Lenny Platt on Breathing Life into Nat Geo's The Hot Zone

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You best know Lenny Platt from his role on Quantico and How to Get Away with Murder, but now he's taking on the role of a military man caught in the midst of the real-life terror that led to The Hot Zone.

With great candor and genuine excitement for the role and his craft, Platt shares with TV Fanatic his thoughts on the true story behind The Hot Zone as well as the vigorous performances required to bring that story to life on screen.

The Hot Zone premieres on Nat Geo May 27 at 9/8c and will air in two-hour blocks for three nights straight making it a great early summer binge experience. Until then, I hope you enjoy portions of our interview with Platt below.

Lenny Platt - The Hot Zone

All right, so tell me a little bit about The Hot Zone and how you got involved?

Well, we actually just had the premiere last night, at Tribeca, which was a lot of fun. The Hot Zone series.

Is that your first time?

It was my first time at Tribeca, so it was a definitely a bucket list moment.

Oh good for you.

Yeah. Thank you.

Okay, go ahead, I'm sorry to interrupt.

No, no, no worries, interrupt away. Yeah, I'd been in New York for a minute, so being a part of that festival was a big, kind of, moment, and with such a great project, it was really a very happy evening for me.

But, yeah, the hot zone is a miniseries that's based on a bestselling novel by Richard Preston, which tells the story of the origins of the Ebola virus, and a true story, and a lot of people don't know about it but the first time Ebola was discovered on US soil. So it was a fascinating and very terrifying project to work on.

I found out I got the job while I was on vacation in Europe and I was flying back to head to set, and that was on the international flight, and I was reading the book, and it's fantastic, and it's a page turner. But, at the same time, I'm reading it, I'm like, Oh my God, I should go wash my hands.

Playing with the Virus - The Hot Zone

Yeah, you're looking around.

Yeah. Every cough was giving me goosebumps.

Considering the first scene of the series.

Yeah, exactly. Exactly right. Have you seen it?

I actually did. I got the screeners and saw the whole season already.

Oh, cool, very cool.

I pretty much watched it in one sitting.

Okay. Did it make you as germophobic as it did for me when I read it? [laughs]

Well I never really leave my house, because I write from home, so I'm lucky. I don't have to deal with the public.

Oh yeah.

The Dissecting Room - The Hot Zone

But yeah, it's very scary, isn't it?

It is. I think one of the most interesting parts for me was that I didn't know the story, and I didn't realize that not only had Ebola been discovered and was here in the United States, but that it was kind of kept under wraps by the government a little bit.

At least during the procedure, and for good reason right? I think my character who is a member of an army unit, the 91 Tangos, that goes and has to eliminate this threat, they have to do it incognito.

They drive around in unmarked vehicles and they're in the facility quarantining the monkeys that are infected and were moving them, but doing it under cover of night, or under a disguise, basically to prevent panic.

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I understand completely; it's very frightening that Ebola could be that close to DC and potentially creating this epidemic at the helm of our government. But, it was just wild to see this very important thing and a big mission, and that it was done quietly.

I think that Richard Preston's article in the times and the book and this piece shedding light on it is really fascinating and frightening, and unfortunately timely as well, because, we are currently fighting this potentially catastrophic infectious disease in the Congo Region. Yeah, it just was really an eye-opening experience in many ways.

Dissecting a Contaminated Monkey - The Hot Zone

Yeah, and what's interesting is, well what I loved about the show, is they don't pull back from anything. Everything you guys did was gory and gross, and about as frightening as you could possibly make it, so I think they went to extremes to make it as scary as it could be which is very cool.

I loved it. I'm a big fan of Ridley Scott and films like Alien, and parts of the experience, wearing those big blue hazmat suits, or the recall suits, which were the orange ones that we wore in the monkey facility, it felt like being in a science fiction film. But, these were real.

The project has elements that are gory, and shocking, and I think it's done with intent to really showcase how horrific this virus really is. Ebola basically makes people zombies, and this idea that we have on TV and film, this fictionalized monster that we don't think is reality, in a lot of ways is, because Ebola makes a human into a vessel for replicating itself and spreading it.

If you read the book, particularly, it goes into great detail about how people become shadows of their former selves, and they're alive and they're awake, but they have no personality towards the end. And their sole purpose is really to continue to spread that virus through coughing, though the vomiting that you see at the beginning, which is really gross.

