everybody wanted to get in on, be seen for, be tasked to work on.
What I found in the script was that this event was potentially so much more dangerous than just the fallout from the initial accident. Of course, nobody at the time heard about the tremendous sacrifice and heroism of the people on the ground who were trying to contain the damage. It became such a gripping story in the way that Craig put it together. And it’s a mammoth task, if you think about him sitting down to cast his mind around this entire event and put it down in a fashion that it can be told in five hours and come from so many different angles. It’s an extraordinary piece of work.
You had one writer, and also one director, Johan Renck. What did that consistency offer?
We were really lucky in that there was only one director. I did ask, when I signed on for it. I wanted to know if there would be only one director, and if the showrunner [Mazin] would be there the whole time. Because you need one or the other. You either need the showrunner there every day, or you need one director. Otherwise you have to start having conversations by proxy and it just completely frustrates the whole process.
Luckily, Johan was there the whole time, and it’s astonishing what that meant for him, to really create what he brought to it. Obviously the vision, the style, the tone. There’s an understated quality to it; it’s never sensationalized. You’re never encouraged to start screaming and going, “Oh my God!” You know, the kind of thing you see in… Well, I don’t want to make a crack about other projects, but you know what I mean…
There are so many different genres wrapped up into this one show. Romantic drama, disaster movie, even courtroom thriller.
Absolutely. There’s a war story in here too, and a political thriller element. The first episode is almost a horror movie. At times it’s like a deconstructed Godzilla story. That was all very deliberate by Craig. He teaches a very successful podcast about screenwriting, and he absolutely understands all those genres. He understood how to use them subtly to his own advantage, to help tell the story and create dimensions for the narrative that peope will immediately be able to lock into, and without having to rely on any clichés. He’s a very smart man.
Did you have all five scripts before you began the process?
I had four. Endings are always withheld. Everyone’s always concerned about the ending. You need to stick the landing. And it wasn’t that they were still figuring it out, because they knew how they wanted it to end, in terms of the smartest, most aesthetically perfect way to tie up those threads.
But I got the first four, and easily within 10 or 20 pages I was gripped by the story. My character only really popped up briefly in that time. But I was gripped, and that’s what you need, because we’re all storytellers. Every character is telling a story that’s part of a whole tapestry, so you need to see the forest and you need to see the trees. Very quickly you got the idea that this was an amazing story, but also that Craig, even at that point, absolutely knew the whole thing. He saw the forest and he saw the trees.
As for my character, Legasov, it was a lovely little coda at the beginning, to provide a sense of mystery to it. You watch him kill himself. Well, why did he do that? Craig wants you to suspend that thought in your mind, and slowly he’ll get you there. He’ll answer all these questions.
The story deals with the shades of gray in human personalities responsible for managing events like this. The mistakes that get made for the wrong reasons.
Yeah, mostly. I mean, the first responders are complete innocents, and of course Jessie Buckley’s character, Lyudmilla, is a complete innocent. I think it’s important that you’re introduced to those characters. Pretty much the only two characters given a backstory are those two. You’re introduced to a pregnant couple, and within 90 seconds he’s heading off to the thing that we know is not going to end well.
I’d say I’d put Emily Watson’s character, Khomyuk, into that innocent category too. But yes, everybody else has a degree of culpability to them. They’re part of the system, and in that sense they bear some responsibility for the way the system operates. Although there really is no mechanism to hold power to account. Everybody knows that and there’s a certain cynicism to them that has been bred in by the system. Nobody tries because everybody realizes it’s pointless. They make jokes about how f*cking pointless it is. Like the idea of the miners making a joke about the smoke-belching giant machine that cuts an apple into three pieces. It has been designed to cut an apple into four pieces, so it doesn’t work.
Was it useful for you to look beyond the script, and find out more about the real Legasov?
All the research you do is helpful, even if you don’t use it. What you’re doing with any story is trying to understand the mindset of the people who inhabit the world you’re in. What are the rules they were operating under? That’s the same question whether it’s a fantasy world, or an historical one, or a contemporary story.
If it’s a real person, of course there’s probably literature about them. Maybe there are photographs, or audio and video. All of that is really useful, but at the end of the day you have to understand and accept that the writers have done all that research, and they’ve discovered everything that you’ve discovered. They’ve made the decisions about what is useful for their story and what to omit. The story you’re telling is the one that’s in the script, and you can’t show up and say, “I have a better idea for a different story.”
But all that said, whatever information you discover is useful to you. When I played Andy Warhol [in Mary Harron’s I Shot Andy Warhol], I did a good three weeks of research on it. When I came back to the script, only about 10% of it was in there. That’s when I first had a moment of, was I going to go to Mary Harron and start pitching her about how the script would be better if she included more of what I discovered? But I realized: no, it’s not about me. The research, it’s about Andy. It’s about Valery. It’s all useful because, if you’re on set and everyone’s facing a problem, you have it ready to throw it out there. The fact you can quote where it comes from means that people have more confidence in your ideas.
Acting is an imaginative exercise. The method of all that stuff is useful, but it’s only useful in as much as it helps the performer take that step and manage the process of being in that moment of imagination.
So does that additional reading seep in subconsciously most of the time?
Yes, absolutely. One of the things Mike Nichols said about the creative process was that you have to take time off and give your subconscious an opportunity to interact with the material, because that’s where a lot of the best ideas come from. They happen when you’re not thinking about it. You’ll be walking around a supermarket thinking about what it is you have to get, when all of a sudden a thought pops into your head and you think, Oh, that’s what that means. It’s so important not to rush that stuff.
