MANILA, Philippines — It was on April 26, 1986 when the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, Soviet Union suffered a massive meltdown and explosion, unleashing radioactive material across Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, and even as far as Scandinavia and western Europe.
HBO’s historical drama Chernobyl tells the story of this nuclear accident, and the people who put their reputations and lives on the line to unearth the truth about what had become one of the worst man-made disasters of all time. Airing Tuesdays, 9 a.m., on HBO Go and HBO, the five-episode show (which HBO co-produced with the British network Sky) is creating buzz as the TV gem filling the void left by Game of Thrones. It has been given the top rating on IMDB.com and a critics’ score of 96 percent on Rot-ten Tomatoes.
Chernobyl stars Jared Harris (The Crown, Mad Men) as Soviet nuclear physicist Valery Legasov, one of the first to grasp the magnitude of the disaster; Emily Watson (Hilary and Jackie and Breaking the Waves) as the Soviet nuclear physicist Ulana Khomyuk who’s determined to solve the mystery behind the cause of the accident; and Stellan Skarsgard (Mamma Mia!, Good Will Hunting) as Soviet Deputy Prime Minister Boris Shcherbina, tasked by the Kremlin to lead the government commission on the Chernobyl tragedy.
The 67-year-old Swedish actor Stellan, whom The STAR interviewed in a group phoner, recalled where he was when it happened: “It happened when I was in Stockholm. The first news we got was a high radiation had been detected in one of our nuclear plants. And everybody was expecting a new accident.
“We were waiting for the following reports and pretty quickly, they realized that the radiation did not come from the Swedish nuclear plant. It was (ash) fall that came with the winds from Chernobyl. They identified the source as Chernobyl. And then American satellite photos showed that there had been an explosion there.
“Sweden, especially Northern Sweden, was badly affected, so we couldn’t pick berries or mushrooms or eat reindeer in the years afterwards. But I didn’t know anything about the technicalities. I didn’t know about the web of lies and political decisions that caused the accident. That I find very interesting in the series.”
In a backgrounder, HBO said that Chernobyl writer, creator and executive producer Craig Mazin started his research on the Chernobyl disaster in 2014, utilizing books and government reports from inside and outside of the Soviet Union, and interviewing nuclear scientists and former Soviet citizens to understand the culture in 1986.
While it happened more than three decades ago, the lessons gleaned from this event in the past remain relevant in the present day. Stellan said, “I think it’s not a historical (project) in the sense that it actually touches on very important subjects (today). It’s not only about environmental problems that we create as human beings. Even if nuclear power, I mean … it’s absolutely one of the safest and cleanest energy forms. But the problem is, humans from different regions are not perfect. And Chernobyl shows a system that wanted to be infallible, so efficient, which meant that the truth that could threaten their image were suppressed.
“And it is a problem when you suppress truth, whether it’s for political reasons or for financial reasons and profit … where you cut corners to make more money. In a way, I think, it’s a reminder, that science and truth are really important to protect, especially in these days, when the most powerful man in the world lies 16.5 times a day, according to Washington Post.”
When Stellan first read the script, he immediately found it “cleverly written.”
Hollywood star Stellan Skarsgard plays the conflicted character, Boris Shcherbina, in the series.
“It was very hard to put it down. It’s written in some ways like a horror film or a thriller. And at the same time, it’s all facts. It’s the truth. It’s not overly dramatizing it. It’s not romanticizing it. It’s not making it more appealing to a pop (culture) consuming audience. Reality can be brutal and interesting enough, you don’t have to Hollywood-ize everything. I was very impressed with the script. Most of the scripts you get are aesthetics, if they’re good, they’re usually good entertainment but they don’t say anything about the world today. It doesn’t make you think. I think, this series is a Vitamin E injection straight into your brain.”
Personally, the material appealed to him because he simply loves the subject. Stellan, whose childhood dream was to be a diplomat (like his idol Dag Hammarskjöld, a Swedish diplomat and former Secretary-General of the United Nations) and whose idea of relaxation is devouring books on politics and economy, said: “Of course, the subject, I’m truly politically interested and aware of what’s going on in the world and I could say that this series made me think more about certain things, as I’ve mentioned the im-portance of truth…”
The Hollywood star also offered a glimpse of the scale and amount of resources that HBO poured into the production. “It’s a very big production. It feels like shooting a big film. The resources were great. You could see it with the amount of people involved — 104 actors and some of the greatest actors around. The clothes were specially made to look exactly like they did. My (costumes) were even made in original fabrics from that time, and with detail. We had five months to do five hours (of filming), which is like shooting a big movie.
