After reactor 4 of the Chernboyl Nuclear Power Plant explodes in the HBO mini-series Chernobyl, it quickly becomes apparent that there are two types of people in power. There are the Soviet officials who sit in rooms and deem the meltdown "impossible," and in doing so allow the situation to worsen.
Then, there are people like Ulana Khomyuk, the intrepid nuclear physicist from nearby Belarus played by Emily Watson, who recognize the enormity of the danger — and quickly mobilize.
Unlike many of the the characters on the mini-series, Ulana doesn't exactly correspond to a real person from history. Rather, Ulana is based on a composite of many unnamed historical figures. "She’s created in tribute to the many men and women scientists who were put who surreptitiously and secretly helped move things along and find the truth," Watson told Refinery29 at a recent press junket in New York.
Behind Ulana's placid demeanor is a dogged, tough woman willing to sneak around that first "camp" of people in power — the stalwart Soviet gate-keepers who care more about keeping up the appearances of a technologically modern company than investigating how it went so wrong.
Ulana was one in a network of scientists who outsmarted the swarm of misinformation surrounding the Chernobyl explosion. "There was a community of those kinds of people who were helping each other feed information," Watson said. Her character arrives in Pripyat before the disaster is even officially announced by the Soviet government.
"She’s a truth ninja. She goes after it," Watson said, laughing.
Since Ulana (and all most the Chernobyl characters') personal histories are left unmentioned, Watson developed a backstory for her character to explain how she developed such a thick skin.
"My character would’ve been a child during World War II, and from Belarus — one of the worst places on the planet to be in the 20th century. Just astonishing. Horrific treatment from every direction. She would’ve grown up incredibly tough," Watson said.
Ulana's past is embedded into the show in subtle ways. On her desk, she keeps a small commemorative medal that was given to the Belarussian women and children who defended their city during a siege in WWII. "As a child she lived through extraordinary brutality and probably was witness to appalling acts. She developed a 'don't trust anybody' mentality,' Watson elaborated.
While the show didn't have actors attempt Russian accents, Watson gave Ulana a slight affect to distinguish her from the Ukranian characters. "She’s highly educated and speaks English very well but you can tell slightly it's not her native tongue. Which to me made her feel really smart. But also an outsider," Watson said.
Ulana stands out in the landscape of Chernobyl for a more obvious reason than her slightly hesitant English. She's one of only two major woman characters in the show (Jessie Buckley has a brief but essential appearance as the wife of a firefighter who dies in the attacks).
"Very few women were ever in the kind of overall ruling political body of the Soviet Union," Craig Mazin, the show's creator, told TV Take podcast. "But one area where the Soviets were actually more progressive than we were was in the area of science and medicine, particularly medicine. The Soviet Union had quite a large percentage of female doctors."
"Analysis of pedagogical journals suggests that girls’ quest for advancement in the 1960s was aided by the USSR’s standard school curriculum, which privileged the study of math and the hard sciences," writes Roshanna Sylvester, an expert in Soviet history. Essentially, girls were encouraged to pursue careers in STEM – and so, they did.
Clearly, Ulana was operating in a different context than women in STEM do in the U.S. "There’s no sense of her being a woman and trying to succeed in a man’s world. She’s just a scientist trying to do her job," Watson said.
And her job happens to be saving Europe from nuclear catastrophe. Ulana teams up with Valery Lagasov (Jared Harris), who is based on a real person, to find what caused the meltdown.
“Ulana decided that she would throw caution to the window and sacrifice everything for the truth to be told," Watson said. "To me, that was my whole falling in love with this part."