Julianna Margulies swore she’d never again get sucked into memorizing reams of medical terminology following years on the hit show ER, but she couldn’t resist jumping on the lead role in National Geographic’s upcoming drama The Hot Zone in which she once again plays a medical professional—this time a pathologist.
Based on true events, with Richard Preston’s novel of the same name as source material, Margulies is Nancy Jaax, a doctor in the midst of the ebola crisis, joined by co-stars Topher Grace, Noah Emmerich, Liam Cunningham, Robert Sean Leonard and Grace Gummer.
“I was looking for a light comedy,” Margulies joked on stage at Deadline’s The Contenders Emmys on Sunday. I thought, ‘This sounds good! Ebola, yay!'”
And that complicated medical terminology was of course a part of the job. “The truth is I didn’t actually give it enough thought in terms of the dialogue being medical,” she said. “I didn’t think until I got in the hazmat suit and had to say ‘immunofluroescence’. I thought, ‘No! I vowed I wouldn’t do this!’ But it was too late,” she laughed good-naturedly. She self-deprecatingly added that if she’d known what ‘immunofluroescence’ was, she “wouldn’t be an actor” and “would be doing something much more worthy with my time” — a comment that prompted loud laughter from The Contenders audience.
Joking aside, of course Margulies joined the project because of the compelling value of the material. “I took the job because of the story,” she said. “I read the book, it was so riveting, and I loved the character. I also couldn’t believe that at the time I took the project it was 2018 and nothing much has changed.”
For EP and co-writer Kelly Souders, reading the original novel had been a gripping experience that she wanted to bring into the show. Co-EPs Lynda Obst and Ridley Scott had wanted to make this for 25 years, Souders said, and National Geographic wanted something that was “very grounded and that felt like it would fit on their station and was a very exciting nail-biting story.”
Topher Grace’s character Dr. Peter Jarhling also had his fair share of difficult lines to memorize. “If you think Julianna was scared to say medical dialogue, imagine being me being hired to stand next to Julianna and say it,” he laughed.
But on a serious note, the story truly highlights the U.S.’s handling of the ebola threat. “This isn’t fiction, it’s a monster story, it’s a horror really. It’s not fictional,” Grace said. It takes place in 1989, so sometimes you look at the fashion and think, ‘This is so long ago.’ But in reality, Americans have dangerously allowed themselves to relax around the subject of the ebola threat. “We’ve been lulled into a sense of complacency about it,” Grace said.
“It’s a global issue,” Margulies added. “But because Africa is so far away from America we don’t think of it as ours.” She recalled a moment where Nancy and Peter are told they’ve dodged a bullet. She said, “Topher’s character says, ‘We didn’t dodge a bullet, the bullet hit us.’ And my character goes on to say—which is a testament to Kelly and Brian [Peterson]—’It’s not a matter of if it comes to U.S. soil, it’s when, because it’s already been on U.S. soil.'”
The Hot Zone will air on Memorial Day and runs for three nights in a row.