Go behind the scenes on the set of Sky’s new series Chernobyl with stars Emily Watson and Jared Harris
Shilpa Ganatra pays an exclusive visit to the set of Sky's latest big-budget TV series and talks to stars Jared Harris and Emily Watson about giving a 360-degree view of the 1986 nuclear tragedy and working with some of Ireland's rising young stars
In the corridors of the Vilnius Culture House, an imposing brutalist building in the suburbs of the Lithuanian capital, a props table is piled high with knick-knacks: bottles of vodka, a plastic tub filled with fake cigarettes, a vintage table lamp, and small chocolate bars with faded wrapping in Cyrillic script. And Sellotape. Always Sellotape.
They're only part of what's needed to turn the retro foyer into the lobby bar of the Polissya Hotel in Pripyat, Ukraine, where on April 26, 1986, when it was still part of the USSR, a nuclear reactor exploded at the nearby Chernobyl Power Plant, unleashing 300 times the radioactive material of the Hiroshima bomb.
Thirty-three years on, the story of what happened afterwards - from the effort to contain the radioactive material to the cover-up that means we'll never truly know the extent of the damage - is the focus of HBO and Sky's first production partnership: a miniseries called Chernobyl. There's not much they need to add in the title to suggest a high-stakes story.
Filming today involves Jared Harris, of Mad Men and The Crown fame (and also son of the late, great Richard Harris) nursing his worries at the bar. As leading nuclear physicist Valery Legasov, he's part of the response team and the weight of the disaster hangs heavy on his shoulders. He's joined by Emily Watson (Angela's Ashes, Hilary and Jackie) as Ulana Khomyuk, another nuclear physicist on a mission to find out what really happened.
The scene is intimate; as with the two episodes I later preview, director Johan Renck (who's previously directed Breaking Bad and music videos by David Bowie and Robbie Williams) unfurls the story with a restrained pace that only adds to the tension. Another take-away from the previews: it had me falling deep into internet rabbit holes to understand more about what's depicted in the show, from how the accident started, to the gory effects of radiation exposure.
"The script is factual in terms of the science and the events, but you have to telescope parts," Jared reflects at the bar, once the scene is wrapped and the crew have dispersed. "Chernobyl is such a huge subject, and Craig [Mazin, writer] did a wonderful job of figuring out the spine of the story and following it through."
"It's got a real 360 view," adds Emily. "You attach yourself to different characters throughout the series. At first, you see it through the eyes of the firefighters and families at Pripyat, and then the scientists come in. You see the people who agreed to sacrifice their lives, and the people who were conscripted for the clear-up and didn't know. There were lots of different people who had a view of this event, and he managed to get everybody in there. It's a real page-turner, it's got Hollywood muscle."
That said, throughout the five-parter we follow the arc of fast-rising Killarney native Jessie Buckley, who in a bouffant hairdo and yesteryear clothing, is barely recognisable as Lyudmilla Ignatenko, an ordinary citizen whose firefighter husband suffers from acute radiation poisoning; other Irish actors involved in the production include Barry Keoghan and Caoilfhionn Dunne.
It turns out Emily was already acquainted with Jessie before filming took place.
"Part of the deal for her Bafta Rising Star nomination was that she gets to be mentored by someone, and she asked if she could meet me, so we had a fantastic morning talking about everything," says Emily.
"What it is to be in the business, being women in it, the sisterhood that should exist everywhere but doesn't. It was only at the end we found out we were working on Chernobyl together. We only have one scene together but she's amazing. She really is."
Lyudmilla, based on a true account documented in a collection of first-hand accounts, Voices from Chernobyl, is key in making the political personal, especially as the Communist government under Gorbachev's rule hid the full impact of the disaster.
"The disaster was actually broken by the Swedish scientists, who picked up radioactive isotopes in the air two days later, and they knew there had been an exposed core somewhere," explains Jared.
"The Americans put their spy satellite over Chernobyl and saw what was happening, so the news was actually released in the West first."
Eventually, the Kremlin admitted the disaster, if only via a brief TV news piece (you'll see original footage in the series). By that point, reports in the west had already spread.
"I was at university when it happened," recalls Emily. "I remember there were people who were in Russia for a foreign exchange year, and they all came home pretty quickly.
"I was living in London," adds Jared. "There was period of time when we couldn't drink the milk, or eat Welsh lamb because the cloud went over parts of Wales. That's when New Zealand lamb became popular."
Today, the official death toll from the disaster remains at 37, though estimates go up to 200,000 according to Greenpeace. In a time when Putin pinky-swears that he didn't interfere with elections, and we only hear whispers of what happens behind closed doors in other governments, there's a resonance to the themes of Chernobyl.
"It's really about the state not telling the truth, and when you're in charge of nuclear weapons and facilities, that's a very dangerous situation. And we live in a time where our leaders have a strange relationship with the truth," says Emily.
"There's a big lie at the start of the story that's partly responsible for what's happens after," adds Jared. "So the script is about the damage that lies can do.
"And the people who have the courage to go against the system," adds Emily, pointedly.
It's not lost on me either that 30 miles away from where we speak, only just after the Belarusian border, Russia is building a new nuclear power plant that Lithuania insists falls short of safety standards, bringing up the controversy of nuclear energy again.
With real-life events like Chernobyl in our midst that still impact our every day, who needs fiction for a compelling story.
'Chernobyl' begins on Sky Atlantic on May 7