Stellan Skarsgard and Emily Watson on HBO’s “CHERNOBYL”

In April 1986 the most catastrophic man-made incident the planet had ever seen occurred when reactor 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear plant exploded during what should have been a safety test. The effects of the accident still wreak havoc over the landscape and containing the fallout has become an industry unto itself. It’s a job which will require centuries of human support. Tonight on HBO, Craig Mazin’s five-part miniseries, CHERNOBYL, dives deep into the the accident as it happened and the human cost and bravery it required to ensure that this tragedy did not engulf still millions more.

This past week at the Tribeca Film Festival, Mazin and his talented cast debuted the first two episodes of the series on the accident’s 33rd anniversary. The premiere episode was nothing short of a nightmare as the series delves into, in brutal detail, the accident and the shocking mishandling of both the initial fire and the surrounding population in those crucial first hours and days of fallout. It was a tense first hour and a brilliant setup into the second which saw the introduction of the scientists and politicians who then had to set about handling what was to come. The second episode in particular sees a stellar performance from Stellan Skarsgard as he plays a man coming to grips with his own mortality and entreating fellow countrymen to show selflessness so that millions can be saved. I spoke with Skarsgard, who also offered brief comments on his upcoming work in DUNE, as well as co-star Emily Watson on the red carpet about their own knowledge of the accident as it happened and the timely message this series has to offer in regards to listening to scientists.

Emily Watson plays Ulana Khomyuk, a character created for the show as an entry-point into the role of a collection of European scientists in the fallout of Chernobyl.

Lauren Damon: Your character isn’t one specific person, but represents a collection of people involved with the accident, did you speak to people who experienced this?

Emily Watson: No. It’s sort of in tribute to many of the scientists who worked on the discovery of what happened. So I kind of had a bit of a blank sheet really to make up what I wanted to do. But Craig had written the character as coming from Belarus, which is a place that suffered terribly in the second world war. And she would have been a young child at that time, so that gave me a sense of just finding someone who was very very tough. It made her the perfect person really to go after the truth and find out what happened.

Do you remember when you were first aware of the Chernobyl accident in your life?

Watson: Yeah, I was a student at university and I remember there were students at my college who were on a year out, away in Kiev, and they all had to come home pretty quickly, it was very scary.

Did you have any misconceptions about the event going into this project that the script changed for you?

Watson: Oh my god, when I started reading the script, I had no idea that sort of within a few days–sort of 48 hours after the first explosion–there could have been one that was ten times worse. That would have taken out half of Europe.

In theory you could have been in range of those effects?

Watson: Definitely in range of radiation fallout…But yeah, it could have been much much worse. It was due to the heroism of the people on the ground who contained it and prevented it from being much worse.

What’s the biggest take away you’d like viewers to get from this series?

Watson: I think it’s a parable for our times. I think you ignore the truth and scientists at your peril.

Stellan Skarsgard plays Boris Shcherbina, the Deputy Head of the Soviet Government at the time.

What did you find surprising from hearing about Chernobyl originally in 1986 and then from working on this project?

Stellan Skarsgard: What I knew from ’86 was what you got from news media, which gave you a sort of superficial idea of what actually happened. What we learned through working with this material is I know now what technically went wrong, how the reactor works and what the mistakes they made were.

You also learn about it [was] more grave, the sort of the political system–the impact that had on the accident. When you have a system that is supposed to be perfect, you cannot allow any dissent in terms of somebody criticizing anything you do or any flaws cannot be accepted. And that then means that the truth was suppressed. It was all over the Soviet Union at the time. I mean truth is suppressed also for other reasons in the west now. I mean when you talk about Fukushima that was money that suppressed truth and created disaster there. In Boeing, you sent planes that are not fit for flying because you want to make money. So another way of suppressing truth and science. I think it’s important, an important film because it–not only because it talks about what we’re doing to this planet, the environment, which is really scary, but it also talks about how important it is that we listen to people who know what they’re talking about.

Facts are facts. They are not just individual ideas. Some facts you have to deal with and you have to accept and we have to listen to scientists. I mean 98% of the scientists in the world say that we are heading for a catastrophe in terms of global warming. We cannot ignore that. Do not ignore that.

Tell us about your character

Skarsgard: My character I’m playing Boris Shcherbina who was a minister in the government and who got the responsibility for cleaning up the mess. And he’s a man who spent his entire life working within the system and defending the system and he ends up realizing that this accident is a result of the system. And he has to question the system and he also has to decide whether he should keep on defending the system that is flawed. Or if he should start defending the truth.

