Code Black: Marcia Gay Harden talks the real fake stress of playing a doctor: Interview
At the heart of the medical madness on Code Black, which takes place in Los Angeles’ busiest emergency room, is Dr. Leanne Rorish (Marcia Gay Harden), a tough boss to a new crop of residents who doesn’t always follow protocol in order to save lives. EW talked to Harden about the tricks to playing a doctor.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: It sounds like you’re pretty busy over there. That seems appropriate given the show.
MARCIA GAY HARDEN: It does. The doctors were joking, saying “Oh, you guys are going to have to get used to this. We work at least a 12-hour shift.” We were all like, “Uh-huh. We work a 15- to 16-hour shift, so we’ve got it.” Not that we’re saving lives. We’re SAG members, not MDs.
Does any of the show’s intensity carry over to what you do in the moment?
Are you kidding me? It’s ridiculous. That’s why we have to keep telling ourselves, “You’re a member of the Screen Actors Guild. You’re not a real doctor.” You get in the moment, and the camera is rolling, and you know you need thoracotomy tray. You need the scalpel. You need the this. You need the that. If someone doesn’t hand it to you, you start barking order like you’re a real doctor. It’s good because you get in the moment, but if you think about it, the pressure to do a good job — no matter what your job is — is enormous. Pressure is pressure, and it increases when it’s pressure to make sure someone doesn’t die.
Is it ever a relief to have a scene where you can just talk to another person?
Are you kidding me? Yes! You’re like, “Oh, yay! A scene in the lounge. Fantastic!” I don’t have to learn any medicine. I don’t have to say “Push another 10 of etomidate.” You have to know exactly what it is and make it real. When you’re in the room that we call “center stage,” everything is already heightened, as we say in the pilot, when people have two to three minutes to live. If whatever you’re trying to do isn’t working, then it’s time to improvise with last-ditch efforts. My character just had to do a thoracotomy, which is when you open up somebody’s chest to get to the heart. They call it a “clam shell.” You’re opening up a chest, and you push the lungs aside with your hands. The doctors actually have to hold the heart and help it beat until it started being on its own. A) Fascinating medicine. Fascinating to learn it. B) It’s not easy, and it’s not easy to learn. We do really feel the stakes in those moments. That’s where the blur occurs, and it’s a wonderful blur, being an actor. A scene in the lounge, a scene in the hallway, a scene where you’re just talking is always a really great place to go to. It’s like the ribbon after running a race.
Sounds like you’re learning some medicine.
The actors all joke amongst themselves. If we were in the airport and someone said, “Is there a doctor in the house,” we would jump. We would want to do something, and then we realized. We’d save their life, but get sued because of the process. We’d break a rib or whatever. It’s best to just be actors.
There’s a lot of blood. Are you getting dirty?
It’s true. There are bloody gloves on the floor. There’s blood everywhere. When you’re in code black, it’s a mess. For me, as a neat- freak mother, it’s my worst nightmare. Syringes are being dropped on the floor. It is chaos, organized chaos. Working in that, you have to be very careful. I think there’s a scene in the pilot where I say, “Someone let me out.” I’m completely tangled in wires, and I couldn’t get out of the room. They left the line in because that’s what doctors say all the time. You’re caught in the web of tubes and wires. I find it fascinating because it means that everybody, beginning with the crew is working at such a high level of mastery — from props to crew to set decoration to camera to the special effects and makeup department.
Some shows you go on and you never bother doing the vocal warm up because you’re just speaking in a normal voice to the camera. On this one, you’re saying things like I said before. “Push another 10 units of etomidate, please.” Even me saying that quickly and clearly, I’m thinking, “What the eff is she talking about?” “Push another 10 of etomidate,” or, “I need six units of O-neg pushed through the level one, please.” No one knows what we’re talking about, but if I’m mumbling it, you’re going to be really pissed off because not only did you not know what it is, you couldn’t hear what it is. You couldn’t understand the words I’m saying. We forgive visually not understanding something, but scientifically, we don’t forgive not being able to understand it audibly.
Code Black premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET on CBS.