From creator/writer Craig Mazin and director Johan Renck, the five-part HBO mini-series Chernobyl explores how the 1986 nuclear accident become one of the worst human-made catastrophes in history. After the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, Soviet Union suffered a massive explosion that released radioactive material across Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, and as far as Scandinavia and western Europe, countless brave men and women sacrificed their own lives, both knowingly and unknowingly, in an attempt to save Europe from unimaginable disaster.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actress Emily Watson (who plays Ulana Khomyuk, a Soviet nuclear physicist committed to solving the mystery of what led to the Chernobyl disaster) talked about what made her want to be a part of telling this story, what sort of research she did to prepare for the project, shooting in Lithuania and Ukraine, what director Johan Renck brought to the mini-series, how this is a very cautionary tale, the most challenging day on set, and the role that truth and lies played in the events of Chernobyl. She also talked about the type of acting work she’d like to continue to do, and why she’s holding out for something juicy.
Collider: When this came your way and you read the script, what was it that made you want to sign on and have a hand in telling this story?
EMILY WATSON: When I read the script, it was phenomenal. I was page-turning, fascinated and horrified by what I was reading, not necessarily interested in my character, but just going, “Oh, my god, this is unbelievable.” I didn’t know all of that stuff about the fact that there could have been a secondary explosion. I didn’t know about the way that they managed to contain it, and what they had to do. I didn’t know the stuff about the design faults and the state secrets, and all of that. It was just so shocking. To me, that was riveting. But then, to play somebody who is a real truth ninja, who is in that repressive society, where speaking your mind and speaking the truth is dangerous to your life, and then still decides, “Well, the fate of the world is hanging in the balance and the truth has to be told, and I’m going after it.” That was thrilling stuff. I can’t tell you how much of a buzz I got out of playing that person. She’s just hard as nails going for it.
What sort of research did you do for this? What did you do to feel like you really understood who this woman would be?
WATSON: She’s from Belarus, and you don’t have to look at the history of Belarus for very long to recognize that it was [one of the worst places to be in the 20th century. People there came under the most appalling attack and atrocities, from both the East and the West, and particularly around the Second World War. So, my character would have been a child in the Second World War. I conceived of her as somebody who’d lived through atrocities, and who had seen things that no child should see, and was incredibly tough because of that. She lived in a state where nobody trusted anybody, anyway, and you don’t have real conversations. All she trusted and believed in was science and following the truth of that. That’s really where, to me, she came from, and that’s what drives her. She’s not a real person. She’s a tribute to the scientists in her situation, who contributed to finding out what happened and helped to prevent repeating it.
When you’re not beholden to one specific person like that, because you’re playing a composite of people, as an actor, do you feel more of a sense of freedom, in the way that you can approach playing her, since you can create something that you feel is appropriate, as opposed to having to stick to one person?
WATSON: Yeah. In a way, that’s been done by the writer. He brought together the elements that he needed to tell the story. And even if you’re playing somebody who’s real, unless they’re a really famous person, just mimicking somebody for the sake of it doesn’t necessarily serve the story well. It’s about trying to get inside their background and the mind-set of where they’ve come from in life. If they’re a real person, there’s the true person, so there’s a bible that you can go to and say, “Okay, their parents were like this, and they grew up here, and this was their education, and these were the influences in their life.” That’s great to have because it gives you a really good framework. On the other hand, when you’re playing somebody who’s not real, you can make that up yourself, which is quite liberating.
You shot this mostly in Lithuania, with a little bit in the Ukraine. How was your experience shooting there?
WATSON: It was very interesting. Lithuania is a beautiful country, and it has a lot of architecture and influences that feel much more Southern European. It feels much closer to being where I live, in Western Europe. Then, when you go to Kiev and the Ukraine, you’re suddenly like, “Okay, this is a whole different thing. We are really far east here, and it’s really much closer to the center of what was the Soviet Union.” Ukraine is a beautiful country, but also, the older half of the population, their second language is Russian, they grew up under Soviet occupation, they’re guarded, and they’re of a certain cultural expression and persuasion, because they grew up in that totalitarian state. In Vilnius, we filmed in the KGB Museum, which was decommissioned in the 1980s. There are torture cells in there, which is for a pool of water and a stool that sits in the middle of it. They fill it up with water, and you sit on the stool. If you fall asleep, you will go into the water and drown, so it was a way of keeping somebody awake for days and days and days on end. We filmed in there, and that was only decommissioned in the 1980s, so you feel the pernicious influence of that totalitarianism everywhere that you are. But the younger part of the population, their second language is English, and they’re incredibly open, friendly, welcoming, skillful, and very, very internet savvy and in touch with everything. They all have an app of their phones, to warn of Russian invasion. It’s a fear. A lot of the crew were Lithuanian, and that was an incredible resource because they all knew whether something was authentic or not. They would say, “Oh, no, it wouldn’t look like that,” or “It wouldn’t happen like that.” We really felt like we were in touch with that culture.
