“Is your morning going well? Cause mine is,” Jared Harris said. Earlier Tuesday the Television Academy announced that Chernobyl, HBOs dreadfully compelling five-part miniseries about the Soviet nuclear disaster, had received 19 Emmy nominations—including a lead actor nod for Harris, who played beleaguered scientist Valery Legasov. Harris had only been nominated once before, for Mad Men, in 2012. This year hes competing alongside Benicio del Toro, Hugh Grant, and Mahershala Ali.
“Im thrilled,” Harris said over the phone. “Obviously ones thrilled for oneself. But it got recognized in just about every category it was eligible for—its extraordinary. Its wonderful.”
“It was an exceptional, high-quality piece of work—but youre not always rewarded for that!” he added.
In a moment in which many shows premiere by being dangled as awards bait, Chernobyl had a decidedly modest debut. It wound up becoming the sleeper hit of the spring, drawing attention around the world with each successive episode.
“No one can tell you that they know how something is going to be received—theyd be fibbing if they said they did,” Harris said. “This touched a nerve—and became a rarity for nowadays, a watercooler project…It was really word of mouth that swept this thing up.” The retelling of this historical moment has led to a resurgence of interest in the Chernobyl disaster, including in Russia itself, where the story has run into the countrys still active propaganda machine. Reportedly, monuments to Chernobyls liquidators—the thousands of civilians who worked in often dangerous conditions to clean up the disaster—are now, after the shows debut, being marked with flowers in commemoration.
Harris didnt know this last fact, and when I mentioned it, he teared up. There was a fraught pause before the actor collected himself and credited this to the brilliance of creator Craig Mazin, who brought the liquidators stories into the public sphere. “Every country has a monument to the grave of the unknown soldier…heroic sacrifices made by people with no expectation of being celebrated,” he said. The way Mazin structured the story, Harris pointed out, had it focus on a series of characters who never meet each other, but are all still bearing the burden of the disaster. “He never tried to blend the stories,” Harris said. “Theyre uniquely in their own world, their own point of view.”
I asked Harris if he had any fears of being typecast after Mad Men; on both that show and Chernobyl, his character commits suicide by hanging, in different heartrending ways. He said he wasnt concerned. “Obviously I was aware of that. But what can you do?” he asked. “Youre not going to change it.” Plus, Harris said, the role of Legasov was offered to someone else first: “If it had been that person, there wouldnt be that question,” he added, laughing.
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