The Wylde Interview: Robert Emms

Interview by David Newton / Portraits by Etienne Gilfillan


“When I get a part, I look at that character and I try to revolve every other thing that I consume in my life around that. So musically, I try to find music that I think might be, not like that character, but might give an extra element to that part. If I go to an exhibition, say a photography exhibition, I look for something that might connect in some way.”

Actor Robert Emms is telling me how he often prepares for a role; a task that, given his extraordinarily varied output so far, would surely encompass a huge range of research. He first appeared on our radar seven years ago, playing the tragically misunderstood character Rick in the wonderful, hard-hitting indie Brit-flick Broken. He had already notched up a trio of Hollywood blockbusters by then; in War Horse, Anonymous and Mirror Mirror, and he continues to straddle the radically different worlds of mainstream and esoteric movie-making… from being gobbled up by the aquatic Mosasaurus in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018), to the gritty British Jehovah’s Witness movie Apostasy (2017).


Emms is here to talk about yet another string he’s added to his bow: his foray into quality TV; namely the HBO/Sky Atlantic miniseries Chernobyl. The name alone conjures dread, as it relates to what is generally considered to be the most disastrous nuclear power plant accident in history, occurring at the Russian plant Chernobyl in 1986.


Wylde: What attracted you to playing in this series?

Robert Emms: What attracted me was that it’s a really amazing story that’s never been told in a drama before. They’re all real people in it, which is another thing that appealed to me. It’s always interesting to play someone who really existed, and the character I play – Leonid Toptunov – was a big part of what happened. He and another colleague were two young men in quite senior positions within the control room of the power plant, and they were told that they had to run a test that night that the day-shift couldn’t do. The day-shift were qualified to do it, but these two guys weren’t. Living in a Soviet country at this time, you didn’t say no to your boss, so people didn’t really stand up for themselves and they got pushed and bullied into doing the test… and things went wrong.

Would you say your character is a hero/anti-hero?

I think they all are heroes, really. I suppose in some ways he and his colleague are both culpable, but not because of being bad or of their malpractice; more because they were bullied into a position to follow orders. So unfortunately that cost him and many others their lives. He died later of radiation poisoning; I had to spend many hours in a chair with full-body prosthetic make-up to replicate the effects of severe radiation.

Where was it filmed?

Mostly in Lithuania, but some scenes were at Chernobyl. The other attraction to do it was the cast; as I’m one of many, many people in it. Jared Harris, who I love, is amazing. Emily Watson; I’ve worked with her before, on War Horse. I’ve always liked Stellan Skarsgård. And many other amazing actors, who I’ve seen throughout the years, were literally coming and doing 2 or 3 lines in it, to be a part of this project.

What would today’s audiences get from this historical drama, do you think?

The story is so relevant now, that you just wouldn’t get from thinking: “Oh, there’s a series about Chernobyl…” because it’s about lies and truth, basically. They tried to cover it up, but in a situation like that, the truth has to come to the surface, and in this story it does. And I think it echoes politically now – although on a much, much lesser scale – things like Brexit, for example. Lies being told to people, and people just believing bog-standard lies. And Trump, of course… buying into that because that’s what you should do. And ultimately the more you get close to disaster – in this case a literal one – the only important thing is the truth.

So is this a case of a physical disaster that can be used as a metaphor for any type of disaster?

Yes, 100%.


What else have you got coming up?

Well, I can’t go into it too much as we’re still filming, but I’ve got a part in The Barking Murders, which is a 3-part BBC true-crime story. This is from the people who did Appropriate Adult [about murderers Fred and Rose West] and it’s about the guy who went on Grindr, and other websites, to seek out boys [to rape and kill] and the bodies were planted in this cemetery in Barking. Stephen Merchant’s playing [murderer] Stephen Port in it and Sheridan Smith’s playing the mum of the first victim, and Jaime Winstone another next-of-kin. I play the partner to the third victim.

So are you attracted to true crime dramas?

I’m attracted to realism… that’s more my thing. But, yes, I’m obsessed with documentaries and true crime stories. All the stuff that’s on Netflix, like Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes; I get well into that sort of stuff… so addictive!


We are huge fans of your movie Broken… tell us a little bit about that.

That was such a great project. I had a terrible, terrible hangover the day I was due to get beaten up by Rory Kinnear. I’d been at a party till about 5AM that morning, and then I looked at my emails and it said: “Just so you know, it’s all changed and we’re gonna be shooting that scene today!” And I was like: “Oh my god, that’s gonna be five hours of being hit over the head with a bucket by Rory Kinnear!”

