Stellan Skarsgard on his fake eyebrows in 'Chernobyl' and why HBO makes shows that Hollywood can't

Teng Yong Ping
·Lifestyle Editor
Ralph Ineson, Stellan Skarsgard, Jared Harris and Mark Bagnall in "Chernobyl". (PHOTO: HBO)
Ralph Ineson, Stellan Skarsgard, Jared Harris and Mark Bagnall in "Chernobyl". (PHOTO: HBO)

Now that there is a Game of Thrones-sized hole in television, with the end of the epic fantasy series, where do we go from here for those of us suffering from HBO withdrawal? Well, the answer might just be Chernobyl.

With a 9.6 rating on IMDb, Chernobyl has now become the top rated TV show on the popular film-rating website. (Keep in mind that the final rating comes from the weighted ratings of IMDb users, and the absolute number of IMDb users who have rated Chernobyl is a fraction of that of other shows on the top 10 list such as Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones.) Chernobyl’s current ranking gives you an indication of the quality of the series.

The five-episode hour-long mini-series is a dramatised examination of real-life events in Ukraine in 1986 as people responded to the worst nuclear disaster in history, when a Chernobyl nuclear reactor broke down. Among the characters depicted in the show are scientists, rescue workers, and politicians.

Chernobyl began airing in May and the first-run finale aired on Tuesday (4 June), but past episodes of the show are still available on HBO GO. The show proved so popular that HBO is airing an encore marathon of all five episodes on HBO Signature on 15 June at 10am.

Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore had a telephone chat with Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard (Thor, The Hunt for Red October), who plays one of the main characters, then Soviet Deputy Prime Minister Boris Shcherbina, who led the government commission on the Chernobyl crisis. Skarsgard shared with us his thoughts on how HBO continues to make thought-provoking shows that Hollywood can’t make, the human lessons from Chernobyl, and the trade-offs of utilising nuclear energy.

Where were you when Chernobyl happened?

It happened when I was in Stockholm. Pretty quickly, they realised that the radiation did not come from the Swedish plants, and they identified the source as Chernobyl. We were in Sweden, northern Sweden especially was badly affected. We couldn't pick berries, or mushrooms or eat reindeer for many years afterwards. But I did not know anything then about the technicalities. I didn't know anything about the web of lies and political decisions that caused the accident, that I find very interesting.

Stellan Skarsgard, Emily Watson and Jared Harris in "Chernobyl". (PHOTO: HBO)
Stellan Skarsgard, Emily Watson and Jared Harris in "Chernobyl". (PHOTO: HBO)

What did you think when you received the script for Chernobyl?

My first impression was that this is something that is extremely cleverly written. And at the same time, it's all facts. It's the truth. And it's not overly dramatising it. It's not romanticising, it's not making it more appealing to a particular audience. Reality can be brutal. When you get a script, they're usually good entertainment. But this series is a vitamin injection straight into the brain.

What lessons does Chernobyl have for the present day?

The problem is that humans for different reasons are not perfect. Chernobyl shows a system that wanted to be infallible, the Soviet system, which meant that truth that could threaten that image was suppressed. And it’s a problem when you suppress truth, whether it's for political or financial reasons, where you cut corners to make more money. I think it's a reminder that science and truths are really important to protect.

There are some parallels with any authoritarian system. Authoritarian systems are partly built on lies, and they have to crush people and fight against people to maintain those lies.

Do you think nuclear power is a threat or a solution to climate change?

In 1980, we had a referendum in Sweden about whether we should have nuclear power or not. I voted that we should not have nuclear power. But since then, the situation in the world has become much more precarious because we're burning so much fossil fuel. I think that today, if we were to save the world, we gotta have nuclear power, at least for a while. It is dangerous but I think that at the moment, there's more danger from somebody dropping an atomic bomb than from a big nuclear catastrophe from a power plant.

What was challenging about your role in Chernobyl?

There was a trial in the last episode, and a lot of technical stuff, and I had a monologue to present. And I hate monologues. I hate exposition, and explaining things. And then, of course, to keep on my first fake eyebrows within my entire career, which I had to keep on for five months. But I was happy with them.

What is interesting about your character?

The most interesting thing is to play a character that has spent his whole life defending a system, an ideology, who believes in it fully and wholly. Then just to see him getting all these delusions punctured in a very short time. And to be forced to eventually decide whether he should continue to fight for the system that he loves, and that he's been fighting for all his life, or if he should start to fight for truth.

How big of a production was Chernobyl? How are HBO shows different from Hollywood?

For a TV series, it's a very big production. It feels like shooting a big film. Some of the greatest actors around were there. The clothes were specially made to look exactly like they did then, my suits were even made in the original fabric from that time. And we had five months to do five hours, which is like shooting a big movie. And the wonderful thing is that when we shoot something like this, this would never be made this way as a film by big Hollywood studios. Because there’s too much fear and too much compromise made to make the financiers happy. HBO is extremely courageous. They made something wonderful and serious and spent a lot of money on it. And they don't have to sell any popcorn, you know. It was such a pleasure to work with so much talents, and doing something that meant something, that wasn't just pure entertainment.

The difference (from Hollywood studios) is the power of the finances, and the way the distribution system works. You need to sell tickets for weeks, for hundreds of millions of dollars. One million dollars go to publicity only. But with HBO, they can do things that commercially wouldn’t make money (in the Hollywood system). They have a respect for the brand. They can combine lighter material with more heavy material, and more daring material. In the last decade, they have changed the way television is made. And I hope they get the chance to continue that, now that they're bought up by AT&T, the telephone company. So I hope the telephone company has the same artistic ideas.

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