Julianna Margulies is a multiple Emmy winner for shows like “The Good Wife” and “ER” and this year she took on her most challenging role yet as Dr. Nancy Jaxx, a real-life U.S. Army veterinarian trying to prevent an Ebola outbreak in 1989. The NatGeo limited series is based on the best-selling book of the same name by Richard Preston.
Margulies recently sat down with Gold Derby contributing editor Zach Laws to chat about the difficulties in playing this role, the sexism her character faced and what awards mean to her at this stage in her career. Watch the exclusive webchat above and read the complete interview transcript below.
Gold Derby: Julianna, this show is terrifying.
Julianna Margulies: (Laughs.) That’s a perfect word for it.
GD: Tell us a little bit about what made you wanna get involved in it.
JM: I didn’t, to be honest with you. I worked with Ridley Scott for seven years on “The Good Wife” and they sent me this script. They sent me the first four. I couldn’t put it down. Then I ran and got the book and I couldn’t put that down. Horrible read before bed. Don’t do it. But I couldn’t believe that the story was true and I had never heard about it. I didn’t know about it. I know that many people had read the book but it wasn’t something I would’ve picked up. That’s not my kind of reading. And I just was fascinated by this character and this woman who was up against everything just to try to save America from an Ebola outbreak. I was also baffled that in 2018 I was still reading stories about Ebola and that it’s a global problem and we still haven’t conquered it.
GD: Yeah, one of the terrifying things about it, I watched the first couple episodes and thought, “Wait a second, this actually happened.”
JM: Right. At first, it’s a thriller, ‘cause you’re watching it and you’re like, “Oh my god, what’s gonna happen?” And then it’s a horror movie because you realize this is true.
GD: And from just a couple years ago where there was another Ebola scare.
JM: In Texas? Was it Texas?
GD: I think it was, yeah, and all those doctors who were quarantined and you’re thinking, “Wait a second, how wide-reaching is this going to become?”
JM: Right, and I guess for me what attracted me to it, aside from the fact that Kelly [Sounders] and Brian [Peterson] wrote a great script and that Lynda Obst and Ridley Scott had been trying to make this for 25 years as a film, which I actually think was a lovely silver lining in that in needed six episodes. You can’t tell this story in two episodes. You just can’t. It’s too complex and it’s too meaningful. What I loved about it was I wish I was smart enough to be a scientist. I don’t have that gene. But what I do have is the ability to shine a spotlight on the fact that we live in a world of science deniers and ridiculous people who know nothing of what they speak and are doubting people who do know what they need to do in order to try and figure out the research to get a vaccine or a cure. To know that just because it’s in Africa, doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect us. It’s such narrow-minded thinking and it drives me crazy. And I thought, “Okay, stop complaining and make something that might elevate this subject matter and shine a light on it.” That’s all I can do ‘cause I’m not a doctor.
GD: You play one on TV.
JM: Yeah (laughs). I played a nurse and now a pathologist, but yeah, I feel like it’s an important story to be told and I don’t think anyone really knew that this happened, that Ebola hit U.S. soil in 1989 and we had no protocols.
GD: You mentioned not being a doctor, of course, but you sell it very effectively and one of the things I liked about this show was the way that it can explain all these complicated scientific and medical facts in a very easily digestible way. Was that difficult for you to wrap your own tongue around?
JM: Yes. I wanna say, “No, it was easy.” People always ask me, “What’s easier, lawyer dialogue or medical dialogue?” By far, lawyer dialogue. Even though you’re doing nine-page summations sometimes, I can make heads or tails of what I’m saying. I can weave together a sentence and understand A goes to B, B goes to C. But with scientific and medical dialogue, I don’t know anything and I want it to sound real. So this particular job, I think also because I was in a hazmat suit and didn’t really realize until it was too late that I’m severely claustrophobic… It takes a lot of concentration to be on a set. There’s a lot of people. Hopefully you’ve done your homework and you’ve learned your lines and you understand basically what you’re saying even though “immunofluorescence” doesn’t roll off the tongue, “biohazard level 4 labs,” it’s not my daily dialogue, what I didn’t take into consideration is that in that in these hazmat suits there’s two built-in fans in the back to keep air circulating and there’s this constant whirr. So it’s like trying to write a book while there’s construction, a jackhammer, outside your apartment. You can’t. Your brain gets scrambled, on top of which, when me and Topher [Grace] would be in the lab, I couldn’t hear him. I knew he had a line and I would get out this really tough dialogue and then I’d look over and of course, he’s in the same suit, and I’d be like, (whispers) “Did you say your line?” And of course they can see me on camera saying that! There were a lot of hand signals ‘cause I couldn’t hear when they said, “Cut.” That was isolating. It’s a very strange feeling. It’s confining. If you have an itch you can’t suddenly scratch it. You feel like you’re in a straitjacket on top of the whirring. So the scientific dialogue that I had to say, I would tell you this. Doing “The Good Wife” for seven years with a small child and being exhausted was 10 times easier than learning the scientific dialogue in a hazmat suit. I made it known. I usually just quietly weep to myself at the end of the day but I’m embarrassed to tell you I cried three times on-camera in that suit because I just couldn’t take it.
