Exclusive Interview with The Hot Zone’s Lenny Platt
Lenny Platt is best known for his portrayal of Nate Salinger on One Life to Live and FBI recruit Drew Perales on Quantico. He can be seen as Sgt. Kyle Ormond in the upcoming National Geographic limited series The Hot Zone, which is based on the best-seller of the same name by Richard Preston.
I got the chance to talk with Lenny about his parents fostering his love of movies and television from a young age, what kind of research he did for The Hot Zone, what it was like working with Julianna Margulies and Topher Grace, the wild Blade-inspired party his event production company, BBQ Films, put on a few years back and so much more! Keep reading to see what he had to say!
Tell me a little bit about how you first got into acting.
I first got into acting because my mom loves Disney World and moved us to Orlando, Florida when I was very young, so I grew up around theme parks. My parents are both film lovers and TV lovers and pop culture junkies in their own right. But when they moved us down there, my brothers and I got to kind of live inside of these movies that we loved and that our parents would rent from Blockbuster. I distinctly remember wanting to perform. It was more than just being a passive audience member. I wanted to be a part of it.
One of the first times I think I remember that being a thing was, I don’t think it’s there anymore, but there was a Alfred Hitchcock experience at Universal Studios; I had gotten into Alfred Hitchcock Presents and I loved everything about Alfred Hitchcock; They had a [thing] where you could be Norman Bates’ mother in the shower scene and they show you how they were able to achieve these camera angles. They picked somebody from the audience to put on the mom’s dress and wig and I was like jumping up and down to get picked for it. They never picked me because you’re not going to take a 10 year old. That’s weird [laughs]. My dad was like, “Son, you got to wait like 10 years to be in this.” But I remember that kind of moment of just really wanting to participate and being in front of the camera and part of that story.
So was that a moment you would credit with helping you decide that acting is what you wanted to do for a living or was there some kind of other experience or person that made you realize, “No, acting is what I want to do with my entire life”?
No, it really all started from… I didn’t know that I always wanted to be an actor and I didn’t really find that out until college when I was part of a production that I was directing. It was a short film and we had an actor drop out, so I volunteered to be that role and I kind of re-fell in love with the performance side. But I’ve always loved storytelling and I love film and TV and I just always consumed as much as I could, maxing out my parents’ Blockbuster card getting these movies. I remember just loving the art of storytelling, through painting pictures with cameras and my brothers and I really fell in love together. Our fandom was really established [back] then, sitting and watching all of these classic films together like Ghostbusters, Ninja Turtles, whatever. We really bonded over these stories, so I always really wanted to be involved with that, but I think which role that meant for me didn’t crystalize until that moment in college where I just kind of fell into it that way. But I knew that it was the way to go, at least for now.
Gotcha. And so, as an actor, you’ve had a lot of different roles on a lot of different mediums, but I’m curious, do you have a “bucket list” of things you’d still want to try out in your career and if so, what are some of the things on your bucket list?
Vampires. Haven’t done that yet.
Yeah, I don’t know. I’ve always been fascinated by them. Blade is one of my favorite movies and I saw this noise about Deadpool, as fantastic as it is, being the first R-rated comic book film and that’s not true. Blade, actually, I think had that mantle before. But yeah, I think playing a vampire would be cool.
And also I’m obsessed with space. Growing up in Florida, you kind of have to be. I went to space camp as a kid and I’ve just always been fascinated by space travel and space exploration. My eyesight sucks otherwise maybe I would have tried to do that as a living. But it was great to do The Hot Zone because that was the closest I’d gotten to being in a space suit. These hazmat suits that we had to wear for 12 hours a day, I mean they were legit and they were very much isolating and claustrophobic; you’re breathing your own air through these hoses and it felt like being on the moon. So it was one step in that direction.
Speaking of The Hot Zone, let’s talk about that for a second. What did you first think about the project when you read the script and what was your audition process like for this project?
