Actor Jared Harris doesn’t see what someone thinks his harrowing new HBO series Chernobyl, a dramatization of the 1986 nuclear power station disaster, might share with season 1 of the 2018 AMC horror anthology series The Terror, a fictionalized take on the lost British Royal Navy’s Arctic voyage in the mid-1800s.
“If they have anything in common,” Harris conceded to Rotten Tomatoes, “it’s that they were really well written.”
In Chernobyl, Harris plays Soviet nuclear physicist Valery Legasov, who is one of the first the government calls upon to respond the the accident, one of the worst human-made catastrophes in history. On April 26, 1986, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, Soviet Union exploded during a safety test and devastated the region, spewing radioactive material from its core, polluting the air, killing humans and wildlife, and poisoning the natural environment so that the immediate area is uninhabitable to this very day (though by some reports, the departure of humans has created an unintended and flourishing natural preserve).
Harris appeared as Captain Francis Crozier in The Terror opposite Ciarán Hinds (Game of Thrones) as Sir John Franklin and Tobias Menzies (Outlander) as James Fitzjames. An esteemed sailor with personal demons, Crozier faces a largely invisible force of — if not “evil” exactly — unrelenting and destructive nature. Harris’ lead performance throughout, on- and apparently off-screen as well, was impressive, contributing to the season’s stellar Certified Fresh 95% Tomatometer score and a Golden Tomato for best horror series in 2018.
“Jared was very often trying to give some of his lines away to other characters to make sure that they would stay in focus for the audience, it was amazing,” showrunner David Kajganich told Rotten Tomatoes in May last year. “He’s the height of generosity. I mean, we couldn’t have asked for a better collaborator than Jared, in every way.
Chernobyl is on its way to Certified Fresh status, with a 100% score on nine reviews ahead of its release. The five-part miniseries also stars Breaking the Waves costars Stellan Skarsgård and Emily Watson, who echoed Kajganich’s admiration — also noting that Harris is “a giggle.”
“You can tell from his work that he has complete integrity and cares very deeply about the things that really matter,” Watson told Rotten Tomatoes. “Actually getting to work with him confirmed that 100 percent — and to my great joy — he doesn’t care about the stuff that doesn’t matter. Very similar to Stellan, but I knew that already. Jared is effortlessly truthful and works without ego. He can get very animated if he feels that we’re not getting to the bottom of the subject in hand — holding everyone around him to a very high standard.”
The historical drama also boasts an unlikely creative team: director Johan Renck (Vikings) is well known for his work in music videos, including David Bowie’s “Blackstar” and Beyoncé’s “Me, Myself and I,” while writer and creator Craig Mazin‘s credits — including Scary Movie 3, The Hangover Part II, Identity Thief, and The Huntsman: Winter’s War — though often profitable, don’t immediately suggest “prestige TV.”
A go-to British character actor for the moody everyman, Harris is anything but in real life; for one, he is the son of Welsh actress and socialite Elizabeth Rees-Williams and renowned Irish actor Richard Harris — famous to a younger generation as the Harry Potter film franchise’s beloved first Dumbledore (the one fans had to say goodbye to when the actor passed away in 2002). To a more seasoned audience, the elder Harris is best known as Marcus Aurelius in Gladiator and for Oscar-nominated roles in This Sporting Life and The Field.
In addition to his Chernobyl and The Terror roles, Jared Harris has distinguished himself as King George VI in Netflix’s award-winning period drama The Crown, as hard-living Outer Planets Alliance leader Anderson Dawes in sci-fi series The Expanse, rogue scientist David Robert Jones in Fringe, and as Mad Men‘s tragic ad-agency partner Lane Pryce. And that’s just TV. He’s also appeared on film as Professor James Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Andy Warhol in I Shot Andy Warhol, and Ulysses S. Grant in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.
We spoke to the actor before Chernobyl hit, and he told us about the joys of performing with Skarsgård and Watson, the status of Anderson Dawes in The Expanse, and, as a big fan of another HBO hit series, indulged us with some Game of Thrones talk.
