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, actor Jared Harris (who plays leading Soviet nuclear physicist Valery Legasov, one of the first to truly grasp the scope of the disaster) talked about why he wanted to be a part of telling the story of Chernobyl, what made it such a gripping page-turner, how what he learned changed his perspective on what really happened, the experience of shooting in Lithuania and being in a real power plant, the human cost of what happened, and the role that truth and lies played in the disaster. He also talked about what gets him excited about a script and character, why he wanted to be a part of Morbius with director Daniel Espinosa, and growing up as a fan of comic books.
Collider: I’ve seen this mini-series and there are so many levels to it, from horror to courtroom drama to just a completely personal human story.
JARED HARRIS: It cleverly touches on several genres. That was all, of course, completely conscious on (writer) Craig Mazin’s part. I wasn’t aware of transiting from a disaster story to a political thriller to a courtroom drama, necessarily. You don’t step back that far from it to see it in those terms. When you’re reading the scripts, you appreciate that’s where it’s going, but that stuff doesn’t mean anything when you’re acting a scene. You don’t act it differently because your responsibility is the same, no matter what sort of genre you’re in.
When I spoke to Stellan Skarsgard, he talked about how impressed he was with your courtroom scenes. With that, did you feel like there was an extra level of preparation, especially doing so much dialogue?
HARRIS: There has to be. That came quite early in the schedule, and you need to be on top of your material and your responsibility. Because of professional pride, you want it to go well. There were different ways that one could have done that scene and told that part of the story, but (director) Johan [Renck] and Craig didn’t want it to feel as though this person was accomplished, in that scenario. When he’s describing the technical matters, then he’s in a comfort zone, but in terms of that room itself, he’s not an advocate, he’s not a lawyer, and he’s not a prosecutor. He’s an expert witness. They never wanted him to feel as though that was an environment that he was comfortable in. Whereas you could have done a version where he was banging the table and going, “I want the truth!” “You can’t handle the truth!”
When this came your way and you read the script, what was it about this project that made you want to sign on?
HARRIS: The great story. It was a page-turner, that was a gripping story. The stakes couldn’t be higher. And it was also a wonderful testament to the heroic sacrifices of people whose names history doesn’t record, hasn’t recorded, and doesn’t remember, even though they should be remembered. They should be validated for the sacrifices that they made, and when I say that, I’m not thinking specifically of the main characters. I’m thinking of the divers who went in there, the helicopter pilots who flew over the reactors, the miners, and the people that went up on to the roof to clear the roofs, so they could build the container structures. They did it, knowing what they were doing. The firemen were kept in the dark. They were never trained for how to approach a fire where the core had been exposed, so they thought they were just dealing with a conventional fire, and that’s a shocking situation for them to have been put into. They weren’t given the information, at all.
People have heard of Chernobyl and they think they know what happened, but how has having done this changed your perspective on what occurred?
HARRIS: Well, on the one hand, it’s made me hyper-vigilant about how dangerous radiation is, and on the other hand, it’s somewhat mitigated because when you’re trying to understand some of the levels of exposure, you realize that you’re actually exposed to more radiation, every time you’re on a transatlantic flight. They just don’t tell you that. The other thing about it is just how bad it could have gone and how close we came. It was that classic cutting the wire with 0.1 seconds to go. We were very, very close to some catastrophic results, from the effects of it. I didn’t know about that. I didn’t know anything about Legasov. I had never heard his name, so that was extremely educational. I was deeply moved by the sacrifices that people made, and they made them for and on the behalf of people that would never know.
The end of the film, when you learn so much more about what happened, beyond the story that’s being told, makes everything so tragic, and it’s sad to know that Legasov’s life ended in suicide, as a step to force people to pay attention to what he was saying. After having spent so much time with him for this, how would you like to see him remembered?
HARRIS: The act that he takes at the end of his life is a statement. You have to remember that he was dying, and it was a very courageous thing that he did, in the sense that he decided to forego the last few years that he would have left, to try to instigate a release of the information and a commitment towards fixing the problems, so that it didn’t happen again. The Soviets said that they were going to erase him from history, but he deserves to be recognized for the role that he played, as do all of those characters. There are a lot of people who made sacrifices, and it would be quite hard to figure out what their names were, in terms of all of the people that were up on the roof, and who all of the miners were.
It sounds like the majority of this was shot in Lithuania. How was your experience there?
HARRIS: I loved it. I really enjoyed it. We were in Vilnius, for most of the time. It’s a beautiful city, and they were very, very friendly. They were really welcoming, and they have good facilities and hard working crews. I recommend Vilnius, if you’re interested in traveling. It’s a lovely place to be. Get there before the British stag parties discover it because it’s not fun, when those guys show up.
You also got to shoot in a real nuclear power plant.
HARRIS: We did.