Jazz Tangcay talks to Jared Harris about playing a hero in the new series Chernobyl.
In 1986, a power plant in Chernobyl exploded in Ukraine. The news followed the story, tracking the nuclear cloud. It was a catastrophic disaster and the worst nuclear reactor disaster the world had ever seen, with the nuclear cloud reaching as far as 200 miles. In the new HBO series Chernobyl, Jared Harris plays Valery Legasov. Harris was immediately drawn to the script and when we caught up to talk about the series, he recalled watching the events unfold on the news.
We talked about the advantages of working with the same director and working with Emily Watson. Read our chat below and catch the riveting excellent new five-part series airing on HBO tonight.
What do you remember about Chernobyl when it happened?
I remember it very clearly. It was on the news, back when we had four channels back then. It was all over the news. They were tracking the cloud and warning about not being exposed, so if it rains to stay inside. There were restrictions on what you could eat or drink because the ground was contaminated from the rain.
What was your first reaction to reading the script because it opens with quite a scene?
I wanted to do it, and I wanted to be in it. I was excited. I read it and it was really gripping. It was a great story. I had some knowledge of it, but Craig had done a deep dive into the subject matter. It was a page-turner. It’s the sort of thing you hope comes your way.
I got the first four scripts.
What’s your process to dive into this, especially as you’re playing a real-life person here?
It’s the same process I use whether it’s a real person or a fictionalized story. You’re looking for some way for your imagination to connect with the material. If it’s real, then there are probably resources available that you can start digging into whether it’s photographs, source material, or even video footage. All that stuff helps to spark something in your imagination.
In this case, there’s a lot on it, but not a lot about him. There’s not a lot there about him. If you’ve seen all five episodes, you’ll see that they threatened to write him out of the history of it and they successfully did that.
When you’ve got something like that because the big guys have written him out of history, what’s your next move? He’s got so much complexity, where do you draw on that from?
It’s an imaginative process and you look for all these things that will help you in that sense. Ultimately, your responsibility is to play the character that the writer has written. I saw him as being a reluctant hero. I didn’t see him as someone who saw himself as being heroic or as someone who was instinctually heroic. He wasn’t cut from the mold with a square jaw and perfect abs who will run towards danger. I see him as someone who is usually in the background of stuff. It’s his skillset that lands him in the middle of this disaster.
In my mind, I started to track these acts of heroism that he witnesses because there’s an accumulation of knowledge and witnessing those things. I suppose it gave him strength and power. Even though there’s the realization that he knows that his timeline has been cut short, I had this conversation with Craig, I think one of the things all human have in common is we’re all guilty of magical thinking. If we are on a plane and we always think, I’ll be the one person who walks off.’ In this case, even though he knew he was dying, the time that he has left is still precious so it makes what happens in the last episode, more significant. For me, one of the things I talked about was that, when you have less time, every moment becomes more precious. The idea of him stepping up to do what he has to do becomes harder to do.
Your responsibility is to tell the story that the writer has shaped for the character.
That opening scene is so gripping. What an opener for the series. Everything from the writing, the directing and your performance from it all. Was that shot early on?
It was the first thing we did. Right at the beginning.
It’s not the first time we’ve seen your character die.
I knew people might go off on a tangent about that. You can’t re-write history. In this case, there was such a specific point to it. It was a statement, but there’s a mystery to it because you don’t find out about that until later. Then you find out why he did it. He knows he’s dead anyway. He uses the opportunity to try to affect change.
It was the first thing we did. On the one hand, it was nice. One of the things you do in a film class or acting class is you do an exercise where your character is home alone and you do that. It’s just him and his cat. With voiceover, it’s never your last pass at it. If you’re doing voiceover, you’re probably doing it right until the movie opens and that’s one of the easiest things to mess with. It was a nice easy way to settle into it really.
It was my first time working with Johan Renck; we got to establish a good relationship and a good dialogue. I was really happy that we had just one director for all five episodes. Quite often what happens is when you’re halfway through a story, and they’re just stepping on, they can’t have known what happened. You end up having to bring someone up to speed. In this situation, because Johan was there every day, he had a very clear sense of the story and how he wanted to tell the story and how he wanted to handle the drama of it. He was very keen that it was never going to be sensationalized. It turned out to be lucky to start that way.
I noticed that it was just seamless and the visual language was all the same because of that.
Also, the tonal shifts were seamless.
What do you look for in a role, what strikes you when a script comes your way?
I look for something that I haven’t done before. I look for good writing and good storytelling. First and foremost, I look to be interested in the story. If you’re not interested in the story, then I don’t think you can convince other people watching it that it’s a story worth telling. You have to feel it. It’s got to excite you. It’s got to be something that where you’ve read the script, you’re talking to your wife or friends, you’re passionate about this story that you’ve just read. You want it to get out there. You want people to hear it and to see it.
You want your part to be good. [laughs]. You want to be able to sink your teeth into something. You want people to be able to see you in something that they haven’t seen you in before. That’s my thing. I don’t like to repeat myself. I like to surprise people, and I like to challenge myself. You’re also asking, who am I working with? It’s an opportunity to learn, especially if you’re working with extremely experienced directors. It’s a chance to watch them. If you’re working with actors that you’ve idolized, you’re never not learning new things.
You’re working with Emily and Stellan, what was that like?
They had a shorthand and a camaraderie based on them working beforehand, but that was a comfortable environment. They’re extremely generous people. They’re generous actors. They’re really supportive and dedicated. They’re really funny. This stuff is tough to do, and it’s a tough world to be in between action and cut, you’re creating these things in your imagination. There’s a lot of work that goes into these scenes prior to them, so it’s important that you’re able to step away from it after the director says cut. You take yourself away from it after the director does that so you can come back the next day and approach it with freshness. They’re such lovely people.
You’re also shooting in Lithuania, what did that add to be shooting over there rather than in some replicated US city?
Lithuania is gorgeous. I knew very little about it. We shot in Kiev too, and I was fascinated by it. I remember there were so many people in uniform and everyone there does national service. Putin was shelling the Eastern part of the country. He had annexed the Crimea, and he was after another part of it. There was a very strong impression of the old Soviet presence there and the old Soviet regime.
We shot at a power plant in Ignalina. The Soviets spilled 23 RBMK reactors, and one of them was there. They were de-commissioning that power plant because that was part of the requirements for them to enter the EU. There was very intense security. We were under armed machine guard everywhere we went. You immediately are reminded that there are secrets. They are still concerned that there was material there that people could discover. It was impressive and daunting. It was an exact replica of the Chernobyl plant.