Debbie Day for Rotten Tomatoes: The first episode, to me, plays like a horror show. And after seeing you in The Terror, I wondered what draws you to that kind of bleak material.
Harris: I want to say yes to things that are really well written. Stories that grip me, and that excite me, and ones that where I want to flip the page and see what happens next. And definitely felt that way about this.
For someone like me who lived through that period of time, I was surprised at how interested I was in seeing the story portrayed. You mentioned, in your interview with Seth Meyers, that you remember the time well.
Harris: I do remember it well. I was living in London at the time, and I remember all the stuff on the news about it. And like I said, tracking the cloud, and I also remember that once the cloud had passed over, and sort of passed over the Atlantic, people stopped paying attention to it, and I was very surprised to find out from reading this that it was spewing toxic waste up into the atmosphere for another three months. You know, they didn’t say that at the time.
And again, it was the things that you’d find out that you didn’t know, and the reason why you turned the page and you keep reading. The sacrifices that people made, the heroism of unnamed people that didn’t expect to be lionized by history in any way. And the suppression of the truth, that bureaucratic bungling, the irony of it being a safety test that stops the whole thing. It was incredibly well written and fascinating.
This is an interesting time to do a series about out-of-control egos.
Harris: Absolutely. There are lots of immediate parallels, aren’t there, too, to what’s happening. We’re dealing with crises that people are ignoring, the scientific facts, experts are not being listened to, opinions are taking precedent over scientific inquiry. You know? And they have very little regard for the health and well-being of their people.
That’s something that definitely resonated with me about the series.
Harris: I’ll tell you what I took from it: The Soviet state was the one where the suppression of the truth was taken over facts. The state lied, and no one expected to be able to hear the truth from the state, and the powers that be. And the population had become cynical about an expectation of being able to hear the truth or hold power to account. But that’s when things get dangerous: when you no longer can — or expect to be able to — hold the powers, the governing bodies to a standard of truth. And that’s when they can get away with it. So you’ve got to be vigilant, you can’t give up. You can hold their feet to the fire.
One of your character’s quotes is, “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth.” That was very meaningful to me.
Harris: That was Craig, and when you pitch a show about a historical event, I think one of the questions you get asked is, “Why now? How is it relevant to now?” And you have to have an answer for that before the commissioners will say, “OK, we’ll give you however many millions to go ahead and make it.” And I think that was in the DNA of what Craig was interested in: truth.
And one of the things that he said that was interesting, which, again, he said … A line from it, is he said, “You can lie all you want, but the truth doesn’t really care. And the truth will do what it’s going to do.” And I suppose in that sense, as it relates to what’s happening now, we can argue over climate change all we like, but at the end of the day, it’s going to do what it’s going to do.
You see that happening around the world, and I think that the older generation is really failing the task. There was an obsession with the generation above us, with the Golden Generation; they were fighting for everybody’s rights in World War II, and for freedom and liberty, and — we are not covering ourselves with glory, our generation.
It’s hard to get people to care about something beyond their front doorstep.
Harris: Until it comes right up to their front doorstep, then floods their living room … That’s what Craig’s saying: If that’s what’s going to happen, it will do it anyway, whether you believe in it or not. If you believe the science or not, you can start paddling around in your living room in a kayak.
You’ve had a long career, and when I saw your name on The Terror, I thought, Well, Jared Harris is in it, it must be good.
Harris: I like that association.
And, yeah, all of the television that I’ve seen you in, like from Fringe, and Mad Men, and The Expanse, it’s all been such excellent work. What is it about television?
Harris: Why TV, why is that happening? I think that’s got less to do with me, and it’s got more to do with the fact that the studios have given up on entertaining adults. And they are trying to get a certain age bracket to come in, and it’s sort of 12-24 year old men, and they give you giant tentpole action/superhero films, which I really enjoy, I go and see, as well. But they’ve given up on any other entertaining, any other kind of mindset. And for a while, there was a vacuum, and then television has stepped into that vacuum, because there’s an appetite for complicated stories, and nuanced characters, and original stories, and taking risks, and there is an appetite out there, and television and now the streaming platforms have stepped into that, and there’s a supply for that demand.
