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Television

Emmy nominee Jared Harris on the timeliness of ‘Chernobyl’ — and why he’s OK with those British accents

Jared Harris in “Chernobyl”
Jared Harris in a scene from the HBO limited series “Chernobyl.”
(Liam Daniel / HBO)

Jared Harris was in Los Angeles on Tuesday morning when he found out he’d received an Emmy nomination for his performance as a whistleblowing Soviet scientist in the HBO limited series “Chernobyl.”

“My wife turned her phone on and she looked at me and she said, ‘You’re a very lucky person.’ And I said, ‘I am?’ And she said, ‘Yes, you’re married to me,’” recalled the actor by phone.

Not only was Harris nominated in what may be the Emmys’ most competitive acting category — there are three Oscar winners in the field — but “Chernobyl” also received 19 nominations, the most of any limited series this year .

The series, written by Craig Mazin and directed by Johan Renck, tells the story of the 1986 nuclear disaster and its harrowing aftermath. Harris stars as Valery Legasov, a chemist who investigated the accident and fought the Soviet regime’s attempts to cover up and minimize the disaster. Though it dealt with about the grimmest subject imaginable and depicted the horrors of radiation poisoning with nightmarish accuracy, “Chernobyl” became a surprise hit for HBO, with its themes of scientists fighting government dishonesty and bureaucratic obfuscation resonating in the present day.

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Harris was previously nominated for an Emmy for his performance as doomed ad executive Lane Pryce in “Mad Men,” a part that brought him to the attention of many American viewers for the first time and established a pattern of playing characters who meet untimely deaths.

“Chernobyl” is no exception: Barely five minutes into the series, Legasov hangs himself for reasons that become clear over the course of the show’s five episodes. “He suffers the fate of all whistleblowers, which is they are destroyed by that act,” said Harris, who also spoke to The Times about his strategy for delivering expository dialogue and why he thinks it’s fine that the actors in “Chernobyl” speak in their own accents.

“Chernobyl” surprised a lot of people by becoming a hit. Did you expect it would resonate the way it has?

You hope that it will. But I don’t think anyone can expect anything. If anyone says they knew this was going to happen I think they’d be speaking out of their posterior. It came out at a point when it had a resonance or parallel to real-world things people are concerned about. You can never tell, though, because that’s all about timing. You can’t tell what people are going to be talking about a year from now.

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What aspects of the story jumped out when you read the script?

The whole issue of the corrosive nature of lies and the way that was like an acid that slowly destroyed the structure of the [Soviet] state, that became very apparent and really stark in the third and fourth episode. That was something that Craig and I talked about quite a lot — the idea that more than anything else, it was this accident that brought this very, very powerful empire down.

This part required you to give a lot of speeches filled with jargon. What are the challenges of that as an actor?

It was a lot of long speeches. I had an enormous amount of exposition and particularly in that scene [at the show trial in the final episode]. The challenge of scenes like that as an actor is it can’t just be information. There has to be a personal narrative that’s going on at the same time.

Of course, Craig was very much aware of that, so he put it into the structure of the episode in a question of “will he or won’t he tell the truth?” Again, it speaks to how smart Craig is; he started the series with the explosion, so by the time you get to Episode 5 you’re curious. You are invested in finding the truth. You really want to know what happened.

In the course of reading the scripts or doing additional research, were you shocked by anything you learned?

It was really surprising seeing how crazy people were over the fact of radioactivity, when they first discovered it, they thought it killed cancer so it must be good. They put it in everything, including toothpaste.

We don’t meet them in the series, but Legasov had a family. Have you heard anything from them?

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I’ve not heard from them. I did see something that his daughter said that he was a lot sicker at the end of his life than we showed him to be.

You’ve become known for playing characters who die. Do you feel like you are more death-prone than other actors?

Normally if they kill off your character, that’s a good thing, that means you’re going to have an impact on the audience. But obviously being killed off all the time makes it difficult; you’re constantly looking for a new job. Sean Bean still has the record — that’s the sort of social media joke, that I was approaching Sean Bean levels. But it’s not a goal of mine. I’m just looking for good parts.

I think there was a tremendous response to my playing King George VI, who died in “The Crown,” because I was finally playing a character who was on the right side of the story. I’ve been very often on the other side of that equation, I was the antagonist rather than the protagonist.

There was some criticism over the decision to let the actors speak in native accents, rather than Russian or Ukrainian accents. What do you make of that?

People who say that sort of stuff, it’s like they’re virtue-signaling or something. It’s kind of absurd. They never complain about that when they’re watching Westerns, there was no American accent back then. It would have been French or Scottish or Italian or Finnish.

There was a discussion about what to do about the accents. It wasn’t as though the creators blindly stumbled into it. But then you get to the reality of, “OK, what do we do if we’re going to have everybody speak in an accent? How many dialect coaches do we need to get? How many specific accents do we need to do? Then each accent has its own regional variations?” If you’re going to take that line you might as well be a perfectionist. If [having authentic accents] was going to be your defining sort of touchstone, you would hire English-speaking Ukrainian, Belarusian and Russian actors.

Of course, quite serendipitously, there ended up being a sort of ruling raison d’être behind the accents. Most of the people playing political figures have European accents, they’re Danish or Swedish. The scientists have sort of middle-class British accents, then most of the people playing working-class [characters] have regional British accents.

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There are a lot of moments in the series that are difficult to watch. Anything that stood out to you?

There are scenes that really took my breath away for lots of different reasons. The coffins being covered by cement was just deeply, deeply affecting and appalling. The scene with Adam Nagaitis [firefighter Vasily Ignatenko] and Jessie Buckley [as Vasily’s wife, Lyudmila], the depiction of how his body had responded to the radiation was just really terrifying. It was a brilliant job by [makeup and prosthetics designer] Daniel Parker. The two of them looking out the window when she’s describing the view to him that isn’t there…. And I knew everybody was going to get really upset by Episode 4 [and] the killing of the pets.


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