Download: Julie Ann Emery on the Responsibility of Playing Real Life Nurse Diane Robichaux in 'Five Days at Memorial'
The complications of managing a hospital in a natural disaster are challenging enough, but what if there’s a hospital within the hospital that is clearly given a lower priority than the one with its name on the building? As Diane Robichaux, the real-life nurse who fought for the care of the patients in the long term care facility (LifeCare) at Memorial Hospital during Hurricane Katrina, Julie Ann Emery carried enormous emotional weight for the series. Diane Robichaux was seven months pregnant, facing down a once in a generation storm which left her and her patients bereft of power, food, and water. Julie Ann conveys Diane’s struggle with great authenticity and compassion.
I don’t mind telling you that both Julie and I became emotional during our conversation, in which Julie describes the toll of playing a person dedicated to doing the right thing, who then has their ability to follow through on those core beliefs compromised. It’s one of the best performances you’ll see in any year.
Awards Daily: I talked with Robert Pine and Michael Gaston recently, and they both spoke of you with complete adoration. I assume you had a good experience with the cast because Robert referred to you as the mother figure of the casting crew.
Julie Ann Emery: That is so sweet. I think I was our cruise director for sure. We were all in Toronto filming at a time when the borders were closed, so nobody’s family could get in or out unless they came in that first round. So I organized our gatherings and we ate together. We had formed a little bubble because we were all being tested three times a week. So, we would get our COVID tests back on Saturday and out we’d gather Saturday night. It was the most beautiful filming experience I’ve ever had. It was the most lovely group of people. Everyone was completely dedicated to the work, everybody was working on such a high level, and everyone really loved each other, so we got very tight.
Awards Daily: It’s a bizarre thing to think about trying to make a movie during that time frame. You are the fourth person I’ve talked to connected with the show now, and everybody said that as a cast and crew experience, this was the best they’d ever had.
Julie Ann Emery: Well some of that is that the material just required a level of dedication. And, being that emotionally vulnerable with each other on screen requires an amount of vulnerability offscreen as well. You just kind of open up to each other. A lot of it is that John (Ridley) and Carlton (Cuse) really set out to have an environment of respect and kindness. From the very beginning, from our very first cast meeting, they started talking about it and they hired a group of people who could help make that happen. I’ve never worked with a more dedicated crew. They really jumped on board. But I credit John and Carlton for not just saying that that’s what they wanted, but for taking the steps to make that happen. We don’t really put a monetary value on that in Hollywood. And we should, because I’m here to tell you, it absolutely impacted what wound up on screen and placed value on screen. When you have to get so nakedly vulnerable, it helps to not have to protect yourself off camera, you know? To be in a good, safe, happy environment. You don’t lose a couple of takes trying to tear down those walls again. Everything just kind of seamlessly flows into itself.
Awards Daily: This isn’t the easiest project in terms of material and what you have to give to it emotionally. The show is about chaos at a very high level. If you had that chaos on set too, I don’t even know how you could have done this.
Julie Ann Emery: I think it would’ve become something else. It would’ve become something different than what it is. We really were looking to get to the heart of the human experience. I think we as a society kind of experience these things from an outside look, because that’s what we see on the news, right? We see the action, the storm, and the wind, and the damage, but we don’t often get to walk with a person through their own experience of it. And that was the goal of this. I felt a particular responsibility to that, leading the Life Care side of the story, because that’s really where we feel the emotional consequences of the actions that are happening. We wanted to dive deep and then deeper and then deeper. John and Carlton were really interested in how complex and how far it could go. And we were all right there with it.
Awards Daily: Five Days shows that these are people placed in a position where there are no good choices. Whether you’re team Anna Pou or not, nobody wins.
Julie Ann Emery: Exactly. Frankly, from my personal perspective, there’s nobody that was on the ground in that hospital that is responsible. There was a failure at a much higher level than the people that were in the hospital. And on every level outside of the hospital, there was a failure.
Awards Daily: Corporate, city, state, federal.
Julie Ann Emery: That’s right. And even the health department itself. Every level of institution and government that was supposed to show up and help these people or just guide them, absolutely failed. So, my hope is that this disaster will change how we handle these moments. We’re seeing natural disasters more frequently. They’re getting worse. It’s not going to stop. It’s only going to continue to get worse. I feel like people on the news watch New Orlean, and are like, oh, well look at those people in New Orleans. Well, that’s gonna be you in five minutes. And don’t we all wanna be in this together? I really hope we can find a way to come together as a country and as a society to say in these moments, these are the things that we’re willing to do here. These are the things we have to do.