The whole idea of preparation is to take that time, and it’s not just time to learn the lines, because that’s robotic. The idea is to give your unconscious mind an opportunity to play a role in that process. It doesn’t like to be hurried.
What did you make of Legasov?
There’s not enough about him that’s out there, but there is enough to lead to forms of cursory opinion. He seemed to be an extremely confident person. He was someone who was comfortable being in charge, and he felt as though he was probably the go-to person in situations such as these. He had a kind of Russian swagger. He projected an alpha quality.
That was what I found in the research. But I realized that wasn’t going to be helpful to what it was Craig wanted for him. I talked to Craig about this, and he said he was looking for contrast for the initial antagonism between Shcherbina and Legasov. Eventually, they come to respect one another and they become deeply bonded friends. But there needed to be a contrast between the two of them to begin with.
When you were shooting those scenes, the thing to remember was that, In Legasov’s mind, Shcherbina was always the Ace of Spades. He’s always the alpha, so anything Legasov wants to get done, he has to tell Shcherbina what it is and get him to do it. In our script, Shcherbina was the person in charge. Now, in real life, I suspect that may not necessarily have been the case. I’m not sure, but just from what little I’ve seen of Legasov, I think he probably had more agency than our version.
Still, the idea spoke to one of the themes in Craig’s script, which is the fact that the experts—the scientists, the people with specialized knowledge—were sidelined and ignored. There was a bureaucratic process that had supremacy over everything else, and it was part of what was damaging that system.
The relationship between Legasov and Stellan Skarsgård’s Shcherbina crescendos beautifully in the final episode as Legasov realizes his now-friend is sick, and they discuss their relative importance in the system. Tell me about building that relationship with Stellan.
I’m so fond of Stellan, and we got on really well immediately. We both understood the story we were telling, and how each story complemented the other. Sometimes—not often—there’s an insecurity between actors where you start looking over the fence and the grass is always greener in what the other person has to play. There was none of that with Stellan. We understood it was almost like a double act. There’s a real bromance element to our relationship.
And yes, there’s a journey that these characters go on with one another. There was some discussion, for example, over the first time that his character would call me “Valery”, and the first time I call him “Boris”. Little things like that, which you’re aware of, signal the journey without smacking the audience over the head.
Audiences are smart, and they realize pretty quickly where you’re heading with a story. You can surprise them with detours, but they basically understand the direction of travel.
These two characters really come to rely on one another, and appreciate not just the gifts that each of them had, but in terms of the sacrifices and the compromises each has to make. I felt like these two people, who become bonded by this horrific situation, share the same fate. They’re both going to die before their time, and there’s nothing they can do about it because they can’t leave. They share that unique story together in that sense.
The show has inspired a lot of debate about what is true about this retelling and what is invented. But little of it seems to come with anger—rather, curiosity, and the contented acknowledgement that a verbatim retelling would not suit narrative dramatization like this.
Of course. And what I would have said was that they’re asking the wrong question. It would be like staring at a painting and saying, “Well, I don’t like the way it sounds.”
You’re working in a different medium from documentary. This is fictionalized. It’s the magic of “what if” as you start to watch it. We accept that, and understand we’re being told a story. Over five hours we’ll hear a story that actually took place over two years. Of course a lot is going to be left out, and the narrative will be telescoped.
Honestly, people could read a 40,000-volume document on Chernobyl and then miss everything because there’s too much detail. But certainly, in the way Craig and Johan were approaching it, and the way all the departments approached it in terms of production design, costume design, make-up, props, there was a fastidious attention to detail and authenticity.
That was important, because you can tell when you’re watching something and things seem slightly out of place. It was the same with Matthew Weiner on Mad Men as it was with Craig and Johan on this. They’ll look at something and say, “That’s not acceptable; it doesn’t ring true, it wouldn’t have been there, it wouldn’t have happened like that.” There were consultants on set, who they trusted and relied on. That feeling of authenticity was there, and with regards to the storytelling, you want to get as close to the truth of the story you’re trying to tell as possible, even if that means diverging from fact.
In the end, the show has become a real cultural touchpoint. Why do you think it has hit so hard for people, and what do you think it has to say about today?
You only need to look at what’s happening right now to see that the show has touched a nerve, and touched a nerve in a really clever way. It’s not preaching, and it’s not trying to draw obvious parallels, but anybody who wants it can see it.
I think it would be fair to say that Craig had an understanding about that resonance. The idea of talking about lies, and the corrosive effect of lies upon a society, is right there from the very beginning of the show. It was always a part of our conversations, with regards to the script, the direction it took, and the narrative. It was in the DNA of the show.
But, of course, it would be absolute rubbish to say that you always knew it was going to be received in the way it has been received. No one knows what an audience is going to want two years from now. It’d be a trillion dollar talent for anyone to have. With anything you do—any story you tell—if there’s something in it that strikes a chord in you, you hope it will be received in the same way.
The truth is, though, there’s a lot of luck involved. Timing is involved. Look at the way Fight Club was received when it came out. It was largely mishandled. Then, six months later, it became a cult classic. It only happened after the DVD had come out. There are so many examples of this.
I think this show is hitting a nerve at the right moment where there’s this preoccupation on people’s minds about the nature of the state we live in, and under. Of course, that’s a dialogue that’s ongoing all the time, not just in the U.K. or the U.S., but in Europe and across the rest of the world. And it is, I think, the overarching theme of these five episodes.
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