Golden Globe nominee Jared Harris on filming Chernobyl: 'I enjoy the fear'
The star of the HBO and Sky hit miniseries about the 1986 nuclear disaster talks about making the show, why it resonates now and why he loves Frasier.
Kent GermanFormer senior managing editor / features
Kent was a senior managing editor at CNET News. A veteran of CNET since 2003, he reviewed the first iPhone and worked in both the London and San Francisco offices. When not working, he's planning his next vacation, walking his dog or watching planes land at the airport (yes, really).
As a fan of
phenomenal Chernobyl miniseries, I was rather giddy about the opportunity to speak with Jared Harris. The London-born actor with a long resume, including stage performances and films and television shows like Mad Men and The Crown, gives an amazing performance as Valery Legasov, a real-life (and now deceased) scientist drafted by the Soviet government to control the harrowing effects of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor explosion and to find out what went wrong.
At Sunday's Golden Globes, Chernobyl is up for best television limited series or motion picture made for television. And Harris is nominated for best performance by an actor in a limited series or a motion picture made for television for playing a man thrust into a grievous situation where each day brings terrible news. He has a near-impossible job, even without the bureaucratic stonewalling he encounters at every turn, the aggressive KGB minders following him and a decaying Soviet regime unprepared for saving Europe from a nuclear death. Legasov doesn't want to be there -- his tight facial expressions betray a mix of fatigue and exasperation -- but he has no choice. And he tells the truth at terrible personal cost.
Exploring the Chernobyl story, a complex scientific matter that requires homework, with someone that knew it so well felt a bit daunting at first. But my trepidation was hardly warranted as Harris couldn't have been lovelier -- I mean, how can you not like someone who watches RuPaul's Drag Race, Frasier and The Golden Girls?
Speaking by phone from his home in Los Angeles, he described what intrigued him about the Chernobyl role, how he prepared for it and what we can learn from Chernobyl 33 years after it happened. Here's a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity.
Q: What attracted you to this project, and to the role of Legasov in particular? Harris: Chernobyl rings a bell in your head -- I was alive at the time and living in London, so I was extremely aware. [Creator and writer] Craig Mazin took a deep dive into the whole thing, but I really knew only a tiny piece of it.
It covers a lot of different ground. There are elements of institutional failure, individual sacrifice, heroism and horror, and it's fascinating from an informational point of view. There's an idea that the longer an institution exists, after a while its main purpose is basically to ensure its own survival and not actually to perform the function it was originally created for. So [this story] was a perfect example of that with regards to the Soviet system. But that problem is not unique to the Soviet system.
It also had almost Homeric themes. My character and Emily Watson's character were the Cassandras of the story. We're the people who can see where it's all gonna go wrong, and nobody listens to us. We're the smartest people in the room that no one pays attention to.
And I was emotionally moved by the stories of sacrifice. It's incredibly amazing, the story of Vasily Ignatenko, the fireman [who dies of radiation poisoning after fighting the reactor fire], and his pregnant wife. They are true victims in this story. They're innocents.
You know when scripts are good because we tell each other that we've read something good. This script was buzzing all around the acting community in London. Everybody was trying to get it on it because you don't come across something that's this well written often.
You mentioned living in London at the time. I grew up in Southern California, so when Chernobyl happened, it just seemed so far away. But in the UK, farms and animals in northern Wales were monitored. Harris: Yes. The grazing animal was no longer safe because if it was eating grass that had absorbed the rainwater that had irradiated material, the grass would become irradiated. And the animal eats it, then it becomes irradiated. And then if it's producing milk, and you drink the milk, you become irradiated. It had a big impact, not just in England, but all across Europe.
What do you remember from that period? Harris: Everyone took it very seriously. And what made everyone more alarmed was that you didn't really get much information as to what was actually happening. The China Syndrome had come out by then, so there were all of these alarming stories that the reactor could burn the core of the Earth and end up in China or something. In the absence of information, human beings invent it, so there was a lot of speculation at the time.
