Emmy award-winning actress Julianna Margulies stars in National Geographic’s The Hot Zone, which is a new miniseries about an Ebola outbreak in Reston, Va., in which she stars as real-life U.S. Army veterinary pathologist Nancy Jaax.
In 1989, in a scientific facility outside Washington, D.C., the deadly Ebola virus made its first known appearance on U.S. soil.
The discovery — and eventual containment — of this lethal filovirus, which had a fatality rate of up to 90 per cent at the time, was thanks to a group of courageous scientists and soldiers led by Lt. Col. Nancy Jaax.
National Geographic’s six-part limited series The Hot Zone, inspired by the true events detailed in Richard Preston’s international best-seller of the same name, shares the harrowing tale of a global crisis that never was.
“I can only hope that even if one out of a million people watch this show and walk away saying ‘how can I help? how can I stop science deniers from denying the facts of science?’ then we’ve done our job,” Margulies told Global News of the new miniseries.
She continued: “I think a place like National Geographic is the exact right place to show something like this because this is a global problem and they are a global company, and so it felt like the perfect home for The Hot Zone. I’m baffled by science deniers. If you want to try and reach out to people to say to them look — I mean, when my son broke his arm when he was two and a half, the first place I went to was the hospital because I’m not a doctor and I don’t know how to reset an arm or put a cast on. It’s the same with scientific research. I don’t know how to do that. That’s why we look to our scientists to find cures. ”
Margulies said that “in a perfect world, these science deniers would stop and maybe watch the show and say ‘hey, I guess I don’t know what I’m talking about,’ but you can only hope that one out of a million will pay attention and do something.”
The Good Wife actress said that she believes the response to Ebola has been lower than many would imagine because “it doesn’t affect us directly yet, no one’s paying attention and they don’t think it’s important to throw weight behind the research.”
“And I think that one of the frightening things that happened in 1989 was that there were no protocols, and Nancy actually says that at one point. She says, ‘My God, there’s no protocols. I don’t know what to do.’ She was flying by the seat of her pants in how to handle this,” Margulies said. “When she alerted the CDC to the epidemic, they wanted to keep everything quiet because they didn’t want to cause mayhem, because, of course, if people heard there was an epidemic like Ebola in the city of Reston, Va. — if they knew that it could wipe out a city of six million in less time than you could shut down the highways, there would be traffic jams, there would be looting, people would be hoarding food.
“It would cause mayhem. So, she had to do all of this in secret and try and figure out how to — you know, Ebola Zaire has a 21-day incubation period, so she needed to test all these people quietly and under the radar. I also understand the CDC’s position, in that they didn’t want to cause mayhem, but had they believed her from the get-go, she could have gotten it done a lot faster. But she had to jump through all these hoops to get them to believe her and not think that she was some hysterical woman causing a stir for no reason. And all of those reasons, I think, are what make Nancy Jaax so special is that — and how frustrating it must have been for her, being the only woman at the top of her field having to deal with the naysayers who were telling her that she was overreacting,” Margulies explained.
When asked if she had nightmares during the filming about Ebola, Margulies said: “I had nightmares when I read the book, because once I said yes to the project I ran out and got Richard’s book and I read the whole thing.”
She continued: “It’s definitely not good nighttime reading. But I think once you’re in it, the nightmares that I had while filming was just about being able to say my lines fluidly and make it look like I knew what I was doing. That was my biggest nightmare.”
Margulies said that she wasn’t able to meet the real Jaax before she filmed the show.
“But she did generously give me her time on the phone, and we talked for a long time, and she was available to me on email and text whenever I had a question, so that was very helpful. But then we’ve been doing a lot of press for the show these past few weeks, and she and I have been able to do some press together and spend some time together, which has been really wonderful,” the 52-year-old actress said.
She continued: “Her nephew, Michael Smit, who is one of the top infectious disease specialists in America, was my technical trainer for all the difficult dialogue and for the lab training, exactly how I would hold everything. I didn’t know you couldn’t touch the rim of a test tube with the pipette. All these certain things and protocols that you have inside a lab, he taught me how to do. I had about a day, maybe a day and a half of preparation with him and then I asked for him to be on set the days we were doing the big tech work to make sure that it was right on. My fear is always when you take a job on like this, is that the scientific community would say ‘oh God, that’s not how we do it.’ So it was important for me to get his OK.”
The Hot Zone, which also stars Topher Grace, Noah Emmerich, Paul James and Liam Cunningham, begins with a terrifying look back to 1980, when an unsuspecting doctor in Kenya examines a patient with symptoms unlike anything seen before.
Flashing forward to 1989, a colony of primates has become sick at a research facility near Reston, just 20 miles from the U.S. Capitol, and sample tissues are sent to Nancy Jaax (Margulies), a lieutenant colonel with USAMRIID, the U.S. Army’s main facility for defensive research into countermeasures against biological warfare. Jaax’s instincts and experience tell her she’s seeing something far worse than a run-of-the-mill primate infection. Despite the skepticism of her colleagues Dr. Peter Jahrling (Grace) and Col. Vernon Tucker (Wisdom), but with the support of her husband, Lt. Col. Jerry Jaax (Emmerich), a U.S. Army veterinarian, and her mentor Dr. Wade Carter (Cunningham), she pushes forward to find the truth.
“Topher Grace said it best — I don’t want to steal his thunder, so this is his quote. But he said, “The Hot Zone is a popcorn thriller until you realize it’s based on a true story, and then it becomes a horror movie.” And I think he’s exactly right,” Margulies said of her co-star.
All six episodes of The Hot Zone air May 27-May 29 with back-to-back episodes at 9 and 10 pm ET/PT on National Geographic.
(This interview has been edited and condensed.)