Cracking the Code
In CBS's Code Black, Marcia Gay Harden keeps it real.
Marcia Gay Harden works hard, and sometimes it pays almost magical dividends.
When we speak for this interview, she calls from the Féstival de Télévision de Monte-Carlo in Monaco, where later that evening she would win a Golden Nymph as Best Actress.
“I hope I don’t sound too distracted. I’m having make-up put on, and I’m staring out at the Monte-Carlo Bay, over a little balcony. I hear the water lapping at the shore. It couldn’t be more magical It’s almost an embarrassment of riches.”
Perhaps, but Harden has put in a lot of work to get to this point. A veteran of film, theater and television, Harden is currently starring in the CBS hit Code Black.
The drama is based on the 2014 award-winning documentary of the same name by writer/director Ryan McGarry, who is also an executive producer on the series. “Code Black” is the term in an emergency room for when there are more patients than resources. Although not a universally recognized term, it is used at Los Angeles County Hospital, the location for both the documentary and the series.
Harden’s character, Dr. Leanne Rorish is the residency director known for her success with high-risk procedures in the trauma area. She leads first-year residents through their paces, along with senior nurse Jesse Sallander (Luis Guzman) and doctors Neal Hudson (Raza Jaffrey) and Rollie Guthrie (William Allen Young). The group is so close that the interns call Harden’s character “Daddy” and Guzman’s “Mama.”
The show is in constant motion and looks like absolute chaos from the viewer’s perspective. Harden describes it, “It makes it heart-pounding from the get-go because that’s the name of the show, Code Black, so you know they’re going to go into Code Black, unless they write an episode at some point that has no Code Black and the doctors are bored out of their minds and don’t know what to do. That could be one episode.
“But mostly, you know that what this gives you is what I think of as multi-layered ticking clocks. Very often, there’s one ticking clock, and maybe in a medical show there are two, but Michael [Seitzman, the creator and showrunner] has three, four ticking clocks, and they’re not ticking with 15 minutes for the patient to live, they’re ticking with two minutes.
“So you have one patient coming in – tick, tick, tick – they’ve got two minutes to live – tick, tick, tick – what’re we gonna do, and in comes another one – tick, tick, tick – oh my God, this one has about three minutes to live; what are we gonna do, and then here comes the third one – tick, tick – they’ve got one minute.
“Burn victim, they need to go into a bed now! And there’re only two doctors, and there’s not enough space. And so you’re almost, at the outset of each show, or at least by the end of the first act, into something that feels pretty heart pounding. And the clock is ticking.
“It just keeps ramping up. And the challenge is to allow for the silences, the pauses, the breath, so that the audiences can feel and align with the characters, at the same time keeping the action pumped and moving forward. And that is exciting to watch, how that’s accomplished.”
And in the midst of all this motion are actors who have to remember their lines, perform operations, and keep the story moving. How does one accomplish all that? “That’s an interesting question. I personally think like a director, and I think a lot of theater actors do think like a director, so you compose the piece in your brain almost musically.
“When I’m in the room, in the ER, and there’s just that cacophony around me of noise and direction, and everybody doing their job, it’s a welcome cacophony. I think there’s a noise level at which we all exist OK. And I just have to shut out what I need to shut out so that I can remember my lines and just go over them and over them and over them.”
The actors are supported by a large group of on-set professionals: doctors, medical technicians, and pronunciation experts to help with the medical jargon. In addition to the constant support of live helpers, actors also find themselves looking up operations on YouTube.
Harden explains, “There’s always a doctor there. And there’s always a real med tech there, sometimes there are two doctors there. And when you’re going into the ER, they are very, very present.
“When you’re not in ER, and you’re doing the locker room scene, you don’t really need the doctor there. They’re probably over in the writers’ room consulting with the writers or working with the med techs or working with prop people, and then they go off and do their real jobs. So we have a tremendous amount of support.
“A lot of them were friends with Ryan McGarry, who created the documentary, and I think they feel, as do we, such a burden of responsibility to keep it realistic, and yet allow it to be entertaining, because, let’s face it, that’s what it is at the end of the day. But we do try to keep it about medicine and very real.”
Part of keeping the medicine real is learning – at least temporarily – how an operation is actually performed. For that, the actors turn to YouTube. Harden says, “Thoracotomies, or heart transplants, or sometimes, there is an eye operation that I have to perform.
“I have a great short-term memory and terrible long term, so I learn it, I do it, and within an hour I can’t remember it. The drive is full.
“So, I watched that one [the eye operation], and you can watch them online, and that was on a real person online. Some of the operations are on cadavers. And you watch how they do these bizarre operations on cadavers, and it’s kind of disgusting on the one hand, but on the other hand, I’m grateful that they do it. And I watch how the operation goes. I watch what they do.
“You don’t know where the camera is going to be. When you know where the camera’s going to be, you need to have the economy of telling the story you need to tell. And you’re telling the story that the camera is seeing. That’s the story. So, I like to know where it is.
“But if you don’t know where it is, then you really need to be doing whatever you’re doing truthfully and honestly and realistically as you can because it determines your position in the room, your position around the bed.
