Being part of critically acclaimed television is nothing new for Julie Ann Emery. Just look at her roles in Fargo, Catch 22, Bosch, Preacher and— perhaps most importantly— AMC’s beloved series Better Call Saul as scene stealer Betsy Kettleman. Up next, Emery takes on Diane Robichaux in Apple TV Plus’ Five Days at Memorial, which premieres Aug. 12. Based on the reporting of Sheri Fink and written and created by John Ridley and Carlton Cuse, the limited series captures the first five days in a New Orleans hospital after Hurricane Katrina made landfall.
Ahead of the premiere, Emery opened up about her preparation process, working with Ridley, Cuse and Fink and Hurricane Katrina’s current relevance.
You have a few Instagram posts where you mention being “proud” to tell this story. Can you tell us more about that?
Well, this story of Five Days is when a disaster strikes and no one comes to the rescue, what do you do? Who do you become? And I think it points to a lot of our larger societal issues and how we show up for people in these moments, and I think it's an incredibly important story to tell right now. We saw it during COVID. We saw it with the Texas Freeze. We're seeing natural disasters with much more frequency than we used to. It's complicated how these issues do or do not get addressed.
Can you tell us more about your character Diane— is she based on a specific, real person from Sheri Fink’s reporting or is she sort of an amalgamation of people?
I guess the first thing I should say is the show is a dramatization of Sheri Fink’s excellent book. It started with Sheri Fink’s Pulitzer Prize winning article. And if you haven't read her book, everyone should. It's exhaustive, but it tells the story in a narrative way. Diane is pulled from her book. Diane Robichaux is in charge of a long-term care facility called LifeCare during the hurricane. LifeCare rented out the seventh floor of Memorial Hospital, but they were a separate corporation and that fact becomes very important and dire as the story unfolds. I should also mention Diane was seven months pregnant. When she showed up she could have handed that responsibility off during the hurricane to her boss. She didn't. She showed up to what was forecast to be the worst hurricane in 100 years to take care of her patients and lead her staff through the storms. I have enormous respect for what she did. But I would say I'm playing a dramatization of her during those five days.
Sheri Fink is also a producer on the show. Did you work directly with her or get any insight from her for your performance?
Yes, she was always available to us even before we started shooting. She sent enormous amounts of information. She sent me a packet of information on what other people said about Diane Robichaux. Her attention to detail and her reporting spilled out over into us. We really benefited from her meticulousness. And then she came to set for a couple of weeks while we were shooting, and it was such an honor to have her there. She would walk around the sets and she talked about what a beautiful job our production designer, Matthew Davies, did. She said she felt like she was inside Memorial Hospital. She was in the hospital in the days after Hurricane Katrina and she was really blown away by what our team was able to so realistically pull off.
What else did your prep work to play Diane entail?
Part of my research and part of my dialect research was I watched a few little documentaries on YouTube where they interview healthcare workers who were there during Katrina. It's after the fact, and I used those healthcare workers for my dialect work and to gather information. I also have a cousin who's an OBGYN and I talked to her a lot about what it means for a woman over 35 to be seven months pregnant. And there were things I didn't know, like you need about twice the amount of water as a non-pregnant person. So as the severe dehydration sets in in days three, four and five, there are real consequences physically for that. And that raised the stakes for me as well. Every trip my character makes down the stairs to try to fight for her patients' lives costs her something real. I named my belly “Nugget.” But it all made it more real for me. Every decision she makes, she's making for two.
Diane has some pretty powerful moments throughout the show. Are there any that you are particularly proud of?
I don't want to give away spoilers for people, but there's a scene in episode five with Damon Standifer, who so beautifully plays Emmett Everett on the LifeCare floor. And I'm tearing up right now as I'm talking to you about it.
John took such deep, emotional psychological care with us that day, and it was the most emotionally naked I've ever been on camera. I don't fully have words for it. It was a very intense day, but I'm really proud that Damon and I were able to be in that moment together. And then I got to perform, in particular in episode four, but I got to have scenes with Cherry Jones. I started my career as a theater actress and I've worshiped her since I was in my early 20s. So that was intense and wonderful and a real treat.
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You mentioned how important this story is to tell, especially given the disaster response to the 2021 Texas power crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. What else do you hope audiences take away from watching this series?
I hope that this series is a conversation starter. I hope that every person who watches it walks away and says I need to know more about this. I hope that every person who watches it, it becomes important to them who their leadership is on a local, on a state and a federal level. Because this story, what happened even in the larger New Orleans area, it really was a breakdown of every institution and level of government that was supposed to show up for these people in crisis did not. And no one, it seems, wanted responsibility for it. So no one took leadership. These things are important in our society, who do we want to be together? Who do we want to be as a collective society and how do we want to handle these moments? I hope the show really can begin that conversation.
We shot last year. And we were still very much in the midst of the some of the lockdown portions of the pandemic. And it was frightening to see how little has changed in these moments. You kind of assume if people are in a hospital, they're taken care of, right? But we saw our hospital workers not taken care of even during COVID.
Did John Ridley and Carlton Cuse set an overarching mission for the cast?
First of all, John Ridley and Carlton Cuse really set out to create a set and an environment of kindness and respect all the way across the board. I've been on two or three sets in my career that I thought were quite wonderful places to be and this was the best experience I've ever had shooting and it absolutely shows up on screen because you feel comfortable with everyone. But at our first cast meeting over Zoom, John quoted Mark Twain.
He said, “History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” And their aim here really was to create shades of gray so the audience can decide. They really wanted to tell all sides of the story. They really wanted a lot of humanity in the characters. And that is the virtue of a dramatization over say a documentary is that you can really take people inside a story.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Photography by: ©JSquared Photography (@j2pix); Courtesy of Apple TV Plus