When Richard Preston’s “The Hot Zone” was published in 1994, it chillingly illustrated how close the world had come to an Ebola pandemic five years earlier. After several failed attempts to adapt the nonfiction book into a feature film, it has now been made into a three-part miniseries, airing June 1-3 on National Geographic.
Julianna Margulies stars as Lt. Col. Nancy Jaax, the chief pathologist at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, and Noah Emmerich plays her husband, Lt. Col. Jerry Jaax, head of the military base’s veterinary division. They find themselves in the middle of a crisis when the Ebola virus is detected in monkeys at a research lab outside of Washington, D.C.
“I read the book a long time ago. It was a compelling, interesting, dramatic, true story,” Emmerich told the Journal. “I’m a science fan and I think it’s important to talk about science. We seem to be slipping away from that these days, not accepting scientific data as truth anymore, and we risk our culture and society and livelihood for it. This matters.”
Emmerich also was eager to work with Margulies. “I had admired but had never worked with her. I met her once in passing years ago,” he said. “I was intrigued by the idea of playing her husband in this important story.”
Although Jaax is a real person, Emmerich didn’t feel obligated to become the character, as he would have if Jaax were publicly known. “It’s more important to capture the truth of that person’s circumstance and their inner life,” he said.
“The Hot Zone” is his first project since the spy series “The Americans,” which ran for six seasons on FX. “That was a great ride,” he said. “I got very lucky with that show and again with this one.” He’s equally enthusiastic about his next project, the Netflix miniseries “The Spy.”
Created by Israeli producer Gideon Raff and due to stream this fall, it’s the true story of Mossad agent Eli Cohen, played by Sacha Baron Cohen. Portraying his first Jewish character, Emmerich plays Dan Peleg, Cohen’s handler. “I didn’t know him before this but I was a giant fan,” he said of the comedian and actor Cohen. “I think he’s a comic genius and he also has great dramatic chops.”
“The Spy” was filmed in Budapest and Morocco, the latter standing in for Israel. “It’s set in the ’60s. Israel is too modern,” Emmerich explained. He has been to Israel a few times but hasn’t been back since the ’90s. “I need to go, and now I have all these Israeli friends. ‘The Spy’ was populated mostly with Israeli actors. I’m the only American in it,” he said.
Born in New York, Emmerich grew up in a “relatively secular” Jewish family that celebrated the major holidays. His mother’s Romanian Hungarian parents were early 20th-century immigrants, but his German grandfather and French grandmother on his father’s side barely escaped the Nazis.
“My father was born in Frankfurt, Germany, and got out with his parents and sister in 1930 and went to Amsterdam. My father went to the same school as Anne Frank. They were classmates,” he said. “Thankfully, my grandfather saw the writing on the wall and got them out. They came to America in 1940. We lost a lot of people on the French side of the family.”
Today, Emmerich describes himself as culturally Jewish. His wife isn’t Jewish but it’s important to him that their sons, who attend a Jewish preschool, know about their heritage. “I’m appreciative of the profound beauty of [Judaism] and the philosophical teachings and the culture of it,” he said.
Emmerich was studying history and pre-law at Yale University, where he sang bass in an a cappella group, when a friend asked him to be in a musical he was directing. “I joined on a lark, loved it and thought I would explore it more,” he said. Professionally, his big break was Ted Demme’s “Beautiful Girls” in 1996, followed by other films he’s proud of, including “The Truman Show,” “Miracle,” “Pride and Glory” and “Frequency,” written by his brother Toby.
Going forward, Emmerich said, “I’m looking for great stories, great characters.” He would like to be involved in projects “that expand hearts and minds, and connect us, enlighten us, divert us and soften us.”
He added, “I’d like to do some comedy. I haven’t had the chance to do it that much, not as much as I’d like.”
Emmerich directed three episodes of “The Americans” and two of “Billions,” and he hopes to continue working behind the camera. “I definitely want to diversify more, get involved in producing — [to] be a puppeteer as much as a puppet,” he said.
Emmerich hopes viewers of “The Hot Zone” come away with an appreciation of the “profoundly important and heroic role that scientists play in a culture and a healthy civilization, the importance of taking them seriously and the interconnectedness of all of us on this planet,” he said. “What happens here matters there; what happens there matters here. We are one tribe of humanity, and until we realize that we jeopardize our future. The show is relevant socially, politically, environmentally. It’s important to talk about it and share it.”
“The Hot Zone” runs June 1-3 on National Geographic and is also available on demand.