But there are so many grotesque ways, in reality, that Ebola uses our bodies to propagate itself. So, it’s definitely shocking, and not something you should probably watch while eating dinner. But, after dinner, it's great viewing, and I think that as much of a horror movie as it may feel like at parts, it's important because it's honest; that's really what that nasty virus does to the human body.

Pathology Lab - The Hot Zone

Well, the best horror is always the stuff that's as close to reality as you can get, and you're just one step away from reality, being that the book was written based on a true story, and this was based on the book. Did you have a chance to meet any of the people that were actually involved in the original fiasco?

Actually, so, Nancy and Jerry Jaax were present last night at the premiere.

Oh, nice.

Yeah, which was really awesome to have them there, and I can't imagine how surreal it is for them to, so many years later, see this fictionalized version of their life on camera.

But, Nancy particular, the character played by Juliana, is such an amazing heroic individual, and then Linda Oaks, the producer, who has had this incredible journey of just, for decades, trying to get this project out there and bring it to life.

One of the reasons she is able to convince Richard Preston, who wrote the book, to turn this into a film was really focusing on Nancy and her heroic efforts in dealing with this outbreak. So, it was really cool to be in the room with them. My father and one of my brothers are in the army as well, so.

Hot Zone Set Image - The Hot Zone

Oh.

Yeah, to celebrate these veterans, these people who have been serving our country, and have done this work to protect us as well, so really kind of special for me in particular.

So, yeah, it was great to meet them, and Richard Preston as I said, who was there as well. And, he's got a follow-up book coming out to The Hot Zone, and talk to him a little bit about that.

And, it was just really kind of an awesome experience to have seen this, read the book, and see it come to life, and have these people there to view it.

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Oh, absolutely. And, tell me, you mentioned a little bit about that suit or both suits, how long did it take to get wrapped up in that gear, and what was it really like being inside of that?

It was incredible. I've always been a big space geek, so one of my dreams has always been to play an astronaut, or go into space or something, and I haven't been able to do that yet, but putting these suits on was a step towards that, because they feel like a spacesuit.

You are in your own world when you put on one of these suits. This company called Lucid Studios that made these period costumes were incredible, and they really authentic. They had painstaking detail in making them look and feel like they did at the time.

And, what's pretty wild is, we found out especially the blue ones that you saw earlier on, are the ones that are actually used in the lab at USAMRIID, in The Hot Zone, which is level four. Those suits are incredibly heavy, and they also have a breathing apparatus where you have to plug in these air tubes.

HAZMAT Suits on The Hot Zone

And then, if you want to move throughout the lab or go down the hall, you have to unplug yourself, and you have a certain amount of time to breathe the air that's in the suit before you reach the next level.

So, we had to mimic that on set, but it just kind of, was an amazing experience to put these on and imagine what these scientists really go through to put themselves in this, kind of, otherworldly environment.

They're wearing these spacesuits on Earth to deal with these incredibly dangerous pathogens. So, I had a blast wearing them, but they were very sweaty in those things. We had these fans installed to keep us cool, but with those fans came noise, and it was very realistic in that way, where it was just kind of chaotic internally.

There was a lot of sound going on; I remember a few moments just having to read Juliana's lips in scenes. So that I could see her to really act because it was just so loud sometimes with the necessary elements of the suit. So, it was a lot of fun, but it was a lot of work at the same time.

I think also one interesting thing was, these scientists when they do wear them, they don't wear them for long periods. They'll wear them for a few hours and get out of them, but we were filming 12-hour days. So, there were days where we were wearing those things all the time, and bathroom breaks were challenging.

Nancy Works with a Pipette - The Hot Zone

They kind of wore on our body frame, and particularly, Juliana, it was an incredible experience working with her, and she's as you can imagine, a constant professional and just game for anything, but it was really impressive to watch her navigate wearing these suits that also were at the time, probably designed for men.

The show takes place in 1989. There weren't many women in the field, and they wanted to have them accurate. These weren't things built for a female frame, and it was even more challenging for her, and she endured through it, and it was really awesome to watch her work through that.

But, I think it's, unfortunately, something that we're dealing with today because I recently saw an article where the spacesuits for an EVA, they only had one female suit, so one of the female astronauts couldn't go on an EVA on this mission.

