The heroes of Chernobyl

Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård, who stars in this HBO Original Series, can relate to this devastating nuclear disaster first-hand

23 May 2019 / 11:52 H.

ONE CAN never accuse Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård of being typecast.

The actor has spent his career playing a wide variety of roles in a wide variety of films – ranging from dramatic turns in The Hunt for Red October, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Breaking the Waves to comedic roles in the Mamma Mia! movies, as well as the Thor and Avenger films.

The father of eight children (including actors Alexander, Gustaf, Bill and Valter), Skarsgård is perhaps Sweden’s best-known export after Ikea, Volvo, and Abba.

The actor can currently be seen in the HBO Original Series Chernobyl where he plays then Soviet deputy prime minister Boris Shcherbina, who was assigned by the Kremlin to lead the government commission on Chernobyl in the hours immediately following the accident.

Chernobyl is based on the devastating 1986 nuclear disaster in the Chernobyl power plant, located only 120km from the capital of Ukraine, Kiev, and close to the border with Belarus. It was one of the worst man-made catastrophes in history.

The five-part miniseries (below and bottom) also tells the story of the brave men and women who made incredible sacrifices to save Europe from unimaginable disaster, all the while battling a culture of disinformation.

Skarsgård tells reporters during a recent tele-conference interview: “On April 26, 1986, I was in Stockholm. I heard it on the news that they were checking for radiation at a nuclear power plant in Sweden.”

He recalls being not at all particularly worried when news first came out about the disaster “because I don’t worry much”.

But he says he changed his mind when more information came out that they had traced radiation from the winds coming from Chernobyl, adding that Sweden was experiencing a lot of downpour at that time and the radiation came down with the rain.

“For years we could not eat the berries, mushrooms or reindeer, elk or wild boar, anything we could hunt. So it had had a huge effect on us. I thought it was horrible and I didn’t know what caused this disaster to take place.”

He says the most frightening thing he learned while doing this series is how the Soviet government was determined to retain the image that its nuclear programme was perfect and rejected any notion that it was flawed. It was also a case of profits taking precedence over safety.

“Nuclear power can be very safe and very clean if handled properly,” adds Skarsgård, “but human beings are fantastic at cutting corners and ignoring threats like climate change.”

The actor says filming was done in a closed-down nuclear plant in Kiev which, despite successfully producing huge quantities of electricity for the region, was shut down because it was built the same way as the Chernobyl power plant.

To prepare for his role, Skarsgård says he took from the script what was necessary to make the role – which is based on a real person – work. He also tried to find as much information about Shcherbina as he could.

Skarsgård’s Shcherbina, who only appears in the second episode, is shown to be initially dismissive of the concerns of Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), a leading Soviet nuclear physicist who is one of the first to grasp the scope of the unparalleled disaster that has occurred.

This is because the initial reports the minister received stated that a water tank had exploded and radiation reports were low.

But when he goes to the camp near the site and sees how things really are, Skarsgård says Shcherbina finds himself having to make a choice between defending his beliefs and the system, or defending the truth.

“What is interesting about this character is that he has spent his entire life defending the system, society and country. He believes in it. And then in a short time, he is questioning his own beliefs and what he stands for his whole life.”

Skarsgård adds that Chernobyl hits us emotionally because it shows us the heroic things that regular people can do in the face of a catastrophic disaster.

“There were so many heroes [at Chernobyl]. None of the main characters were the real heroes, they were only partly heroes.

“[The disaster] shows that politicians who make decisions high up can affect people in the most horrible ways.

“You never know who is the hero or the traitor. That is why it is hard to condemn people because everyone thinks he/she is the righteous one, defending the truth and country.

“Even heroes [themselves] never dreamt they could become heroes because they never knew they had it inside them.”

Chernobyl airs on Tuesdays at 9am same time as the US with same-day encore at 10pm on HBO (Astro channel 411/ 431 HD).

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