Your career amazingly straddles low-budget indie flicks and Hollywood blockbusters… what was it like being scouted by Spielberg whilst performing in War Horse in London?

I did War Horse for a year in the West End, and Steven Spielberg came to see the show and wanted to meet the cast. He wanted to meet us all, and I was standing right at the back, and thinking: “I can’t see him!” I was actually quite exhausted, because by that time I was playing the lead in it and it’s a very tiring role. So I didn’t really feel bothered about it, but as I was walking off, I got a tap on the shoulder by the company manager and they said: “Steven would like to talk to you, separately.” He [Spielberg] said: “I really liked your performance… have you ever thought about having a film career?” And by that time I was obsessed with doing theatre, so I said: “I don’t know”, but he hinted that there would be a part in his movie of War Horse that would be right for me. And a month later, the official offer came through to my agent. I was doing another film at the time called Anonymous, directed by Roland Emmerich, about Shakespeare, and that was my first big studio film, and I was really captivated by that whole experience, and had sort-of forgotten about the Spielberg thing, and then suddenly, when I was in my trailer, I got a call, and thought: “Oh that’s lovely!”

Do you like doing films?

I love doing films, and I love doing TV, so if I can break TV up by doing an independent feature or a big studio feature, that’s great. If you like indie films, you should see Apostasy; that’s a film I did a couple of years ago, that did really well last year, about Jehovah’s Witnesses. 


You’re also pretty musical, we hear. Didn’t you do a movie score?

Yes, I did a score [for the short movie Torpedo (2017)]. I’m now writing some songs and I’m doing an EP. But I’m not doing that related to me as an actor, it’ll be a different venture, under a different name. I play the piano and sing. I started out as a musician, playing classical piano, and I was going to go train as a classical pianist.

What style is your music, would you say?

It’s a bit Rufus Wainwright-y… chilled, storytelling-type songs. For me, it’s a nice thing to do in my spare time; another creative outlet.

And what sort of music do you listen to?

I listen to a lot of classical music – Bach, and especially Beethoven – and soundtracks, but recently I’ve been listening to a lot of James Blake; I think he’s really good. And the Maccabees. Actually the composer for Chernobyl, Hildur Guðnadóttir, is amazing, incredible.


Our favourite question to ask people is about their dreams… any weird/recurring ones?

I actually have a really bad sleep problem and I suffer from really bad night-terrors. I will wake up in the night and I will literally see something in the room and feel it’s attacking me and I’ll jump out of bed and run and scream. When I was 15, this basically happened once a week, then it gradually went down and then it stopped for 5 years. Then it started happening again, in a more severe way and I got very worried about it. I actually went to a sleep clinic, and stayed overnight. They put all the things on me, and at the end of it they said: “Your breathing pattern is very normal in your sleep, so we couldn’t really determine anything, but we can give you some sleeping pills.” And in the end I was like: “I don’t want sleeping pills; I want a real way to get over this.” Because it’s so traumatic.

Has any treatment worked?

Yes, it’s really simple: I can’t sleep in pitch black, because I see shapes in pitch black, and it freaks me out. Also I can’t do any work before bed, because if I do that, my mind is thinking about the lines, or the character. I need about an hour to wind down; it’s become part of my routine. But that’s nothing that the guy in that hospital said to me; all they did was give me prescription for sleeping pills. I think it’s really under-researched, that whole thing… I’d love to write a TV series about it. I don’t mind talking about it, because it’s not some really deep psychological thing; I’m basically scared of the dark!


Talking of being scared of the dark: do you like horror films?

Yes, I love them!

What sort of horror movie could you see yourself in?

Something like Get Out would be great. I love psychological horror. The Shining’s pretty good too. And The Orphanage

Who would you love to act opposite?

I’d love to work with Daniel Day-Lewis, to see his process close-up. He has that whole Method process – which I don’t have – but I would love to see someone who commits themselves to that. That would be cool.

You’ve played a lot of victims… have you ever played a murderer?

Yes, In Happy Valley 2, I played a serial killer. There have been two ends to my casting, because when I first started it was either murderers or victims, but now that I’m getting older, it’s filling out a bit in the middle!

The first episode of Chernobyl airs on May 6th on HBO (US) and May 7th on Sky Atlantic

Grooming by Paolo Navarino

Robert wears his own clothes

Thanks to The Marylebone Hotel

and Gavin at The King’s Canary