Julianna Margulies is back on television and playing a superhero – just not the comic book kind. Margulies stars as Lt. Col. Nancy Jaax in “The Hot Zone,” the Nat Geo limited series based on the 1994 thriller about the first appearance of Ebola virus on U.S. soil. Jaax was part of the team of scientists and soldiers who discovered and eventually contained the virus.
“I loved the nonchalance about her. The peril she put herself in daily. She never thought about it and she didn’t think of herself as a hero,” Margulies told Variety. “She thinks that she’s lucky because she loves her job. And I love that about her. I loved that she was so passionate…because to be passionate about a pathogen or an agent or anything to do with a bio hazard, hazard level, core lab is crazy to me. I really respected her tenacity that she wouldn’t take no for an answer and she ultimately ended up saving a lot of lives.”
And like any actor performing in a motion-capture suit or superhero armor, playing a scientist who works with deadly pathogens is no picnic. Margulies says that she wore a hazmat suit anywhere from 8 to 14 hours at a time, while filming the series.
“[The hardest part was] that it would take three people to get you out of it,” she explained to Variety. “It was not just being able to say, ‘Okay, I’m going to the bathroom.’ I have to wait and get people, and then three people to put you [back] in it. It was claustrophobic.”
As scary as the experience was wearing that suit, the reality of Ebola and the devastation the virus could cause if it spread was even more terrifying and at the forefront of everyone’s minds as the cast celebrated the series’ premiere at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills.
“I knew nothing about Ebola. I mean, I had heard about it. Yeah. But it didn’t seem important enough to affect me,” the actress admitted. “And I was really taken aback at how ignorant I was of the whole epidemic and how unprepared we were in this country because we just assume it won’t touch us, but it will absolutely.”
The cast, including Noah Emmerich and Liam Cunningham, highlighted the current Ebola outbreak in the Congo and how over 800 people have died from the virus since August during their interviews on the yellow carpet, underscoring the idea that this series is timelier than ever because the threat and those fighting it are real.
“I met her and her husband [Lt. Col. Jerry Jaax tonight],” Cunningham said of Jaax joining the cast at the premiere. “It was like Julianna leapt off the screen and into real life. It was amazing.”
“It was pretty cool,” Jaax said about having the award-winning actress portray her. “I think that the character matching was very accurate. I did not meet Julianna before [filming] and she really captured the characters and Noah [Emmerich] really captured Jerry as well, so we were pretty happy about that. We were certainly excited. It’s a little daunting because you don’t know how they’re going to portray. You never know how that’s going to play. We are real life people, so we have a lot of skin in the game as far as we can tell.
After the screening, Margulies had a chance to catch up with her real-life counterpart at the biohazard themed after-party, complete with waiters wearing hazmat suits and lab coats, while guests consumed scientific-looking food, cocktails and specialty desserts.
Margulies isn’t the only actor making headlines by starring in a limited-series – George Clooney will be back on the small screen for the first time since he left “ER” in 1999 in “Catch-22”. For her part, Margulies is eagerly anticipating her old friend’s return to the small screen. “I’m very much looking forward to seeing ‘Catch-22’,” she proclaimed. “I just love that television has become such a vast landscape for everyone. I think it’s great. I think it’s awesome.”
Since both “Catch-22” (for Hulu) and “The Hot Zone” are limited-series, it stands to reason that the two could go head-to-head at the Emmys. Margulies has already won three Primetime Emmys for her work on “ER” and “The Good Wife,” while Clooney was honored by the Television Academy with the Bob Hope Humanitarian Award. So, is Margulies ready for a little friendly competition come September? “Oh, I don’t think that way,” she laughed.
“The Hot Zone” will premiere over three nights beginning May 27 on National Geographic.