Julianna Margulies on Wig Advocacy and 'The Hot Zone's' Urgent Appeal

The Hot Zone S01E02 Still - Publicity - H 2019
Amanda Matlovich/National Geographic

Julianna Margulies, after more than two decades on television, has become a huge fan of one aspect of the job — wearing wigs.

It's something that began in 2009, after she was set to star in CBS's The Good Wife, and was told that one aspect that producers wanted to incorporate into the character of Alicia Florrick, wife of a fallen politician, was a bit of a resemblance to the wife of real-life disgraced politician Elliot Spitzer. Problem is that Silda Wall Spitzer has straight hair, which the curly-haired Margulies found to be a challenge.

"My baby was 13 months old. I said, 'I can't come in two hours earlier than everyone else to blow-dry my hair, so if you get me a wig, fine,' and that will also cut out time for me to be able to rest because I knew the workload was going to be huge," Margulies told The Hollywood Reporter.

It was a request that CBS initially resisted because "really good wigs are expensive." However, she added, "it adds up in the end to being less expensive than the time it would take to have your own hair done that way — they realized how much time and money it saved, because continuity was easy. My hair wasn't frizzing. It was a wig."

In fact, the experience led to Margulies becoming a wig advocate for the network — literally. "I forget the name of the show, but about two years later after they had given me such a hard time, they called and said, 'There's an actress. We really want her to have a wig because most of the stuff is outside, and with the weather change, if you have curly hair or whatever, your hair changes with the weather. It's going to frizz out, and humidity is going to do whatever.'" The actress didn't want to wear a wig, so Margulies was asked to call her and explain how great it could be for her.

"You see it now more and more. Movie stars always wear wigs, but when it's television, they just get nervous with the budget, and I think they get nervous that it's going to take too much time. They didn't realize it actually takes less time," she said.

Thus, whenever she can now, Margulies wears a wig — note her straight hair in National Geographic's limited series The Hot Zone, premiering Monday. "When you do that many episodes, you're there for 14 hours a day. It just kills your hair," she said. "They're always coming at you with heat or whatever. When it's a series, I always want a wig from now on. The wear and tear on your hair is brutal."

In fact, for her role as the Miranda Priestley-esque Kitty Montgomery on AMC's short-lived dramedy Dietland, there was absolutely no push-back from the producers. "They immediately said, 'We need you to be a redhead, and we'll get you a wig.' There wasn't even a discussion about it."

Whether or not she'll be able to wear a wig onscreen is hardly the most important factor in her choosing roles. For example, The Hot Zone, based on the nonfiction book by Richard Preston, features Margulies as real-life veterinary pathologist Dr. Nancy Jaax, who found herself embroiled in the horrors surrounding the origins of the Ebola virus in 1989. It was a story so compelling to the actress that it was enough to overpower a vow she made after six years on ER — no more scientific jargon.

"When I read the script, the story was so riveting and I thought the writing was so good and the subject matter so important, that I forgot that I vowed never to say medical dialogue again after six years on ER. It wasn't until I was in the hazmat suit, in a biohazard level IV lab saying crazy lines like, 'Immunofluorescent, blah, blah, blah, blah,' and not being able to hear myself because the fans that are built into the suit to keep it ventilated, I couldn't hear myself. My brain felt scrambled. I suddenly realized I was claustrophobic, and my mind went blank," she said.

"That was a good challenge," she added. "I'm glad it's over. Never again."

It did leave her with an appreciation for the real-life people being depicted in the series, and how important their work is. "I never thought about these people who work in [U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases], and who put their lives at risk every day in these situations. It just sort of wasn't on my radar," she said. "And now, I have such tremendous respect for all of them, and I want to support the research, and I want people to stop putting up walls that won't give them the funding for what we need in terms of vaccines and cures. There's just science deniers all over the place. We need to stop being ridiculous, and start supporting the research."

She also loves the relief of taking off that wig every day. "Hair changes a character completely. I take off that wig at the end of the day. Take off those crazy clothes, and get into my jeans and comfortable shoes and feel like me again," she said.

It was especially helpful while doing seven seasons of 22 episodes each on The Good Wife: "That's what I loved about Alicia, too. Alicia wore very buttoned-down, tight clothes; high, high heels; had that haircut; and straight, straight hair. And at the end of the day, I could just take everything off and be me, and I didn't bring her home with me the way often times you do with a character that complex."

That need to find ways to separate herself from her characters is something that began for her on ER, given the intense nature of the production — especially in the early days of the series, following her character's attempted suicide in the pilot. "I had great training ground with ER. I realized early on, on that show, if I brought Carol Hathaway back into the house with me I would never have my own life because she was there," she said. "She was a very sad character in the beginning … I couldn't live like that, and so I learned really early on, when you shut the door, you're home and you're Julianna. You're not Carol Hathaway. You're not Alicia Florrick. You're not Kitty Montgomery. You're not any of those people."

One thing she does hope for, in the future, is that she gets more offers to play characters outside of her established persona.

"I get offered sincere, serious working women, and that's fine, but it's so much more fun to play a villain," she said. "I love what I do. I loved Alicia Florrick, and I loved all her flaws, and I miss her so. I loved Carol Hathaway. But I get those earnest, straightforward women you can look up to kind of roles. It's so much more fun to play a ditz."

Making it easier is the growing rise of the limited series, a format Margulies loves — and has loved for years, since 2001's The Mists of Avalon. "Six episodes to dive into a character, tell a story, and then you're done. You work really hard for three and a half months, and you get a break. I think it's a great way to tell a story without dragging it on. It has a beginning, a middle and an end, but it has a journey that people live with. I'm thrilled that the six-part miniseries is back."

The Hot Zone premieres Monday on National Geographic Channel.