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Hot Pursuit

To portray the brave scientists fighting Ebola, cast members of Nat Geo’s The Hot Zone had to face some grueling conditions. Fortunately that didn’t include any fatal pathogens.

Tatiana Siegel
  • Julianna Margulies, as Dr. Nancy Jaax, had to fight feelings of claustrophobia in the infamous hazmat suit.

    Amanda Matlovich /National Geographic
  • Dark humor about infectious diseases inevitably spread on set, where the virus hunters included Noah Emmerich as Lt. Col. Jerry Jaax.

    Amanda Matlovich /National Geographic
  • Topher Grace as a civilian virologist

    Amanda Matlovich /National Geographic
  • “The [Ebola] monster is so scary because it is not only invisible, you can’t combat it,” says Topher Grace (standing, right), here with his fellow cast members: (seated) Julianna Margulies and Liam Cunningham and (standing) Paul James, Noah Emmerich and James D’Arcy. Fortunately for the world — and viewers — The Hot Zone ends on a hopeful note.

    Amanda Matlovich /National Geographic

On a crisp fall day in Toronto last year, Julianna Margulies first put on what would become her uniform on The Hot Zone set — a 50-pound army-issue hazmat suit circa 1989, made of thick, sweat-inducing rubber.

If she had an itch, she could forget about it. Bathroom breaks had to be scheduled, because it took at least two crewmembers to get her in and out of the oppressive number. The suits were made for men, for whom the weight typically rests on the collarbones. On Margulies, however, the suit's weight rested on her arms, so using a scalpel or Petri dish felt like lifting a microwave oven.

"I'm a control freak, and so the second it was zipped up, I'd go, 'Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,'" she recalls. "I started doing breathing exercises. I hadn't practiced yoga in a while, and I realized if I didn't start calming myself down before the day started, I wasn't going to make it."

More than once, the breathing exercises didn't work. "I'm embarrassed to say I actually really lost it in the suit. No one saw me. But I broke down in tears several times because I was hyperventilating," she continues. "I realized I'm much more claustrophobic than I thought."

Physical and psychological effects aside, the suit also posed issues from an acting standpoint. The Emmy-winning star of ER and The Good Wife had to contend with two deafening ventilation fans embedded in the back. When they were on, she couldn't hear her fellow actors. Lip-reading was a no-go because the suit cut off her peripheral vision. And the dialogue wasn't exactly natural.

"I've never said the word immunofluorescence before," she says, quoting real-life Lieutenant Colonel Nancy Jaax — the kind of scientist who doesn't blink when examining a mystery pathogen that just might wipe out an entire city. "My respect for what these people do went up tenfold, you know?"

The feeling is mutual. "An infectious disease specialist told me, 'In fairness to you, we're only in them for an hour and a half. You're in them 14 hours a day,'" she adds with a laugh. And she wore that suit for two months.

Though it won't spark any fashion trends, The Hot Zone did put the spotlight back on the ebola virus (and its terrifying 90 percent kill rate) when it began airing on National Geographic on May 27.

Based on Richard Preston's New Yorker article-turned-bestseller, the six-part series — which also stars Noah Emmerich, Liam Cunningham, Topher Grace, Paul James and James D'Arcy — had been lying dormant for the past 26 years while it adapted. Sound familiar?

"This thing is constantly mutating," Cunningham says, summing up why the thought of Ebola leaves public health officials in a cold sweat.

"It's a horrific disease, and it does appalling things to the body. But because it shows its face very early and makes its host very sick very quickly, it tends to burn itself out. What about a mutation that people will carry around and then get sick [from]? It could spread unnoticed, and it's incredibly infectious. So there's a nightmare scenario of it becoming a pandemic."

Back in 1993, 20th Century Fox and producer Lynda Obst were looking to tap into that nightmare scenario when they landed the rights to the New Yorker article, "Crisis in the Hot Zone," and began developing it as a film. But Warner Bros. quickly fast-tracked the similarly themed film Outbreak, which put the kibosh on The Hot Zone.

Still, Obst never relinquished the rights — or her dream of dramatizing the true story of the 1989 Ebola scare and the military scientists who prevented the virus from spreading to the U.S. civilian population.

So, in 2014, she and Ridley Scott revived the property, just as a new Ebola outbreak was tearing through sub-Saharan Africa. They began working with screenwriter Jeff Vintar on a limited series, pivoting from film to TV and switching homes from 20th Century Fox to Fox 21.

Two years later, they enlisted Smallville writers Kelly Souders and Brian Peterson, who became the showrunners. (Executive-producing with Souders and Peterson are Obst, Scott, David W. Zucker, James V. Hart and Vintar.)

Preston, who knows his way around a CDC Biosafety Level 4 lab — the kind where one risks exposure to the world's most deadly viruses — became an indispensable consultant throughout development and production. "He was wonderful about sharing little tidbits here and there, and he also read every script and gave us any thoughts or extra information he had," Souders says. "He was quite involved."

At a time when science is under attack — and deadly pathogens continue to wreak havoc in the Third World while threatening to plague the West — The Hot Zone couldn't feel more timely.

Margulies wasn't the only actor to endure the hazards of the hazmat suit. Emmerich, Cunningham and Grace also donned the dreaded rubber ensemble.

Emmerich, who plays Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Jaax, calls it an extreme and disorienting experience. "It's like being inside an air conditioner," the former costar of The Americans recalls. "All I can say is: put on a hoodie and put white noise on in your ears, and it feels like that ."

