As Game of Thrones continues to barrel toward the Iron Throne, HBO’s preparing to launch its Chernobyl miniseries. The five-part event takes an unflinching look at one of the worst man-made disasters — the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant explosion in Ukraine, Soviet Union on April 26, 1986 — and the radioactive and political fallout that followed. The project (which stars Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgard, and Emily Watson) intimately dramatizes the accident and the heroic sacrifices that went into saving Europe from further catastrophe. It’s an intense, horrifying, and heartbreaking story, not to mention a compelling take that one can’t find in the history books.
Executive produced and written by Craig Mazin (The Hangover sequels, The Identity Thief, and more) and directed by Johan Renck, the series examines bravery, cowardice, manipulation, and coverups. Mazin was gracious enough to sit down with us to discuss Chernobyl‘s continuing relevance and how much work was involved to bring this miniseries to life. He’s also well-known for being the screenwriter who informed the Thrones showrunners that their pilot was absolutely terrible, and he had also the misfortune of being Ted Cruz’s college roommate — so naturally, we asked him about those things as well.
The word “Chernobyl” is a heart-stopper, and this series lives up to that sense of dread. What was the most important ingredient for striking the right series tone?
We all felt a need to be as clear-eyed and honest about what happened as we could be. That meant looking unblinkingly at some very hard-to-look-at things, some scary things, but to do so in a way that wasn’t sensationalist. We’re not interested and have never been interested in making a disaster show or a horror show or a political thriller. This was never about trying to fit into a genre. This is really about us trying to fit into the reality of what Chernobyl was. We really tried to make what was real and what really happened our beacon, and we followed that as best we could.
The magnitude of this project is immense, including the human element. How did you wrap your head around the almost impossible task of framing this story?
Good question. I began with a character, a man, named Valery Legasov, who was put in charge of the immediate cleanup and handling of the Chernobyl disaster, and he committed suicide two years to the day after the disaster. To me, his life from 1986 to 1988 was essentially a kind of organizing spine to everything that happened at Chernobyl. But of course, the story is far, far bigger than just one man, and so I also tried really hard to present this massive event, historical event, from wildly different perspectives. And yet to think, the only way to understand some of the human tragedy is to experience it through the eyes of one person, so the show ranges from a sort-of Kremlinized view to the life of a dying firefighter.
Given that Legasov died a few years after the Chernobyl disaster, how did you tap into his mindset?
Interestingly, he did leave behind a recorded memoir, and his recordings were one of the reasons why the truth behind Chernobyl became known in the Soviet Union. And one of the reasons why a lot of changes were made in the way the Soviet nuclear industry was run, so I was able to actually look at transcripts of those as well as just study other accounts of his behavior and decisions. He was a fascinating man. He was not — we do not do pure heroes in this show — no one is a pure anything. We really try to address what is human and honest about everyone. Valery Legasov was a zealot. He was a Communist Party zealot. He was part of the system, and over the course of his experience with Chernobyl, a lot of that just starts to fall apart. That, in and of itself, was surprising to me, and also very honest and real.
What did Jared Harris bring to the Legasov role that others couldn’t have pulled off?
Here’s a difficult task. You have to ask someone to portray someone who is intellectually brilliant. Who has an instant, easy command of an enormous range of scientific facts that are difficult for other people to understand at all. He has to be someone who can portray a man who is thrown into something that is far beyond his capacity to deal with, and then he has to deal with it. While he’s doing all of that, he has to find himself increasingly facing impossible decisions where there is no good answer, and he has to go from being a comfortable academician who used to sit at an institute and study chemistry and nuclear physics to a man who has decide who lives and who dies. That requires an actor who is intellectually supreme but also remarkably vulnerable and capable of expressing tremendous emotion even as his own character tries to repress that emotion. It’s a nearly impossible task, and Jared just did it. It was almost as if he didn’t have to try, and I know for a fact that he did. So there’s an enormous amount of effort that goes into a part like this, and he put it in, but like anyone who is great at their job, he made it look effortless. It is a remarkable performance, and I’m in awe of it to be honest with you.
