Why Julianna Margulies Took On National Geographic’s Chilling Ebola Thriller ‘The Hot Zone’: “Because Fear Motivates Action”

After six years on ER, playing Carol Hathaway in NBC’s hit medical drama, Julianna Margulies made a vow to stay away from roles that involved delivering complex scientific jargon. She was so strict with herself that, when Scott Free first approached her with The Hot Zone, a six-part tale about the origins of the Ebola virus in the late 1980s, she turned it down flat. Curiosity got the better of her, though, and soon after picking up the script she found herself in a Hazmat suit, surrounded by test tubes and petri dishes, as Nancy Jaax, a colonel at the United States Army Medical Research for Infectious Disease Institute (USAMRIID).

Why did you change your mind about The Hot Zone?

When I read the script, I thought, Why didn’t I know about this? And why are we still in the same place we were 30 years ago? It’s amazing—just this morning I was listening to BBC News on NPR, and they were talking about Ebola in the Democratic Republic in Africa. Over 800 people have died since August from Ebola, and it’s 2019. So, every day, I keep thinking, My God, it’s not getting better. It’s getting worse—and no one in this country is paying attention.

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What appealed to you about playing the part of Nancy Jaax?

She was just really dedicated to her profession in a way that I’d never seen before—she was putting herself at risk every day, walking into these labs and trying to understand these infectious diseases. She researched not just Ebola, but Anthrax, and the Marburg virus, and AIDS. She’s alive and well today. I haven’t met her yet in person, but I spoke to her at length on the phone just to sort of try and understand what I was doing.

What kind of research did you do—or can you do—for a project like this?

Well, I’d never have enough time to do it properly [laughs]. These people do this for years and years and years.

But, luckily enough, Nancy Jaax’s nephew, Michael Smit, happens to be one of the top specialists of infectious diseases in our country. He came, generously, and gave me time, and showed me how you manipulate the instruments, how you test the tissue, what you’re looking for under the microscope. He showed me what to do, what not to do, and how to fake it enough to make it look real; those kinds of things. And, honestly, for me that was the most important thing: once I was in the lab, to make it look as real as possible, because of course the people that I care about watching the most are those who work at USAMRIID.

And reading the book was important, which of course wasn’t good night-time reading.

Even the trailer is terrifying.

Yeah, it’s frightening. There’s nothing light and airy about it. I mean, I love that Brian [Peterson] and Kelly [Souders], our showrunners, really tried to put a little humor wherever they could into the dialogue, because it’s so devastating when you really strip it down to the bare essence of what we’re dealing with. The fact that Ebola had not ever been on U.S. soil until that moment [in 1989], and we were caught with our pants down. We didn’t know what to do. There was no protocol.

For me, the sad truth is that science-deniers have their heads in the sand. It’s the government’s job to believe the scientific facts and to start moving forward and finding a vaccine and a cure. People think, “Oh, Ebola, that’s in a far off place, that’s another nation. It doesn’t affect us.” Of course it affects us. Wake up. So I felt like this whole project was a wake-up call, a chance to hopefully at least shine a spotlight on what truly could be an epidemic that hits our country in a way that we will not be prepared for unless we start really taking it seriously.

How did the Hazmat suits help your performance—or hinder it?

I’m embarrassed to tell you that those Hazmat suits were the bane of my existence. I did not realize how claustrophobic I truly am until they put that suit on me.

There are a few different ones, but the Hazmat suits that I wear in the lab, in the biohazard level four labs, were modeled on, and made up of, the original ones from 1989. I’m sure nowadays they must be lighter, but back then they weighed 50lb. And in order to keep the air circulating in there, they have these two fans that are attached into the back of the suit. Once the suit is put on, they’re turned on, and there’s a whirring sound. You can’t hear yourself think, let alone say the dialogue, let alone hear your partner speak.

And these suits were made for men—in 1989, Nancy Jaax was the only woman in her department. Where the weight of the suit would come down on a man is the collarbone, but where it comes down on me is the tip of my shoulder, so with every movement I made in the lab, I was lifting an extra 50lb every time I moved my arm. I wrote to my agents and said, “I don’t care if someone wants to pay me $10 million, I will never step foot in that suit again.”

Where did you shoot?

Well, all of my scenes were shot in Toronto, and then for all of the flashbacks, which Liam Cunningham and James D’Arcy did, they went to South Africa. I didn’t get to go. I actually asked Nancy why she never was in South Africa, and it was a personal medical reason, so I didn’t press her. So all of her stuff is in Toronto. We doubled Toronto—which most productions are doing nowadays because of the tax breaks—for Maryland, and Virginia, and Washington, D.C.

Did you ever have any contact with Richard Preston, who wrote the book?

No, only in an edition of his book that he gave me and signed, saying, “Thanks for putting this on film.” I haven’t met him yet. I’m hoping to, but, no, I didn’t speak to him.

I did ask Nancy about how she felt about the book, because there was a little bit of controversy when it came out—some of the characters were either omitted from the book, or not in the book enough. And so I wanted Nancy’s blessing. I didn’t want to do a character who is alive and well today who wouldn’t have given us the thumbs up to do it.

She said that she really felt the book replicated exactly what was going on at the time, and if there was any controversy, it was just egos getting in the way, that kind of thing. But she and her husband felt that it was spot on.

What would you like people to take away from The Hot Zone?

Ebola is something that changes constantly, and we talk about that in the show—you think you’ve beaten it, and it retreats back and disappears, and then it comes back even stronger, which means we have to stay two steps ahead of it. And so what I hope the conversation will be—what I hope that governments globally will take away from it—is the fact that we’ve all got to start financing and supporting the scientific work behind the disease to try and find a cure. It’s going to happen. And so we need to wake up. And I think that’s why it’s important that it’s such a scary thing to watch—because fear motivates action.

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