The Hot Zone: The hair-raising true story about a virus outbreak kept secret that will make you never want to touch your face again

julianna Margulies as Dr. Nancy Jaax in The Hot Zone. (Photo: National Geographic/Amanda Matlovich)
julianna Margulies as Dr. Nancy Jaax in The Hot Zone. (Photo: National Geographic/Amanda Matlovich)

A CHANNEL24 SPECIAL FEATURE

Channel24's Herman Eloff joined a select group of journalists from around the globe in an exclusive conference call with TV icon Julianna Margulies about her hair-raising new role in the true-life drama, The Hot Zone.

Cape Town - Few people know that in 1989 there was a dangerous outbreak of the Ebola strain in a US quarantine facility in the town of Reston, Virginia.

The virus was carried into the States by crab-eating macaques that were imported from the Philippines.

Unbeknownst to the residents of the peaceful town, drama was unfolding within the walls of the facility which was located in an office park.

The help of Army soldiers and scientists were called in to take control of the outbreak before it spread.

This was the first ever outbreak of the Ebolavirus on American soil and the discovery that some monkeys could be a reservoir of the virus.

In 1994 author Richard Preston lift the lid on terrifying ordeal in his book, The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story.

Now, 24 years later, the National Geographic Channel has turned the true story into a gripping six-part mini-series starring Golden Globe and Emmy Award winner Julianna Margulies.

Executive produced by Lynda Obst, Kelly Souders, Brian Wayne Peterson, Jeff Vintar, Michael Uppendahl and Ridley Scott, this must-watch series is arriving on South African TV screens on Wednesday, 3 July at 21:00 on DStv 181.

Julianna, who takes on the role of real-life Lieutenant Colonel Nancy Jaax, does a brilliant job at capturing the harrowing tale of a global crisis that was brewing without anyone even knowing about it.

Dr. Nancy Jaax (Julianna Margulies)in the National

In an exclusive conference call with a select group of international journalists, Juliana revealed more about her thrilling new role in one of the best TV shows to hit local screens this year.

Some scenes from The Hot Zone were filmed in South Africa with South African stars. Did you get the opportunity to visit our shores?

Sadly, no, I haven’t. My character never went to South Africa, so I didn’t get to go with the rest of the crew, but I’m looking forward to going one day.

The show does a great job at keeping you right at the edge of your seat and leaves you with a feeling of anxiousness. Do you think after watching the six episodes people will feel anxious or relieved?

Well I hope everyone feels anxious watching it because it happened and it’s still happening. So, I think it’s important to have that fear that keeps you sharp. I think we would like people not to feel anxious in a morbid way, but to feel anxious in a "how can I help?" way. What can we all do as individuals who are citizens of this world to enhance the research that we need for Ebola? 

So, it’s a two-part answer, which is, yes, I’d like them to feel anxious, but I’d also like people to feel empowered by understanding what’s happening.  Knowledge is power, so I’m hoping that this show sheds a light on that.

After filming did you feel paranoid in any way?

It’s not so much that I’m paranoid, but I’ll tell you, after working with infectious disease specialists I’ve learned a few things. I have them on my radar now. One of which is I carry hand sanitizer in every single bag even if I’m going out for the evening. 

I also am just more aware. When you speak to these specialists, they will tell you to watch people and how many times a day a person touches their face. The man I trained under, Michael Smit, he said most infectious disease specialists never touch their face and they never get sick, and I’d never thought of that. And now every time I go to scratch my eye or whatever it is when I put my hand to my face, I am very aware that I’m doing it. So, it has made me more aware, that’s for sure, and a little bit more cautious. 

What was it that attracted you to this specific project?

The truth is, when they sent me the first four scripts that were written, I was dumbfounded that I had never heard about Ebola hitting US soil in 1989. I hadn’t read Richard Preston’s book, and I felt strongly about Nancy Jaax’s story. I think she is an unsung American hero and that she needed to be recognised as that. 

This project really highlighted not just her heroic efforts, but the global crisis of Ebola. So, I thought what a better way to show it than with a company like Nat Geo, and to be able to tell her story and wake people up to science and how much we need it, and to support our scientists so we can end this horrific, horrific epidemic. 

My first reaction was that of horror. I was amazed and I couldn’t believe that it was a true story. This isn’t my type of personal role. It wasn’t a role I’d ever thought about. When I read the script, I couldn’t believe it. I couldn't put it down. They sent me four episodes, and I never got up. I just sat and read all four in one sitting because it was such a page turner. Plus, I would pretty much read the phone book for Ridley Scott.

