Julianna Margulies thought she was dead. The actress in her, at least, was convinced that her "ER" character--head nurse Carol Hathaway--had met her Grim Reaper when the hospital drama's well-received pilot wrote Hathaway into a coma after a suicide attempt.
Margulies thought her role on the series was over. "I had no idea I was coming back," she says from her Santa Monica apartment. "I was hired as a guest star, just for the pilot." Margulies already had returned to Baltimore to resume work for her recurring role on NBC's "Homicide: Life on the Street" when she got word that she was made an "ER" regular.
Hathaway's suicide attempt has yet to be fully explained. "(Ex-lover) Ross (George Clooney) thinks it's his fault, but it's much more complicated. It'll be a slow process in revealing what really happened," Margulies says. "It's depressing enough being in the ER, and it's pretty dark to be talking about suicide. Eventually things will come out."
After the second episode aired--and it was revealed that Hathaway did survive--Margulies attended a nurses convention in San Antonio, Tex. "I'd heard nurses were angry and protesting her suicide attempt, so I wanted to talk to them while we attended classes and researched."
The nurses told Margulies "that nurses were so badly represented on television and in the entertainment industry, that to finally see a nurse who was so strong and had it together and then see her commit suicide, didn't make them happy."
But further research proved her character's actions authentic. "They thought she was a drug addict, because you see her getting into the drug cabinet," Margulies says. "That's what I thought, too. We had two chaperon nurses and both of them shared experiences with drug abuse."
Eventually, the nurses came to the conclusion that, while they didn't know if suicide was common, drug problems due to stress were quite common among members of their profession.
The show's authenticity is further guaranteed, Margulies says, because there are always professionals on the grueling work set. "When you see us in a trauma situation or an operating scene, the people other than the main cast are real doctors and nurses."
She's particularly proud of Hathaway, even though at first she worried that, at 26, she was too young to be a head nurse. "I asked them about it, and they said, 'No, that's the way it is, you have to be young and strong to deal with all the stresses.' "
Hathaway, Margulies observes, "is strong and controlling and that's why she's good at her job. She has a dry sense of humor and a very dark side to her that she doesn't wear on her sleeve. She's very compassionate, even if she's dealing with her own demons."
Things may be looking up for the head nurse's social life. She'll get a ring, but Margulies won't say from whom.
The East Coast native, who says she's as willful as Hathaway but much softer, won her first role in 1991 opposite Steven Seagal in "Out For Justice."
"It was difficult getting work," she says. "A lot of people told me I'd never ever work in TV because my looks were so different. They couldn't tell if I was black, Hispanic or what." (She's Romanian-Hungarian-Austrian-Russian, she says.)
Jobs in theater, commercials and series guest shots piled up until she got the part of "Homicide's" waitress-turned-violinist.
Margulies says that on "ER"--which swiftly beat its one-on-one competitor, CBS' "Chicago Hope" before the latter hospital series was moved to another time slot--"the characters are recognizable as human beings. On 'Chicago Hope' they seem a little more untouchable. They are so heroic, and I think it's difficult to identify with those perfect people. The characters in 'ER' seem real. You can identify with them."
"ER" airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on NBC.