Was there any concern about this story’s timeliness or relevance decades later — while bringing it to today’s audience?
No, because to me, the show is not about a nuclear reactor in the Soviet Union exploding in 1986. This is not a disaster story. To me, Chernobyl is about what happens when people choose to believe a lie instead of the truth. And that can’t be more relevant now. There is no better time to tell this story right now when there is a global war on the truth. When everyone is awash in propaganda and distortion and confusion, all of which is in service of agendas. And none of which has any concern for what’s just true. And Chernobyl is very much a warning and an allegory for what happens when we decide that what we want the truth to be is more important than what the truth actually is.
Did anything about the coverup effort surprise you?
Everything. It’s one of those stories where as I read, I kept thinking, “Well, someone is gonna do the thing that I imagine somebody should do,” and it didn’t happen. And the things that occurred after the explosion were so much more surprising to me and startling and upsetting. The explosion was the beginning. The things that came after were the most shocking and the most heartbreaking, but also, they were the most inspiring because that’s when you saw just how enormous the human capacity for nobility and sacrifices is. There were real heroes there, and we owe it to him to know what they did.
You obviously used stand-in locations for Chernobyl and the nearby city of Pripyat. How important was authenticity for those details and others?
We were obsessed with authenticity. All of us … with getting every detail right, right down to shoelaces, down to watches, eyeglasses, hats, and hairstyles. That’s not because we had some strange fetish for arcane accuracy. It’s because we were telling a human story, and part of that is getting those details right out of respect for them. I know that there are people alive today who were in that power plant that night, [or] whose loved ones died, [or] who are walking around without a thyroid gland because of Chernobyl. The people who made this cared enough to get it right, and we really, really did.
It feels disrespectful to say that those details looked almost effortless, at least compared to the emotional aspects of the story.
That’s the best compliment because it was an insane effort. I mean, just a mindboggling effort to get these details right. You can’t even imagine how much work went into this on everyone’s part. It was massive.
Speaking of juggernauts, Game of Thrones is obviously on everyone’s mind right now, and you are known for kind-of saving that pilot.
Nooo! (laughs) No. I did not.
In your words, I think you called the pilot a “complete piece of sh*t”?
How do you look back on that now, almost eight seasons later?
To be clear, I did nothing. All I did was watch an hour of a show that no one knew anything about and then give my friends my honest opinion. And what they did — and I wasn’t the only person who saw it, and I assume I wasn’t the only person who had that opinion — what those two guys did, David Benioff and Dan Weiss — was go back and rewrite and reshoot and then a few months later, I saw the result, which was the first episode of the first season of Game of Thrones when everybody else was seeing it. And I was just … my jaw dropped. I couldn’t believe it. It was remarkable. I have not missed a second of that series since that day, so the only difference between me and everyone else is that I’ve seen exactly one more episode of Game of Thrones that everyone else. That’s it. I can’t take any credit. It has been remarkable to see how … by giving smart, creative people a little bit of extra space, a little bit of room, it pays off. And HBO deserves an extraordinary amount of credit for having the foresight, wisdom, and generosity to give those guys the space they needed to create what is the greatest television show of all time.
You might kill me for this last question, but you also had the displeasure having Ted Cruz as a roommate in college. Beyond the sex-related topics you’ve discussed already, what’s the most annoying habit he had?
Oh, he would set his alarm for very early in the morning, and then it would go off, wake us both up, and then he would hit the snooze button. Over and over and over. So, finally one day, I just Krazy Glued it. And that is my advice to America. You’re not gonna ever shut Ted Cruz up until you Krazy Glue him. I guess the equivalent to that would be to vote him out of office, and I hope that eventually, the good people of Texas come to that realization.
HBO’s ‘Chernobyl’ premieres on Monday, May 6 at 9:00 pm EST.