Julianna Margulies fights Ebola in ‘The Hot Zone’
Julianna Margulies knew her role in the National Geographic limited series “The Hot Zone” would give her a multitude of layers to play. She could concentrate on the medical part of the character bringing to the screen the doctor who, in 1989, recognized the first appearance of the deadly Ebola virus on U.S. soil. There were also the elements of her character being in the military while being a wife and a mother.
“It was a medley of all those elements,” Margulies says of taking on the role of Lt. Col. Nancy Jaax, the woman who the fact-based short series is based. “My first question about her character was about the Army. I understand being a pathologist, being a scientific researcher and working in labs. I even understand being a mother and wife.
“All that, I could put together. But, the Army part of her life threw me.”
The six episodes of “The Hot Zone” will show how the Ebola virus was initially identified on American soil and contained. Had the work of Jaax and her team failed, the lethal filovirus has a fatality rate of up to 90%. “The Hot Zone” will be broadcast over three nights beginning 9 p.m. May 27 on National Geographic. Joining Margulies in the cast are Noah Emmerich, Topher Grace, Liam Cunningham, James D’Arcy, Paul James, Robert Wisdom, Robert Sean Leonard and Grace Gummer.
Inside the zone
Faced with playing a character who worked in such a dangerous situation gave Margulies the next big question about the role. She wondered how a man would be willing to marry a woman who works in Level 4 biohazard labs where she could be contaminated at any time.
Margulies had a direct source to find the answers to all her question through the real Nancy Jaax. What the Golden Globe and Emmy Award-winning actor was told was that the couple knew the best way they could stay in the same place and work together was if both were in the military. It was a decision that almost ended in tragedy when Jaax made her discovery.
“The truth is, she couldn’t be married to anyone other than someone who also was working in the same profession,” Margulies says. “I then asked Nancy how her feelings changed once she became a mother. She said she never thought about it was because it was her job. The only time she ever thought about her mortality and the fact she could leave her children motherless was only when her suit was compromised. That’s when she questioned what she was doing.”
What Jaax was doing was saving thousands — or possibly millions — of lives with the identification of the Ebola. Despite that lofty accomplishment, what Margulies loved the most about Jaax was that she never saw herself as anything else but a mom and a wife going to work. She never saw herself as a hero but only as a person doing her job just like Margulies going off to an acting role to do her job.
No one’s ever going to call an actor a hero for starring in a film or TV show but those who chose the profession do get honored for excellent work. That’s been the case with Margulies since the New York native started her long run on the hospital drama, “ER.” She’s followed that up with roles on “Canterbury’s Law,” “The Sopranos,” “The Grid” and “The Good Wife.”
The one big difference between other jobs and her work in “The Hot Zone” is that Margulies is playing a real person rather than a fictional character. It was important to Margulies to play the role in such a way that would portray Jaax in a light that she would like.
“That meant being honest and truthful to who she is,” Margulies said. “At the same time, she’s not a historical figure. It’s not like playing Catherine the Great or Mary Queen of Scots. So there was a little freedom in playing her. So there were certain things I could do without feeling like I had to ask her permission to do it.”
Margulies loved the opportunity to play the complex character in “The Hot Zone,” but she’s even happier that National Geographic has cast a spotlight in the incident that happed 30 years ago because it’s not a question of whether something like this will happen again but a matter of when.
“We need to be prepared,” Margulies said. “I remember there was a lot of stories about Ebola the whole time we were shooting. Every day there seemed to be another story about Ebola in small print, which I found really disturbing — that it wasn’t on the front page. Especially when you’re working on something like this, but it just makes our show more relevant and more timely.”