The Hot Zone: Meet the cast and characters of Ebola virus drama

The thrilling National Geographic series features an all-star cast including The Good Wife’s Julia Margulies.

Inspired by Richard Preston’s classic bestseller of the same name, The Hot Zone is based around the true events of 1989 when the deadly Ebola virus made its first appearance on US soil in a primate quarantine facility near Washington DC.

An adaptation for the book has been in the works for over 25 years with everyone from Robert Redford, Jodie Foster and Meryl Streep tipped for starring roles.

However, it is National Geographic, who have finally brought the nail-biting drama to life with an incredible cast.

Critics in the US have raved about the series describing it as "a scary, absorbing thriller you won’t easily forget".

It premieres in the UK on Tuesday, September 10th at 9pm on National Geographic – BT TV channel 317/373.

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The Hot Zone – Cast and Characters

Nancy Jaax – Julia Margulies (The Good Wife)

Julia Margulies in The Hot Zone

A devoted wife and mother of two, Nancy is a hard-working scientist who works tirelessly in pursuit of her duty as an officer at USAMRIID (United States Army Medical Institute of Infectious Diseases). She and husband Jerry are a career military couple whose lives are thrown into upheaval when they find themselves combating the unthinkable – an Ebola outbreak on U.S. soil. In the fight, Nancy discovers the virus isn’t her only enemy as she comes up against a bottleneck of bureaucracy and a clash of perspectives on how to handle the potential

Who is Nancy Jaax, and what drew you to this role?

Nancy Jaax is a veterinarian and a scientist working at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. She ended up being in charge of studying the Ebola virus in 1989, when the virus was detected in Reston, Virginia, inside a quarantine station for imported lab animals referred to as “the monkey house.”

What was interesting is that, when I got the job, I did not realise that 40,000 monkeys a year are imported into the States for testing in labs and all sorts of things. And in 1989, they found what could be Ebola Zaire. There are many different strains of Ebola. But the strain that scared them the most in 1989, which is what Richard based his book on, was Ebola Zaire, which has a fatality rate of nine out of 10. I have learned way too much about all of it to ever sleep well again.

The concept of fear is a huge undercurrent of the show, and Nancy Jaax just steps up and faces it head on. But not everyone responds to fear in the same way. How does fear expose certain character traits — flaws or benefits?

I think there are good and bad things about fear. Fear instigates panic and that is bad, because there is nothing to fear but fear itself, right? So, if you succumb to fear fully, you will actually never conquer it.

Nancy does not sit back and watch. Nancy is a doer. She figures out how to combat whatever it is that is threatening. So, the good part of fear is being scared enough to know that if you do not do something about it, worse will happen. And I think that Nancy’s motivation is saving people, not because she is a hero or thinks of herself that way — because she does not — but because that is what she gets paid for. That is her job.

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Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Jaax – Noah Emmerich (The Americans)

Noah Emmerich in The Hot Zone

A military man of few words, Jerry is head of the veterinarian division on the military base. He thinks the world of his wife, Nancy, and her job as Chief Pathologist at USAMRIID (United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases), but fears for her health and safety in light of what she’s discovered about the Ebola virus.

Your character steps up and does some really intense work to try and keep others safe. Can you describe some of the personal stakes for Jerry Jaax?

Well, it is interesting. My character does step up and put a lot of himself at risk. I think he is truly terrified of the possibility of losing his wife. They have two children; they are both in this field, which is a sort of risky field in terms of coming that close in proximity to deadly disease. I think he really feels that if one of them is going to be in the hot zone and really at risk of death, it should be him. There is a moment in the script when he talks about that with his wife. He says, “Look, we both know that I am the one who is expendable vis-à-vis our children. They cannot lose their mother.” And that is, I think, what drives him to put himself on the front lines.

The subject of fear seems to be a real undercurrent for this show. In your opinion, can fear be a useful response or tool?

Yes, I think fear can be very useful; it depends on how you harness it. Fear can be paralysing, and you can shut down in the face of fear, or it can be actually quite motivating and inspiring to some degree. Fear is there for a reason evolutionarily; it demands action. And if you are able to not be so overwhelmed by your fear that you are actually called to action, then you take care of the thing that is causing you that fear. So, in some weird way, it is an inspiring emotion. It inspires, hopefully, action that will alleviate the fear, which therefore solves the problem you are confronted with.

Dr Wader Carter – Liam Cunningham (Game of Thrones)

Liam Cunnigham in The Hot Zone

A maverick, reclusive Ebola expert who has become a pariah for previous decisions.Carter is Nancy’s former professor and mentor. While many in the scientific community believe Carter’s rogue behaviour and ego make him dangerous, no one can deny that he is one of the world’s leading Ebola researchers. Rugged, magnetic, and
driven, he’s a legendary pathologist and virus hunter. Nancy considers him a vital ally in the race to prevent the Ebola virus from spreading. In flashbacks that inform a journey through Zaire back in 1976, Carter is on a passionate quest to discover the truth about an infection that’s caused entire villages to be burned to the ground. Though his methods are unconventional at times, they’re often necessary to get the true job done under hellish conditions.