“And more interestingly, [it determines] how the rhythm of your language might break up. If I’m bent over, cutting the chest while I have lines, my rhythm might slow down and stop and then pick back up once I know I’ve made my cut. And if you don’t know what you’re doing, the cutting is ancillary. If you’ve separated your movement from your dialog, then it doesn’t give the dialog the richness that it could.
“If I don’t know what I’m saying, I can’t sell the line. I can’t get my rhythm with it. I have to really know what I’m doing. And I feel so grateful to the show that there’s just an enormous support team to help us keep it real.”
It’s not just the physicality of the work that Harden learns from her real-life counterparts on the set. She has also been tremendously affected by the way the real ER doctors approach their jobs.
She says, “. It was one of the most fascinating elements of the show to me - how do you take up a bed with a homeless man, drunk for the 900th time, though he is an emergency, and in an emergency state, when you might be denying or not so able to treat or care for the 10 year old child who came in from the car accident.
“The room gets crowded sometimes with the surrounding community. Cedars-Sinai isn’t faced with those issues. L.A. County is.
“That’s so interesting how the doctors navigate that and don’t have judgment. How do they not have judgment? I would have judgment; Marcia Gay would have judgment.
“So, part of learning to become a doctor was learning to dispel judgment and treat whoever was most emergent and needed to be treated and allow my character to do that.
“But then I thought, maybe I can, maybe Leanne could have judgment too. She’s a bit of a renegade, a bit reckless. She’s battling her own demons. Maybe she has judgment.
“Maybe at the end of the day, she thinks, F-it. I’m going to treat who I think I need to treat. I’ll follow the rules up to a point, but at the end of the day, that kid over there isn’t going to die. And she’ll do what she has to do.
“That for me was a revelation, to be able to allow her to be, maybe, more flawed than some of the real doctors that I met. Because I have to tell you, they were almost ethereal; they were almost unreal. They were so incredibly compassionate and without judgment. That was something that was interesting to witness. “
Harden also appreciates the reality of the character she’s playing, as well as the world they are portraying. “It felt like we were going to open a door into a world that we haven’t often seen, serving a community that isn’t well represented, and we were going to tap into some of the issues of health care, which are huge issues in our country.
“And here is a woman at the center of this very high adrenaline, high octane job, and doing her job with as much as, if not more, alacrity, finesse, aggression, risk-taking as any man.
“And it didn’t actually feel like it was an arm-wrestling match between women/men, women/men. It didn’t feel like that. It just felt like it was representative of the kind of women that I see around me all the time - strong, very complicated working women, mothers, women who are happy, angry, sad, tough, likeable, unlikeable. That seems reflective of women that I know.
“She’s [Leanne] incredibly vulnerable and incredibly professional, covered and tough at the same time, so it was her character that drew me to the series. And that she was the teaching center of these interns and she was Daddy, and Luis Guzman is Mama.
“It’s a family. Michael created this instant family with Daddy and Mama and the kids, and Raza is this uncle, the happy uncle and it’s this amazing little family. I think that was hugely important to the initial success of the show, that you felt that. Daddy and Mama and the kids, and were they going to pass, were they going to fail, were they screwing up.”
Harden has spent a great deal of time in the last few years doing guest and recurring roles in a number of series, including large recurring roles in Law & Order: SVU, How to Get Away with Murder, and The Newsroom.
According to Harden, even recurring roles are different in terms of preparation and performance from a leading series role. “I think it is different. I think when you’re a guest, you always feel like a guest. You don’t feel a sense of ownership.
“And I think on this one [Code Black] I felt a sense of responsibility and incredible pride. You get to know people more deeply. You get to know the crew more deeply. You get to really relish in the expertise of the writers and the different styles of the writers and the vision of the showrunner, Michael Seitzman.
"You really want people to write to all of the cast, to the ensemble, to your own gifts as an individual.
“I think when you’re a guest, you know that your arc is going to be shortened. You sometimes have quite a bit to do as a guest, and then you’re gone.”
As she’s getting ready to start shooting season 2, Harden has some thoughts on what’s coming up. “I don’t know what’s going to happen in season 2. I believe Leanne’s back in the ER, which I’m excited about.
“She’s a great teacher, and to take her away from the teaching when she was put in admin, I felt like it didn’t quite fit well. That’s [teaching] what she loves to do and we sort of addressed that she wasn’t teaching, so I think that Michael has done that now. He’s put her back into the ER.
“It was like she’s lost her own kittens, and this has become her surrogate family. And it’s not the same thing in admin. In that ER room, you feel like you’re all rowing a boat together.
"I hope we see more of her relationships, actually, her relationships with them. What do they bring to her, what do they bring out in her? I’d like to see what her loneliness, how it manifests itself .
"It’s not just that she would become mothering to the kids, although I’m sure she misses being a mother, but who are her friends? Does she date, and if she doesn’t, why doesn’t she? Is she terrified of it, what’s going on with her? How is she healing? There’s a lot of interesting story there.
“And yet you don’t want the personal journeys to become the overriding subject. You want it to be the medicine, but I think you need to have those backstories.”