GD: There’s this very subtle sexism in scenes where not only do you have people, doubting doctors, but just the fact that you’re a woman telling these powerful men, “Listen, this is serious.” And it’s in ways that are both subtle and overt of like, “Isn’t that cute? You don’t really know what you’re talking about.” Can you talk a bit about that element to it?
JM: Absolutely. First of all, in 1989 she was the only woman in the field and she was at the top of her field. I don’t know if you’ve seen the first two episodes, I forget what episode, I think it’s three or four, where she finally gets permission to go into this monkey house in Weston, Virginia and euthanize 400 monkeys, which is horrible, but she needs to do it because it’s spreading. Ebola, now it’s changed to a 50 percent fatality rate. Ebola Zaire has a 90% fatality rate and that’s what she thought it was. She wasn’t sure and she needed to get the tissue so she could dissect it and look at it under a microscope and figure out what it was and hopefully find a cure or vaccine. There is no cure or vaccine at that time. Now there’s a vaccine but it’s still taking people’s lives. She prepared her whole life. This is a woman who held anthrax in her hands. She held AIDS. It’s like being a fireman, training your whole life but never being allowed to put out the fire. You’re sitting in the firehouse the whole time eating waffles. When she finally gets the OK after just fighting her way to be heard, her own husband gets scared and arranges with the general not to have her go in, that he’ll go in for her when he doesn’t know what she knows. That is such a blow on so many levels and as a woman, it’s just undermining. It’s undermining your credibility, your reliability, your skills and she doesn’t take it lightly. She reams him out and just says, “This is the day I’ve been trained for. How dare you.” And yet, he goes in instead of her. He ends up collapsing in exhaustion and she ends up being able to get in there but not after already 10 hours had gone by and every minute is precious because also she’s bringing young cadets that she’s trained, not him. She’s done the training. I think it’s one of those things where you think, “Now we’re in 2019. Maybe things have surely changed now.” And they are, slowly. But it’s still a battle. It still is. We’re still considered the weaker sex. It’s still a fight and I think Nancy Jaax, I’ve had the pleasure of talking to her and emailing her and I text with her now. She saw the first two episodes. I was so nervous. But they loved it. Her and Jerry loved it and her family. She would never look at herself as a hero at all. She was just doing her job and she loved her job and she kept getting these stumbling blocks that she’d have to climb over the wall to get to the other side. It’s Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. It’s tap dancing backwards in high heels.
GD: I was actually gonna ask, you mention the real doctor, Nancy Jaax, and I was gonna ask if you had met her before filming and gleaned anything from her at all.
JM: I actually am gonna meet her next month. We’re gonna premiere at USAMRIID which is gonna be my most scary premiere because those are all the people that are in these labs. They’re the people I want the approval from. She lives in Kansas but I did get to speak to her. She was very generous with her time. I kept saying, “I’m sorry. This might sound like a ridiculous question but what kind of shoes did you wear?” But it’s important because she’s a colonel in the Army but she’s working in biohazard level four labs. Was she always in uniform? It was great. She was like, “Don’t wear the stockings and the skirt. I would never do that. The labs are cold. Wear your cowboy boots.” All the little actor-y things I needed just to try and form this character but the most important question, I felt, was, “Did you ever think when you were walking into the lab that you were putting your life at risk? Was that a question in your mind? Did you think of your children? Did you think of Jerry? Did you think of your father, all the animals? They had a lot of animals. They met at veterinarian school, her and Jerry. She said no. “I thought of it occasionally when I’d get a tear in my suit and I’d be in the decontamination chamber and I’d think, ‘Do I have anthrax? Do I have AIDS? Do I have Ebola?’ Those were the moments where it hits you but not going in. Going in I was just excited to do my work.” It allowed me to detach from my own, from Julianna’s, anxiety about life and death and understand it’s the same feeling that I get when I’m in front of a camera or onstage. That’s my passion. That’s what I love. She really helped me break it down that way and also I wanted her blessing. She had read the four episodes that I was given when we started. We needed her OK and she gave it and I said, “What did you think of the book when it came out? Were you happy? Were you angry? I don’t wanna do something that’s gonna make you angry.” And she said, “No, I thought the book was great. It was exactly right.” So once I got her blessing, then I felt free to make my own interpretation of who she was.
