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Julianna Margulies dives into real-life biohazard horror story ‘The Hot Zone’

Julianna Margulies dives into real-life biohazard horror story ‘The Hot Zone’
Julianna Margulies stars in "Hot Zone, the National Geographic limited series, there were a number of factors that piqued her interest in the project. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

After starring on two landmark hit television series and winning eight SAG Awards and three Primetime Emmy Awards, Julianna Margulies can pretty much pick and choose what projects she devotes her energy to. And the former “Good Wife” star will tell you, “Once I sign on, I'm in.” But when it came to the new NatGeo miniseries “The Hot Zone,” Margulies admits she was initially reluctant to dive in.

Based on the 1994 nonfiction bestseller by Richard Preston, “The Hot Zone” chronicles a real 1989 incident when the deadly Ebola virus made its way from Africa to an American research lab primarily used for military purposes. A U.S. Army veterinarian, Nancy Jaax (portrayed by Margulies), led the charge to contain the virus before it spread to the nearby Washington, D.C., suburbs. There was some controversy over Preston’s account of the events, but it was credited with influencing American policy on engaging deadly diseases around the globe.

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As for Margulies, there were a number of factors that piqued her interest in the project, including the fact her “Good Wife” collaborator Ridley Scott was an executive producer and, most notably, the material itself.

“They sent me the first four scripts, and I couldn't put it down,” Margulies says. “I mean, it's a page turner and then it's a horror story because then you realize it happened. I thought, ‘Oh, my God, we need to shed light on this.’ It was 2018 at the time, and I'm still reading about Ebola Zaire wiping out villages in Africa, and we're no further along really.”

Margulies has joked in the past about the difficulty in learning complex medical jargon while portraying a nurse on “E.R.,” and it turned out “The Hot Zone” was just as difficult. Throw in the fact that the Toronto-based production was shooting multiple episodes at one time, and Margulies found herself flying home every weekend to New York with three scripts “trying to memorize which was what script. It was pretty chaotic.”

When her character ventured to the biohazard Level 4 lab set, Margulies says she felt “panicked.”

“It would take me a week to learn that dialogue just so it would roll off [the tongue] because I also knew that I would have to be doing all the technical lab work at the same time,” Margulies says. “On top of the fact that you're in a hazmat suit, and in order to keep it ventilated there's two fans going at all times. … All you're hearing is the whirring sound from the fans.”

Impressing the people who still work in these labs along with the real Nancy Jaax became a priority for the actress. Margulies learned from Jaax that people panic in the hazmat suits, something she purposely tried to convey in her performance.

“That's why [my character is] always looking in someone's eyes, always, because that's where you see the fear. And she's an old hat at it,” Margulies says. “What's so fascinating about Nancy Jaax is in 1989 she was the top of her field and she was the only woman. And not a lot's changed, but she was so passionate about what she did.”

Jaax provided other key insider information to help keep the character realistic, like would she really be in uniform all the time as dictated by the script? Not a chance, Jaax said.

"No, no, no. Wear the camouflage, the Army jacket and Army pants because they were comfortable and in a lab I never wore stockings and a skirt. You can end up cutting your stockings because you're working with blades all the time, so I never wore that stuff," Margulies recalls.

Since the end of “The Good Wife” three years ago, Margulies has appeared in the box office hit “The Upside” and was a part of the ensemble of AMC’s “Dietland.” “The Hot Zone” is the first project she’s toplined since then, but there are three to four projects in development that she’s executive producing, two of which she might star in, she says.

“Doing ‘Dietland’ was so fun for me because it wasn't on my shoulders and I could just go and act and have a ball. Work two days an episode and then come home,” Margulies notes. “After carrying something for seven years, I needed to just have fun and act, and not worry about everybody.”

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