While Game of Thrones prepares its audience for an inevitably bleak ending, HBO’s Chernobyl miniseries will help to usher in the post-Thrones era. The TV event will shed light on one of the worst man-made disasters in history — the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant explosion in the Ukraine region of the Soviet Union that occurred on April 26, 1986 — and the radioactive and political fallout that followed. Jared Harris (The Crown, Mad Men, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) plays a central figure who struggles to illuminate the truth as other chess pieces maneuver into place.
Chernobyl showrunner and writer Craig Mazin recently gushed to Uproxx about Harris’ remarkable performance as Soviet scientist Valery Legasov, and Harris was nice enough to speak with us as well. Even though this is an intense and horrifying series to watch, the Morbius (and former Mad Men) actor kept things as jolly as possible for us, all while praising his co-stars (Stellan Skarsgard, and Emily Watson). Harris also told us why the madness of HBO’s Chernobyl will provide a unique perspective for audiences that one won’t find in the history books.
I wanted to thank you upfront for talking with us, I’ve enjoyed so much of your work over the years.
Oh, bless you! Thank you.
So you’re promoting a super serious project and also filming a comic book movie right now?
Yeah, the Spider-Man spinoff, Morbius!
Well, I know you can’t really talk about that movie, but Chernobyl is extraordinary. How did you find yourself playing Valery Legasov?
I got sent the script, and I loved it, and it’s HBO. I sat and with Craig, who wrote it and thought, “Yeah, I definitely want to do this.” It was a page-turner. It’s one of those stories that you think you are familiar with, and the reason why Craig was so interested in it is that there are so many misconceptions about it. So it was really easy, and when you read a script, you can tell within 20 or 30 pages whether it’s working or not. If you’re grabbed by the story, then that’s a very good sign. I also liked the idea that there was one director for all five episodes, and honestly, Johan [Renck] has an enormous track record of his own. It makes a life a lot easier if you have the same director for all five episodes because you have a proper relationship, the actor with the director because ideally, it’s collaborative.
The series shows your character recording his observations for posterity. Did you do any further research into his state of mind?
I’m not sure if there were [actual] recordings. I think he left behind journals (recordings are more cinematic), but I didn’t get ahold of them. Have you seen all the way through?
As of today, I’ve seen the first three episodes.
Without giving too much away, the Soviet Union very successfully followed through on a threat, which was to eradicate him from the history of the story. And still to this day, they have done that. A lot of the books and the archives that you can read about Chernobyl don’t mention them at all.
It’s difficult to dig up information on him.
Yeah! It’s amazing how successful the Soviet propaganda machine has been in terms of erasing his memory, in terms of after the event, after making the series, I’ve told people what I was working on. They’d go, “Oh yeah, I know that man!” Didn’t a factory worker drop [something] into a nuclear reactor, and that’s what made it explode? They successfully put it out there that the whole thing was down to human error, an individual’s human error as well, which is what happens when a plane goes down. They only try to blame a pilot. They don’t want to admit there’s something wrong with the design of an aircraft because then they have to spend millions and millions fixing it. It’s a similar thing — the design flaw, which would have meant that they’d have to pull all these nuclear reactors out of commission to fix them, which would have cost a fortune. So, they decided to blame someone and hope that it doesn’t happen again.
When you play such a weighty and emotional role, can you leave that behind when you go home at night?
Well, you have to! Once you finish one thing, your mind immediately moves toward the next big thing, so you’re constantly looking forward, constantly problem-solving. You need a break, but it was a fairly jolly set, I’d say. It sounds odd, but the more serious a subject matter is, probably the more jokes and the more lighthearted moments there are. Because you need to go somewhere else. It’s very hard to stay in that headspace for an entire day. You wear yourself out, so you want to make sure that’s all available to you when the director says, “Action!” When it actually counts.
On-set jokes were probably a godsend. Well, I was actually wondering how lighthearted I could get with you during this interview.
And I probably should feel bad about this, but I kept thinking of your Mad Men role, Lane Pryce, while watching Chernobyl.
Ohhh a lot of people have said that, yeah.
Yours and Stellan Skarsgard’s characters had a complex relationship, and it reminded me of Lane and Pete Campbell. I kept thinking about that fight scene that Lane and Pete had.
