Julianna Margulies On ‘The Hot Zone’ “I Just Thought This Story Had To Be Told.”
“Inside the Battle to Save Congo From the Ebola Crisis” Reads the headline in Time Magazine. “The DRC is currently experiencing the second-largest Ebola outbreak in recorded history, and the response has been critically slowed by violence and insecurity.” It’s 2019, not 1989 and yes, Ebola is still very real and it’s still a disease and it’s still terrifying.
National Geographic’s The Hot Zone is a six-part limited series starring Julianna Margulies as Nancy Jaax, a colonel for the United States Army Medical Research for Infectious Disease Institute. The series is based on the real-life case of the 1989 Ebola outbreak and when it reached US soil. It’s a terrifying reality, one Margulies is all too aware of. She got to talk to Jaax both when researching the role and on the press tour.
The series is a wake-up call as Margulies calls it. I caught up with Margulies to talk about The Hot Zone and how one person can indeed make a change.
What was your first reaction when you saw this script and what did it conjure up for you?
I was surprised by my reaction. When they sent me the scripts, in the back of my mind, I thought, of course, I’ll read them because I read everything I get offered and that’s the right thing to do. It was also my old boss, Ridley Scott. It was also National Geographic and both have my utmost respect.
In the back of my mind, I also thought, the last thing I want to do is anything scientific and with a hazmat suit, and impossible dialogue. That’s just not fun.
I sat down and read all four in one sitting, and I didn’t even get up to go to the bathroom. I could not put them down. I think my initial reaction, was “Wait. What? This happened?” I didn’t know about it. I was in college at the time. I wasn’t reading The New York Times and it was probably buried anyway. It wasn’t out there because the CDC was trying to keep it under wraps.
I think the reason, the show and the story are so compelling is that most of it was kept a secret so that it didn’t cause mayhem and that there wasn’t a riot. I was so taken by the subject matter and the character and the fact that she was doing everything backward and in high heels like Ginger Rogers because she was the only woman in her field. I thought this story had to be told. Against all my better judgment, I jumped at the chance, and I was shocked. I immediately called my agents and said that we had to do it. We needed to shed light on the epidemic. Once I said yes, I went for it. What else can you do?
But why aren’t we shedding light on it, in Time, there was an article about the current Ebola outbreak?
It’s only on NPR and BBC World News. It is shocking. The day the show premiered, I was doing press for it and it was finally on the cover of the New York Times. The morning that I went to do Colbert, and there it was. I spit my coffee out because it finally was on the front page and not buried with the Want ads. It was actually on the cover.
What’s happening in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – it’s amazing when I was doing press for the show’s air date on May 27, at that time, I was talking about the fact that there had been 800 recorded deaths from Ebola in the Congo. Today, it hasn’t even been a month since the airing of that show – there have been over 1400 deaths. It just goes to show you that attention must be paid to what is happening worldwide.
We live in such a myopic idea of what America is and the rest of the world that somehow Africa isn’t going to affect us. It’s just putting your head in the sand and not paying attention to the red flags. I’m so proud to have partnered with National Geographic. They said that they were airing the show in 170 different countries. I was so happy it was them.
Nancy was so ahead of her time, being the only woman in the field, standing up to all her male colleagues, how did you dive into who she was?
The real-life Nancy Jaax had indulged me in all my silly questions before we started shooting. I had a list of questions to try to understand her character. I had never played a real-life character who was alive. I’d played real-life characters who were dead, so to have her available and to ask how she dealt with her job on top of being a wife and a mother and being the only woman there, was crucial to me in order to figure out how to make this character work. She will tell you, and I’ve had the luxury of doing press with her a few weeks ago, she never saw it as a danger. This kind of work excited her. All the rest fell behind. Not that she didn’t take being a wife and a mother seriously, she did. The fact that she was a woman and that she was putting her life in danger, that took a back seat to the excitement of the work that she was doing.
She will tell you that as frightening as it was that there was Ebola on US soil in 1989, it was so exciting for them. It would be like training to be a firefighter and never putting out a fire. You don’t want anyone to get hurt or sick. You want to come in and do what you were trained to do. That gave me a real sense of who this woman was. It’s how I feel about my job. [laughs]. Do I sacrifice parts of motherhood, wifedom and all the rest of it because I’m passionate and love my job and my job happens to require 14 hours a day? Yes. It balances itself out in the end. I always say, “Happy Parent. Happy Child.”
