As real as it gets in the emergency room

Marcia Gay Harden

Everyone imagines it must be stressful working as an emergency-room doctor, but what is it like playing one on television?

Pretty taxing, too, apparently - even for an accomplished actress such as Oscar and Tony winner Marcia Gay Harden, who leads the cast of the new medical drama Code Black, which airs in Singapore on Sony Channel (StarHub TV Channel 510, Singtel TV Channel 316).

She says her new role as Dr Leanne Rorish "is using every bit of me as an actor".

For one thing, there are pages of medical jargon for her to learn and memorise for the documentary- style drama, which is set in the busiest and most understaffed emergency room in Los Angeles.

She also shadowed real-life ER doctors, nurses and medical technicians, 35 of whom were hired by the show to be on hand to explain how it all works, with 27 trauma nurses appearing regularly on screen as well.

I feel like it's saying to me, 'Stretch and use every part of yourself.'

ACTRESS MARCIA GAY HARDEN, who plays Dr Leanne Rorish in Code Black, on the challenge of her new role

Harden, 56, who picked up the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for playing the wife of artist Jackson Pollock in the 2000 biopic Pollock, says Code Black is one of the most challenging projects she has taken on.

"I feel like it's saying to me, 'Stretch and use every part of yourself.' And that's a joy because sometimes, you do things and you're like, 'Okay, you used my finger. But hello, I have a hand.' You know, you just want to be used."

The actress - whose previous television work includes the sitcom Trophy Wife (2013 - 2014) and a guest spot on the crime drama How To Get Away With Murder this year - says she was drawn to the new show because of how strong and yet fragile her character, Dr Rorish, is.

"What I saw was a woman who is fierce," she says of her role, a residency director put in charge of four newly minted doctors.

"She's a fighter and she's had this tragedy which has made her kind of bitter, closed off and potentially reckless.

"But she's really good at what she does and she saves lives."

The show, which co-stars Raza Jaffrey, Bonnie Somerville and Melanie Chandra, is based on the 2014 documentary of the same name by physician Ryan MacGarry, who based it on his experience working in the Los Angeles County General, a pioneering hospital in the field of emergency medicine and one of the busiest emergency rooms in the United States.

Harden notes that there is something universally fascinating about this environment, which might explain the popularity of TV dramas set in this world.

"Every country in the world has hospitals and the stories that go on at these hospitals are the same, whether you're in Mexico, America or France.

"Some kid's in a car accident and you want to save him - it's life or death - and the anxiety and hope and fear of every parent is the same," says the actress, who won a Best Lead Actress Tony for the 2009 Broadway play God Of Carnage and earned an Oscar nomination for the film Mystic River (2003).

By the same token, this means that new entrants to the genre have to live up to the popularity of long- running series such as ER (1994 - 2007) and Grey's Anatomy (2005 to now), which critics are already drawing parallels to.

Code Black creator Michael Seitzman says he welcomes such comparisons.

He says: "I love ER, so if you end up comparing us favourably to ER, I would be very grateful. If you compared us unfavourably to ER, I would just have to work harder."

And, he adds, "there's always an opportunity to take a genre and reinvent it in some way".

Harden believes the documentary- style warts-and-all approach is what will set this apart and prove as educational to viewers as it was to her.

"What I learnt from Michael is that from the time that ambulance pulls up until the time you're in that room, we've got only a few minutes to stabilise the patient and get him to the operating room. It's like medical Nascar."

Seitzman suggests that this unflinching realism is a good way to pay tribute to the real women and men who deal with these life-and- death situations.

He says: "I say all the time to our creative team that this show has to always be aggressively grounded.

"The idea is to make a show that is as real as we could make it, so that the world that I saw in the documentary and then in tours of various ERs is a world of nobility - but there's also a certain amount of sloppiness in that world. It's sterile, medically speaking, but it's not sterile aesthetically speaking. It's just very messy and I like that."

Code Blacks airs on Sony Channel (StarHub TV Channel 510, Singtel TV Channel 316) every Thursday at 8.50pm.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 07, 2015, with the headline 'As real as it gets in the emergency room'. Subscribe