‘The Hot Zone’ – How a medical nightmare nearly came true
The opening scene hits you over the head like a sledgehammer.
A man, sweating profusely and covered with boils, staggers down the aisle of an airliner, obviously very ill. Reaching his seat, he promptly fills an airsick bag, which a flight attendant dutifully takes away, dumps in the toilet and discovers its contents – blood.
This is Ebola, an African virus so deadly it kills up to 90 percent of those exposed and for a time in 1989 it was in this country near Washington, D.C. The true story of how it was discovered and eventually contained is the subject of the six-part limited series “The Hot Zone,” premiering Monday, May 27, on National Geographic.
Based on the best-selling book by Richard Preston, the series stars Julianna Margulies (“The Good Wife,” “ER”) as Lt. Col Nancy Jaax, an Army scientist who discovers the virus and spearheads the fight against it; Noah Emmerich (“The Americans”) as husband Lt. Col. Jerry Jaax, who risks own life in the effort; Topher Grace (“BlacKkKlansman”) as virologist Dr. Peter Jaehring, with whom she frequently clashes; and Liam Cunningham (“Game of Thrones”) as Dr. Wade Carter, Nancy’s ally in the race to keep the virus from spreading.
In Monday’s premiere, Nancy dons layers of protective gear and takes a new recruit through the very precise steps in biohazard level four training, where scientists work with the deadliest diseases on the planet and a tiny tear in a suit means immediate evacuation and quarantine. It was in filming this scene where Margulies gained a new respect for what disease experts do.
“It is, for me anyway, horribly claustrophobic,” she explains. “I didn’t really find that out until my first day on the set how claustrophobic it is until that zipper goes ‘sshhh’ and you can’t touch your face and you can’t do anything except work in the lab basically. You can’t hear. You’re sort of in an isolated vacuum.”
“But what I loved about Nancy Jaax,” she continues, “is you see it’s such a turn-on for her. She’s in her element there when she’s doing that and being able to teach it, that’s her comfort zone, which for me as a mere thespian I found really fascinating.”
While preparing for the role, Margulies didn’t get to meet with Jaax, who now works for Kansas State University, but she did talk with her by phone and came away impressed by how she didn’t think of herself as a heroine, just someone doing her job.
The role also made the actress more cognizant of staying clean and washing her hands.
“That’s my daily life now,” she says. “I’m just constantly aware of how much we touch ourselves, each other, objects without any idea of what’s on it. And so I have sadly become hyper-aware of the dangers of it.”