The worst nuclear disaster in history led to the best television performance of last year.
The silver lining around humankind’s deadliest radioactive cloud is Jared Harris and his stellar performance as the late Soviet-era scientist Valery Legasov in HBO’s chilling miniseries, “Chernobyl.”
Set in 1986 around the deadly meltdown of Ukraine’s Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, researcher Legasov was called in by authorities to advise a cleanup committee on how best to manage the site. What he saw, however, was a catastrophic event with apocalyptic implications if drastic measures were not taken to contain the breach. However, his grave concerns were dismissed or met with resistance by an inept and secretive government that was more invested in containing the story than the poisonous fallout. The race was on to alert and protect the USSR, as well as the rest of the globe, before the contamination spread.
Harris, 58, brought to life the heroic and ultimately tragic Legasov, a real-life figure whose efforts to control the calamity had largely been buried by those responsible for the accident. The British actor (who happens to be the son of actor Richard Harris) played him with an understated brilliance across five tense episodes, portraying the nuclear expert as a brilliant thinker at odds with the cronies in charge and willing to risk his own life to save millions more.
With a slight grimace, a subtle clenching of the teeth or furrowed brow, Harris conveyed the immense pressure and alarm of an otherwise mild-mannered intellectual more versed with life in the lab than fighting for lives at ground zero. His performance embodied the frustration of a truth teller battling state-sponsored misinformation, captured the intimidation of an academic in a field of communist strongmen and, ultimately, left viewers with the memory of a whistleblower who knew he’d signed his death warrant by speaking out.
Adopting stiff mannerisms and a Russian accent for the production, Harris contributed to a compelling narrative alongside an ensemble cast that included Stellan Skarsgård as deputy chairman Boris Shcherbina, who was charged with managing the cleanup, and Emily Watson as nuclear physicist Ulana Khomyuk.
“Chernobyl,” created by Craig Mazin, landed 19 Emmy nominations, including one for Harris. It won for limited series, directing and writing in a limited series, while Harris, Skarsgård, and Watson received acting nominations. The HBO/Sky production subsequently won the Golden Globe for limited series and Skarsgård was honored at the awards show for his supporting performance in a miniseries. Harris, nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award along with Emily Watson, surely must be next in line.
Beyond starring in “Chernobyl” [Note: spoilers for long-ended story arcs ahead], Harris is known in the U.S. for his role as King George VI in “The Crown.” But the royal was killed off early in the series. His other high-profile character, “Mad Men’s” Lane Pryce, also died before his time. The fictional English financial officer joined Don Draper at the Sterling Cooper ad agency in Season 3 only to hang himself by the close of Season 5. “Chernobyl’s” Legasov meets the same fate as Pryce, but kills himself in Episode 1 of the HBO miniseries, and a grim back story unfurls.
Tragic roles seem to find Harris, likely because he’s a master at conveying grace under pressure while internally imploding, then eventually self-destructing or disappearing altogether. Please refer to his haunting performance as Capt. Francis Crozier in AMC’s “The Terror.”
His competition at this year’s SAG Awards is formidable thanks to nominations for Mahershala Ali (“True Detective”) and Sam Rockwell (“Fosse/Verdon”). Jharrel Jerome (“When They See Us”) is a promising newcomer so he has years to catch up to Harris, while Russell Crowe (“The Loudest Voice”) didn’t even come close.
Harris is hands down the most deserving of an award for his performance in “Chernobyl.” The miniseries was a dramatic success of nuclear proportions, a grim story turned into a must-watch historical drama by a team of folks at the top of their game.
But this is about honoring the best performance of the year. So here’s to the unsung Soviet-era hero, played by Harris, television’s topmost unsung talent.