- Stellan Skarsgård is one of the stars of HBO’s Chernobyl.
- Along with co-stars Jared Harris and Emily Watson, he’s been nominated for an Emmy for his performance.
- In a conversation with Men’s Health he discussed how his real-life experiences impacted the way he played his Chernobyl character.
By just about any possible metric, HBO’s Chernobyl has been a gigantic success. What started as a moderate success in the beginning of May—just as the network’s behemoth Game of Thrones was hitting it’s home stretch—eventually snowballed into a massive, buzzy, universal success; fans and critics alike adored the show’s story, truth to reality, and massive scale.
At the center of all of that was the brilliant acting that anchored the show. Stellan Skarsgård had done big before—he’d been a part of the MCU, Pirates of the Caribbean, and countless other big screen big deals. He’d even had the opportunity to sing and dance on screen in a pair of Mamma Mia! movies. But the massive scale and his own impressive performance in Chernobyl managed to bring him something he hadn’t had before in his 51 year career—an Emmy nomination for acting.
Back in April, before he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in a Limited Series, we had the opportunity to chat with Skarsgård about living through the real-life Chernobyl disaster, applying his own experiences to the role, and being a part of this thrilling project. That conversation runs below ahead of the September 22 Emmys ceremony:
Stellan Skarsgård may play Boris Shcherbina, the toe-the-party-line government figure turned whistleblower in HBO’s Chernobyl, but appearing in the much-heralded docudrama is far from his first experience with Ukraine’s man-made nuclear disaster. He lived it, as residual clouds overtook the skies of Northern Sweden homeland.
“We couldn’t eat berries, or mushrooms, or reindeer meat for years,” he said in an interview with Men’s Health. “So, it was quite a dramatic thing in Sweden at that time.”
Living not in the Soviet system, but rather in “happy Sweden,” as Skarsgård referred to it, he was aware that there was a nuclear incident with disastrous outcomes. But living in Sweden—the Western world—he was totally removed from from the dark reality of the situation. He still didn’t know the why of the incident, until researching for Chernobyl on HBO, eventually learning that the on-screen depiction was incredibly accurate.
He didn’t realize, for one, that the disaster wasn’t inevitable; that, in fact, it was an avoidable incident that was made worse and worse through a stubborn government’s refusal to admit fault. “I did not know about how the Soviet system in itself was one of the causes of this accident,” he said. “When you have a system that has to be infallible, that cannot allow that there are any flaws in the system, people start lying and hiding truths.”
While Shcherbina, like Jared Harris‘ Valery Legasov, was based on a real person who was involved in the aftermath and cleanup of the Chernobyl disaster, there wasn’t too much biographical research for him to do to get into that historical figure’s head, or anything like that—it simply wasn’t out there.
He found what he could find, and looked at photos of Shcherbina, but it was more important for Skarsgård to fit the necessities of the script, and his own imagination’s version of who that character should consistently be. It was also important for him to make sure that he worked well with Harris.
“We have an interesting arch to play there from this total antagonism, to a very close friendship,” he said.
A big part of the relationship that Skarsgård describes comes from the two lead characters throwing around a lot of nuclear power jargon. It’s important for the two performers to get these pieces technically correct, but to also make sure that the point is still conveyed to the viewers who may not be as scientifically savvy as their characters are.
Did he understand any of what he was saying? Skarsgård said it wasn’t too hard to wrap his head around the physics concepts. But he immediately recalled his role in the ’90s classic Good Will Hunting, which saw him play an advanced mathematician. “I did not understand anything of what I said there,” he said.
For the entirety of his career—which has now lasted more than 50 years—he’s been a chameleon, blending in from film to film, whether it’s that advanced mathematician in Good Will Hunting, a decomposing pirate in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, a scientist in the Thor and Avengers films, or even the goofy travel writer in both Mamma Mia! films. He’s become a master of not only capturing different characters, but capturing different moods.
“The different moods … that’s my job. That’s what I enjoy about it,” Skarsgård said. “I enjoyed going from Mamma Mia! to [Chernobyl], and being all over the place, and not fulfilling any expectation from the audience. To me, It’s like having a very varied diet.”
Skarsgård might be further varying that diet for his role in director Denis Villeneuve’s remake of Dune, which will find him playing the film’s rotund villain (“He’s really bad. He’s also really fat.”). The movie is set to film in Budapest this summer and hit theaters in the fall of 2020. The movie’s extensive and rather impressive cast has been well documented, including Timothée Chalamet, Josh Brolin, Oscar Isaac, Jason Momoa, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, Javier Bardem, and more.
Given what the character of Harkonnen looked like in book images through the years (Dune is based on Frank Herbert’s fantasy novel), and in David Lynch’s original adaptation, we can expect Skarsgård’s take to also be fairly gruesome, and when he mentions how much time he’ll need to get into character each day on set. “I will have to spend six to eight hours in makeup every day,” he said, pointing out that, in this case, thankfully it’s a confined role. “So, I’m glad he’s not on every page.”