But Grace, best known for his comedic turn on the long-running sitcom That '70s Show, says the panic he felt, wearing the suit for hours in windowless rooms that doubled as D.C. military labs, enhanced his performance, with his pulse genuinely quickening.

"Weirdly, the physicality of doing this role helps you do it, meaning we were in these suits and you're actually starting to feel the claustrophobia," he says. "Some of the cells we went into, they'd kind of hiss when they'd lock and close. And it makes you have to do less acting, because the situation is similar to what the person was actually going through."

By contrast, being out in the open sparked different anxieties for other cast members.

D'Arcy, who — along with Cunningham and Grace Gummer — shot scenes in South Africa, remembers one day when the temperature topped 100 degrees and the humidity crept above 85 percent. "Even the South African crew said to us, 'This is the hottest weather we've ever filmed in,'" he recalls. "Also, there are a lot of animals that are out to get you in South Africa."

Perhaps that's why there was a snake wrangler on the South African set at all times. Leopard sightings were frequently noted on the call sheet in the mornings, while crocodiles and hippos drew little more than a yawn from the crew. "And, of course, the biggest killer in Africa, the ever-present mosquitoes," D'Arcy notes.

A sense of disease paranoia began to contaminate the set; its effects still linger months later.

"Whenever anyone would cough, we'd all go, 'Oh my God, it's Ebola,'" Grace says. "It's funny, I've touched my face three times in the last five minutes. The CDC people know not to touch their faces because that's how you get most diseases — by touching your eyes or your nose or mouth. Where's my awareness?"

Margulies says that before shooting The Hot Zone, she was so laissez-faire about germs, she employed the five-second rule with her kids: food that fell on the floor could be eaten if picked up within five seconds. Now, she never travels without sanitizing wipes or Purell in her purse.

Not surprisingly, at the wrap party, there was "very little hugging," D'Arcy jokes, but lots of nodding. "I don't tend to be a germaphobe, but this project will make you that," Peterson says.

Perhaps the inevitable hypochondria explains why Margulies, for one, wasn't all that interested when her agent first floated the project.

"When I heard about it, I thought, 'That doesn't sound like my cup of tea at all,'" she recalls. "Just the whole sort of scientific-thriller aspect of it." But then she read the script, followed by Preston's book, and she sparked to Jaax's arc. She decided to dive in and play the real-life pathologist.

"Here's a woman who has a family — a husband, two kids — and every day she's going into these labs and researching. And she is protecting the country. What an amazing, heroic person she is," Margulies says. "And then when I spoke to her, I realized that she doesn't see herself that way at all, which made it all the more interesting."

Jaax, who now lives in Kansas, spent a few hours with Margulies on the phone and answered every question the actress threw at her. Even the "stupid questions," Margulies quips. Like: what would compel a former veterinarian to face the deadliest killers on the planet?

Grace, who plays real-life emerging-virus expert Peter Jahrling, had a head start on the material, having first read the book in eighth grade.

"I remember reading it on a class trip. This was the first great thriller I'd experienced. The monster is so scary because it is not only invisible, you can't combat it. You could say the same thing about Jason Voorhees," he says, referring to the enduring villain of the Friday the 13th film franchise, "but someone made that up. This thing is real and is still here."

In fact, James (ABC Family's Greek) still feels like he signed up for a horror anthology. "I read the script, and it was an absolute page-turner," he says. "It had a lot of movement to it, like reading a horror movie. And that really drew me to it, because I knew that it was going to be fun to watch."

Fortunately, no one had to visit a real Level 4 lab, where researchers handle everything from the Marburg virus to Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, the kind of fatal pathogens that are transmitted through the air — and for which there are often no vaccines.

"Anything that we put onscreen is based on either a floor plan or a picture or a personal anecdote [from a scientist] about how that experience was in those labs," Peterson explains.

In another deviation from reality, the cast never interfaced with real primates. Instead, the monkeys were rendered via a combination of CGI and elaborately crafted puppets, with each tuft of fur individually glued into place. The effect was a little too authentic for Grace, whose character autopsies an infected primate.

"It was this amazing thing," he says. "We could open it up, and it had all of the organs inside. It was so well-made, the craftsmanship…. But it was the grossest of all the options."

Given the panic-provoking material, the trick for the producers was finding a way to wrap up on a hopeful note. Fortunately, the source material provides that.

In the sixth episode, the scientists plead their case for more funding at the CDC; the scene features the husband-and-wife team portrayed by Margulies and Emmerich, as well as Grace's Jahrling and Cunningham's fictitious Wade Carter.

Margulies says: "For me, as someone who does believe in science and does want to support scientific research, it was gratifying to be able to say, 'Well, we just dodged a bullet. It wasn't Ebola Zaire. But this is just the beginning. Wake up.'"

Which brings her to the current Twittersphere debate, where some point to an Arctic snap as proof that climate change isn't real.

"Just because you're not seeing it doesn't mean it's not there. Even though it's cold right now in New York doesn't mean global warming doesn't exist," she says. "So, it was gratifying to be able to say those lines and do that scene and pray that someone's listening and watching and hopefully shining a spotlight on the fact that science needs to be taken seriously. These are facts. It's not fiction."

Even if The Hot Zone feels at times like a horror movie.


This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 5, 2019

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