Julianna Margulies on outbreak thriller The Hot Zone, filmed in SA


National Geographic’s hit scripted drama The Hot Zone is now streaming on Showmax. Golden Globe winner Julianna Margulies (The Good Wife) stars opposite Liam Cunningham (Game of Thrones) in the mini-series, which is based on the best-selling non-fiction thriller of the same name by Richard Preston, about an outbreak of the Ebola virus in the US in 1989.

An invisible, real-life monster with a ninety-percent kill rate, Ebola is enough to scare even the master of horror himself, Stephen King, who said the book was “one of the most horrifying things I’ve read in my whole life.” 

Although it is a dramatisation, the six-part series is inspired by real events. US Army pathologist Colonel Jaax, a wife and mother of two, had one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Every day, she donned layers of protective gear to enter the Biosafety Level 4 lab at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), where she handled the world’s deadliest viruses. One day in 1989, she tested a sample from a research laboratory in Reston, Virginia, and quickly feared they were dealing with one of the deadliest viruses known.

What followed was a nightmare of accidental exposures, the discovery that there were no protocols in place for dealing with an outbreak, and bureaucratic in-fighting that saw Jaax forced to put her career, and her life, on the line to prevent an outbreak of the Ebola virus.

In addition to its two main stars, The Hot Zone’s cast includes Emmy winner Topher Grace (BlacKkKlansman), Critics Choice winner Noah Emmerich (The Americans), People’s Choice nominee Robert Sean Leonard (House M.D.), James D’Arcy (Agent Carter, Broadchurch) and Grace Gummer (Mr. Robot). 

If the scenery in the Kenya flashback scenes looks suspiciously familiar, that’s because it’s very close to home. The story follows two timelines – the 1989 US incident, and the horrifying outbreak in Kenya almost a decade earlier, which makes up the back story of Cunningham’s character, Wade Carter. The Kenya scenes were filmed in South Africa in 2018, mostly in and around Durban and Richards Bay, so keep an eye out for cameos from South African actors Neil McCarthy (Jozi-H), Bohang Moeko (Ring of Lies), Sive Mabuye (Scandal), Sylvaine Strike (Black Sails), Joe Vaz (Good Omens) and Camilla Waldman (Wild at Heart).

The series’ cast is passionate about the importance of this story. Margulies is speaking out to raise awareness about the disease. What gripped her most when she first received the scripts was that Ebola, a disease with the power to “wipe out six million people in the city of DC faster than you could close the highways”, had reached America almost three decades earlier, and she hadn’t known a thing about it.

“To me it was always this thing way off in Africa,” she told Associated Press. “It didn’t affect me. When I read the book and the first four scripts they sent me, I realised this is a global issue, and as a human nation we need to stand behind our scientists and start supporting the research. Because without it … it could be the way we all go. It wipes out villages … and it’s easily spread. There’s a ninety-percent fatality rate. And when I read that, and saw what this woman did, and the hurdles she had to climb [sic] in order to get the permission to do her job, I felt compelled to shine a light on what I think is a global problem.”

“We had Ebola on US soil and it’ll be on European soil at some point,” she said in an interview with The Guardian. “It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. There’s still no protocol. There’s still no cure.”

With the ongoing Ebola outbreak in the DRC, the series is a timely arrival to our screens, and we’re not the only ones who feel that way. Its US release drew 7.5 million viewers when it aired in June last year, making it Nat Geo’s most-watched scripted series ever, with viewership numbers 350% up from the channel’s previous six-week average. It topped acclaimed scripted series Genius: Einstein, as well as MARS, and claimed second place (after The Story of God with Morgan Freeman) as Nat Geo’s most-watched series of all time. 

At #69 on Rotten Tomatoes’ list of the Best TV Shows Of 2019, the show has a 90% critics rating. The Hollywood Reporter says, “It nails a mood of mounting paranoia and the visceral impact of a solid, jump-in-the-dark horror movie,” while Indiewire calls it, “a scary, absorbing thriller you won’t easily forget.” 

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Kevin consults on PR and marketing for Africa’s film industry. Current clients include Showmax, Triggerfish and Tulips and Chimneys; previous clients include Al Jazeera, Egg, Encounters, Film Afrika, and the Oscar-nominated short films Asad and Revolting Rhymes. Before changing sides, Kevin edited The Callsheet and The Filmmakers Guide To South Africa and freelanced for the likes of Variety and The Hollywood Reporter as a journalist. He’s also co-founder of Africa.film, a site where you can watch Africa's best videos, as chosen by the continent's best filmmakers and the world's top film festivals and websites.