Jared Harris is one of the stars of the acclaimed new HBO limited series “Chernobyl,” about the famous nuclear disaster of 1986. Harris plays Valery Legaslov, the real-life chemist who is brought in to investigate what happened and assist in cleaning up. Harris could be on his way to earning his second Emmy nomination following his nominated performance as Lane Pryce in “Mad Men.”
Harris recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing editor Zach Laws about how the story of Chernobyl applies today, working with one director on the entire series and why he prefers limited series best of all. Watch the exclusive webchat above and read the complete interview transcript below.
Gold Derby: Jared, why was now an appropriate time to tell this story about a nuclear meltdown from about 30 years ago?
Jared Harris: Good question. It is the story about the accident and the heroism and the sacrifices of the people who responded to it and the coverup by the state regarding the reasons behind it. You can see that there are parallels to certain issues that we’re facing today with regard to the people in government deciding that facts, scientific facts that are inconvenient to their political point of view, are suppressed or dismissed. When you’re talking about situations that have catastrophic consequences, it’s a very dangerous situation and there’s a parallel to do with that, obviously. Climate science, the denial of the experts, the suppression of the truth, even the very idea that truth is a malleable concept and that the state has a narrative that they put forward and if you have information or facts that are counter to that narrative, they silence you. The Soviet Union was a state where everyone understood that was the way things were and the population had become cynical to the idea that they could hold power to account. Look what’s on the news today. The parallels are very clear.
GD: Was that part of what attracted you to it?
JH: No, the first thing when my manager called me up to tell me they were interested and was I interested, the first words right out of their mouth were “HBO are doing a miniseries about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.” You hear HBO and you go, “Well, I know it’s gonna be good quality. It’s gonna be interesting. It’s gonna be challenging.” Then I read the first four episodes and 10 pages into it I was hooked, less than that, flipping the pages. I remember the accident. I was in London at the time and I had an impression myself about what I thought had happened and wow. It is so much more complicated than I knew. It was potentially so much more dangerous. It almost took out Europe. It almost poisoned the water supply for most of eastern Europe. All that water floods into the ocean so god knows what it would’ve done to everybody else.
GD: I think it’s a compliment to the filmmaking in this that although it’s based on a true story that we know, it really is quite suspenseful, an engaging and nail-biting thriller. It really makes you think about how close we all come to the brink of annihilation through mishaps and things like that.
JH: Yeah, and just stupidity. Absolute stupidity. People towing party lines. There’s that great line in Episode 2 where Emily Watson’s character goes to the party leader, the mayor of Minsk or whatever and warns him about this cloud and how you have to evacuate the town. And he says, “Well, no, I’ve called up Moscow and they said everything’s fine,” and she says, “I’m a nuclear physicist and I’m telling you, you’re not fine. You’re the foreman of a shoe factory,” and he says, “Well, I prefer my opinion.” That’s where we are now, a group of people who prefer their opinion as opposed to 99% of climate scientists or something extraordinary like that. It’s as close to a consensus as you can get. That 1% of climate scientists might be saying, “I don’t know. We might be living in a simulation. Who can say if it’s the simulation?”
GD: “I’m only about 99% sure as opposed to a 100% sure.” Tell us a bit about the character that you play, Valery Legasov.
JH: A real person, he was a nuclear scientist who was charged with going down there and figuring it out. He has a suspicion that the situation is not what they’re reporting, that it’s a bigger problem than they think it is. Once he gets down there, it’s the worst scenario he could possibly have imagined. Now they’re looking at him going, “Alright, you’re the expert. What do we do?” And there’s no playbook for this. It’s never happened. You’ve gotta figure it out as you go along. You make mistakes, but basically, the first goal is you gotta put out the fire. The reactor’s on fire and it’s burning the buildings. Then you gotta try and slow down the reaction so it stops generating heat. You’ve gotta try and stop it from burning down to the earth’s core and then this whole area’s been contaminated and wind will carry all that radioactive contamination up into the atmosphere and poison everybody. You’ve gotta figure out. “What do we do about that?” It was a massive, massive, massive job and at the end of the day, Gorbachov more than anything else in his opinion, it was the Chernobyl disaster that was the beginning of the end for the Soviet Empire, in his opinion.
GD: Was there research that you could do in order to figure out the character? Obviously, you couldn’t meet with the guy. I don’t know how much of a spoiler that is.
JH: A little bit. There’s some video evidence and photographic evidence. There’s some documentaries that are available on the internet but ultimately, I tried to dive into all that stuff and I realized that obviously Craig [Mazin] had done a deep dive into all this information and he had made narrative decisions. I had to follow those decisions. It’s probably the first time I’ve ever done a role where I didn’t find the research actually helpful at all.
GD: From his five scripts, what did you gain from that?