Skarsgard’s next film role is in the highly anticipated adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic, DUNE, where he’ll play the villainous Baron Harkonnen

Lauren Damon: Have you begun work on DUNE as Baron Harkonnen?

Skarsgard:I haven’t started shooting yet, we’re still doing prosthetics work

That’s what I was wondering! Because the Baron is such a grotesque character but when you were cast I remember looking at a shot of you as Bootstrap Bill [Skarsgard’s heavily barnacled Pirates of the Caribbean role] and thinking ‘This man can handle anything they put on him!’

Skarsgard: [Laughs] That’s very nice of you! Thank you. I will probably spend probably six to eight hours a day in makeup and it will look fantastic.

What are you most excited about in doing that project?

Skarsgard: It’s a great story. It’s a fantastic world and Denis Villeneuve is a director that I’ve always wanted to work with. So I’m really happy, he’s a wonderful man and a great director. So I think–except for the eight hours in makeup–I think I’ll have a fun time.

Chernobyl airs tonight at 9pm on HBO

Chris Gethard: Career Suicide

Chris Gethard is a multi-talented comedian and actor (Don’t Think Twice, “Broad City”) who’s worked extensively in NYC’s improv scene at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater as well as having his own successful public access show, aptly titled “The Chris Gethard Show”. This weekend Gethard premiered a much more personal type of special on HBO with Chris Gethard: Career Suicide. In this touching, and darkly hilarious special, Chris uses comedy to detail his lifelong struggles with depression and anxiety including his brushes with suicide. The show held a special screening and talk-back at New York’s Tribeca Film Fest, featuring Chris, fellow comedian Pete Holmes (HBO’s “Crashing”), and moderator Ira Glass (NPR’s “This American Life”). I spoke with them on the red carpet about the development of the show and using comedy to cope with more difficult issues.

Besides hosting NPR’s “This American Life” podcast (which Gethard has appeared on), Ira Glass produced Don’t Think Twice.

Lauren Damon: Working with Chris on Don’t Think Twice, did you see the development of his show at all?

Ira Glass

Ira Glass: I mean, it’s funny, Don’t Think Twice…Chris is such an amazing actor. He’s so for-real in Don’t Think Twice, and that character does have a lot of overlap with who he is in real life. And who he is in this special. My main thing with the special is I’ve seen him develop it. I saw like a super early version in the basement in Union Hall, and then saw when it was up on stage. So I’m really curious how it translates to video.

LD: With the heavier themes, I feel like we have a need for that in comedy because things seem sort of dire in general…

Glass: It’s true…But I feel like the whole trend in comedy has been comedians getting super real about stuff that’s going on, you know. And I feel like when you look at the people…who are doing the most work right now, it’s like Louis CK and Tig Notaro and Mike Birbiglia, Aziz [Ansari]…You know that’s people talking about stuff that’s pretty real. Which I like because I like a real story. I think when somebody can tell a story that’s super funny but also is really a real thing, and emotional, it’s just like what could be more entertaining? That’s everything a person could want.

LD: That’s basically the best episodes of “This American Life”…

Glass: On a good day, yeah. On a good day. The formula on “This American Life” is we want it to be really funny, with a lot of plot at the beginning, then it will get kind of sad and sort of wistful at the end, then like throw a little music under it, you’re done!

In Don’t Think Twice, Gethard played Bill, a comedian coping with a hospitalized father on top of dealing with general anxieties of where he fits into his shifting improv group.

LD: In Don’t Think Twice, your character did a lot of the heavy emotional lifting, was your show already developing kind of around that time?

Chris Gethard: It’s funny because [Don’t Think Twice director] Mike Birbiglia was the one who kind of threw down the gauntlet and said ‘You should do a show about this side of yourself.’ I would talk about it to a degree in my work, but he was the one who was like ‘You got something here, go for it.’ So the experience of Don’t Think Twice and this show kind of went hand in hand. I was opening for Mike on the road, he developed the film on the road [and] during that process is when he really said ‘You should really go for it, I promise you, give it a shot.’ Really the first time I attempted the show was in an effort to sort of prove Birbiglia wrong and say like I don’t know if people are going to laugh at this. But I have learned never to doubt Mike. And those things really did dovetail nicely and springboard off of each other.