Awards Daily: I remember one of the most upsetting things about that period of time was hearing people who live in this country being referred to as refugees.
Julie Ann Emery: Remember, they couldn’t get into Georgia there for a minute? There were states – this is just me personally, this is not in the book or the show – but like everybody was going to Houston or they were trying to figure out what other states they were gonna be able to get into. I don’t think I ever considered us as American state by state. That’s just how we vote.
Awards Daily: OYou mentioned that your character Diane is very much the representative and defender of Life Care in your arc. And talking about corporate malfeasance, you had a hospital inside of a hospital and one hospital was clearly given priority with their patients and their staff—not that they were in a great position either, but it was almost like a class struggle.
Julie Ann Emery: Two things about that: I think there’s a real indictment of corporate medicine here, and that’s a big conversation we need to have in our society and in this country. The idea that some dudes in air conditioning in Texas were making a decision about what information to pass along to the Coast Guard or not is completely crazy to me. And then there were also assumptions made about the patients at Life Care, because it’s a long-term care facility. There were assumptions made about their level of health. The truth is some of them were going to struggle and maybe not make it without ventilators, but not everyone. Emmett is kind of our poster child. Emmett Everett, played beautifully by Damon Standifer, my beautiful partner. That’s most readily pointed out with him, but healthcare is individual and it should always be individual. When you start making gross sweeping generalities, it’s when we get in trouble. We’ve seen that again with the pandemic, parsing out who gets what. We saw it with what communities had resources and what communities didn’t. We’re going to continue to see it, even with the floods in Kentucky for example – who gets saved and who doesn’t. We’re going to continue to see this on every level, and we really need to decide how we want to deal with it as a group.
Awards Daily: I’m from Kentucky originally, so I spent that night placing phone calls to family and friends and hoping they were okay, because you don’t know how they’re going to get treated depending on where they’re located, what their income status is.
Julie Ann Emery: I’m from Tennessee and it’s a similar situation. We weren’t impacted by the flood. Well, there was some West Tennessee that was impacted, but you know, in those parts of the world, it really is economic and that’s also not okay. In the richest country on earth, we ought to be able to rescue and provide resources for everyone. We have the means in this country. We don’t always have the will. And sadly that means we don’t always have the political will. And that political will is only going to come up from us as citizens demanding it.
Awards Daily: I don’t want to lose track of your work here, because it’s wonderful, wonderful work. Since you already sort of prompted it, your relationship with Emmett showcases what great drama can do, which is take a microcosm of a situation and then expand that out. Your relationship with Emmett I think is the broken heart of the show.
Julie Ann Emery: I think calling it the broken heart of this show is accurate. I think two things about that: It is where we as the audience really feel the consequences of what’s happening outside of the hospital. But also for Diane, it was very important to me that she be a good leader and, being seven months pregnant meant that she was struggling more quickly and worse than other people. Pregnant people need twice the water of normal people, so the severe dehydration is setting in quicker. That creates cramping and Braxton Hicks. That creates all kinds of things physically. But it was important to me that she hide that from her staff and her patients. John, in the first five episodes, wrote so beautifully those quiet moments alone with us, where you really get to see people kind of drop their brave face. But the only place Diane breaks that rule is with Emmett. I think it’s because he is such a compassionate, empathetic man. And he’s asking about her as well. I think there’s a bond there that goes beyond anything else, including the bond with her staff. That was her space where she could sit and chat with someone. I have a great respect for what everyone there did, but especially a woman showing up seven months pregnant to what is forecast to be the worst hurricane in a century…there’s a really beautiful mixture of real compassion and real grit in her.
Awards Daily: That’s a great point, when Damon, as Emmett, was asking about you – how you were doing. The level of compassion…
Julie Ann Emery: From the beginning, that very first scene. “How you doing Mr. Stanford,” to “How you doing, Diane?” That was a nice choice to set up the rest of their relationship.
Awards Daily: It really establishes it upfront. Diane’s actually a real person, obviously. So does that affect you on a responsibility level in playing the part? I know from talking to others that for legal reasons you folks weren’t allowed to connect with your real life counterparts. That being said, you still know you want to do service to this person’s experience.
Julie Ann Emery: It carries enormous responsibility. It comes with its own set of anxieties. I think we all wanted to approach all of our characters with as much empathy and humanity as we could. Everyone was really trying to understand their characters and how they move through their circumsances. And what’s so beautiful about that is you have so many different points of view in the show. For Diane, just the circumstances, again, of her showing up are so heroic. I could get little pieces from Sheri’s book and her interviews about the kind of leader she was. But Diane also has a family and being pregnant, there were two people to consider. I named my prosthetic belly “nugget” to make it real for everyone. But there were two of us there. After the show started airing and Sheri Fink started hearing from some of the people who were there at the hospital in a favorable way, I had a breakdown. I don’t think I realized how much I was hanging onto. I was carrying it around in a knot – that kind of apprehension. If we’ve done any kind of justice to the people who were there, that was our end goal.
