Thirty years after the Chernobyl tragedy that claimed between 4,000 to 93,000 deaths and displaced approximately 300,000 people, HBO and Sky’s co-production ‘Chernobyl’, based on the true-life events that occurred in Soviet Ukraine in 1986, will air next week.
The series will cover a number of stories, from the doctors who were working in Pripyat at the night of the explosion, to the workers in the plant, to the firefighters responding to the scene, to a government official, to a scientist risking her life by being around the reactor, and indeed, by challenging the State.
Writer and executive producer Craig Mazin has penned a number of Hollywood hits including Identity Thief, The Hangover II and III, and Scary Movie 3 and 4, but this mini-series is a far cry from his previous comedy flicks.
“The whole truth of what happened at Chernobyl – before and after the accident – goes far beyond the events of April 26th, 1986,” he explains.
“As the story of Chernobyl unfolds, you will discover the culture of lies that led to the disaster. You will experience the incredible lengths required to stop a total nuclear meltdown. You will learn just how close and just how much of the entire European continent came to becoming completely uninhabitable.
“But above all, you will witness the true stories of the heroes of Chernobyl as they fought an unprecedented war against an invisible enemy, even as their own government betrayed them. This exhibition shines a light on some of those brave men and women who suffered and sacrificed, saving millions of lives… often at the cost of their own.”
Emily Watson plays Ulana Khomyuk from the Belarus Institute of Nuclear Energy, who is a composite character created from a range of scientists at the time.
“She’s very smart and very determined and works out the way they’re fighting the fire could trigger a secondary explosion. She drives to Chernobyl, persuades them and becomes a trusted part of the team.
“Jared’s character asks her to get to the bottom of what happened. It takes a dark turn when she starts coming across material that’s been redacted, and realises there were design faults known all along.”
The Oscar-nominated actress read the history of Belarus and watched, along with the cast, ‘Come and See’ in preparation for her role.
“My character would have grown up through the most extraordinary levels of trauma and inhumanity. To survive that, she had to be tough.”
Watson insists the series is an important one to watch.
“It’s about ownership of truth and the nature of energy and how we control it. It feels like both those things are desperately urgent and that the wheels of history are turning before our eyes. I think it’s a very politically astute, relevant piece,” says Watson.
Jessie Buckley has been making headlines for her performance in Wild Rose recently, but she’ll be playing a drastically different character in the Sky series.
Buckley will play Lyudmilla Ignatenko, the wife of one of the first firefighters who attended the scene after the nuclear explosion.
Jessie Buckley as Lyudmilla Ignatenko. Picture: Sky.
“She’s a very human way of telling the stories of millions that were involved in dealing with the effects of the explosion.”
The Kerry born actress said the script completely blew her away, and in preparation for the role, she read ‘Voices from Chernobyl’ by Svetlana Alexievich which chronociles multiple accounts of people directly affected by the explosion, including Lyudmilla.
“I wasn’t born when it happened, but I grew up in Ireland and when I was at primary school there was a charity set up by Adi Roche for children affected by the explosion (Chernobyl Children International), they would come and live in Ireland for a year and go to my school.”
“So I felt very emotionally involved. But the pressure is your responsibility to tell these people’s stories. There was one day I was on set and there were various extras from Lithuania and Ukraine.
“There was this woman beside me crying her eyes out. At the end I gave her a hug and she said her son had been a victim of that explosion.”
Lyudmilla’s arc is one that centres around love.
“It’s a story about this young couple who are at the beginning of a life together. You meet them on the night of the explosion, and you see this blind and dangerous love – as well as survival and grief.
“Adam Nagaitis – who I’d been at RADA [Royal Academy of Dramatic Art] with – is my husband and the special effects make up showing radiation burns was horrific. Just being there on the set was harrowing enough.
“But her love was so strong that despite the danger and the horror she stays for him.”
While Buckley insists that she enjoys being out of her comfort zone being challenged with people she looks up to you, the role was not without its difficulties.
“The the hardest part [about the role] was the fear that you weren’t making these peoples’ voices heard. The best part was getting to work with an amazing script and with people like Johan and Emily Watson.”
Chernobyl airs Tuesday at 9pm on Sky Atlantic.