Julie Ann Emery became a fan-favourite character in Better Call Saul as Betsy Kettleman, and now she has stepped into the shoes of Diane Robichaux in the AppleTV+ drama Five Days at Memorial, chronicling the impact of Hurricane Katrina on a local hospital. The series highlights that we keep repeating bad patterns in our response to emergency situations.
“We arrived in Toronto in the moment when we still had to quarantine for two weeks and so our very first cast meeting was while we were still all in quarantine, over Zoom, and [co-creator] John Ridley used a variation of Mark Twain's quote, he said, ‘history doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme,’” Emery told Yahoo Canada. “In the 17 years since Katrina, we've seen history rhyme over and over and over again, and our response to these moments has not changed all that much, we're still abandoning our healthcare workers.”
“My great hope for the show is it can be a conversation starter. These moments of collective crises, like the pandemic, the natural disasters, are happening with more frequency and ferocity… We still don't have a really robust response to these moments. We have the means in the U.S., we don't always have the will... So we really need to decide who we want to be as a society together. These moments are going to continue to happen, they're going to continue to happen more often, and we have to decide how we want to be together.”
Also starring Vera Farmiga, Cherry Jones, Cornelius Smith Jr. and Robert Pine, Five Days at Memorial is based on the novel from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sheri Fink, documenting how Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans sheltered thousands of staff, patients and residents during Hurricane Katrina. But when 45 dead bodies were later discovered, allegations rose claiming that staff euthanized patients, before the evacuation.
“The virtues of a dramatization is you can really go inside the characters, their psychological and emotional lives, in a way you can't always in an after the fact documentary,” Emery said. “That does also come with a sense of responsibility to honour what this group of people went through in these five days.”
“The story on its own feels like this massive, epic disaster movie with really intense depth, and characterizations… I don't think any of us ever lost track of the humanization and the realness of it as we were shooting.”
Emery plays pregnant Diane Robichaux, who is part of an independently run facility in the hospital, called LifeCare.
“Sheri is one of our producers on the show and she made herself completely available to us,” Emery explained. “She sent us everything we asked for that she had at her disposal, including at one point she sent me...things people said about Diane, which really informed, for me, who she was as a leader in those moments, as person.”
“When you just start with a woman who is seven months pregnant, shows up to what…turned out to be the worst hurricane in a century, to take care of her patients and to lead her staff safely through the storm,...that is so heroic and extraordinary to me.”
'I am not sure this one will ever quite leave me'
For Julie Ann Emery, while she identified that she can usually “leave work at work,” that wasn’t the case with thee impactful, dense story told in Five Days at Memorial.
“Generally, I pride myself on being able to leave work at work, and being able to really leave it all on the field and then walk away, I wasn't so successful with this one and I think [it’s] partially because it's based on real events and because the storytelling is so deep, and so beautifully directed by John Ridley and Carlton Cuse,” Emery said. “There's also a physical component to being pregnant in those moments, that day Debra Hanson, our costume designer, also a Toronto native - the prosthetic she got for me had weight to it, it hung right,...it took kind of a toll.”
“Then we really tried to recreate this severe dehydration on a third trimester pregnancy, and I didn't know this but pregnant women need about twice the water as non-pregnant people do, and so the severe dehydration set in very quickly... It took me a couple of months to shake the show,...and then when I watched it again, it just kind of all came flooding back… I am not sure this one will ever quite leave me and I'm not sure, maybe it shouldn't. Maybe telling this kind of story is supposed to stick with you for your life.”