Awards Daily: You were so believable as a pregnant woman. I almost wanted to ask, you weren’t really pregnant, were you?
Julie Ann Emery: No, I would have to have been seven months pregnant for six months of shooting. [Laughs.] Each episode is one day, so I had a prosthetic belly. Our costume designer, Deb Hanson, got a really great silicone. It had weight to it, it hung how it was supposed to hang, and it even had a little belly button. It felt right and real and we overdressed it, you know, with things to pull it into me until I felt like it was just part of my body. That was incredibly important to me. I will say this, going from not pregnant at all, to having that size belly, the first time I stepped out of my trailer during the camera test I fell because I couldn’t see the stairs. I didn’t fall, I caught myself, but I was like, okay note to self: things are different in this state.
Awards Daily: Vantage point Totally changed. [Laughs.]
Julie Ann Emery: Different thing. Different, yeah. And the director’s chairs are not conducive to having a prosthetic belly. So I was always sitting on tables or anything that I could find to sit on. Sometimes I would sit on (production designer) Matthew Davies’ beautiful set, because it was the only chair I could totally get myself into and out of. But I’m really grateful that it was so realistic. It helped me a lot.
Awards Daily: You made a really good point. There’s no way you could have been seven months pregnant for six months. That’s the magic of what great acting and great filmmaking does is it makes you forget that what’s in front of you is a dramatization.
Julie Ann Emery: Yeah. You wanna forget the realities of, of the filming. Right? That’s the math.
Awards Daily: When I talked to (producer) Carlton Cuse, one of the things that he was so proud of in terms of the cast was the lack of vanity in the performances. You know, you all have to look like hell after a while because if you didn’t, it wouldn’t be true to the conditions that the staff was working under. When I talked to Robert Pine, he said, I particularly felt bad for the women. [Laughs.]
Julie Ann Emery: There’s a different standard put on women in the business. However, I will say, I am not aware of anyone objecting. The only thing I ever said was, “how bad would it be and make it worse.” At one point, like day three, it’s probably just me with nothing on. Once we get into day four and day five, we’re making it worse under my eyes. We’re making it like it would be hollowing out. We were all trying to track what actually would’ve physically been happening to our characters and carrying that into the makeup trailer. We had such a brilliant hair and makeup team that they really just went with us on that dive. So mostly what happened in hair and makeup by days three, four, and five, is they put this kind of Egyptian petroleum jelly on us so that the water would bead up. So we were sticky and weird all day. But everyone was completely committed. I don’t think I even ever heard any of our day players or guest stars say boo about it. Everybody just took the dive and went.
Awards Daily: The moment that you have to leave Emmett, and you have that conversation…it’s an interesting thing because we always think about survivor’s guilt more in the past tense. Like you went through something, you survived it, and then you start thinking, oh gosh, but all those other people died. Why me? It was as if Diane, as you were playing her, was going into survivor’s guilt before she left the room, which I thought was very powerful. You could already feel that landing on her.
Julie Ann Emery: I’m tearing up right now just thinking about it, and I shot it over a year ago. Some things leave a mark, you know? That scene…I will say this, we shot most of it as a oner, from the office when I start talking to Gina Isbell, and she’s freaking out and then walking down the hall. We had such a brilliant DP and camera crew. Ramsey Nickell did a beautiful job really being able to incorporate those moments so they weren’t broken up for us. John Ridley directed that episode. He directed it so beautifully and psychologically, and we knew we were building to that moment from the beginning. Damon and I had tried to lay in some bits and pieces up to that point so that that moment would have a real impact. There’s a moment when Damon puts his hand on my belly.
On the day, we shot my coverage, my closeup, first. On the day, John came to me and he said something’s going to happen and just let it play out however it plays out. I trust you. Say or do whatever. And he had added those lines at the end for Damon, and he never put them in the script. And I know that he must have been thinking about it, because that’s who John is, for months. And the decision not to do that was a real gift for me as an actor. The mandate was to have the scene in the office and be strong for the nurse, to lose it a little, lose it in the hallway, get it back together to go in and try to handle that scene as a professional until I couldn’t. I think that took such trust on John’s part. He really trusts actors, and he trusted me.I’m not even sure I knew, I definitely didn’t know where it was going to go and did not necessarily have emotional control of it. But it was so full that I guess you can’t quite go wrong. As long as it’s authentic and full, you can’t go wrong. But, it was a real gift having some emotional discoveries in that scene with him. Damon, who plays Emmett, was so completely committed but also trying to put on a brave face for her at that moment. That’s such a shift from everything she’s been through in the entire show up to now that I think that just broke me even more. Honest to God, getting up off that bed to exit was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It just felt incredibly real. It felt incredibly truthful and incredibly real.