I got to look at the role from that lens rather than the danger lens.
Did you go back and read the book?
I did. Did you read the book when it came out in 1995?
I didn’t, but I have it and it scared the crap out of me. It’s terrifying.
I read the book. It’s not an easy book to read at night. It’s a true nightmare in the making. I read the book because I wanted to make sure that the script was true to the book. I asked Nancy for her blessing. I wouldn’t have gone to do it if she had told me the book was terrible. She had read the book and she had read the script. She said this is exactly how it happened.
It isn’t a matter of if this is going to happen again on US soil. It’s a matter of when. Nancy has a line in the mini-series, “This has hit US soil and we have no protocols.”
They were caught with their pants down, and this can’t happen again. What I’m thrilled about is that the mini-series was a rating series. It means that people were paying attention and if only one person out of the however many million people who watched it says, I need to do something, then that’s enough for me.
We just need awareness. We need to stop denying science.
Don’t even get me started on that. It’s mind-boggling that we live in a world where that happens.
I don’t want to sound preachy, but I used to think that when people used to say, “It takes one person to make a difference.” I’d think, “Oh please!” The truth is that I have witnessed it firsthand.
Just in changing my vote to Upstate New York because we have a home there. We managed to turn a purple state blue with Antonio Delgado. We got all our friends together to switch their votes to Upstate. We raised money. We did it. Just that one little, tiny region in Upstate New York.
I’ve been working with Erin Merryn to get Erin Merryn’s law passed. It teaches children in public school for one hour a year, the tools they can have about sexual abuse. It teaches them that they have a voice and that they can speak up. It hadn’t passed New York for nine years in a row. I got on the phone, and I started calling everyone I knew. It passed yesterday.
I’m so inspired. I just want people to be inspired to know that their voice does matter. One voice can make a difference.
With Ebola and what’s happening with the measles outbreak. When you talk to Nancy about the measles outbreak. She will look at you like you are an alien. We were doing a joint interview about it and she said, “But we already cured that. It’s ridiculous that it’s back. There’s a cure for that. Why are we back there?”
She doesn’t say it angrily. She’s incredulous.
It’s mortifying to me. Why is there an outbreak in LA? It’s madness.
I know. People who deny science are putting the world in danger and it goes all the way to global warming. I know that I am one of the millions screaming, “Wake up.” We need to wake up. That’s why I’m so grateful to Ridley Scott and Lynda Obst. They had the rights to this for 30 years. I’m glad it got made now.
There’s always a silver lining. They were going to do it as a film. I think the wait was worth it. This story is too vast and too intricate to be told in two hours. I’m really grateful that for all the wrong reasons it wasn’t made, but for all the right reasons it got made. It needed that time it needed to tell the story.
I love the claustrophobia of you and the hazmat suit. You really do feel that.
That happened. Exactly as it was filmed. [laughs]
It’s terrifying. It’s pure horror.
Topher Grace said, “It’s a thriller until you realize it happened, and then, it becomes a horror movie.” I have to give him credit for that line.
Did you enjoy the mini-series format?
Oh, I love it. It’s my favorite thing on the planet. I love it so much. I want to do two mini-series a year and call it a day. [laughs]. You get to really explore a character, but you’re not really married to them for ten months a year. You get to do it for three or four months and you get a breath. You can collect yourself and dive into another character. I think the mini-series is the luxury of television. I keep saying it’s back. It used to be a big thing. Anything under ten is a mini-series.
It’s perfect, and it’s such a great space to really dive into characters. You’ve put it out there, so now, we’re just going to talk every year about your latest mini-series.
It’s all I want to do. [laughs].
What do you look for in your roles?
The most attractive thing for me is the challenge of it. The other thing, is can I make it real? Can I embody it enough to make people believe that I am that person? I always feel that those are the roles that are most complex. If it’s a 3-dimensional role, I’ll find a way to make it work. It’s that old adage, that if it’s not on the page, it’s not on the stage. If it comes alive and jumps off the page at me, I feel that I’ll be able to do something that feels authentic.
People always ask me what sort of roles do I want to do. I don’t know until I read it. Yes, would I love to do a fabulous English and romantic, in a corset, but not if it’s not a great character? I don’t know yet. My goal in life is to enjoy every role that I get to do. I’m fortunate enough that I’ve worked with great writers.
I think right now in the world that we’re living in, the roles that I’m looking for are ones that champion the women’s role in this world, and to show that women are strong, smart and capable of much more than most men.