Chris Gethard

LD: How did Mike respond to it?

Gethard: Oh he’s been so supportive and I think he was–he also, as far as these off Broadway shows that are kind of comedy but that go serious, I think he really has helped pioneer that in the past few years. So I think he was very proud and flattered. I always give him a lot of credit as far as walking in his footsteps. So I think he was very psyched that I went for it. i think he also had a little bit of glee that his instincts were correct and mine were not. So thank god for that.

Pete Holmes had his own hilarious HBO comedy special (Faces and Sounds) as well as starring in their series, “Crashing”

LD: How do you know Chris?

Pete Holmes: It’s funny, I thought more people would ask, but here we are at the end of the line and you’re only the second person to ask, so it’s still fresh! It’s still a fresh answer. I was a fan of Chris, I would see him at UCB –actually not far from here, right around the corner. And then I took improv classes at UCB and Chris was actually my level 3 teacher because I had heard that he was so wonderful. And he was. I actually think Chris likes to downplay what a wonderful improv teacher he is because obviously he loves to perform more. But it’s almost a shame that we can’t clone him, because he’s such a great improv teacher.

LD: Your stand-up is a lot more silly and irreverent in contrast to the work Chris is doing in this special and I love that there’s space for both

Holmes: That’s nice, there is space for both! And I really love this show. It’s not the sort of stand-up I do but I also on my podcast [“You Made it Weird”] love to get very deep and weird and uncomfortable so I love seeing it in the live version with the laughs.

Pete Holmes

LD: On “You Made it Weird”, have you had any especially surprising guests?

Holmes: That happens all the time actually. For example The Lucas Brothers, the twin guys from 21 Jump Street movie…I [didn’t] know them that well either and they’re kind of low energy [in the film] and then they came on and were like the most high-energy, introspective, eloquent amazing guests. And you know, I didn’t really know them that well. So one of the things that I love about the podcast is that happens over and over. Your expectations just get completely blown out of the water.

The better answer would be Aaron Rogers, the quarterback for the Greenbay Packers…I didn’t know him either, but here comes a quarterback. And J.J. Redick who’s a basketball player just did it. And whenever these athletes come on and just kill it just as hard as the comedians, it makes me happy.

LD: With Chris being your teacher and then you had an HBO special and series first, is that kind of funny to you?

Pete Holmes: [laughs] I beat my teacher! It’s so funny, Chris and I had another thing where I did a talk show for Conan–he talked to me about this on his episode of my podcast. [Chris] was like when they gave you the talk show after Conan–which lasted about a year–he was like they were talking to me about [doing it] Like we’ve been competing in ways we didn’t even know! So I’m happy that now we’ve both landed at HBO, it’s not one or the other, but we can both be here. [laughs]

Chris Gethard: Career Suicide is now available on HBO, HBO Now & HBOGo


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Luke Hemsworth talks about “Infini” and new HBO series “Westworld”

Shane Abbess’s new scifi thriller Infini finds a rescue team on a mission to save the lone survivor of a biological outbreak on an abandoned off-world mining facility. The teleporting team all have to deal with the ominous confines of the station and each other once the contagion breaks loose. Luke Hemsworth stars as part of the team, technician Charlie Kent.

I spoke to Luke last month regarding his previous film Kill Me Three times and was pleased to get on the phone with him once again. The cheerful Australian actor was excited to be working on a sci-fi film that harkened back to an Alien-type vibe even while contending with acting in an extremely hot spacesuit.

Lauren Damon: Were you familiar with Shane Abbess or his work prior to this film?
Luke Hemsworth: I didn’t know Shane personally, I definitely knew Gabriel, his first film, and I thought that was a wonderful wonderful Australian film..One of the best things of come out in a long time. So it was a no brainer for me in terms of jumping on board. I would have paid to get on board really [laughs].

Damon: What appealed to you most about the story?
Hemsworth: You know, it’s different. It’s familiar and different, you know it sets up a convention and just when you think it’s going one direction, it punches in the other direction. And you know I think this is a world that I always really loved. Always loved you know, that era of ’79 to the mid-eighties—Alien, The Thing and just some of the films that I grew up on. So to get a chance to get into that world and feel close to those giants, it was something that was always really appealing.