At one stage your character Nancy says, “Fear keeps you sharp,” and that’s the one thing that she tells the new recruits before they go into Level 4. I was wondering what it is that you fear or that you’re scared of that keeps you sharp?

I’ll tell you what scares me and keeps me sharp and passionate, is the fact that we have leaders who are science deniers. That scares me to death that anyone would deny global warming or science in general. The fact that America’s having a measles epidemic right now scares me because people are not believing scientific research and scientific findings. When there are ways to cure these atrocities if we just supported our scientists in the community that is willing to go and risk their lives, it scares me to death that people aren’t listening. 

One of the scenes that really stood out for me in The Hot Zone was when Nancy and the junior recruit first get to enter Level 4. It was a really anxious moment the way it slowly evolved. For the viewer it feels very real. I was wondering, if you ever had the opportunity would you dare enter Level 4? 

Great question. That’s actually my favourite scene in the show, because I think it allows the public inside. It really shows the public what it’s like to work in one of these places. And it was very well-orchestrated. Michael Uppendahl, who directed the first two and the sixth episode, filmed it really beautifully. 

I, myself, would never ever want to go inside a biohazard Level 4, mostly because I have discovered since doing this job that I am severely claustrophobic, and those hazmat suits put me in a panicked state. So, I really don’t want to relive that.  I feel like I’ve been there, I’ve done that, and I’m done. 

How did you get ready for your role and what was your biggest challenge?

I got ready for the role by studying with Nancy Jaax’s real-life nephew actually, whose name is Dr. Michael Smit, who happens to be one of the top infectious disease specialists in America. I learned a lot from him, because he was in Sierra Leone in 2015 when there was an Ebola Zaire outbreak and 11 000 people died. So that was an incredible education for me, because I knew nothing about Ebola or the science behind finding a vaccine and a cure, or the story of it. 

My most challenging part of the entire six hours of filming was trying to remember the scientific dialogue so that it would just roll off my tongue while being in a hazmat suit. Because what the audience doesn’t see is that these hazmat suits, besides being incredibly cumbersome, they weigh 50 pounds (22.6kg) and of course they’re made for men, not women, so this is 1989, she’s the only women at the top of her field and she’s wearing a man’s hazmat suit that falls on her shoulder. So, every time I lifted up my arm, I was lifting up 50 pounds (22.6kg). 

But the worst part was that the fans that are going on once you’re zipped up in that suit make this incredibly large whirring sound, and so trying to memorise and say the lines exactly while in a wind tunnel feeling alienated from your acting partner was truly the hardest thing I’ve ever done. 

What do you think drives people like Nancy to put their lives at risk to save others? 

I actually asked her that question. It’s a great question. I asked her that question because I myself couldn’t imagine putting myself at risk for my job. She doesn’t look at it that way. 

Nancy Jaax, if you asked her, would tell you that she looked at it as her job and her passion. She was most happy in a hazmat suit in a biohazard Level 4 lab deciphering what these pathogens were. Yes, the backdrop of that is that she did save lives, but she didn’t look at it or look at herself as some sort of hero. She looked at it as this is my job. This is what I’ve been trained for. 

The only time she only really thought her life was on the line, even though it is every time you go into one of those labs, was when she got a tear in her suit and she had a cut on her hand. But for the most part, she told me that being in that hazmat suit in the labs, that was her happy place. That was where she could do the work, she was so passionate about without anyone bothering her, being that you can’t hear anything in those hazmat suits. So, she’s a reluctant hero, I would say, and I think she never really thought about her mortality. 

Dr. Nancy Jaax (Julianna Margulies)in the National

FACTS:

The meaning behind the title:

The Hot Zone is described as an area that is considered to be dangerous due to a high risk of infection.

What is Level 4?:

Level 4 is the highest biosafety level in a laboratory. This is where the most dangerous and deadly viruses are kept for which there is yet no cure.

Ebola is here:

According to the Centre for Disease Control the Ebola virus was first identified in 1976 near the Ebola River in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. Since then, the virus has emerged periodically and infected people in several African countries. On 1 August 2018, the Ministry of Health of the Democratic Republic of the Congo declared a new outbreak of Ebola virus disease in North Kivu Province. The latest outbreak has claimed 1571 lives. On 25 June 2019 the World Health Organisation confirmed the outbreak had spread to Uganda. Although supportive care may lead to survival in some cases there is no known cure for Ebola.

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE

To learn more about Ebola visit Health24's information centre

(Photos: National Geographic/Amanda Matlovich)

Watch The Hot Zone from Wednesday, 3 July at 21:00 on National Geographic (DStv 181).