Interview: Julianna Margulies Discusses the Importance of Supporting Science and Her Work in ‘The Hot Zone’

"I think it's great to be able to bring our younger generation into, not the frightening part of what's happening, but the exciting part of what we can do about it."


Julianna Margulies has been a star in film and television since the ’90s. Her breakout role as nurse Carol Hathaway on “ER” earned her an Emmy and five additional nominations. She later went on to Emmy and Golden Globe recognition for her leading performance on “The Good Wife.”

Now, for National Geographic, Margulies stars as Dr. Nancy Jaax, who worked at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID). In 1989, Dr. Jaax was part of the team that discovered the Ebola Zaire virus had reached the United States. Robert Preston published “The Hot Zone” in 1994 to tell the story of the dangers and the work that Jaax and her husband Jerry did to stop the virus from getting out into the population.

The other day, I had the chance to talk with Julianna Margulies about her role in the show, and about what she has learned about the urgency to support scientific research. Please enjoy our conversation.

Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: What was it about “The Hot Zone” that made you really excited to get on board?

Julianna Margulies: The subject matter. I was shocked at how ignorant I was about this epidemic, and that I didn’t know about the book, I didn’t know about the circumstance that happened in 1989 when Ebola hit US soil. And I was so taken by this female lead character who seemed so into her work that she didn’t mind or seem to notice the danger. Especially, she didn’t think of herself – and still doesn’t. She’s alive and well and an awesome human being, but doesn’t think of herself as a hero. Just thinks of herself as someone who loves her job, passionate, and always does want to do the right thing.

I think for me it was just a wake up call to stop putting my head in the sand. When I’d get the New York Times on Tuesday and the science section is there, I would just hand it over to my husband or my son because it didn’t really interest me. But maybe it wasn’t that it didn’t interest me. I started realizing as I was preparing for this role, maybe it’s just that I feel too stupid to read it. That I won’t understand it. Because I wasn’t good at science in school. I didn’t have that brain. It didn’t interest me. And I realized after having read the first four scripts that they sent me, oh my god, this isn’t about understanding it, it’s about appreciating who these people are and what they do and supporting it.

KP: What was one of the misconceptions you had going into this project?

JM: I didn’t realize that this was as important a topic and as palpable as it is today. I think the biggest misconception about Ebola is, because you hear about it in a distant land, that happens in Africa, it doesn’t come here. There’s this ignorance to the importance of it. This can happen anytime and we have no protocols for it. That was one of the biggest things I took away. There’s a line Nancy says to Carter, Liam Cunningham’s character, where she says, “Are you kidding? There’s Ebola on US soil and there’s no protocol?”

And I think the biggest misconception that the audience would take away is to think that all this happened in 1989. It’s 2019 and since August 1,400 people have died from the Ebola Zaire virus in the Democratic Republic of Congo. And it’s 2019. It is not a matter of if it comes back on US soil, it’s a matter of when. So for me, this show is about shedding light on something that’s so important. I want to try to say it as eloquently as possible without sounding judgmental, but science deniers have to be shown the light. We’ve got to stop science deniers from bringing the world down any further. That goes to global warming, it goes to infectious diseases.

Look what’s happening with the measles outbreak. It’s preposterous. I was doing an interview with Nancy Jaax probably four weeks ago and the reporter said, “Nancy, what do you think of this measles epidemic?” And she looked at him incredulously and said, “But we cured that. We found the vaccine. Why are we there?”

KP: I was just talking with a co-worker about that this morning. The fact that 30 years ago they had a huge measles outbreak, but 20 years ago it was gone. There were no measles in the United States and now it’s the worst outbreak we’ve had in decades. It doesn’t make sense.

JM: Right! And why? Because people aren’t paying attention. I’ve read a lot of stuff about it. I read an article in the New York Times the other day that was talking about the school – actually happens to be the school I went to for five years in Spring Valley, New York, where parents were saying that vaccines interrupt the soul life of the child. I thought, honey, there will be no soul. Would you rather your child suffer and die? What are you talking about? What scientific evidence do you have to prove there is a soul life of the child? And in the meantime, nurture the soul all you want, but make sure they’re safe!

KP: Exactly! I don’t understand them, I will never understand them.

JM: Yeah, and I think that’s the problem, right? There’s this huge divide and you see it with global warming, all these rollbacks with coal, with the coal industry. We have proven lung cancer and deaths because of coal mines and yet, still, we’re just living in a state of denial.

So what thrilled me about doing this job with Nat Geo especially, when they were airing it, Carolyn Bernstein who’s the head of programming there called me and said, “Just letting you know, we’re going to air it in 171 countries.” And I said, “Wait, what? How does that happen?” And she said, “We’re Nat Geo. We’re in every corner of the world.” I just thought, ah, it just gets better with these people because that’s who you want behind a project like this. You want to show it to the world because this is a global epidemic. This is not an isolated epidemic.

KP: Especially as the world becomes more connected, we travel, we’re all over the place. This is something that affects everybody. And I think you make a really good point of that in the series.

