“Truth is a dying artform,” says Stellan Skarsgard. He’s holding court in a room of journalists here to discuss a new drama set in 1986 but with an urgently modern message.
Five-part Sky Atlantic series Chernobyl tells the story of the catastrophic accident at the Ukraine nuclear power plant. It’s a rightly devastating account that evolves from sci-fi horror to political thriller while honouring and holding to account the true stories it tells.
In Chernobyl, Skarsgard plays real-world Soviet deputy prime minister Boris Shcherbina, who led the government commission into the disaster. Scherbina’s life was dedicated to Soviet socialism, “which is based on a pretty good idea,” says Skarsgard, “ that the world should be good for everybody, but it didn’t quite work that way!” It was “a system that couldn’t fail, an ideology that was infallible,” which made it dangerous. “When you have that idea,” he says, “you know that you have to suppress truth.”
Chernobyl “reflects on the importance of listening to truths and facts and science,” says Skarsgard. When the catastrophe happens, Scherbina starts to understand that it’s happened because of the system. “Gradually he sees the flaws in the system, that breaks him down in one way. It’s devastating for him.”
Also devastating to Scherbina is the diagnosis that, due to his radiation exposure, he only has five years to live. “He probably thought he was as infallible as the system,” says Skarsgard. “‘Socialism will survive. I will survive!’”
Jared Harris, who plays Soviet chemist Valery Legasov, assigned to the government commission, shares the same view. “The Soviet society was supposed to be a perfect society where nothing went wrong, so therefore something like this couldn’t happen and therefore didn’t happen,” he tells us. “Facts that are uncomfortable, actions that need to be taken that are not convenient, were swept aside back then, they just chose for it not to be true because they didn’t look good.”
“We’re as guilty right now with people still fucking arguing over whether climate change is real. How many millions of young people were marching, demanding that the adults take it seriously and do something about it?”
Emily Watson plays Soviet nuclear physicist Ulyana Khomyuk in Chernobyl, a character with the same mission as Harris’ – to try to make those in power understand, and do something about, the severity of the situation in the hours immediately following the disaster.
“There were people who went into complete denial about what had happened,” says Watson, “people around the accident went into complete denial about how serious it was, and we came within a day of destroying half of the continent. You discover later on that the causes of this whole event lie deep in state control of information.”
As well as the shock of the event itself, the drama takes on the nature of political involvement in the disaster, says Watson, “the very petty jockeying for position and power play at a low level [which] caused catastrophic human error, and also the state control at a very high level was really the author of the accident in the first place.”
“It’s a very terrifying story for our times,” says Watson. While Chernobyl isn’t attempting to preach, says Watson, it is saying ‘look in the mirror, people. This is who we are and this is what we do, let’s see ourselves.’”
All three cast-members draw strong political parallels with today’s world. “Politically,” says Watson, “we are being manipulated by social media, by the internet and there is no editorial standard in that. There’s no oversight. There’s no international standard to which those companies are held. It’s an algorithm, it’s profit. People can get stuff out there and you can persuade anybody of anything. Truth has become buyable, bendable, flexible and it’s ruining democracy before our eyes.”
Harris says the same. “Once you no longer believe anything that you’re told, it makes the job a lot easier for the people in power to do whatever they want. Experts are derided now and facts aren’t facts.”
How does Stellan Skarsgard navigate today’s 24-hour atomised media to find what’s real? “Where do you find the truth?” he repeats the question, “Probably not on Facebook.”
Chernobyl starts tonight on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV at 9pm