Watch this: Inside Fukushima: Standing 60 feet from a nuclear disaster
What kind of person do you think Valery Legasov was? Harris: He was somebody who was unlucky enough to be the person who answered the call that day. He was a reluctant hero in the sense that I don't think that he ever thought at any point he was going to have to put his life on the line to succeed in a job. But that's immediately apparent to him once he goes down [to Chernobyl] and can't leave.
In real life, I think he was probably more aware of what he was going into. In real life, you can see the photographs of him arriving on site, and he's got luggage. He knew that he was going to be staying there. But in our story, it added a little extra thing if he's in the same clothes for the first couple of days. He was plucked out of his life and found himself there. We also changed some things about him. I was on board for playing the part the way that Mazin wanted it to be played. The real Legasov was married and had children.
Looking at the footage of him, you could see that he had a lot of confidence and he was an extremely intelligent man. He was part of the system, but he also was aware of the flaws of the system. And I think that at this point in his life, when this accident occurred, the idea of not addressing the problems and keeping quiet is no longer an option. He made himself extremely unpopular. You can see from the footage he also had a certain arrogance about him, a certain swagger that came from being an expert in an extremely specialized field, which within the Soviet Union was a superstar field. The [Soviet] state was committed to being a nuclear power in any way ... not just in terms of weapons, but they wanted to be the foremost country in the world that supplied its energy need to nuclear power. He had standing within the state.
Compared with other historical figures you've played, like The Crown's King George VI, who has a long-established historical record, how difficult was it to research someone like Legasov? Harris: It was very difficult. I've played many historical characters, and it was the first time I didn't find the research helpful. It was also because [Soviet officials] did successfully cut him out of the narrative. If you go and look at a lot of the books that have been written about Chernobyl, some don't mention him at all. And yet he was very clearly in charge of the cleanup, which is an interesting omission. He was in books written by Western authors.
I was trying to find footage that I could hear him talking in, but in the end I stopped pursuing it because I realized Craig did dive deeply into this research for several years. He had come up with someone slightly different that was needed to fit the narrative structure. The role that I was gonna play was the Legasov in Craig's script. It wasn't a biography of Legasov, it was a story about the accident.
During Chernobyl's run there was a popular Twitter thread by a person who had grown up in Russia. It praised the series for its authenticity, down to small elements, like the little basket your character used in the first episode to take out his rubbish. Did you spend time thinking about getting those little things right -- things that somebody who was brought up in Russia or was a scholar of the disaster would pick up on? Harris: We had people there who advised us, who would tell you about the way things happened. My research for things like that ends up being about reading.
So, for example, the acting method that people refer to as "the method" has been mischaracterized as walking around and trying to tell yourself, "I am Legasov" every day, as though that's gonna help you. But it's really about immersing yourself into the culture. So you read books that would have been part of that person's upbringing. I watched Russian films to try and get an idea of how they represent themselves, how they employ humor. We all behave differently in social circumstances so I did a lot of that work.
Really? Harris: No, it's still radioactive. I mean, people go there, but you sign waivers. Now, weirdly, there are actually Instagram influencers going there, taking in the abandoned school and the swimming pool and the swings in the amusement park.
By the way, the swings in the amusement park are a bad thing to be on. They're made of metal and it would have absorbed a lot of the ambient radiation that would have come down on that city.
It's been 33 years since Chernobyl happened. Was this the right time to tell this story? What about it is resonating right now? Harris: Well, it's obviously the right time. It's caught on in a big way.
There are a couple of ways that it resonates in different issues that are going on right now. The most obvious one is the climate debate and the denial of the science and the lack of political will, and an inability of politicians to successfully take a 99% scientific consensus towards action, which is astonishing.
You can see the denial of truth and the denial of the facts. There's something that the climate story and our story have in common. I think people could quite easily see those resonances. I can't imagine a better time to bring this out. Who knows ... if we had sat on it for another four or five months, something else might have been occupying the oxygen in the room at that point.