JM: Hopefully. Thank god we got great ratings and maybe two people out of the however many millions that watched it will say, “I need to do something about this. Let’s support our scientific community.” Because if that’s one thing I have learned, I know we’re living in tough times politically and in this horrible, divisive culture, but the truth is, I have seen first hand that one voice does make a difference. When you think you can’t help, it’s wrong. You can help. One voice does make a difference.

I’ve seen it firsthand just with voting in our district in upstate New York where we turned a purple state blue with Antonio Delgado. I thought, Oh my god, it worked! All that hard work, all that fundraising, all that door to door, it worked. We did it. Getting a law passed in New York this year with Erin Merryn. It works, we did it. So I feel like if two people hear and they turn two more people onto it, it’s a domino effect and it can work. I’m just really happy I got to partner with them on this.

KP: What is something you think people can do when it comes to Ebola and infectious diseases in general?

JM: First of all, if they have any interest at all in making sure this doesn’t happen here, it’s support our scientific communities. Our budget for science here, and in Australia, and in England in the past year was slashed by 35%. Tthat should be the last budget that’s slashed ever. We should only be making that budget bigger, because between global warming and what’s happening with infectious diseases, we won’t be here. So why wouldn’t we support our scientific community? That was a big blow to science.

The other thing, one of the things that Nancy Jaax alerted me to was that kids from the ages of 10 to 13 love this book, “The Hot Zone.” Jerry and Nancy Jaax go around the country and give lectures about their work and what they did and what it was like during this time. Kids love it. Kids can watch this show and get interested.

What Nancy will tell you is we don’t have enough scientists. So we need to get our kids interested so that they get into high school and go to college and want to become scientists to help our world become a better place and a livable place. A place that doesn’t have these catastrophic threats to our society. That’s a big one for me is saying, when I was 10, 11, 12, 13, no one said, “Hey, let’s watch this show on Ebola.” Had someone shown me an interest in science, maybe I would have had a different profession, I don’t know. But I think it’s great to be able to bring our younger generation into – not the frightening part of what’s happening – but the exciting part of what we can do about it.

KP: That’s something that isn’t focused on enough. We talk about how we can leave the world better for the next generation, but it’s about teaching them how to make the world better for themselves.

JM: Exactly. And you have to make it exciting to get their interest. Get them away from their phones and get them to talk about the real problems and read about it and try not to just think I only exist for me. Focus on things bigger than you.

KP: What’s something about Nancy Jaax that really inspires you?

JM: The way she handled herself in an environment that was all male. So funny to think that this happened in 1989. She was the head of the pathology department at USAMRIID. The only woman in her field and it’s 2019 and we’re still fighting the same fucking fight. It is shocking sometimes.

I know it’s baby steps but what’s happening with women’s health, it’s so demoralizing. However, we are strong and will prevail. We will persist!

But I think what amazed me about her was she was the only woman in her field and, if you met her you’d say the same thing, but she’s nonplussed about being the only woman in her field. Her job excited her so much, she loved her work and was so passionate that I don’t think Nancy really noticed much about being talked down to. It happened that her husband went into that monkey house instead of her. She was completely thrown under the bus. But if you really watch how she handled that, it wasn’t a gender issue for her. It was about her husband being worried about her getting hurt, or worse. But it didn’t stop her from figuring out how to get in there. And it was more about, okay, Jerry’s down. She knew she wasn’t going to die. She could get in their and do her job and do it well. And it was about saving – I know this sounds ridiculous, but – it was about saving America from a deadly outbreak.

KP: We need to hear more of these stories.

JM: Yeah! She was the only woman there and at every turn she was told no. It’s what I say about most female stories. I’m executive producing this story about the first female journalist on the front lines in Vietnam and I always say this, they did it backward and in high heels. The same job. And by the way, with half the pay. And these stories need to be told so history allows us not to repeat the same mistakes. I think a lot of the reason why we’re in this horrific moment in time in our country is because the man who happens to be president doesn’t know anything about history. And the people who are following him aren’t historians because history should never repeat itself.

KP: I don’t think he knows much about anything at all, but that’s another conversation.

JM: Yeah, I know. It’s so hard nowadays. I just had lunch with a girlfriend I hadn’t seen in a year. And we both looked at each other in the beginning of the lunch and said, “Let’s not talk politics.” Because you start and you can’t stop and it’s too exhausting. And it’s toxic.

KP: Where can someone go if they’re looking for more information about Ebola or about the work Nancy Jaax has done?

JM: There are so many places out there that you can go and support and find science camps for kids. Nat Geo has a huge web page, I was just at a gala for Eco Health Alliance, too. People are doing amazing work.

After our conversation, Ms. Margulies sent additional links to articles specific to Ebola:

National Geographic: What is the Ebola virus and can it be stopped?
National Geographic: Life amid an Ebola outbreak: Combating mistrust – and saving lives

Awards Circuit would like to thank Julianna Margulies for speaking with us.

“The Hot Zone” aired on Nat Geo in May, and is available On Demand.