After she cried in a scene that didn't require tears, Julianna Margulies sent a text message to retired army pathologist Nancy Jaax. "I don't know how you did this," she wrote.
Margulies was playing Jaax in The Hot Zone, a six-part National Geographic drama. The series tracks the emergence of the Ebola virus on US soil – and the entrenched sexism that thwarted Jaax's attempts to raise the alarm.
Nancy Jaax (Julianna Margulies) looks at samples in a microscope in her pathology lab. Credit:Amanda Matlovich)
This compelled her and co-star Topher Grace, playing infectious disease expert Peter Jahrling, to lip-read through their face shields. Itches could not be scratched, while toilet breaks necessitated the help of multiple wardrobe assistants.
Margulies began to dread this costume but Jaax's reply to her message offered a different perspective: "She said, 'Oh, the suit was my happy place!' Being isolated helped her do what she was put on this earth to do. She could work in peace."
The story begins in 1989, with a shipment of monkeys from the Philippines arriving at a private lab in Virginia. When the monkeys start dying, the lab sends cell samples to an army medical research centre. The diagnosis: Ebola.
Jaax (Margulies) works with a pipette in the pathology lab.Credit:Amanda Matlovich
At the time, there were few protocols for containing the disease, which begins with flu-like symptoms and usually ends with fatal hemorrhaging. An outbreak could have killed millions of Americans, spreading rapidly to other countries through air travel. But when Jaax urged swift action, authorities equivocated.
If we want to keep living, we have to combat the science deniers.
"I can understand why the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] wanted to keep it a secret," Margulies says. "They didn't want mayhem, looting and traffic jams but when it was over, we should have been alerted to what happened — and to the need to take action."
While Jaax's male colleagues were assumed to be competent, she had to prove herself at every turn. When I ask Margulies if she can imagine her frustration, she laughs: "Oh yes, I can!"
She recalls a car trip with a former boyfriend who'd gotten lost. Though Margulies knew the way, he stayed put until a passing man could verify her directions. "That's not the same as the hurdles Nancy had to jump but women faced this stuff every day," she says. "And we still do."
While The Good Wife was noted for its subtlety, The Hot Zone is closer to a popcorn disaster flick. "Inspired" by true events, with plenty of dramatic licence, it's a pulpy but entertaining look at a near-catastrophe.
It has no shortage of medical jargon – something Margulies did not miss from her time on ER.
But a few pages into the script, she was hooked. Ebola, she realised, was not "an Africa problem" but a global crisis: "I thought, 'My god, this is something that needs light shed on it so we can support our scientists in finding a vaccine and a cure. We can't bury our heads in the sand and pretend it's never going to affect us."
Margulies , left, played lawyer Alicia Florrick in The Good Wife.Credit:CBS
At the time of our interview, an outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo had claimed almost 1200 lives. If these victims were white, this little-reported crisis would have receive round-the-clock coverage.
Margulies believes we have an ethical obligation to tackle Ebola wherever it arises, and she views cuts to scientific research as foolhardy and immoral.
"Our country is being run by crazy people who deny science," she says. "If we want to keep living, we have to combat the science deniers … that's just a basic fact. My prayer for this miniseries is that people wake up and see we need to support our scientific community."
As The Hot Zone explains, the strain of Ebola Jaax identified in the infected monkeys was not Zaire, which has a human mortality rate of up to 90 per cent, but another variant. For Margulies, this is beside the point. Jaax's efforts exposed a disturbing lack of preparedness for a Zaire epidemic, forcing the US government to implement new disease protocols.
Margulies as Nurse Hathaway in the hit medical drama ER.Credit:NBC
Even now there is no vaccine or cure for the Zaire virus. It sustains itself by infecting certain species without killing them, until a human infection triggers another outbreak.
"As Nancy says in the series, it's not a matter of 'if' Ebola hits US soil again," Margulies says. "It's a matter of when."
WHAT: The Hot Zone
WHEN: Streaming on National Geographic from June 7 and broadcasting from June 10.
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