Awards Daily: I usually handle myself pretty well in interviews, but talking about this actually makes me emotional and takes me back to where I was when I was watching it.
Julie Ann Emery: I’m someone who really prides myself in walking away from work and leaving it on set. I think I can go further on set if I can go home and just be me. I’m not one of those actors who tries to be on 24/7. I believe I have more to give if I locate it where it belongs in those scenes. That’s just for me personally. And this one was not easy to walk away from. I’ve obviously still not fully walked away from it. I can’t think about that scene without crying. It took me months after we finished shooting to…it pushed me kind of in a dark place. And you know, you were talking earlier about Diane experiencing that kind of survivor’s guilt. I think I really underestimated episode six for my interview scene with them (the investigators, played by Miachael Gaston and Molly Hager). There were some discoveries that came up on that day of intense survivor’s guilt. When I was prepping for that specific scene, I thought, wow, we really get to see. Diane was one of the early interviews, so we really get to see in process the aftermath of this terrible year she experienced. That became my goal for (episode) six, was to try to be her and have that grit and that compassion, but then also see where that breaks. And that’s a beautiful thing to be handed to play too. Carlton Cuse wrote that episode.
Awards Daily: He’s pretty good.
Julie Ann Emery: You know John and Carlton are kind of ok. [Laughs.] Look, somebody asked me at some point when we were in the press junket, what attracted you to this? And I was like, the names Carlton Cues and John Ridley on a piece of paper. What do you need past that?
Awards Daily: There’s a way to have made Five Days that would have tried to steer you towards an opinion, and it could have still been a very good, powerful, affecting show. What I found so fascinating is that it doesn’t do that. It lays out the facts. It shows you what happened, and it’s dramatized, of course as anything would be. But it does ask you, “What do you think you would do?”
Julie Ann Emery: It has that and also this is based on something that happened and there are no easy answers and satisfying endings in life. I think there are people who really want a satisfying ending, but the truth is there’s not a satisfying ending. Not to give away the ending for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but I think there was a real dedication to life, to reality here, all the way down to Matthew Davies’ set. Sheri Fink walked on set and she was like, this is exactly it. She’s like if I turn that corner, there’s a, yeah, there’s a soda machine right there. That set evolved in such a beautiful, realistic way. I think that’s the truth of the entire approach. My grandpa used to say what I do for a living is I walk around in somebody’s shoes for a while. And I think until you walk in someone’s shoes in their circumstances, you can’t know what you would do. You can’t possibly know how you would react. You can hope. You would say I hope I would react this way, or I hope I would react that way. But the truth is, until we’re in those moments, we don’t know. I think the show accomplishes that really, really well.
Awards Daily: Definitely. There’s a song by Warren Zevon that’s called You’re a Whole Different Person When You’re Scared.
Julie Ann Emery: Yeah, or even in grief, you know? Like even someone who is dealing with loss, just regular normal loss. Like if you expect if someone is old and ill and they pass. Sadly my family has experienced this quite a bit in the last few years, but you just don’t know who you’re going to be walking through that moment and those first six months or year past that moment of real grief. So if that’s true, then what happens when 45 people in a hospital die in the span of five days? When there’s no running water, and there’s no air conditioning, and it’s 113 degrees on the upper floors, when you feel you’ve been abandoned by everyone, not just everyone in your town, but by the entire country, by the world.
Awards Daily: People you pay taxes to.
Julie Ann Emery: You know, we do pay our taxes and I kind of think the minimum that we generally expect from that is when something like this happens, that there are people who show up for us, and they did not.
Awards Daily: There is no time when you need government more than a time like that.
Julie Ann Emery: That’s true. And you know we have FEMA, and people are like, oh, FEMA will take care of it. But the truth is FEMA comes in five, ten days later to help with the aftermath, the cleanup. The search and rescue, the immediate resources in the moment, you know, when a community loses water, so does the hospital. People assume if you’re in a hospital, you’re taken care of. But when the community loses power, so does the hospital. So there’s a gap in our response in this country, in these moments that really need to be filled. We have the resources and the means. We just have to do it.