What drew you to this role?

This is an incredible story. Devastation was almost unleashed in the United States of America — very close to Washington, very close to the Capitol. It is a life-and-death situation, and from that point of view it is incredibly dramatic.

From an information point of view, there are great strides being made at the moment with this disease, so that information is incredibly important, and one of the best ways to inform people is through entertainment, which is what we are doing now. But just because it is entertaining does not mean it is not important. This is an incredibly important story, and current. While the story takes place in 1989, there is an Ebola crisis at the moment in Africa. If it gets out — if it hits the airports, hits the cities — we have a big, big problem. Humanity has a big, big problem.

What motivates your character to take the risks he takes and expose himself to such a potentially deadly pathogen?

This particular disease has been a huge part of his life, and even though it is invisible to the naked eye, he sees it as an animal that is coming to destroy people, so he definitely is bordering on obsession with it.

Because this story is based on actual events, does that change at all what you bring to your character, compared with fictional roles?

You start thinking about the people who are actually involved in this thing and what they have to do. This particular disease is virulent and horrific. It is the closest thing to a living horror film you could come across.

Trevor Rhodes – James D’arcy (Broadchurch, Dunkirk)

James D'arcy in The Hot Zone

A by-the-numbers consultant at the CDC, whose past experiences in the field have created a very different outlook on the disease than the team at USAMRIID. Back in 1976 he was Wade Carter’s assistant, first seen as a clean-cut, eager young scientist, sent by a private institute to track down a pathogen in Africa. Thirteen years later in 1989, with a hard-won gravitas, he’s risen in rank and calling the shots now. He’s determined to prevent wide-spread panic. He goes against the grain, shocking everyone, but with substantial reasons in this situation.

Is there anything in particular that drew you to this role?

What I really liked when I read the script was the first time you meet my character, it is actually in a flashback to 1976 in Africa, and he is relatively open and somewhat enthusiastic about the way in which one might go about discovering what it is they are looking for. And then suddenly in the third episode, we meet him again 13 or 14 years later, and he immediately runs into Wade Carter, who is his partner in the flashback. And you can see that something terrible happened between them. And I really love that moment when you see them again in the future — or in the present-day story — and you honestly do not know what happened. And it made me very keen to find out where the rest of the story went.

You play a character from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention who has kind of a differing opinion on how to handle this threat of the outbreak. Could you describe a little bit of that history and what motivates the conflict that stems from that?

Our main protagonists in the show are absolutely terrified about the implications of what they have potentially found. And my character is the real antagonist to all of that. He is the one who says, “There is nothing here until there is something here.” The reason for that stems back to the flashbacks that we go through in the show. And I do not want to give too much away about what actually happens there, but obviously as time has gone by, my character and Liam Cunningham’s character, Wade Carter, have had a tremendous difference of opinion.

Dr. Peter Jahrling - Topher Grace (BlacKKKlansman)

Topher Grace in The Hot Zone

A sarcastic and self-assured buttoned up civilian virologist, Peter’s always been cool-under-fire until the threat of Ebola hits close to home. At first dismissive of Nancy’s concerns about the virus, Peter assumes a much more logical scenario. But as the truth unfolds, Peter panics and as tensions run high, he is forced to face his inner demons, driving a wedge between him and the love of his life.

What drew you to this role?

I read The Hot Zone in the ’90s, I think, when I was in eighth or ninth grade. And it was one of those books that was so good, I remember I did not want to finish. I was only doing one page each night at the end, because I was so blown away by the writing. And then, also, I could not believe it was based on something that actually happened. This was not like a thriller. There were thrillers at the time that were hits — novels that were completely fictional or about dinosaurs or whatever — but this is something that really happened, and it blew my mind that it was in the same world that I lived in.

There are a lot of aspects to Ebola. Are there elements of it that you find more terrifying than others?

There were some scenes that we were doing in the lab, where it is freaky enough for an actor to be in one of those suits and pretending to be a part of it, but when you think about what they would really have to deal with in a room like this and how actually frightening it is, and then what happens if it gets outside one of these rooms …

Your character spends most of the series keeping a really dark secret from a lot of the other characters. Can you describe what his motivation is behind that decision?

Peter Jahrling is and was a brilliant scientist. He is a civilian, so he is surrounded by people who are different from him, people who have military training. He was brought in from outside the military, so he has a different perspective on how to handle things. He is a little bit more rock ’n’ roll, comparatively. He is a little bit more fly by the seat of his pants, and he is really smart. But he gets a little cocky, and he tries something that he should not have, and the punishment fits the crime.

The Hot Zone premieres in the UK on Tuesday, September 10th at 9pm on National Geographic – BT TV channel 317/373.

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