GD: All those little details are so important. You mentioned not wearing a dress in the lab. It’s one of those things where one little bad decision from the costume department can really make a character feel inauthentic.
JM: Right. And also, I asked about her childhood. She was a horseback rider and loves animals. That’s her life. Her kids love animals, her husband, obviously. I was a horseback rider and I know how I used to walk when I’d get off a horse. My mother was a dancer so my mother would always say, “You cannot walk like that.” To the point where I started walking like a duck to try and please her. I know that horseback riders walk a little big pigeon-toed and it helped me just change her walk. She always said she was happiest when she was in her camouflage. The second I went into the costume fitting I said, “No, don’t put her in that. She only wore a uniform when she was presenting. Put her in her camouflage. This is a tomboy. She was a tomboy through and through and I wanna portray her like that.” So it was very helpful. Of course, my favorite days on-set was when I was in camouflage. So comfortable compared to a hazmat suit. I asked her the one thing I couldn’t deliver, you wouldn’t know by watching it, but I asked her about the hazmat suits ‘cause I was having such a difficult time and she said that was her safe place. She loved being in a hazmat suit ‘cause for her, it was getting away from everything and just doing her work. Of course, she’s not memorizing crazy lines and those lines are easy for her because it’s what she does.
GD: It’s her real-life dialogue.
JM: It’s her real-life dialogue. For me, I said, “Really?” She goes, “At first the hazmat suits felt cumbersome,” and they weigh 50 pounds. They’re heavy, and maybe now they’re lighter. She loved being in there. She said it was a calm place for her.
GD: I think you sell it pretty well. I think it’s in the first episode when you’re with that one cadet and he’s the one freaking out and you’re very calm, ‘cause it’s all very routine for you.
JM: I love that scene ‘cause I think it was so important in the writing to show what happens before you get in the hazmat suit. You rarely see that and you can see her joy in bringing in a newbie and showing them and one of the things that she always did is make sure to look them in the eye and see their pupils and make sure that they’re there because a lot of people do panic and do clog the suit and need to get out. Like me. But yeah, I think that was a very well-done scene and then even seeing the blacklight and being able to understand how you put the tape around and always have extra things. She’s a teacher, ultimately.
GD: It reminded me a lot of that scene in “Silence of the Lambs” when Clarice is meeting Hannibal Lecter for the first time and it’s like you’re going layer by layer down into the hot zone and you’re terrified of what’s going to be on the other side of that door.
JM: Right, that’s great. I never thought of it that way. Thank you (laughs).
GD: You’re a multiple Emmy winner for “The Good Wife” and “ER.” What has that recognition meant for you in your career?
JM: Well it’s a fairy tale. It is, and anyone who denies that is lying or they should get out of the business. It’s so lovely. At the same time, I feel like awards do that strange thing and I would love to change it one year to have the same part played by five actresses and then judge it, because it’s about the writing and the characters and they’re all so different from each other. How do you judge that? It’s like a race. With athletics, you either win or you don’t win but with acting, it’s art. It’s your interpretation of something. It’s been a wonderful template for me in terms of business. It’s great for business when you win an award because you have a title now. But Richard Burton never won an Academy Award. Truly one of the greatest acting treasures we had. So how do you judge that? In that way, I don’t take it too seriously but anytime I’m doing a deal, it sure helps. I can’t value my life on that because it’s a fleeting moment and it’s great for business but it doesn’t mean that the other person who was up for an Emmy that year who didn’t win, maybe the writing just wasn’t as good. I got lucky with great writing. I’m not trying to be humble here. I’m just saying it’s sort of a strange confluence of events. Show, character, writing, timing. I got lucky with all of it.
GD: I think [Humphrey] Bogart said when he was nominated for “Casablanca,” “They should have all five of us play Hamlet.”
JM: That’s my point, because how do you judge that? It’s like judging someone running a triathlon and someone doing just a half-marathon. It doesn’t make sense. You all have to do the triathlon. It’s just one of those things. But it’s great especially this, for me. What awards mean, ultimately, is they get a spotlight. The same way I’m trying to give a spotlight to the Ebola crisis and to shine a light on something I think is a global crisis, it’s great because if people like you and the media see something they like, they’ll write about it and then people will watch it. That’s, to me, the most important part of the whole awards situation. Same with film. Oftentimes I’ll go, “So and so? I didn’t hear of that movie. I’m gonna go watch it.” It’s great for business and I think ultimately we want everyone to see our work. Unless you’re really embarrassed about your work. I can’t imagine you’d be pushing it. But it’s a good business thing.
GD: Well Julianna, thank you so much. Congratulations on the show.
JM: Thank you. Thanks a lot.