Stellan Skarsgård’s pulled off some fine villainous characters throughout his storied career. Just to name a few, he played a despicable monster in David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and a real slimeball in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. He’ll embody the big bad in the upcoming Dune reboot, but Skarsgård’s Chernobyl role is a more decidedly nuanced one. Although his Soviet government official, Deputy Prime Minister Boris Shcherbina, sits on the wrong side of the radioactive debate and makes some disastrous decisions, there’s much more at work, as viewers will discover. Skarsgård makes a compelling turn alongside Jared Harris as scientist Valery Legasov, and the duo helps HBO launch its post-Game of Thrones programming future.
The miniseries is a sweeping one, written and executive produced by Craig Mazin, about one of the worst man-made disasters — the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant explosion in Ukraine, Soviet Union on April 26, 1986 – and all the radioactive and political fallout that follows. Skarsgård was kind enough to chat with us about his role and assorted subjects that arose along the way.
How are you?
I’m doing well. I’m talking to you and sitting and watching the New York Public Library from the window here. It’s sunny and warm, balmy, not too hot.
That’s awesome because I’m chilly, and we need to do some time travel. Chernobyl takes us back to the 1980s. Are a big history buff?
Well, I read a lot of historical materials, but I’m a nerd in the sense that I like to know what’s going on in the present world as much as what has led to the present world. What are the parallels between history and now? In that sense, I am. The last book I read is the beautiful book by John Williams, who wrote Stoner. He’s fantastic, and he wrote a book about Augustus, that emperor, so if you get a chance, you’ll have to look at it.
This is where I awkwardly tell you that I often watch too much TV to read. However, I did recently read that you originally wanted to be a diplomat, but you fell into acting instead. How much did you know about all the maneuvering behind the Chernobyl investigation?
Not much! I knew about the explosion, of course. I was living in Sweden in April 1986 when it happened. And we got a lot of radioactive downfall in Sweden, and we couldn’t eat berries or mushroom or reindeer for years. So I was very well aware, but I knew nothing about what led to the accident, not the technical side or of the problems with the Soviet system that led to it. [It] was handled very badly, and they were secretive because the West knew much more than the Soviets wanted the West to know at the time.
Yeah, the news clips shown from the era are chilling. Yet as Craig Mazin told us, there are no pure heroes here. Where does your character sit on that spectrum?
I think the idea of good guys or heroes or not heroes is a very simplified way to look at human beings, and it belongs to the movies, and we have it there. We are all fallible, and we can all become cowards or butchers, it depends on the circumstances very much. But you could say that my character, he is a representative of the Soviet system, and he believes in it, and he’s been working in it all his life. And then eventually, through this accident, he learns that it’s actually the flaws of the system, the ideology, that has led to this. And he sends up for the truth against the system, which is pretty unexpected.
He’s not a villain, even though, historically, what he does could be interpreted that way. Is that moral ambiguity tough to swallow?
No, it isn’t, and I’m not a method actor, so I don’t become the character. I come from theater where you have to do three different characters in a Shakespeare play every night. You turn them off, and you turn them on, and the moment they say cut, I go and do something totally different. It doesn’t linger in me.
That sounds really freeing.
It’s very good. It’s much easier to survive that way.
You and Jared Harris obviously worked very closely together. Did you know each other previously?
We came together after working separately, and we didn’t know each other before the show. The thing is, when you meet a really good actor, the really good actor knows what it takes, and you also know what is necessary, what is difficult with the process, you know exactly how to get there, and you get very intimate, very quickly. And Jared is a wonderful actor, and I think we found the tone almost instantly. Some of it is scripted, the dialogue, and you can see the distance between us, and you can feel that we get closer to each other, eventually. But of course also the real relationship that we managed to create onscreen, which is more felt than intellectually understood. And I think those two characters that we did, that are very unlike each other. I think we found a way to play the arc of the growing friendship and love between them.
What was the most difficult scene for you to film in this series?
Well to me, I’m the kind of actor who loves working with other actors, which means that I hate monologues. And I have a long, technical speech, which is just explaining technical stuff in the court scene in the last episode. That’s a lot of words and technical stuff, and I don’t have any help from any other actors, so that is always the worst thing for me to do. It’s incredibly hard. And then after me came Jared, and he spoke for 45 minutes, and it seemed so easy for him, and I was very envious.
I never would have guessed that your monologue would be “the thing,” after all the terrible sights you witness. And this miniseries is enormous, down to every authentic detail. How did it compare to the Marvel machinery you’ve experienced?
Well, it’s comparable in terms of scale and precision. Otherwise, it’s a totally different kind of storytelling with the Marvel films. They’re more comedy, obviously, and lighter material and not so much about human relationships and lies. The material, of course, is very different. But it’s a big apparatus, and it takes a lot of work for all the creative departments, like the costume department for [Chenobyl] worked with Lithuanians. I mean, I had suits that were made from Soviet fabric from the time. They made my suit from original, very uncomfortable Russian fabric. And every detail was paid attention to, and you don’t have to be an expert and know exactly that this was the way it looks, but I think you can feel it when you see that it’s authentic.
Next, you’re moving onto another huge project with Dune. Are you filming that role now?
No, I haven’t started. I only have two weeks on it. I’m playing the bad guy [Baron Harkonnen], and he doesn’t have to show up all the time. I started doing the prosthetic tests because I’m supposed to gain a lot of weight in rubber to do it, so I’m going to spend a lot of time in the makeup chair.
How much weight are you supposed to gain?
It says in the script that he weighs 300 pounds, and I can’t gain that much weight and survive. So they’re creating a body that they will have to glue on me. It will be prosthetics all over.
HBO’s ‘Chernobyl’ premieres on Monday, May 6 at 9:00 pm EST.