Julianna Margulies wasn’t expecting to learn that she was claustrophobic. At least not this way, at this point in her life.
Her role as Dr. Nancy Jaax in The Hot Zone is another in a string of forceful TV performances for the three-time Emmy-winner. Premiering Memorial Day on National Geographic, the limited series is adapted from Richard Preston’s game-changing 1994 nonfiction thriller which chronicled the origins of the Ebola virus in central Africa and the heroic work done by Dr. Jaax, a colonel at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases who risks her life to stop the potential spread of the virus in the U.S.
Margulies was immediately struck by the horrific, still-recent history. “I couldn’t believe that this had happened and I didn’t know about it,” she says when we connect on the phone a few weeks before the series’ premiere. But in saying yes to the project, she hadn’t factored in the demands of filming: She’d be spending 14 hours a day acting in a 50-pound hazmat suit.
“I can tell you from my perspective it was torture,” she says, letting out a hearty laugh that betrays more than just a hint of still-scarred PTSD. “You feel very isolated and alone in there. You can’t hear yourself think because there are two fans built into the suit to give you circulation. I couldn’t hear my brain. I just heard whirring all the time.”
The day before we talk, Dr. Jaax texted Margulies after watching the first two episodes of the series for the first time. She wrote, “How about those suits, huh?” Margulies laughs: “I wrote back, ‘I don’t know how you did it. It was torture.’” But Dr. Jaax replied that, for her, the suits gave her a sense of calm: “No one needed me. I could just do my work. I was away from everything.”
That thinking, Margulies could understand. Though, chuckling again, she says, “I could never find that sense of calm in a hazmat suit.”
In some ways, a sense of calm is what led her to The Hot Zone in the first place.
After a grueling seven-season run on CBS’ The Good Wife, one of the only broadcast dramas of the last decade to marry ratings and awards success, ended in 2016, Margulies reconsidered how she wanted to work.
More, she found herself thinking about what her work would mean—and what her role in the industry would be—at a time when the television landscape was changing entirely, particularly when it came to the role of women on- and off-screen.
As more A-list movie stars flocked to television, which Margulies genuinely says she thinks is “fabulous,” her own stature in the industry became more interesting, even singular. Twenty-five years after making her debut on ER, and after her work on Mists of Avalon, The Grid, The Sopranos, Canterbury’s Law, and the recent AMC dramedy Dietland—with The Good Wife reigning over it all—she could arguably be considered, with her longevity and influence, the most successful TV actress working today.
What that power means is something she’s grappled with since ending her time as Alicia Florrick on The Good Wife.
On the one hand, it meant taking a breather. Working on The Good Wife had been a seven-year marathon run at a sprinting pace. “I didn’t really want to work as hard,” she says. “I was really tired.” When she signed on to play domineering magazine editor Kitty Montgomery on Dietland, she struck a deal where she could only work two days an episode.
On the other hand, it meant owning that power—not just reaping what you deserve, but making sure that others don’t have to fight as hard for that same earned recognition.
As The Good Wife was ending, she revealed in a Hollywood Reporter roundtable that she had been fighting for three years to get accepted into the Producers Guild for the extensive work she did to ensure the production was running smoothly. “I’m glad I fought it,” she tells me, stressing that if it was the male star of a show asking for membership, she doesn’t think the battle would have been the same.
“I’m in a place in my career where I can say things like, ‘Well, you don’t want to pay me, then I’m not doing it…’ because I can walk away,” she says. “I can afford to walk away from jobs. And if I don’t, who’s going to?”
There’s a lot of mirroring in the struggle to be seen for her talents, intelligence, and worth in her industry and the obstacles Dr. Jaax faced as a whistleblower crusading for her findings to be taken seriously by an organization conditioned to discount her because, in 1989, she was the only woman in a position of power working in her field.
That’s how Julianna Margulies and I ended up talking about the burdens of acting in a 50-pound, oppressive hazmat suit that was built for a man. And, metaphorically, in an industry that could be described as the same.
“I was looking for a light comedy!” Margulies jokes when I ask her how The Hot Zone came her way. “It checked all the boxes.”
She had actually been meeting with National Geographic about bringing them a project about the ENIAC programmers, the six women who worked on the world’s first programmable computer, ENIAC, as part of a secret project during World War II. The network had just met about The Hot Zone with Ridley Scott, who also executive produced The Good Wife, and the conversation then turned to Margulies joining that project.
After that meeting she immediately read Preston’s book, and was horrified at the events it described—and how little awareness there seems to be about them today. It’s a story that has all the drama of a zombie apocalypse sci-fi tale, but recounts actual history.
“It’s a very serious topic that nobody seems to be taking seriously because, for some reason, they think it doesn’t affect us, that it’s way off in Africa,” she says. “But as this shows, that’s not true.”
She has some theories as to why most people in the country refuse to believe an outbreak like the one Dr. Jaax prevents in The Hot Zone is a real threat.
“These diseases are unseen,” she says. “They’re invisible. I think that’s why it’s not taken seriously in our country, because you can’t see it. These are science deniers. I don’t understand it.”