Oh, wow.

Yeah, it was interesting. And obviously, a lot of that is also dealt with in the show. This character, Nancy, overcoming constraints that were placed on her in this very male-driven industry, and in the military, particularly at the time. So, the suit was a lot.

Yeah, the suits were great. I had a lot of fun in them though because you do kind of feel like you're in your own world, and when you put that on it really helped me get into character and feel the importance of what these characters were working on.

Maybe everybody needs one in their own home so that whenever you really need to escape, you can just escape into your suit.

Yeah, exactly.

Instead of having to slam the door or something, you could escape into your suit, and sit amongst your family.

There you go, as long as you’re not claustrophobic, otherwise you're going to be in more trouble.

Possible Contamination - The Hot Zone

Did anybody have trouble wearing those suits? Was there anybody who turned out to be claustrophobic and they didn't even know it?

No, no, everyone was really cool, even if it was a bit of a struggle because they're not easy to put on. It took a team of people to get us in and out of those things. But, everyone was up to the challenge.

Between Topher, Juliana, and I, working in the blue suits and then the recalls, which were the orange ones, which they were a lighter material, but there was this really big breathing apparatus, this unit that you would have to strap on like a belt, and then we'd have to clip on flashlights and all kinds of tools, and it was really heavy.

It was a challenge, but everyone was so professional and up for this challenge, and really believed in the story we're telling, and the authenticity in that story, so everyone was game. It was really kind of exciting to be a part of that; there was the big team mentality in telling the story correctly.

The Sick - The Hot Zone

What do you hope people take away from the series after watching it?

Oh, man. This is going to be maybe a little controversial. But, I hope people take away that science is real, and intellectualism is important, and that the world is not flat, and that vaccines are important, and science is something that should be lauded and funded and backed by people in their daily life.

And we should recognize that these are things that are potentially catastrophic to our human race.

We should continue to tell these stories to raise awareness, and to realize that countries like the places that are being affected in Africa, in the Congo, and those regions are really being affected by Ebola, and that we as a human race, as a world, can assist with knowledge, and by funding through companies like the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation that gave some funding for the book.

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It's just really important to continue to expand our knowledge and learn about these things, so that when the time comes, when Ebola is back, because it will come back, it never goes away, it just lays dormant and waits, and evolves, and is waiting for its next opportunity to strike, that we will be prepared.

So, hopefully, people are aware of it, they realize its threat, and realize the importance of science and research, and how we should continue to fund and support the endeavors that are trying to protect us and keep us on this planet for as long as we can.

There are a lot of people who are committing their lives to protect us in ways we'll never know, and it's really important to understand the importance of science and education to preserve our life and this planet while we're on it.

Pathology Lab - The Hot Zone

What do you like watching on TV when you have down time?

I'm a huge film geek, and I'm loving this golden age of television, where the lines are now blurred between what is TV and what is film. It's all long or short form content. I love science fiction. I'm on the Game of Thrones trend right now, I'm watching Barry. I don't watching a lot of reality shows, but I just can't get enough of Queer Eye.

But, I just love the fact that we are living in a time -- and it's great to be an actor in this time -- where people are willing to take risks, and commit to telling a story that is important without concerns about, "is this going to be profitable," or, "is this commercially accessible." And, it's really awesome to be part of it.

Linda Oats, the producer, said something really interesting last night, where she had been trying to make this film for years with Ridley Scott, and it fell through.

I don't know if you know the background, but there was a bidding war for the rights to the book, and Linda won the rights to the book, but then another studio that had lost the rights, rushed the movie Outbreak into production.

Not Stannis - The Hot Zone

Oh.

Yeah. It's pretty fascinating. And I remember that movie vividly as a kid, because it scared the hell out of me, and I liked it as a kid. I re-watched it recently, and I was like, wow, okay, it's got an amazing cast, but it is not anything close to reality, or the true story of what that book deals with.

Linda, last night, was discussing how she's so glad that it has come to Nat Geo and that Nat Geo made it six episodes because she was able to tell the story authentically and in the way that she envisioned as opposed to trying to put this into an hour and a half, two hour film format where people wanted a romantic storyline, or they want to wrap it up in three acts.