To be fair, and I’ll do a little diversion, that only happened in that fifth season because in the fourth season, he’s grooming Pete for success. The person that he has no respect for is Roger Sterling, he thinks that guy is a complete idiot and not serious. So he spends four trying to groom Pete, and then Pete turns on him.
Again, these are such inappropriate parallels for me to draw with this miniseries, since it’s so grim, and Mad Men deviated wildly in tone.
Other people have also said that because of the way that [both men have a tragic side]. And because of [acknowledges spoiler material].
When we publish this, we’re going to being subtle with that subject!
Craig Mazin told us that it was remarkable how you combined Legasov’s brilliance with his vulnerability. He did you strike that balance?
Obviously, it’s an imaginative exercise, so there isn’t a conscious, deliberate process. You do an analysis and figure out what your role in the story is, and each character is a canvas, if you like. You need to figure out which part of the story the writer wants you to carry. The thing that was most telling for me was that on one level, he was just someone who happened to answer the phone that day. They were probably just trying different people, and he was at home that day, and he suddenly finds himself in this very intimidating spot with Gorbechev and the politiburo, and there are some very bad assumptions being made, and then he finds himself going there, which he didn’t think that was going to happen. In the photos that you actually find of Legasov in that historical period, he gets a suitcase and arrives, and so there’s a certain amount of planning or forethought. And we’ve gone back and forth, but he didn’t know when he went there that morning … so he’s someone who’s been plucked out of his life, and struck down into literally the most dangerous place on earth.
Do you see Legasov as more of a pure hero or a flawed one?
He was a reluctant hero in that sense, I’m not sure in our story if he was naturally heroic or naturally brave, and it’s something he witnesses along the way. These tremendous acts of heroism, from General Pikalov, and that informs him and instructs him on how he responds to the situation. That was a more interesting approach that the sort-of square-jawed, Charlton Heston-type of “I’ll do it!”-type thing. It was the idea that he was reluctantly heroic. I’m guessing that would be most people’s response, if you’re in a situation where you realize, “Oh my god, this is a moment when someone has to step up, and I think it’s me.” He’s an honest hero, but not a classic Hollywood hero in that sense. In the way that heroes are traditionally portrayed, they run toward the sound of gunfire, and instantly and instinctively. And I think that’s probably not 95% of humans’ reaction to it. The flight part is probably a lot stronger than the fight part, and he realizes that’s not going to be an option, and he has to step into it. The fight for self-preservation is very strong and probably dominant. My story is also being paired against Stellan’s story, and his character is cut from a different cloth, and I need to be a counterpart to that story.
It really feels like (against the larger backdrop) that’s the central dynamic, you and Stellan. You two communicate so much without speaking to each other.
Yeah. He’s lovely. I get on with him really well. When you spend weeks and weeks and weeks sitting and chatting with somebody, and you instantly love them and can build up that kind of dynamic. One of the things as well as I understood about my character is that he wasn’t the alpha male. Stellan’s character was the alpha male. Stellan’s character was in charge. Stellan’s character was the authority figure. Anything that I wanted to get done, I had to get him to do it. I didn’t have any authority to say that we’re going to do x, y, or z because nobody would listen to this character, and that was one of the frustrations for him, like with Emily Watson’s character. They are the smartest people in the room, and no one’s listening to them. They are experts, but their truths are inconvenient to the story that the politicians would like to be putting out. In that sense, my character looked up to Stellan, he had respect for him and understood the value of what he could do and how he operated. It was a world he had never entertained, and it was as complicated as the world of nuclear physics, surviving in that political world.
Finally, you’ve kind-of revealed yourself to be a Game of Thrones fan.
Yes, at this point!
To put that mildly. Do you foresee any sort of happy ending at this point that you are secretly hoping for?
I think that he’s too good of a writer — I mean the original architect of this story, [George R.R. Martin] and the two showrunners [David Benioff and Dan Weiss], are too good to do anything sentimental. I think it’s gonna be a bittersweet success. It’s a success that will come at a heavy, heavy price.
HBO’s ‘Chernobyl’ premieres on Monday, May 6 at 9:00pm EST.