Dr. Peter Jahrling (Topher Grace), a civilian virologist who works with Dr. Nancy Jaxx. (National Geographic/Amanda Matlovich). Picture: Supplied

Sometimes there is much disparity in how US critics react to a show versus that of South Africans. 

National Geographic’s 'The Hot Zone' attracted a largely glacial response, even with an A-list cast of Julianna Margulies, Topher Grace, Noah Emmerich and James D’Arcy, from Hollywood. 

But when the series aired here last week, critics were more favourable towards the show. This isn’t surprising though. Viewers have developed a morbid fascination with shows viral outbreaks and the resulting fear and chaos as was witnessed with '12 Monkeys', 'Containment' and 'The Strain'. 

'The Hot Zone explores the finding - and eventual containment - of the deadly Ebola virus. This six-part series is inspired by true-life events, captured with compelling details in Richard Preston’s international best-seller of the same title. 

Topher Grace (Dr Peter Jahrling), who was in Spider-Man 3 and, more recently, Black Mirror, on Netflix, shares the spotlight with Julianna Margulies, who is cast as Dr Nancy Jaax. 

Grace explained: “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.”

Julianna Margulies, Topher Grace and Paul James co-star in the series. Picture: Supplied

As for working alongside such powerhouse co-stars, he revealed: “Julianna is amazing. She is one of the people who you want to work with if you are an actor, if there is a list of amazing people - specifically with this kind of material, too. 

"I was really scared memorising the script because I thought, “Oh man, here is someone who has worked in the ER. If I am going to do a medical staff thing, which I haven’t done before, I better come correct.” 

The actor, who turns 41 on Friday, explained his fascination with the role and show. 

“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…Just knowing that this is something that actually happened is scary. 

"Friday the 13th is scary, too, but that is a made-up story. This actually happened in real life. And it could happen again.”

The tension rises at a similar pace as the frustration levels as bureaucracy rears its ugly head.  

Amid all of this Dr Jahrling finds himself in an unenviable position. 

Grace explained: “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.”

As for working alongside such powerhouse co-stars, he revealed: “Julianna is amazing. She is one of the people who you want to work with if you are an actor, if there is a list of amazing people - specifically with this kind of material, too. 

"I was really scared memorising the script because I thought, “Oh man, here is someone who has worked in the ER. If I am going to do a medical staff thing, which I haven’t done before, I better come correct.” 

So, I double-memorised my lines. But then once I met her, it turned out she is the sweetest, most down-to-earth, most fun person to work with.

“And Paul James is someone I did not know; I was not very aware of his work. Most of our scenes are together because we get quarantined together. And he is an amazing actor. I really, really enjoyed my time with him. I really hope I get to work with him again.

Grace isn’t terribly unruffled to inhabit a real-life character as he has done so before. Where he does steer much high-praise towards is to co-creators Kelly Souders and Brian Peterson.

He said: ”I have played real people before and it is always an interesting journey because you have both the fact that the person existed and the fact that the character serves a very specific function within the project. 

That is what Kelly and Brian did so well, they found an interesting, linear narrative through what is a really sprawling book that was fantastic into six hours. They did a great job of adapting it.”

By the way, SA’s Bohang Moeko and Sive Mabuya bagged cameo roles in the show. 

The Hot Zone airs on National Geographic (DStv channel 181) on Wednesdays at 9pm.

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