As Craig Mazin focused on the human drama of the meltdown at Chernobyl, so he alighted on one relationship that came together in the clean-up operation, which would speak volumes to the complications of the Soviet system and the efforts of those embroiled in its politics to work within it.
Boris Shcherbina was a vice-chairman of the Council of Ministers in the Soviet government, and Valery Legasov a member of the prestigious Academy of Sciences of the USSR, who led the commission investigating the disaster. In Mazin’s telling, as they meet, they butt heads over the best way to respond. But the unlikely friendship that resulted as they uncovered the true scale of disaster is at the emotional core of Chernobyl.
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“Actors know a good part when they read one,” says Jared Harris, who plays Legasov, of the scripts he was handed. “Everybody I knew in London was talking about it, because they were casting in England. It was a page-turner right from the off.”
“As soon as I saw a picture of Shcherbina,” Skarsgård notes of his own character, “I immediately gave up trying to look like him. The information you get about him is very diverse, but I knew more about him from the script than from other sources. The rest—the divine inventions—comes from what happens when you act alongside someone like Jared.”
Skarsgård reveled in the moments the two men shared. “And it’s not just on the page,” he says. “It was something that developed on set, where Johan Renck and Craig were sure to capture what was happening between the lines, in the way we look at each other, the way we move together. That’s what creates this growing bond between the characters. It’s not so much in dialogue, except for that final speech between them.”
Harris notes that actors are inclined to play Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, rather than the title character himself, because Shylock has the meatier part. In Chernobyl, he adds, both Legasov and Shcherbina get the goods. “Sometimes—not often—there’s an insecurity between actors where the grass is always greener in what the other person has to play. But there was none of that with Stellan. We understood it almost like a double act. There’s a real bromance element to our relationship.”
Agrees Skarsgård: “Jared is an amazing actor, and he’s not about showing off. All the time it’s about the scene and the relations with the other actors, and the material. There were no egos on this set, and that helps a lot.”
For Skarsgård, the project also meant reuniting with another actor with whom he had formed a solid screen partnership. He had worked with Emily Watson—who plays Ulana Khomyuk, a fictionalized version of the many scientists who helped deal with the Chernobyl problem—on her feature debut, Lars von Trier’s 1996 film Breaking the Waves. “It’s quite a different relationship in this one,” Skarsgård laughs. “We keep our clothes on. I felt a bit embarrassed to have so many clothes on in front of her. I wasn’t used to that. But it was a joy; we haven’t worked together for over 20 years, so it was a treat to be in the same room with her again.”
The fervor with which Chernobyl was greeted immediately set the minds of excitable fans racing on the possibility of a sequel—perhaps in some kind of anthology form. “There’s definitely no sequel coming,” laughs Harris. “Someone actually pitched the idea to Craig on Twitter, and said, ‘You could do the Fukushima story.’ He said it was a great story, but not one for him to tell.”
Besides, says Harris, “Everything doesn’t have to be sequels. Otherwise we’d be swamped with sequels and prequels and reboots and remakes. I think that’s what people are responding to. It’s a completely fresh show.”