How ‘Chernobyl’ Star Jared Harris Revived a Hero Buried by History

TheWrap Emmy magazine: “The Soviets threatened to write him out of the history because he spoke out, and they very successfully followed through on that threat,” Harris says of the character he played

Last Updated: June 13, 2019 @ 3:08 PM

A version of this story about Jared Harris and “Chernobyl” first appeared in the Movies & Limited Series issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.

In “Chernobyl,” HBO’s gripping miniseries devoted to the nuclear accident in the Soviet Union in 1986, the hero in a catastrophic situation is Valery Legasov, a scientist who was one of the first to recognize the gravity of the situation. Jared Harris, best known for his roles as Lane Pryce in “Mad Men” and King George VI in “The Crown,” plays Legasov as a tortured Everyman trying to get the Soviet government to face up to its responsibility for what happened, when that government is only really interested in finding a scapegoat and hiding the truth.

Legasov hanged himself on the second anniversary of Chernobyl after recording an audiotape revealing undisclosed details about the incident. That recording is the starting point for the five-part HBO miniseries, which premiered in May and is competing in the Emmy limited-series categories.

Harris, the son of actor Richard Harris, began his acting career in the early ’90s and has appeared in films like “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “Lincoln.” He will appear in Sony’s upcoming Marvel movie “Morbius,” which stars Jared Leto as the vampiric title character and Harris as his mentor.

What was your memory of the Chernobyl incident?
I was living in London, and I remember it very clearly. It was all over the news, and they were tracking the radiation cloud because it was moving our way. They told us not to go outside if it rained, they told us not to eat or drink certain things. But I didn’t know the details of what had really happened, and I had never heard of Legasov.

He was a real person who spoke out against the government cover-up. But he’s not known to most viewers, so how much of a responsibility did you feel to look or act like the real person?
I felt some responsibility, but I’m not playing the historical figure. The script made some changes to the real events to focus on the story between Legasov and (politician Boris) Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård), so you need to figure out your role in the story and then use your imagination to connect with the material. And your real responsibility is to play the character that the writer has written.

And there is source material available on Chernobyl, but there’s not a lot about Legasov. The Soviets threatened to write him out of the history because he spoke out, and they very successfully followed through on that threat.

“Mad Men” fans know that this isn’t the first character you’ve played to end his life this way.
A lot of people have mentioned that. I thought they might. But this is what happened, because he was using that act to make a statement. And you don’t want to rewrite history because of something that happened on “Mad Men.”

What can you tell us about “Morbius,” the Marvel movie you’re now working on?
Nothing. (Laughs) You should see the size of the NDA they gave me to sign.

To read more of TheWrap’s Movies & Limited Series issue, click here.

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