Damon: Growing up what were your favorite sci-fi films?
Hemsworth: Oh Aliens. Alien one and two were always some of my favorite films. Predator and yeah, I’m a sci fi fan, you know Star Wars and all those. I’m in there, I love that stuff. I grew up reading fantasy books. Fantasy and sci fi sort of go a little bit hand in hand and you know…yeah I love it.

Damon: How much of that space station set was practical and how much was added later?
Hemsworth: It was all physical except for the exterior shots was all post, but everything was shot inside that studio. It was a physical studio. There’s very little green screen at all. I think there’s, I don’t know, a few shots when you see outside that are actually green screens. It was all very tactile, very—It was a wonderful set that was this beautiful, modular set, like a giant sort of Duplo set which they would take apart and then put back together in a very very short amount of time. And you know, you’d be looking at the ceiling which was just the floor a few moments ago…It was interesting, it was a bit of a mind trip…But yeah, I mean it was great.

Damon: Was it more challenging than usual to be working in primarily a space suit?
Hemsworth: Yes! Yeah absolutely! [Laughs] Uh, I don’t think I’ve ever sweated so much in all my life!  You know, the poor wardrobe people that had to wash that suit at the end of every day, [laughs] I don’t wish that upon anyone. It was so hot in that studio. I mean it must have been, I don’ t know 110 degrees in there and then we’d chuck space suits and gloves on, helmets and neck warmers…Yeah, it was tough. It was definitely tough.

Damon: Did you do you own fighting? You have quite a big fight within those space station tunnels.
Hemsworth: That’s me, yeah yeah. I never had a stunt double. No, that’s us going at it. I mean, he is great—Bren [Foster], who got to beat the absolute living daylights out of me was you know, he’s a wonderful martial artist and there wasn’t any point where I felt I was in danger. It’s very controlled…It’s good. It’s great to do that stuff, I love doing the stunts. I’m always pretty physical so get me in there!

Damon: A lot of the fighting is spurred on in the story because of a rage-inducing contagion, did you guys have a lot of discussion about that sort of virus aspect of the sci fi you were dealing with?
Hemsworth: Yeah, there was always a lot of discussion beforehand and before the shoot. And then you know, I think each person kind of found a way in to that rage or whatever it was in a different way. So you’re going to get a little of a different interpretation every time. Which I found very interesting, you know? Because there’s no monsters, it’s not like we’re all zombies stumbling around. There’s a level of coherence to everyone which is kind of different to a lot of other things. Which is very fun, very fun to play with. You know being on the edge, running that knife edge of insanity and control. But yeah, you get there and you try a few things—I mean we’d go this way and we’d go that way and it was an intense few days in the tunnels. Those tunnels were a bit of a blur for me now…we were definitely up the river so to speak!

Damon: Before things go wrong, your character is a bit of a techie type. When you’re in a sci-fi project do you find yourself researching the science behind it either for the role or just out of personal interest?
Hemsworth: Absolutely, yeah. We all did. We all went very deep into our character. We did a lot of preparation beforehand. We did a couple of things. One day we had to do a presentation to the group and each one of us had to teach the other people one of their skills. Something about their skills. You know, Bren did a knife fight, there was a bit of a CPR course, a bio-med course and mine was obviously a technical aspect. Technical and weapons, that was my little thing so…I actually gave everyone a beautiful knife which was engraved with everyone’s name, each person’s name.

Damon: When it comes to movies, teleportation and space accidents just freak me out. I have to ask, if someone said you could teleport somewhere, would you do it?
Hemsworth: Yes! I can’t stand going on planes, get me there instantly any day! [Laughs]
Damon: But the risks…
Hemsworth: Yeah, c’mon, I mean what’s the worst that could happen?
Damon: Uh, your arm could just wind up in the wrong spot on the other side!
Hemsworth: [Laughs] That’s alright, just send me back and do it again, yeah?
Damon: Alright.

Damon: Last time we spoke, they’d just announced your casting in HBO’s Westworld, have you begun work on that yet?
Hemsworth: Still haven’t started yet. Soon, soon, this is all I’m hearing is ‘soon’. So it’s coming.

Damon: Were you familiar with the Yul Brynner film before you were cast?
Hemsworth: Westworld? No I hadn’t seen it, I actually still haven’t seen the original. I think the style’s going to be very different so …but I will watch it. It’s on the list—on the list to watch.

