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The Hot Zone: The terrifying origin story of the Ebola virus

The Hot Zone, Monday. Photo/Supplied

A new marathon series dramatises the origins of Ebola – and how it almost got loose in the US.

It’s the life of an actor: one month, you’re enduring bitter winter conditions in Ireland filming one of the longest battles ever made for television, the next, you’re in 40-degree African heat telling the origin story of a deadly disease.

After spending eight years as Davos Seaworth in Game of Thrones, Liam Cunningham has a new gig: The Hot Zone (National Geographic, Sky 072, Monday, 12.30pm) is a thriller-ised adaptation of the 1994 non-fiction book of the same name by Richard Preston.

The six-part series, which screens as a marathon, tells the story of the origins of Ebola and also brings it right to America’s door by depicting how it nearly got loose in Washington DC in 1989.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Julianna Margulies plays Nancy Jaax, a US Army veterinary pathologist who had a key role in containing the situation after a research monkey at a lab in Reston, Virginia, became sick and died.

Cunningham’s role of Wade Carter is an amalgam of a couple of people, created to conflate events and “show how information came to us and to keep this story moving along”.

Carter is an outlier who has been shunned by his colleagues. However, when Jaax finds an Ebola-like virus in monkey organs sent from Reston, she knows she needs his expertise. What follows is a series of close calls, hazmat suits and very sad monkeys.

Carter is also seen in flashback in Zaire, trying to hunt down the source of a horrific virus with his Centers for Disease Control and Prevention colleague (James D’Arcy).

Cunningham didn’t read Preston’s book before taking on the role; he says it’s almost a rule of his: “I didn’t read the books for Game of Thrones, either.” But he believes The Hot Zone highlights “how serious the situation was and is”, particularly in light of the outbreak of Ebola that is occurring in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“This is something that can threaten humanity. It’s very, very important to try to make sure it doesn’t get into cities, it doesn’t get on a plane and it doesn’t land in your town, my town or anyone else’s town.”

Cunningham also didn’t research life in Africa. He didn’t need to – before he became an actor, he worked as an electrician in Zimbabwe. “So, part of my research, I actually lived.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, The Hot Zone has made him paranoid about viruses. “I see people carrying around those hand sanitisers and it’s very tempting to put one of those in my pocket.”

This article was first published in the June 8, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.