ON April 26, 1986, a catastrophic explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine released radioactive material across Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine and as far away as Scandinavia and western Europe.
Thirty-three years later, it resulted in a five-part miniseries about the catastrophe. Aptly titled Chernobyl, it debuted on May 7 on HBO.
Chernobyl, which is written by Craig Mazin and directed by Johan Renck, tells the story of the terrifying nuclear plant disaster that occurred in the town of Pripyat, Ukraine, which immediately killed 31 people in the aftermath of the explosion.
One of the main cast is Emily Watson who plays the fearless scientist Ulana Khimyuk. She is tasked to get to the bottom of what is deemed one of the worst man-made catastrophes in history.
Watson considers herself lucky to be given a clean slate.
“Ulana is not a real character but an amalgam of people who contributed to the work, a number of scientists and people who work in that community who were focused towards solving the mystery of what had happened and helping in the clear up,” said the actress who also starred in Genius and The Theory Of Everything.
Ulana is a character from Belarus who had survived terrible atrocities and as a scientist to uncover the truth, she has had to battle a culture of disinformation.
“You don’t have to know very much about Belarus to know that it was one of the worst places to live in the 20th century in terms of mass extinction of people because of invasions from all sides. She would have been a child at that time. So, at the time of Chernobyl, I saw her as somebody who had grown up in a place you probably have to be incredibly tough to survive. I see her as being married to science,” she said.
“That sort of life experience gave her the right tenacity to just go. When that alarm goes off, she goes, ‘Okay that is my calling. This is the call to arms. And I am going to follow that and beat it!’” said Watson of her character who appears fearless as she pushes for her voice to be heard in what would seem an impossible mission.
“I had choices to make that were about telling a story. If she is a real person, then it’s a very different kind of resource that you have. I have played many real people before in my career and you still have the point where you have to go ‘ Okay, that’s them, this is me and this is an interpretive act that I am engaged in. This isn’t a documentary and I am making dramatic choices’,” she said.
“When you have a script like this, you devour it. It’s amazing. I really want to do this,” added Watson who was at university in Bristol when the incident happened.
“The script to me was the most astonishing. It was a three-dimensional dissection of this event from a scientific, political, spiritual, emotional aspect. He (Mazin) delved into this subject so deeply. There was a lot of scientific resources available — quite a few books we read.”
Stellan Skarsgard of Mamma Mia and Good Will Hunting plays Boris Shcherbina, the man responsible for leading the USSR government commission in the wake of the disaster. He agrees that it was the well-written script that had persuaded him to be part of the production.
“There’s a lot of thought on political systems, on information, truth, and science and also about the environment and what we are doing to this planet. There are a lot of things to think about. But it was written in a beautiful way. In a way, it is a standard catastrophe drama of what happened and then it’s combined with courthouse drama — the sort that reveals fact after fact after fact, but at the same time it digresses all the time.
“It sorts of floats away from the straight narrative and it goes away with one person, and then with that person and then a novella around that person happens, and then it goes with another person. Throughout the series, the meandering of the structure is fascinating,” explained Skarsgard about the miniseries.
“Shcherbina,” he said of his character, “is one of the highest-ranking ministers in the Soviet Union. He spent his entire life protecting and defending the system and believing in the qualities of the communist system.
“He is confronted with new knowledge of new technology, about what really happened and what has to be done. He has to accept the authority of Valery Legasov (the Soviet scientist chosen by the Kremlin to investigate the accident) played by Jared Harris.
ON INFALLIBLE SYSTEMS
Skarsgard admitted he had had no interest in science before but was always interested in how things work and how people and political systems work.
“Of course I started looking into how a nuclear reactor works before we started filming. But I also started looking into the political situation in the Soviet Union at the time. I think one of the things that’s interesting about the film is that if you have an infallible ideology — whether it is religion, communism or anything — and if you subscribe to the infallibility of your beliefs, that means that anything that threatens that has to be suppressed.
“That means you immediately have to start lying. That’s always dangerous. With the growing lack of faith in science and knowledge and truth these days, it is good to be reminded about that,” he said, explaining the cover-up by the Soviet government.
“I did not know that the reason for the accident was because the system did not want to recognise that it was fallible and that was frightening,” he added.
Although Shcherbina is a real person who died in 1990, there was not much information on him for Skarsgard to work on.
The actor was in Stockholm when news of the tragedy broke out.
“We received reports that there had been some radioactivity detected in Sweden and everyone was talking Harrisburg (where the Three Mile Island incident occurred in 1979, involving the partial meltdown of a reactor).
“But very quickly we realised it came from the atmosphere and it kind of came from a fuel that the Soviet Union used,” recalled Skarsgard.
The incident has indeed coloured the actor’s opinion on nuclear energy.
“In 1981, we had a referendum in Sweden, and I voted against it. But the world is in much worst shape today. We have so many ways of killing ourselves.”
Harris stars as Valery Legasov, the Soviet scientist chosen by the Kremlin to investigate the accident. His character, said Harris, was a real person with a slight amalgamation of one or two other characters.
“He is someone who needs to go out there and deal with the problem. Of course, it had never happened before and there’s no blueprint of what to do. They were largely making it up as they went along.
“There is some material out there on the Internet. Books have been written about it. He left behind a whole series of interviews or tapes that I have not been able to get hold of. At a certain point towards the end of the whole event, the Soviets decided to erase him from the story and they were pretty successful in terms of having done that in terms of his involvement in solving the problems,” Harris said.
Speaking about his working relationship with Skarsgard, he said: “He is quite an easy person to get along with... he is such great company. The point at which it shifts is when Shcherbina starts to value Legasov and listens to him.
“We discuss the characters. Legasov was the only person who understood the situation but he was never in charge.
“Shcherbina was the one in charge. And at some point, Legarsov had had to be taken seriously by Shcherbina so that they could fix the problem. So it has more to do with a respect issue. At some point, he stopped being a block to him.”
FINDING THE TRUTH
When the accident happened, Harris was in London and there was news about a cloud drifting over Eastern Europe and northern Europe and then over England.
“They were tracking over on the weather channel. There was a warning not to go outside if it was raining. You couldn’t drink milk, eat mushrooms or even lamb because sheep were grazing on radioactive grass,” he recalled.
On the script, he said, “One of the things that Craig understood was the suppression of truth. He said the society had given up on the idea of ever being told the truth”.
Harris found a lot of online resources and documentaries to help him understand the story and the character he was playing.
“One of the things that I found most effective was the book Voices From Chernobyl. It’s basically a first-person account of people who were involved at the time. One of the stories that really hit me was about a guy who got evacuated. About a year after the evacuation, he went back to the exclusion zone, broke into it and stole the front door, strapping it to his motorcycle. Soldiers shot at him but he managed to escape. He had the front door fixed to his apartment in Moscow.
“The reason he wanted his front door was because of his family tradition which dictates that he must bury his family members at the front door. His daughter, aged 9, had died because of the radiation and that was why he went back for the door.
“You see how it disrupted people’s lives? Something so simple as that — a front door,” said Harris.
Catch the five-part miniseries Chernobyl on HBO (Astro Channel 411/431 HD) every Tuesday.