Damon: What do you think about the concept of that Westworld advanced theme park will appeal to the modern audience?
Hemsworth: Oh I think it’s a lot bigger than that. I think there’s a lot of questions about life and what is life and artificial intelligence, you know. There’s robots becoming self-aware amongst a whole range of moral ambiguities, things that appeal to the darker side of human nature. I think it’s going to be great.

Damon: Have you got anything else in the works, or just waiting to start up there?
Hemsworth: That’s it, just waiting, yeah. Can’t really do anything at the moment. Hopefully I’ll get the time to go back and do Shane’s next film which he’s about to start. I think they’re in pre-production now, so if there’s any time that I have to do that then I’ll be on board 100%.

Damon: Will that be another sci-fi film?
Hemsworth: It’s another sci fi. It’s actually called Sci Fi: Volume One. [Laughs] It’s awesome, it’s unreal, I can’t wait.

Damon: Are you able to share anything about it?
Hemsworth: I can say nothing! [laughs]
Damon: Okay, that’s fair! I think that’s a good place to end! That’s all I have on scifi today…
Hemsworth: Awesome.
Damon: Thanks for talking with me again.
Hemsworth: Alright, thank you

Infini is available now on all VOD platforms.

Michael Beasley talks about the final season of HBO series “Eastbound and Down” and “The Last Vegas”

Michael Beasley has appeared on a number of television series and films ranging from “American Reunion” to “Flight” starring Denzel Washington. Michael currently plays the role of Jimmy Cliff on the final season of the hit HBO series “Eastbound and Down” and also has a role in the upcoming film “Last Vegas” starring Morgan Freeman, Michael Douglas and Robert Di Nero. Media Mikes spoke with Michael recently about his work on the series and about some of his other upcoming work.

Adam Lawton: How did you first become involved with “Eastbound and Down”?
Michael Beasley: I had auditioned for the show a few different times prior to this season. Those auditions were for different characters though. This time around there was a few different roles that I auditioned for. They weren’t sure the show was going to come back as they were working on a deal with HBO at the time. Over the course of several months they brought me in to audition for a couple different roles and what ultimately happened was that two of the roles were combined in to the character of “Jimmy Cliff”. Being I was already a fan of the show I was very excited to get this role.

AL: What has it been like working with the cast and crew from the show?
MB: It has been amazing! This really was a dream job for me. Danny McBride, Jody Hill and everyone involved with the show treat you like family once you walk on the set. It was like I knew everyone for years. They created this energy that was very easy to work in while on set. They allowed us to really play with the characters was just great. From a comedic stand point just being able to watch Danny and Jody work was incredible. I couldn’t figure out hey they were able to come up with some of the stuff they did.

AL: Being you were allowed to work with the character a bit how much of what we see is you and how much is what you were given in the script?
MB: We work with great scripts. Basically if we feel we can add something that day to the scene they allow us to do that. A lot of the stuff people are seeing right now is improvisation but there is also a lot scripted material in there as well. There is definitely a balance of both.

AL: How has working on this series compared to that of “Magic City”?
MB: It was different in the sense that HBO allowed those guys to really push the envelope as it relates to their artistic work. I loved working on “Magic City” because I love that era. The clothing and fashion is really great. I thought that show was written really well and am kind of upset we weren’t able to do a third season.

AL: What can you tell us about your appearance in the film “Last Vegas”?
MB: I had auditioned for the role of a bouncer and when I first got on set I was making sure that I was minding my p’s and q’s because of who was all there. I didn’t want to mess things up. (Laughs) I made sure I got the scene down real well and I also did some improv as well. The director Jon Turtletaub loved what I did and the energy I had with everyone that he had production contact me about doing some more scenes. I started with just one scene and ended up doing 8 or 9. It was an amazing experience.

AL: For you personally what do you feel is the biggest difference working on features as compared to television sitcoms?
MB: Any set I go to I try and absorb everything. Each time I work I learn more and more about both sides of the camera. I want learn what the actors may need as well as what the directors may need as well. Everything is about team work so I want to be able to help everyone make the best product we can. Each set I am on I can take something from that to the next. I have been able to work with a lot of great people and have been able to take some great skills from those experiences.

AL: Do you have any other projects set to come out that we can be watching for?
MB: I just shot a film title “The Squeeze”. It’s a golf movie schedule to come out sometime in 2014. We did a lot of improv work while we were shooting that it should be really funny. I did a couple episodes of “Single Ladies” on Vh1 that will air in January and you can also see me in the pilot for “Line of Sight”.