'Chernobyl's Jared Harris & Emily Watson Share Their Own Memories From the Disaster

Kate Hahn
Q&A HBO

It could have been Armageddon. On April 26, 1986, a massive explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine fatally injured workers and released a radioactive cloud.

This gripping five-part drama tells how two brilliant and determined Soviet nuclear physicists, Ulana Khomyuk and Valery Legasov (Emily Watson and Jared Harris), saved millions of lives by preventing a chain-reaction at the plant. The costars took us inside the contamination zone. 

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The Emmy-winning actor is returning to TV after 'The Americans.'

Are your characters based on real people? 

Jared Harris: Yes. Valery Legasov was plucked out of his life one morning and told to sort out [one of] the worst man-made disasters of all time. The reactor core was exposed and on fire. There was no playbook on how to put it out.

Emily Watson: Ulana is a composite of scientists involved in the containment and investigation. [She has to fight] a political system in denial about the level of radiation and the imminent disaster of a secondary explosion.

(Credit: HBO)

You both were living in the U.K. at the time of Chernobyl. What are your memories of the disaster?

Watson: It was scary, shocking. Also, there was a massive disconnect between what Soviet Union citizens were told by their government — "There is nothing to worry about" — and what Europeans were told: "Don't take your kids outside."

Harris: But "If it rains, do not go outside" is kind of tough if you live in England! The weathermen were tracking the [radiation] cloud.

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Get ready for two hours of behind-the-scenes moments.

In the show, we see through the eyes of a young firefighter's wife, Lyudmilla Ignatenko (Jessie Buckley), just how deadly exposure can be. It's tough to watch.

Watson: Firemen and miners volunteered to help knowing they would probably be dead in a week. There's extraordinary heroism. [For her investigation] Ulana interviews people suffering from appalling radiation syndrome. They look like lychees by the end, don't they? 

Harris: It's pretty gut-turning. One of the things that you see from the story is that the people who pay the price are by and large all innocent.

(Credit: HBO)

Why does the bureaucracy finally act?

Harris: Soviet Deputy Prime Minister Boris Shcherbina [Stellan Skarsgård], who leads the government commission on Chernobyl, becomes disillusioned. He realizes this lie is killing people. 

Watson: The three of us press on until we get to the bottom of why the explosion happened. 

Harris: The state doesn't want the truth to come out. Halfway through, the story turns into a political thriller.

ChernobylMiniseries Premiere, Monday, May 6, 9/8c, HBO