How many times in a five-minute period do you touch your face?
Julianna Margulies notices things like that now, thanks to The Hot Zone. A three-night National Geographic drama produced by Ridley Scott and inspired by Richard Preston’s nonfiction best seller, it premieres on Memorial Day. It depicts a 1989 incident in which a form of the Ebola virus was discovered in monkeys imported by a facility in Reston, Va., less than 25 miles from the nation’s capital.
Margulies stars as Nancy Jaax, a veterinary pathologist and U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who worked in the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at the time of the outbreak.
In preparing for the role, the former star of The Good Wife not only got to meet Jaax but spoke with the retired officer’s nephew, an infectious-disease specialist who got her thinking about where her hands should be.
“He told me that infectious-disease specialists never touch their face. He said, ‘Now that you know that, you’re going to watch people and you’re going to see how many times in five minutes they will touch their face.’ And, he said he never gets the flu or sick, maybe once every six years, because he’s not constantly touching his face," Margulies told reporters in February.
"So now I’m always sitting on my hands.”
What struck her about her character’s real-life counterpart “was that she just doesn’t see herself as anything but a woman going to work. I looked at her character as a hero, because she really emphasized what a threat this was and got the ball rolling to stop it from spreading,” Margulies said.
“But to her, it was just another day at the office,” despite a dicey moment in which she could have been infected, and “she’s thinking of her children and her husband and her life and how that can all be compromised,” Margulies said. "Ultimately, it was amazing to play a woman who gets excited about going into a Level 4 biohazard lab and dissecting tissue that may carry … contagious agents that could kill you.”
Margulies, who rose to stardom nearly 25 years ago as nurse Carol Hathaway in ER, and who spent seven seasons as The Good Wife’s Alicia Florrick, also appreciated the chance to be part of a story that didn’t require years to tell.
“I love this format,” she told me in an interview later that day. "I call it a mini-series. I know, we’re supposed to call it an event series — and it is an event series, because of the topic — but I love it. I think it’s a great way to unfold a story in enough time to really dig into the characters and dig into the story. But I don’t have to go back to it.”
Margulies is no stranger to topical drama. On The Good Wife, “they did an episode on Bitcoin before anyone knew what Bitcoin was,” she said. Still, The Hot Zone story of scientists fighting a bureaucracy that wasn’t prepared for what could have been a devastating epidemic was new to her. She read Preston’s book only after signing on to the project.
"I was shocked that I didn’t know anything about it. I didn’t know Ebola hit our soil in 1989. I only thought Ebola struck in remote villages in Africa. I was amazed to learn about USAMRIID and what they did to protect our country, and how much stonewalling [Jaax and others encountered] trying to protect us,” she said.
“The scientific data is not respected enough to be believed, and that blew my mind. And I just thought that this had to be seen, and I wanted to play a woman who isn’t afraid to go into a biohazard Level 4 lab and risk her life to make sure that we’re safe.”
The Hot Zone cast includes Noah Emmerich (The Americans), Liam Cunningham (Game of Thrones), Topher Grace (BlacKkKlansman), Paul James (The Last Ship), Grace Gummer (Mr. Robot), James D’Arcy (Agent Carter), Robert Sean Leonard (House), and Nick Searcy (Justified). Some portray real people, others composite characters.
“I was truly amazed at how well" showrunners Kelly Souders and Brian Peterson “managed to depict the book through this mini-series, in that they really hit on all the things that needed to be said,” Margulies said. "There were some things they had to change, some names they had to change, you know, legal, whatever. But I think they really stayed true to what the book talks about.”
What also surprised the actress, who never expected to find herself starring in a National Geographic show, was the reach of the network.
"They told me this was airing in 171 countries, and I said, ‘Wait — what? Really? … How is that possible?’ And they said, ‘We’re Nat Geo. We’re everywhere,’” she said.
“They’re all over the world, and, hopefully, this will bring a global understanding and spotlight to the fact that we all have to band together” to fight the spread of viruses like Ebola. “There’s no cure. It’s a 90 percent fatality rate. We have to be prepared.”