I think that’s why it’s happening. And for me, I grew up loving the movies of the ’70s, and I really thought that if you had a career in cinema, that somehow you’d be working in films like that, and they don’t really exist in films anymore, but they exist in television.
There still will be rubbish on TV, don’t get me wrong. There’s still a lot of rubbish out there, and I personally, I want to be in things that I care about, and at the moment, there’s enough out there that you don’t have to say yes to rubbish to pay your mortgage, you can say yes to things that you care about, and stories that means something to you, and that interest me or not, but are challenging.
You do have a big, kind of blockbuster-y movie on the horizon, with Morbius, yes?
Harris: Yeah, I’ve got another week on that. And I mean, that’s not a big commitment on my side, you know? They don’t want anything to be revealed about it until it’s time for them to start trying to go out there, and tickle the interest of the public. So I’m doing a Spiderman spin-off movie called Morbius, but beyond that — that’s it. Yeah. There’s Matt Smith, which is cool. And Jared Leto.
Was it confusing having two Jareds on set?
Harris: It wasn’t confusing — I’ll say that.
You also have Carnival Row coming, yes?
Harris: Yes, I believe that’s coming out at the end of this year, but I haven’t heard anything specific.
There would be a lot of effects with that — they would be spending more time on it, yes?
Harris: I believe so, but … once something wraps, once your part wraps, you’re in the dark until it’s time for the thing to come out, and sometimes they still don’t tell you anything, and we find out about it once it starts airing. So I’m not sure what their plans are specifically. I think I heard somewhere that it’s coming out in October, towards the end of October.
Where did we leave Anderson Dawes in The Expanse? Did he kind of just jet off?
Harris: Yeah. Anderson pinched — he stole the scientist, yeah. And that was it — that was the last we saw of him, specifically.
Is there any hope that we’ll see him again?
Harris: I’m not sure. I haven’t heard any more from them. At one point, they had called up, and they were seeing whether or not I’d be interested in — it wouldn’t have been coming back for season 3, but for beyond season 3 … I don’t know what their plans are [now that] Amazon picked it up. I haven’t heard anything from anybody.
I really enjoyed that character. It was a very satisfying character for me. I spent a lot of time talking with Mark Fergus about the character, and the idea of walking a very thin line with regards to keeping the audience guessing as to what side of the fence he was on: Could you trust him? Was he an agent of good? Was he just out for himself, for his own self-aggrandizement? Or was he really there fighting for the cause. And I loved it. I loved playing with that back and forth of it. But, yeah, I don’t know what their plans are.
I think some of those questions still exist when he leaves the scene. I really enjoyed watching the character, because of that sort of enigmatic behavior.
Harris: Yeah. From my point of view, I consider him to be “ride or die.” … He’s looking out for the interest of his people. And he was prepared to do whatever he needed to do to make sure that they were protected and got what they needed, you know?
But you never quite knew whether or not he was looking just to promote himself or not, the way he was using other people. I liked that ambiguity. I loved the crazy looks of the character. I remember, we were talking about the identity because they were going to put the tattoos on me, and I asked him what they were, and what they represented. And I said, “Well, since I’m supposed to be this sort of, the original OPA Belter, let’s invent the idea that they’re scars and that the original suits burned you.” And that’s how people end up representing their connection to the original guys. And they asked me about the accent, and they said, “It’s up to you to decide what you want to do, the accents you can do.” It was like curry: You can be mild, medium, or spicy hot. And I said, “I want the hot,” the most difficult, the most extreme version of it, I want to do that one.
Are you a fan of the books?
Harris: I started to read them, but, again, I have so much reading to do, that — if I was coming back, would do a deep dive into them. I was really enjoying them, but … I don’t read for pleasure any longer, I have so much reading to do, and when you say yes to a project, you suddenly have a stack of books, you’ve got weeks of internet diving, and — I don’t find reading pleasurable anymore. It’s work.
When the next Song of Ice and Fire book comes out, will you read that?
Harris: I haven’t read those at all.
Harris: I haven’t read any of them.
Ah. That’s interesting.
