The weeks after the attacks of Sept. 11 were fraught with additional terror from a smattering of anthrax-laced letters sent to high-profile media outlets which resulted in the death of five people. The second season of National Geographic’s anthology series The Hot Zone goes back to 2001 to dig into the FBI investigation surrounding the airborne killer.
While the rest of the series adheres closely to historical facts, Daniel Dae Kim (Lost, Hawaii Five-O) plays a composite character, FBI special agent Matthew Ryker, who leads the team while also struggling to cope with the trauma of witnessing the attack on the Pentagon firsthand. In an unhinged performance that keeps viewers guessing about his motives (unless you do a quick Google search, of course), Tony Goldwyn (Scandal) portrays Dr. Bruce Ivins, a real-life microbiologist and anthrax expert at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.
Two hour-long episodes of The Hot Zone: Anthrax will air over three nights, from Sunday, November 28 through Tuesday, Nov. 30. Below, Goldwyn tells us about filming during Covid lockdowns and why you shouldn’t let a little pandemic fatigue stop you from reliving this intense period of history. To watch National Geographic on Sling, sign up for Sling Blue using the link at the bottom of this page.
Why is it important to tell this story now?
Tony Goldwyn: First of all, it’s just an incredibly fascinating true crime story that most people remember only the first chapter of. A lot of us recall the terror of the anthrax attacks happening in the wake of 9/11. But, as so often happens, when the immediate threat faded we all moved on. The subsequent multi-year investigation had just unbelievable twists and turns. As for why now, we have just lived through another terrifying and deadly public health crisis and we have seen how fear and panic places extraordinary pressure on government officials as well as on the scientific community. We’ve also witnessed so much disinformation spreading as a result of that pressure and anxiety. All of this is a part of the anthrax case 20 years ago.
What do you hope viewers learn by digging back into this time in semi-recent history and how can the series affect our present?
TG: Well, the old adage comes to mind: If we don’t learn from history we are doomed to repeat it. As I mentioned, the pressure on our political leaders, our public health officials and on law enforcement was so intense in the wake of 9/11 and after the anthrax attacks. As a result, there were decisions made that subverted justice and the deliberative process of getting to the scientific truth. This show dramatizes how easily we can fall into these patterns as a society. On a simpler level, the little known facts of this story provide a fascinating window into a crazy chapter in our recent history.
How do you convince people who might have pandemic fatigue to tune into a drama prominently featuring hazmat suits?
TG: Honestly, the hazmat suits are a minor part of this series. This is a gripping true crime story and people’s PTSD from the pandemic will only make it more entertaining as everyone will feel a personal connection to the issues at hand.
You filmed this very stressful series during a very stressful time of Covid lockdowns. How did living in a pandemic prepare you for inhabiting the world of Hot Zone and vice versa?
TG: We were fully locked down when filming this show in Toronto. I was basically alone for four months as we couldn’t socialize. At work, everyone was covered in PPE except for the actors when the camera was rolling. The intensity of what we were all living through gave an urgency to every scene. And being isolated in that way was very helpful for me - as Bruce Ivins was a man who felt disconnected from the world.
How did you approach the character of Bruce Ivins? How important was it to you to balance his humanity with his place as the "baddie" in the series?
TG: Bruce was a man of extreme contrasts so I wanted to find where his heart lived. He suffered tremendously as a child which manifested in adulthood in the form of severe mental illness. This is at the root of all of Bruce’s anti-social behavior and I have great compassion for him. I needed to understand what lay beneath the veneer he presented to the world. So that’s where I put my focus.
The Hot Zone: Anthrax premieres Sunday, November 28 at 9 pm ET on National Geographic.