She wasn't limited in that way, and I think where TV is now with streaming, you can do whatever you want, and it's important for these stories.

You know, I think the things I'm most drawn to are things that are unexpected or are just really great storytelling, and I think we're living in a world, with this format, that allows for these really fantastic, amazing stories to be told in a multitude of ways.

Carrying the Weight - The Hot Zone

I agree with you. And if you had a chance to be on any other show or movie at this time, what would it be?

Oh man, that's a tough question. I don't know. Anything with space, like I said, put me in a spacesuit, throw me up, I'll be a happy, happy guy. I went to space camp as a kid.

Yeah, there isn't a show out there right now about space.

Not yet. But there will be.

Yeah, they come and go.

Yeah. But I would hope in the future, something that involves me putting on another claustrophobic suit, in space.

I can't wait to see what people think of The Hot Zone.

Yeah. Me too. I'm excited to see it. My mom is a bit squeamish, so I'm pretty curious to see how she makes it through.

She's going to be worried for her baby.

Yeah, I know, she's going to be worried for her baby, especially because I usually, not always, but with a lot of the projects I've been on, my characters will meet a very horrible demise. So, I think she doesn't know the full arc, and I think she's going to be worried that she's going to see her son kick the bucket again.

Fort Derrick - The Hot Zone

Well don't tell her. Don't tell her what happens.

No, I didn't want to ruin it for her. I know, but you've seen it, so I sent her some photos of me [from the show], and she was like, "I don't want to know, oh no, are you going to die again? I can't deal with it." Because I think the worse was, I forgot to tell her, when I was on Gotham, that my character got burned alive.

Oh that was you?

Yeah.

Ooooh.

Yeah, so that was rough for her to watch. So, she can't separate the character from me. I feel bad for her. But, no, she's excited for it, and this is particularly a bonding experience for my family because I would send photos of my uniform while I was on set to my dad.

You're finally in the army.

Yeah, I finally did it, pretend. But, my dad, I don't know if you have any people in the military in your family, or have friends, and have watched a film or TV show about the military, but they are very critical, rightfully so.

And this is their life, and they'll watch it, I've watched war movies with my dad, and he's immediately taken out of the story. He's like, "that guys boots are tied incorrectly, or his patch is in the wrong place.

So with this, I was like, you know what, I'm going to write out the date, consult with my dad to make sure that I am dressed accordingly and am doing justice to the real-life service men and women that we're telling the story of.

So, he was like, "you're rolling your sleeves wrong." There are things that I would not think about, but my dad was in the Army at the time, in the '80s, when my character was, so he's like, "with that uniform, we had to learn how to roll our sleeves a certain way. You can't have any white showing, you have to have only camo."

So, there's a really particular way, even of rolling up the sleeves, and my character had to do that to reach into this liquid tank to get a piece of paper out it. So, it was just fun to collaborate with my dad in that way.

Juliana Margulies in Uniform - The Hot Zone

Oh, that is nice.

Yeah, it was very special and brought us closer together. So, it was really a special experience for me to be able to seek his advice on how to get these details right.

Yeah, my dad and my brother are in the military. I think there was a scene where Nancy was giving this big mission briefing to the unit, and there was even a moment where we were unsure of the protocol. Do we have to rise when she enters the room? How do we rise up? And, I was able to call my brother who is stationed in Hawaii currently.

Lucky him.

Lucky bastard, right? I know.

Right.

There are worse places to be stationed. But yeah, he was able to give me some advice too, to just make sure that we're getting the details right. So, yeah, it was just really kind of awesome and special to work with my family in that way.

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Make sure you catch The Hot Zone when it premieres on May 27 at 9/8c!!

Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer for TV Fanatic. She's a member of the Broadcast Television Journalists Association (BTJA), enjoys mentoring writers, wine, and passionately discussing the nuances of television. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.

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The Hot Zone Quotes

Dr. Jaax: SHF doesn't kill cells like this.
Ben: That's what I'm saying.
Dr. Jaax: There's only a few things in the world that could do this.
Jahrling: User error?

Jason: Have you ever seen AIDS?
Jaime: Mom doesn't see human patients. Besides, Tammy's mom says all the AIDS are in New York --
Dr. Jaax: -- Um, Tami's mom believes that Falcon Crest is a real place. Let's just stick to science. Facts only.