What were some of the scenes that were most difficult to film, either physically or emotionally? Harris: Scenes are difficult for different reasons. The very first thing that we shot was the end where Legasov is prematurely aged. That was a weird place to start in the sense that you haven't experienced the story yet. But here you are, trying to imagine how all of that is going to inform you.
That courtroom scene was a massive challenge. That was essentially a 24-page monologue.
After filming did you feel you really understood what you talked about in that scene? Harris: I can explain it in layman's terms -- what happened and why the reactor blew up -- and I can explain in layman's terms about the concept of a nuclear power reactor. I get that part now. I mean, if you dig deep into some of it, like the exact effects of the xenon gas being and the positive void coefficient, you can start to get lost. But, basically, I understand what happened.
A 24-page monologue is a one-man play, it's a short play. And the idea of stage rehearsals, which you don't get in films and television, is to become so familiar with the material that you can forget you know it. Your scene partner might be playing something slightly differently. They might pause, and that causes a reaction in you. They might strike a different word, which unlocks a different understanding of where you are in a scene. If you're desperately focused on "What do I say next?," you're going to miss a lot.
Emotionally the scene where Legasov is waiting for [KGB head] Viktor Charkov to come in after the trial was a tough scene and an exciting scene to do. The scenes where you're dealing with watching people basically go to their deaths are always difficult to do. But I enjoy that stuff, to tell you the truth. That's why I want to be an actor, for days like that. I enjoy the fear. For big days it's difficult to sleep the night before, and you're excited to go face that day and see what you're gonna come up with.
Was it difficult creating or keeping a sense of fun or lightheartedness on set with such heavy subject matter? Harris: You've got to. Stellan [Skarsgård] and Emily are great fun, and we worked really well together and enjoyed each other's company. If somebody has a big day, you don't get in their way. You help them. We'd run lines for each other in the time leading up to those big days. And if you're doing a big day, and you had a little bit of time off while they're resetting the lighting, then you make each other laugh, because you have to. Try to stay in one place, and you become numb.
It was lots of fun, plus the  World Cup was on at the time. Stellan is big into football, [director] Johan Renck is big into football, Emily is big into football. [Stellan and Johan] are Swedes and [Emily and I] are English, and we played each other in the quarterfinals.
You and Stellan almost seemed like a married couple. Was that an easy chemistry to create? Harris: Stellan is absolutely lovely. He's smart, he's easygoing, and he's Incredibly talented. The man is a guru at what he does. He's extremely collaborative. He doesn't disappear from set. He hangs around. He chats with everyone. Although I had the lead role, Stellan led the company because everyone respects him and looks up to him. So, yeah, it was very easy.
A large part of what you're describing was, of course, built into the show. They start out, obviously, antagonizing one another and eventually come to the point where they've experienced something that nobody else will know what it was. And they are bonded by that, and they're bonded by the fate that they're both gonna die well before their time. They're like war buddies in that way.
I don't know if you're a Star Trek fan, but Nicholas Meyer, the director of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, said Chernobyl inspired the film's plot. There's a big explosion on a Klingon moon and it shattered the Klingon Empire. Have you heard that before? Harris: Yes. I love Star Trek!
What do you think of that after doing the show? Harris: I've met Nicholas. I was a huge, huge fan of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. I think he did a brilliant job with it. Undiscovered Country is another one of the great Star Trek movies. I'm a big Trekkie. I enjoy it all -- the series, the movies -- and I can understand exactly how he took that event and understood how to make it thematic to that story.
I'd say one of the things that surprised me when I read the script was that postscript where Mikhail Gorbachev says, more than anything else, it was the Chernobyl accident that brought down the Soviet state.
I love watching The Golden Girls when you need a laugh. It's really brilliantly written. Frasier! I started watching Frasier from the beginning. I mean, what Kelsey Grammar does in that role, that sustained brilliance, all the way through. As Edmund King said, "Dying is easy, comedy is hard."