Marcia Gay Harden sometimes feels like a complete fraud on the set of Code Black.
The Academy Award-winning actress plays an unflappable ER doctor in the new CBS drama, which premieres at 9 p.m. Wednesday.
Whenever she’s up to her armpits in work on the show, which is often, Harden is likely to find herself musing about what’s actually at stake.
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If a real doctor makes a mistake on the job, a trauma patient might die in the emergency room. But if she goofs, what’s the worst that can happen? The director will cut the scene, and they’ll shoot it again. No lives are hanging in the balance.
[T]he magic involved ... the prosthetics, the fake beating heart ... the fake blood ... seeing this never gets boring.
Marcia Gay Harden
“The letters M.D. do not appear after my name,” Harden says. “My letters are SAG, as in Screen Actors Guild.”
The Texas actress plays Dr. Leanne Rorish, the big “Daddy” in the ER of Angels Memorial in Los Angeles. On an almost daily basis, this place reaches critical “Code Black” conditions, when the influx of patients pushes hospital staff and resources to the breaking point.
Harden says she was drawn to the series because of “the built-in, life-and-death, ticking-clock drama that everyone can relate to.”
She adds: “The themes in this show are universal. Right now, at this very moment, somewhere in America, there is a mother begging a doctor to save her daughter or her son.”
In the name of research, Harden met and shadowed real-life docs in the 600-bed Los Angeles County+USC Medical Center, one of the largest and busiest public hospitals in the country. She came away from that experience feeling a tremendous responsibility to make her performance as authentic as possible.
“What a team effort it is there,” Harden says. “When you go into the ER at L.A. County, the first thing you’re aware of is that you can’t tell who is the doctor, who is the nurse, who is the attending, who is the clean-up person.
“That’s because they’re all in scrubs. The doctors aren’t wearing white coats,” she says. “You quickly become aware of the equanimity of purpose.”
Harden loves playing doctor and performing fake surgeries. She is never squeamish about plunging her arms into realistically bloody open chest cavities. Bring it on.
“I am completely mesmerized by it all, on two different levels,” she says. “First of all, the human body, how it works, what an intricate machine it is — that is so fascinating.
Marcia Gay Harden won an Oscar for her performance in ‘Pollack’ (2000) and was nominated for ‘Mystic River’ (2003).
“Also, the magic involved with the prosthetics, the fake beating heart made of plastic, the fake blood that squeezes from a tube when you press the scalpel down — seeing this never gets boring.”
Harden won an Oscar for her performance in Pollack (2000) and was nominated for Mystic River (2003). She has worked in numerous film, TV and stage productions, but has “never been so deeply entrenched in a project as demanding” as Code Black.
“It is exhilarating and exhausting,” she says.
The real doctors laugh at us, because their hospital shifts are 12 hours. Our shifts are often 16.
Marcia Gay Harden
Even the medical advisers marvel at how hard the cast and crew of Code Black work.
“It really can be quite grueling in its own way,” Harden says. “There are members of the crew with cameras on their backs for 12 hours at a time.
“The extras are on the set for 15 hours a day with bloodied faces and arms and legs in fake casts and in hospital robes, lying in beds for hours on end. It’s not anywhere as bad as really being hurt, of course, but it’s still not easy, what they’re doing.
“The real doctors laugh at us, because their hospital shifts are 12 hours. Our shifts are often 16.”
That said, Harden remains acutely aware that she’s just pretending.
“Trust me, I know what I don’t know,” she says. “In the world of medicine, oh, boy, I know what I don’t know — and it is vast.”
- 9 p.m. Wednesday
- KTVT/Channel 11