JH: For me, the way I came to conceive it was he reminded me of the Cassandra character in the Trojan myths. He can see how this can go badly wrong and no one will listen to him. He’s the smartest person in the room that no one pays attention to. He had no agency. He had no power. Anything he wanted to have done has to be filtered through Stellan [Skarsgard]’s character. In the beginning, that was a problem because they had a hostile relationship. Stellan’s character, Shcherbina, in our story feels that Legasov is trying to humiliate him and trying to embarrass him. They get off on the wrong foot even in that first phone call when Legasov tries to flag that the radiation reading is a little more serious than they’re thinking of it being and Shcherbina goes, “Well, there’s no need to panic,” right away dismissing him as an alarmist. They get off on the wrong foot right away but through the course of the story come to trust each other. I suppose that level of it is a kind of bromance. The other part of my conception of it was that he wasn’t heroic. I don’t think you see him as being heroic. He’s not naturally heroic. He’s not the traditional American square-jawed hero that runs towards the sound of gunfire. He never thought that he’d ever be in that situation. For me, I started to observe moments of courage of other people and try to gain power from that, learn from it, and gain some kind of strength with that, solidarity with that. He was scared. He was a person who saw, more than anybody else, not just the consequences for the environment, the consequences on a grand scale, but he understood, “Oh my god, this is gonna take months to fix. I could stay here for maybe a couple weeks before I’ve received a fatal dose of radiation.” He makes a calculation that he’s dead. He’s gonna be dead in five years. He’s not a brave person and I like the idea of someone who wasn’t naturally brave having to step into these ideas of being courageous.
GD: Like I’m sure so many of the other people who were having to deal with this, they’re ordinary people who probably never expected to ever be put into a life or death situation where the fate of so many people is suddenly on their shoulders. It’s an interesting dynamic there as opposed to the John Wayne-type.
JH: Without question, they go, “Stand back, I’ll take care of this.” He doesn’t have that gene in him.
GD: Working with the director, Johan Renck, can you talk a bit about what that collaboration was like and what he gave you?
JH: It was one of the questions I asked, and I was delighted that they had one director for every episode because what you get, it’s not just consistency. You very quickly develop a shorthand. You understand what their vision is, what they’re going after. When you’re imagining scenes that you’re preparing, you already know the world that you need to fit into because obviously, Johan’s there every day dealing with the entirety of the story. You can’t suddenly come at it with a different point of view and different genre. One of the things that Johan said was, “The stakes are high enough in this thing that we don’t need to describe how high the stakes are in our performance. This is a big deal,” and one of the things he said I agreed with was… Quite often you’ll see the video footage of the towers going down. You’re stunned. You don’t react. You don’t know what to do. People are coming from that point of view. It’s not making sense. You’re just trying to compute what’s happening in your mind. There’s a dissonance there. You pick your moments very carefully for when the fight or flight thing starts to happen. Not exaggerated because there’s nothing sensationalized about the approach. You’re earning those big, dramatic moments in that sense and I love that approach. It was obviously a very, very internal approach. Another thing that I admire about what he and the DP did was on one level, there’s the documentary approach in the sense that you’re witnessing those scenes in the Politburo as though there’d been a camera in a room. He also somehow managed to give himself the license to get great scope, epic scope and visual beauty but without the visual beauty being romanticized in any way. He finds stark and shocking and disturbing beauty and visual compositions within scenes and I admire that tremendously. It comes from his background in photography. He was always taking pictures, constantly taking pictures. You do something that’s on this scale, you need to have that visual element to it and it needs to fulfill certain desires that you have as a viewer for that kind of scale as well.
GD: From just watching the very first episode onward, the first thing that struck me about it was the visual style of it and how on the one hand, it’s very austere and on the other hand it’s very epic at the same time. It does a really good job of putting you right there. You’ve done a lot of really great television work in the last few years, Emmy-nominated work on “Mad Men,” BAFTA nominated work on “The Crown,” “The Terror,” which we talked about last year. Being able to play a character over, in the case of this, five episodes, with “The Terror,” 10 episodes, “Mad Men,” multiple seasons, is that exciting for you? Do you enjoy doing that?
JH: I favor the limited series format. I’ve only ever signed a longterm contract once in my life and that was in my third season of “Mad Men” and then they bumped me off. I favor the idea of the limited series. One of the reasons is you can get most of the scripts and you have an idea what it is that you’re getting into and where the story’s going. On those multiple season things, you don’t really know what’s gonna happen. You don’t even know if the showrunner’s gonna be around. They tried to get rid of Matt Weiner after two seasons on “Mad Men.” So yeah, and as opposed to cinema, I feel that the studios have given up on adult audiences. They did that quite a while ago and TV has stepped into that vacuum. There’s an appetite amongst the audiences for complicated stories and for nuanced characters and for challenging stories. I grew up loving the movies of the ‘70s and for me, the closest you can get to that is what they’re doing now on television, on HBO and Netflix, Amazon, AMC. These guys are taking big risks with their storytelling.
GD: This certainly reminded me of a movie from the ‘70s. I think you fulfilled your wish in that regard. Jared Harris, thank you so much. It was a pleasure talking with you again and congratulations on the show.
JH: God bless you, thank you so much. Thanks for chatting with me.