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 Stellan Skarsgard (who plays Soviet Deputy Prime Minister Boris Shcherbina, the man assigned by the Kremlin to lead the government commission on Chernobyl, in the hours immediately following the accident) talked about why this telling of the story appealed to him, playing a character who’s the representative of a faulty system, his perspective on the effects of Chernobyl vs. how we’re currently treating the world that we live in, the experience of shooting in Lithuania and being in a real nuclear power plant, working with co-star Jared Harris, and what he hopes people take from seeing this mini-series. He also talked about playing Baron Harkonnen in Dune, for director Denis Villeneuve, playing a very clear villain, and the hours of make-up involved, along with what he looks for in a project.
Collider: When this came your way and you got to read the script, what was it that made you want to sign on and have a hand in telling this story?
STELLAN SKARSGARD: First of all, it was a very well-written script, and it was not sentimentalizing the story. It was very true to the story, but also true to the people that were involved. It was not trying to put strength and sugar on everything. It’s very, very well written. But then, I also wanted to work with Emily Watson again, whom I haven’t worked with since we did Breaking the Waves, some 20 years ago. And I wanted to work with Jared Harris, who is a fantastic actor. I also knew the director, Johan Renck. We were supposed to do his first feature film together, many years ago, and it never happened, so I was looking forward to working with him, as well. There’s an enormous flow of content now, through all kinds of media channels. There are so many TV series made, and there’s so much film. Not many of the scripts I read are dealing with important subjects that concern us today, as much as this script does.
Did you get the scripts for all five parts of this, at once?
SKARSGARD: Yes, I read all five of them.
I love the way this story unfolds because I think it’s so effective, going back to the beginning, at the end of it. It’s told in a way that really emotionally affects you.
SKARSGARD: It does. And it’s the horrifying facts that are produced, combined with digressions into those stories about the humans that were involved, told in a beautiful, meandering way.
What was it about your character, specifically, that most interested you in playing him?
SKARSGARD: It’s interesting to play a character who is representative of a faulty system, and has spent his life defending it, and then has to look back at his life and admit that he’s been wrong. Finally, he comes to the conclusion that he has to stand up for something else.
What did you know about Chernobyl, prior to doing this, and how has your perspective changed now?
SKARSGARD: I was in Sweden when it happened, and I’m old enough to remember it. I remember the shock, when we had so much downfall in Sweden. For years, we could not eat berries, or mushrooms, or reindeer meat from Northern Sweden. We were affected, as a country. At the time, we had a referendum about whether we should have nuclear power in Sweden or not, and I voted against it, but we still have nuclear power because that side lost the referendum. Since then, the situation has become more complicated because today we are committing global suicide much faster, with carbon dioxides and all of the other shit that we’re pumping out, in terms of plastics, toxins, and everything. We’re killing this planet so fast that nuclear power is not the main villain anymore. It’s just one villain. How should you balance all of those stupid things we’re doing, to get to a point where we actually can make this planet survive? I don’t know. But I also think that, before we get a big nuclear catastrophe that will kill a lot of people, we’d probably have some idiot drop a nuclear bomb somewhere.
Yeah, which is all just a little bit terrifying.
SKARSGARD: Yeah, it is. And the treaties between the Soviet Union and the United States, and the world nuclear powers, has been broken now by the current president in this country. He has started expanding the production of nuclear arms.
What sort of research did you do for this? Were there things that helped you feel like you came to an understanding of who this man was?
SKARSGARD: I did because the real man is different from the man that I’m playing. The real man is very hard to get any information about. I play the character of the script, and the script and the story need some things from this character, whether that was the way he was or wasn’t. I don’t even look like the original character, Boris Shcherbina.
You shot the majority of this in Lithuania, with a little bit in the Ukraine. How was your experience there, during the shoot?
SKARSGARD: It’s very nice, and a very modern country. It’s just a really lovely place to shoot in. They have a good infrastructure, they have good crews, and the people are wonderful. Of course, there’s a very difficult history, having been a part of the Soviet Union. They also have a very spotted reputation for their actions towards the Jews, during the war, but that is common for a lot of countries in the region. I had a wonderful time being there, and even though the material is very serious, that doesn’t mean that you’re extremely serious, yourself, when you’re doing it. You have a lot of fun doing it. And working with actors like Emily and Jared was really rewarding, fun and beautiful.