This mini-series has a very specific look and feel to it. Did it feel important to you, to have the same director for all of the episodes?
WATSON: Absolutely. I’m not a fan of having different directors coming in for different episodes. I think it does something very weird to the creative balance. Johan Renck is very, very bold, and he knows exactly what he wants. Quire a lot of the time, we’d finish early. We’d get through our day quickly because he was so clear, and that didn’t mean he was tame. He’d take quite interesting risks, a lot of the time, but he just had a very, very clear visual sense of exactly how things needed to look. He didn’t want us all to be demonstrative and dramatic. It’s a lot of very hard people who don’t give a lot away when they speak. A lot of it is guarded. It becomes less so, as it goes on and they form a team, and they get to know each other. But towards the beginning, all of the individuals are very much on their own islands, and they very slowly and gradually come together, as a team. It’s a very different feel from how you forge that kind of community in American storytelling, where everyone is demonstrative and emotional.
It’s interesting how much we really get to learn about your character, Ulana Khomyuk, through her interactions with Jared Harris’ character, Valery Legasov. What did you enjoy about exploring that relationship, and having Jared Harris to play that dynamic with?
WATSON: It was a joy, going to work, every day. The very first scene we did was the scene at the beginning of Episode 5, when I go to his apartment to tell him that he has to tell the truth in court. It was like going into that with a great athlete. He’s just really there and present, and everything is very nuanced and alive. Jared is the opposite of lazy. He’s incredibly meticulous and thorough, and really pulls everything apart and makes sure that it makes sense. He’s just a really great team player. There’s no sense of ego. He’s really an actor’s actor, which is so wonderful and lovely.
What was it like to live inside of a world where the society itself won’t allow you to speak up or speak out and tell the truth because, by doing so, you’re really putting your life in very real danger? When you live in that, even if it’s just on a movie set, does it give you a different perspective or appreciation for not having to live like that?
WATSON: Yeah. It’s a very cautionary tale for our times, this piece. We’re not living in a totalitarian state, but we are living in a place where the truth is not a fixed and the goal posts are shifting, as far as what truth is and who owns it. It’s buy-able. Democracy has become buy-able. This is what happens when you stop listening to the experts. We are facing a global crisis that we are in as much denial about, as the Soviet Union was about their nuclear accident. It’s a nuclear accident on a much smaller time scale. We’ve got a decade or so, in which to reverse it.
Was there a most challenging day on set for you during this production?
WATSON: There are the high holy days of filming that are really challenging, when everybody is really, really going for it and gunning for it, and there’s a sense of real respect around scenes that are challenging. I love that. That’s what I enjoy most. Some of the stuff that was tricky was when we had the guy in the hospital bed with all of the scars, and then his skin was falling off. He’d been in make-up since 2am, and it was really shocking and tough. Just the presence of that, on the set, was very sobering somehow. People were very quiet and respectful around it, and it was very interesting to interact with somebody who was evidently in the last gasp of their life, and trying to extract vital information from them. That was quite an interesting scene to play.
It’s clear that we’ll never know the actual human cost of what happened, especially when you hear the statistic that it could be anywhere between 4,000 and 93,000 deaths. As a result of that, do you think it’s more important for people to learn about how and why this happened, and the role that truth and lies play in something like this, as opposed to the specific numbers?
WATSON: Absolutely. The role that truth and lies play is a very good way of putting it, in this kind of disaster. But for the heroism of the people on the ground, in the first 48 hours, they could’ve destroyed half of the planet. The fact is that people were running that plant with the knowledge of its design fault, and that’s astonishing. That’s like the plot of a really ridiculous conspiracy disaster movie, but that’s what happens when you start to bury the truth about these really important things. None of those weapons have gone away. They’re all still there. It’s astonishing that we live with that level of danger. The sarcophagus that they built over Chernobyl is good for a hundred years, and Ukraine currently has an actor as their president, so good luck with that one.
Do you know what’s next for you?
WATSON: No, I don’t know what I’m going to do next, but I really feel like I want to do something about a woman, who is my age and interesting, in some way. I want to do something effective and interesting. I just think that the time is now, to embrace that. When I was younger, it was just assumed there was a diminishing return pyramid. As you got older, more and more actresses just dropped off the scene, and only three or four would make it through to the end. That time needs to be over. I’m holding out for something juicy.
Is it hard to find those types of projects?
WATSON: I don’t know, really. I only get to see the things that come my way. I don’t know the entirety of the stuff that’s out there. There are always ones where you just do a job because it’s convenient, or you’re running out of cash, or that aren’t necessarily the ones that are going to stay with you forever, but I’ve been lucky. I’ve had quite a handful of works that I feel very passionate about, in my career.
Chernobyl airs on Monday nights on HBO.