Margulies was never good at science when she was in school. “Therefore I truly believe the professional scientists who are telling us there’s global warming, that Ebola is a threat, that we need to find a vaccine and a cure. These are people who have studied it. Why would anyone question their professional opinion when they know nothing? This show, I think it also tackles that. It tackles science deniers.”
An awakening to the reality of infectious diseases, of course, isn’t just an intellectual exercise. Spend months shooting a show about the spread of Ebola and it turns out you become a bit of a germaphobe.
“I always thought Howie Mandel was nuts, but now I get it,” she laughs, referencing the TV host’s notorious germ panic.
One of the things she appreciated about The Hot Zone is that it splits time between Dr. Jaax’s life in the lab and at home. During a phone call in which Margulies sought out Dr. Jaxx’s blessing to play her in the show, they talked about what it was like to be a wife and mother of two, and yet make the decision to face mortality every day she put on the hazmat suit and went into biohazard labs.
“She said she never thought of that,” Margulies says. “For her, it was her job and she loved it. It would be like being a firefighter and never getting to go put out a fire.”
Showing Dr. Jaax’s family life helps you understand the stakes she faced beyond just intellectually. It also helped characterize the obstacles in her way as one of the few women at the top of her field in 1989. “Her own husband—her own husband—stopped her from going in to do her job,” Margulies says, still flabbergasted. “Even though he’s doing it because he doesn’t want her to be in harm’s way, it’s such an insult.”
It’s not entirely a surprise that Margulies would find herself playing a trailblazing woman like Dr. Jaax. Since her big break on ER as nurse Carole Hathaway, she’s spent her career in a rotating wardrobe of powersuits and lab coats, acting in courts, boardrooms, and medical bays as headstrong women asserting themselves against underestimation.
She says it’s a trend that just sort of happened. “Having played Alicia Florrick for seven seasons, I never went about saying ‘I want to play a woman who is empowered,’ or who somehow defies gender inequality. I think they end up on my doorstep maybe because I come off as being strong.”
This provides a natural transition to talk about her experience trying to gain acceptance in the Producers Guild for the work she was doing on the set of The Good Wife, and the headlines made over the revelation that she walked away from an offer to appear on three episodes of the spin-off The Good Fight because her pay quote was refused.
The CBS All-Access drama, which recently wrapped its third season, had been in discussions with Margulies about a three-episode arc, a return to the character of Alicia Florrick that would have been a huge event and likely ratings boon for the streaming series.
She requested to be paid what she was paid on The Good Wife, not a nominal guest star fee—as, she argues, she wasn’t a guest star. Her character was the foundation of the show’s universe. CBS said no.
“I said if you’re not going to pay me my worth, then I’m not doing the job,” she says. “But I can do that, you know? Because I can pay my mortgage.”
That privilege, that rare position of power for an actress to be in, mattered to her.
“There’s a handful of us in the television industry [who could do this]. If I can’t make an example, then the next person’s going to get screwed over. I feel a responsibility to the up and coming women in the industry that the road is a little clearer for them.”
She seems a little rattled when I ask her how it felt to take that stand, and then have her request denied for the pay she felt she deserved. She takes a beat.
“The first word I was going to say to you is that it feels liberating,” she says. “But it’s also always a little bit shocking to be honest with you. Like, wow, I just said if you pay me my worth I will do this job, and you just said we will not pay you your worth, so forget it. That to me is a very strange reaction to a woman who already has a certain amount of status in the world of entertainment and brings a certain amount of people to a project.”
And there’s a more damning lesson, too. “I don’t think it happens as often to men. I don’t. I think it is quite inequal. But it allowed me to sleep at night and not feel bad about myself. I would have felt bad had I taken the job and not be paid my quote.”
How the work is different for men and women in her industry has been on her mind often recently, be it in her decision to speak publicly about the slight from CBS or even in her day-to-day work on The Hot Zone.
We go back to talking about the 50-pound hazmat suit she had to wear in so many of her scenes as Dr. Jaax. When she thinks about her experience shooting the show, it’s the thing that she remembers most.
It’s not the panic attacks she would suffer because of her newly discovered claustrophobia. It’s also the extra exhausting nature of the work specifically because she is a woman. The hazmat suit, it turns out, was made for a man.
The way the suit fit men, the weight of it would be on the collar bone. For Margulies, it was right at the edge of her shoulder, so every time she lifted her arm she lifting up the 50 pounds of the suit.
“They were unbearably uncomfortable for me, to the point where—I’m embarrassed to say this—I cried three times on camera in the suit when I wasn’t supposed to,” she says, cackling. “I admit it. I was just a baby.”
But the thing is, she wasn’t being a baby. Her mentor for filming, who happened to be Dr. Jaax’s nephew, even gave her due credit. He and his colleagues would only be in the suit for an hour and a half a day. Margulies was in it for 14-hour shoots. The suits are so heavy that he would weigh himself before getting in the suit and again after the 90 minutes in it and discover that he’d be 10 pounds lighter from all the sweating.
“That’s the good thing about it,” Margulies laughs, in her self-effacing, sarcastic way choosing to highlight the positive of a bleak situation. “It’s a great way to lose weight.”