Belfast Telegraph

'When you get a script as good as this you just devour it!'

New Sky drama Chernobyl revisits the 1986 nuclear disaster, but also addresses today's global crisis. Gemma Dunn meets star Emily Watson

Emily Watson in as Ulana Khomyuk
Emily Watson in as Ulana Khomyuk
Emily Watson

By Gemma Dunn

Emily Watson is discussing the changing dynamics of television. And, like many of her peers, the Apple Tree Yard actress is clear that the small screen - far from its one-time "poor relation" tag - is increasingly where the best work is.

"It's like going to a bookshop now. You go in every night, you turn on the telly, you look around the shelves and you go, 'Oh, I'll read that tonight and then I'll read that tomorrow'," she says.

"And it's become a much wider, broader, much more diverse and interesting place to work - it's beginning to represent a lot of different interests."

More than that though, she sees the changes in television as helping women get proper recognition.

"They've also clearly worked out that the audience is more women than men and that the women are in control of the remote - finally!" she quips with a mischievous laugh. "Because everything used to be, 'The men get paid more', 'The men are the leads', 'Men, men, men'.

"It was all about movies and opening weekends. It was, 'Only Bruce Willis who can open a movie every weekend and there aren't any women who can do that - or very few'.

"And the whole system was stacked by that, but actually it was a self-supporting system, which is now being completely undermined by television."

Watson is certainly in a position to comment, having earned her stripes across the board, from her early days on stage with the Royal Shakespeare Company, to securing a BAFTA win for her stirring performance in Fred West biopic Appropriate Adult and eventually an OBE for services to drama.

But fame was somewhat late coming for the Islington-born star (52), whose screen breakthrough came in the form of the devoutly religious-yet troubled Bess McNeill in 1996 drama Breaking The Waves.

Her next outing is in Sky's brand-new drama, Chernobyl. Based on the events of the 1986 nuclear plant disaster, the five-part mini-series - written and produced by Craig Mazin - brings to life the true story of the tragedy.

Watson plays Ulana Khomyuk, a Soviet nuclear physicist committed to getting to the root cause of the deadly man-made accident. It was an opportunity she simply couldn't turn down.

"When you get a script as good as this, you devour it and go, 'Oh my God, this is amazing. I really want to do this!'

"But then they said to me, 'Okay, so you have to be away in Vilnius (in Lithuania) for seven weeks or something' and I was like, 'Well, I can't do that, sorry'. It was too much time away."

(Watson lives in London with her two children - Juliet and Dylan - with her actor-turned-writer husband, Jack Waters.)

"It's just, at the stage I am in my life, I can't just drop everything and go - even if it is as amazing as this. But luckily they wanted me enough to make it work."

She adds: "I saw Ulana as somebody who had grown up in a place where you had to be incredibly tough to survive. Which would've given her the right tenacity to go, 'Okay, that is my calling. I am going to beat it'."

Did the themes feel relevant in today's divisive world?

"It felt very timely when we were making it," Watson admits. "The whole announcement about climate change and that there are these 12 years before we reach a critical point - and that we are in crisis, but that nobody in power is treating it as a crisis.

"It has extreme, close similarities to this situation; a nuclear reactor exploded and everybody in power around it said, 'Oh, it's nothing. It's fine. We've fixed it'. The parallels couldn't be clearer."

She adds: "I went with my children on the recent climate strike and it was very powerful, but until somebody actually starts to act ..."

So, what will she take away from this experience as a whole?

"I think the importance of, just on an individual level, speaking your truth," Watson says, gently.

"And not sitting by and allowing things to happen, or to be done to you, in so many walks of life and so many areas of life - that is just so important."

Chernobyl, Sky Atlantic, Tuesday, 9pm

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