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.