“And the wonderful thing is, when we shoot something like this, this would never be made this way as a film by a big Hollywood studio because there’s too much fear, too much compromise to make the financiers happy. It’s extremely courageous to make something wonderful and serious and spend a lot of money on it, and they don’t have to sell it like a pop thing, you know. It was such a pleasure to work with such big resources and so much talent, and doing something that meant something and not just enter-tainment.”
The historical drama also stars Jared Harris as Soviet nuclear physicist Valery Legasov, who is part of the first response team, and Emily Watson as Soviet nuclear physicist Ulana Khomyuk who’s determined to solve the mystery behind the cause of the disaster.
Chernobyl afforded him the opportunity to work with Emily again after their last film together Breaking the Waves more than 20 years ago. “Of course, I fell in love with her when we made Breaking the Waves and I wanted to work with her so bad again because she’s a fantastic actress and finally this opportunity came and it was just irresistible. The situation is quite different now, compared to Breaking the Waves, because for one we didn’t make love in this one (laughs). We kept our clothes on, but still it was great to work with her.”
Stellan has also been longing to work with co-star Jared and the director Johan Renck, whose first feature film years ago, he was supposed to star in, but the plan fell through.
As for his role in the series, Stellan said it still presented him fresh challenges — this, despite his seasoned and multi-awarded career of playing countless characters on the big and small screens. Just to name a few, he was Capt. Tupolev in The Hunt for Red October, Prof. Gerald Lambeau in Good Will Hunting, Bootstrap Bill Turner in Pirates of the Caribbean films, Bill Anderson in Mamma Mia! films and Dr. Erik Selvig in the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, among others.
“I can’t grade the challenges of all the things that I’ve done. But you would think that, OK, you’ve done a hundred films, you should know how to do it now, but you don’t! Every film is unique, which means that the moment I say yes to a project, I panic because I really don’t know how to do it (laughs). And then I try to find a way to do it,” he shared.
“The challenges that are particular to this project are … In the last episode, there’s a trial and lots of technical stuff to present in a monologue. And I hate monologues! I hate exposition and explaining things so that was a big challenge, too. And then, of course, (to have) my first fake eyebrows in my entire career, to keep them on for a while. I was very happy getting rid of them (laughs).”
Another scene from the series
For Stellan, it was most interesting to flesh out a character conflicted with being faithful to long-held beliefs and ferreting out the truth. “The most interesting thing is to play a character that’s done his whole life to turn to a system, ideology that stays, and who believes in it fully and wholly. And then, to see him getting all his delusions punctured in a very short time, and to be forced to eventually decide whether he should continue to fight for a system that he loves and has been fighting for all his life, or should he start to fight for the truth,” he said.
Stellan was asked if he had experienced similar situations, wherein he had to stand up or fight for something, in his career or personal life. “It’s not so difficult to stand up for something as a character because it’s all designed for the script and necessary for the film. I have no problems playing a Nazi or playing the sweetest man on earth, it doesn’t matter. If the material is sort of morally acceptable for me… then there’s no problem playing someone who is sort of dubious as a character.”
And he’s all for diversity and variety in screen work. “I’ve done all kinds of films, and with so different purposes, and it’s interesting to go from Mamma Mia! to Chernobyl. From Chernobyl, it would be fun to do Mamma Mia! again (laughs).”
As for real life, he reflected, you’re constantly fighting and struggling with moral questions. “I think it’s so important, as the series points out, that we have to some extent de-fend the truth and to defend science again, because in the world today, lies travel much, much faster than the truth. The truth is always more complicated. It demands morals.”
Meanwhile, Stellan happens to be the patriarch of a showbiz family that includes sons who starred in other HBO shows — Alexander Skarsgard in True Blood and Gustaf Skarsgard in Westworld. Bill and Valter are his two other children in the acting world. “They’re all doing very well. But I’m proud of them because they’re really good people because how your career works in this world is a bit of a luxury. I’m happy that they’re good actors, but I’m most happy when I see them together and how they treat people. I’m just as happy when I hear people, who just worked with them, say that they’re wonderful people and generous and tolerant. That makes me more happy than any awards that I get.”