Harris: But what I know from talking to people is that they are, they’re … The show’s very different from the books. There’s no Night King in the books … someone told me [author George R.R. Martin] doesn’t feature the character. And the person who’s going to bring the wall down is Euron Greyjoy.
I’m looking forward to the last three [episodes], although I can’t believe that they’ve erased the existential threat. Somehow, I feel as though there’s a twist in that tale. It just seems, that seems odd, that that was continually driving the undercurrent of the entire series, and that they fought back, and now — and without it ever getting to Cersei’s doorstep, either, which, if anyone deserves to be visited by the army of the undead, it’s Cersei. If anyone deserves to become the undead, it’s Cersei.
And I think from Dany’s dream earlier on in the series, we thought —
Harris: When she’s captured by the warlocks. Yeah, the whole roof to the throne room at King’s Landing is completely burnt away.
Someone said to me, “Well, winter is still coming. Just because the Night King is gone, doesn’t mean winter’s going to stop.”
Harris: What does this mean, in terms of sort of what’s left on the table? If her army has been decimated, they don’t have enough to take out Cersei’s two armies, and now the two dragons are in play, and you’re going to go and melt King’s Landing. But then, of course, there’s going to be objections of doing that amongst her team of advisors. I could imagine somewhere along the line of that there will somehow be, and that they will bring up the … not the Night King, per se, but that threat, and then since they’re supposed to represent death, how can you kill death?
The only other thing I did think about, was that the red god is referred to as being the red god and also he’s the god of death. So then, you can look at it, and see an entire battle between the new god of death, and the old god of death. And the new god of death has wiped out the old god of death. And who knows what the red god’s got plans for anybody else, now. Melisandre’s god, and also, they referred to the same god by [Jaqen H’ghar]; he refers to that as being the god of death and the red god. The same god.
Interesting theory – a sort of religious transition.
Harris: Well, it’s the “Song of Ice and Fire”; one god represents winter, and the other’s the fire god, and there’s a battle between these two deities, being acted out between these human agencies as to who’s got ultimate power over the world, I guess.
We should probably stop talking about Game of Thrones. I hope you have a question about Chernobyl.
That’s OK. I appreciate it. One more Chernobyl question: How do you feel about being in a prestige project like this, in which there is so much talent in the cast, everyone brought their A-game, and it’s so well done?
Harris: The very first words out of my manager’s mouth was, “HBO is doing a mini-series about Chernobyl.” So, it’s HBO — ding! — ears pricked up, that means it’s going to be really high quality, they take risks, it’s really, it’s massive support for the whole production, and they give a tremendous artistic license to the showrunners and the storytellers. So right there, you go, “OK, that’s amazing.”
And then, yeah, I got to spend most of my days with Stellan and Emily, and what a joy that is. I am tremendously fond of both of them. And they’re brilliant, brilliant actors, and … there’s no angst about it. They can sit and chat about whatever they need to chat about, and then when it’s time to do the work, they just put their heads down, and they lock right into that space and focus on it hard and deliver.
I learned a lot, I mean, I learned a lot watching Stellan and Emily on this. That’s the idea: You work with really good people, and you learn something every single time, if you’re lucky.
Thank you so much for your time today, Jared. And good luck with the series. It’s going to do well — it’s already got 100% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Harris: Whoo! Yeah. I saw that, and speaking of your algorithm, The Terror was very, very high on Rotten Tomatoes, and The Expanse: highest audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes for any of the sci-fi fantasy shows. How about that?
I’m a huge fan.
Harris: I got a question for you: Who do you think is going to sit on the Iron Throne at the end of the story, of the whole series?
I don’t think anyone’s going to sit on the Iron Throne. I think it’s going to be destroyed.
Harris: Well, [Daenerys] said she’s going to break the wheel, you’re quite right. A confederation — a confederation of kingdoms.
Postscript: With Game of Thrones anything can happen, and most theories turn out completely wrong. With Chernobyl, at least, we already know the end of the story. The thrill of the portrayal, however, is learning how they got there.
Chernobyl premieres on Monday, May 6 at 9 p.m. on HBO.