The Hot Zone: Anthrax is poised to scare audiences as the NatGeo series dramatizes the 2001 anthrax crisis. But the most intense—and most fascinating—part of the drama is Tony Goldwyn’s performance as Dr. Bruce Ivins. Ivins plays a critical part in the investigation and the effort to protect the country from more attacks, but as the situation unfolds, he goes further down into his own spiral.
To say anything more specific would be spoiling, but it’s no secret to talk about how this is another classic Tony Goldwyn performance. He’s very good at portraying real people—which you can also currently see as he plays Paul Cohen in the recently released King Richard on HBO Max—and he has a particular gift for tackling complex people who live in emotional and moral grey areas. The Hot Zone: Anthrax is a combination of both of these, and Tony gave me insight into how he handled it.
“As I do with anything I’m doing, I just try to dig in,” he explained. “The interesting thing about when you’re playing a true-life character, there’s often a lot of information you can get. There was quite a lot of reading I was able to do about Bruce Ivins. There’s a very interesting biography of him written by an L.A. Times journalist named David Wilman, it’s called Mirage Man, which gives a lot of detail about his childhood and the trauma he suffered and the particular mental illness that he struggled with and lots of testimonials from people that worked with him. It was just like a Bible for me. It was really good. And then other books that I read about the anthrax investigation, and you just kind of go down the rabbit hole.
“He’s a very different person than I am,” Tony added. “It was a real kind of transformation that I had to commit to. And to get inside the skin of someone who, in so many ways, is very, very different than me, that was a really interesting and fun challenge—even though there’s some very dark places that the story goes for him.”
Yet audiences know that Tony Goldwyn is an expert at that challenge. We’ve seen him portray characters who either venture to or just permanently live in dark places; Fitz on Scandal was no angel, and remember the time he played his own evil twin in two episodes of Without A Trace? He crosses those lines while always being able to retain a certain heart for every character. You may not agree with them, you may not like or even hate them, but you have an understanding of them because of the way he presents them so honestly.
The most notorious example is his portrayal of Warren Jeffs in the 2014 TV-movie Outlaw Prophet. Jeffs is a monster, without a doubt, and Tony’s performance is genuinely uncomfortable to watch—as it should be. It stirs up an incredibly powerful emotional reaction. But from an acting standpoint, you have to marvel at how he can find anything to make that role work, and play it in a way that feels human and real and palpable instead of a detached over-the-top caricature.
While Bruce Ivins is in no way on that level, we see again in The Hot Zone: Anthrax how Tony can take a real-life person who we might have conflicted feelings over, and play them truthfully without alienating the audience. How is he able to find that perfect line between not holding back and still making the viewer care about his character?
“Warren Jeffs was more of a sociopath, but a similar assignment. He was a very complicated, strange person who looked at the world in a very different way than I do. So there was sort of a similar process for me,” he said. “Like any character that I’m playing, you have to find the heart in that person and find out where their heart lives. I was listening to a podcast with Natalie Portman and she was saying that she always has to fall in love with her characters. I thought that was so apt. I think that’s really what you try and do as an actor. You have to completely embrace the person you’re playing without judgment. Even when they behave very badly, as have many of the characters that I’ve played.”
“I was fascinated because I remembered when this happened. But I knew nothing about the ongoing story,” Tony recalled. “And really it was when I read the character. He’s just a really complicated, interesting man. He’s a guy of real contrasts. You discover things about this person that you just don’t think are true when you first meet him. That was very attractive to me, and the scripts were very well written.”
That’s another aspect that makes The Hot Zone: Anthrax worth watching. As more of these dramatic versions of national crises hit the airwaves—see also Spectrum’s criminally underrated Manhunt series and FX’s American Crime Story—what elevates one over the other is if we learn something more than we knew before. Do we gain a better understanding of what happened and why? Tony told me that he definitely found that to be the case.
“I knew very little,” he reflected. “I remember when the anthrax attacks happened. It was three weeks after 9/11, and suddenly we were told we couldn’t open our mail. My wife and I put Cipro in our kids’ school backpacks, because that’s the only antidote to anthrax poisoning. It was terrifying. But then the threat seemed to diminish after a couple of months, and everybody kind of forgot about it and moved on. What I didn’t know is that this investigation went on for about eight years, and took all kinds of insane twists and turns as they tried to find the culprit behind this terrible attack.”
As much as the series tries to elicit feelings of anxiety and dread from the viewing audience, it was also uneasy re-creating that terror, especially with the additional context of filming while the world is still grappling with another public health challenge in the COVID-19 pandemic.
“To be going through this public health crisis that we’ve all lived through the past two years, with everyone in the public health world working around the clock to try and get ahead of COVID-19, to realize that the very same thing was happening at the time,” Tony pointed out. “The FBI and the CDC and everybody else were trying to get their arms around what was going on with this anthrax killer. There were a lot of similarities, and it was very surreal to be doing it in Toronto in lockdown, from an acting standpoint.”
But if you need yet another reason to watch Tony Goldwyn, he also has a knack for material that does make us look at issues and people differently than we did before. Whether it’s playing someone who’s not a conventional protagonist, or being in a series like this that elucidates the other half of a story, what he does makes people think. Anyone who enjoys The Hot Zone: Anthrax should next look up The Divide, the 2014 drama that Tony co-created with Richard LaGravenese. Starring Tony nominee Marin Ireland and another wonderfully nuanced actor in Damon Gupton (Black Lightning), the series presented one of the most well-rounded and thoughtful takes on a flawed criminal justice system.
Does Tony have any future plans as a content creator when he’s not busy acting? “I’m always working on stuff,” he said. “It just depends on what you can get sold and made. But I’m always trying to get something going on that side.”
Until that happens, we have another brilliant performance from him to enjoy with The Hot Zone: Anthrax. Another chance to see him take an incredibly complicated person and not miss a thread of what makes him so complicated but also remind us of his humanity, and maybe also our own. “I just would encourage people to not go on Google and Wikipedia to spoil it, because there’s so many surprises in this story,” he concluded. “I would hate to spoil it. Because the truth is stranger than fiction, as they say.”
The Hot Zone: Anthrax starts tonight at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT on NatGeo and airs two episodes over three consecutive nights. The limited series will also stream on Hulu.
Article content is (c)2020-2023 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr and on Instagram at @BFTVGram.