So the first time I got the script, I didn’t know the book. I wasn’t aware of this best selling book that I’m now obsessed with. So I remember getting the audition and just reading the title and I thought it was going to be some really bad soap opera. I didn’t know what “The Hot Zone” meant and then I read the breakdown and I was like, “This sounds like the most amazing project. I have to be a part of this.” Between Scott Free [Productions], who had I been able to work with [before] on pilot that didn’t go, and Lynda Obst, who is another producer on it who’s been trying to get this movie made for a long time – I won’t put a date to it, but her and Ridley [Scott] were trying to get this movie made for awhile – she’s also one of my favorite producers. So seeing those name attached and obviously Julianna [Margulies] and Topher Grace and Noah Emmerich in that cast, it was just kind of like I knew this was something I really wanted to be a part of.
However, I had to turn it around very quickly and I was late for a flight.
I’ll never forget this audition. It was literally hot. I was staying at a friend’s house upstate in New York that didn’t have air conditioning and we’re trying to quickly put this audition on tape so I can hop on a train so I could head to JFK and make a plane that I had to be on because it was a family member’s 90th birthday, so I had to be sure I was there for it.
But yeah, it was a very rushed audition and I was sweating my ass off and I did the best I could. I remember being like, “Ah shit, I wish I had more time and kind of worked on it longer, quite frankly.” But it didn’t matter and I think that’s just something that actors go through. We over think things and there’s a lot of insecurity there, so I think this pressure maybe helped me produce a tape that was a good enough. I was thrilled to get it, but then terrified when I had to read the book on the flight and reading The Hot Zone on a crowded airplane over overseas while people are coughing around you, it was like a horror movie for myself [laughs]. So yeah, it was a ride all the way from the beginning.
So as someone who hasn’t read the book, does the series stay pretty close to it? And obviously you read the book, so I’m assuming they didn’t discourage you from reading it and looking at it as source material. So how close is the book to the series?
I mean, the authenticity and the attention to detail on this was incredible. They worked close with the author Richard Preston. I met him at the premiere at Tribeca. He’s got a follow up book coming out because ebola is still a very current and dangerous threat to us. And obviously National Geographic being involved, they wanted to get the details right. There were all kinds of advisors on show, pathologists and Nancy and Jerry Jaax – who were telling me their stories – they were involved in advising on the project. So there was a lot of attention to detail, but that being said, they’re making a TV show.
My character in particular, he’s not actually in the book. There’s no one in the book named Sgt. Kyle Ormond. My character is more of an amalgamation of a few different people who were involved in this project and soldiers who were on the team. I think they did that for the service of storytelling. I’m always one of those people that is judging a film or a TV show that based on a book and if they get it right. I know this book means a lot to a lot of people and there was incredible effort put into getting it as close to the book as possible, but still making it an engaging, visual story to watch on screen in just six episodes.
Right. I know you mentioned you read the book and that there were advisors and stuff on set, but how much research about the time period and the history of Ebola did you do separately on your own, so that you knew what was going on for your own sake as an actor?
So I definitely read the book and my character, as I said, is fictional, so I had some freedom to interpret Kyle based on some things I learned that were just in the script, and elements of his personality. But Kyle doesn’t know anything about Ebola. When you first meet him, he was an army ranger who now has been transferred to this medical division. And what’s cool about playing this character is that as I’m learning about the institute and their levels and how level 4 of the biohazard unit is called “The Hot Zone”, and that is the baddest of the worst pathogens; the most dangerous stuff to human species is kept in this one refrigerator in the basement of the military base.
So as my character is learning, cause it’s his first day and he gets dragged into this event and Julianna’s character, Nancy Jaxx, is telling me how the suits work, why we have double wrap with tape, why there UV lights that kills the bacteria, like all these steps, and as my character learns it, so does the audience. So it’s really cool in that way because I didn’t have to know a lot. My character was supposed to learn that along the way.
What I will say [is] that I did want to keep it authentic to the military aspects. My father’s a retired colonel and my brother is a West Point Grad and is active duty. Every time I watch a war film with them, they’ll start pointing things out like, “That tie wasn’t tied correctly or that guy would never say that to a superior officer.” So being that National Geographic is behind this project and it’s telling a true story of these servicemen and women, we wanted to make sure we got the details right. So it was fun to kind of text my brother and my dad while I’m on set, sending them photos of my uniform, making sure it looks crisp and right so that they won’t give me shit later when they watch it on Memorial Day.
Yeah. And so you mentioned that Kyle is this fictional character that is a combination of a few characters in the books. I’m curious: in what ways did you find yourself relating to Kyle and in what ways did you find Kyle to be different from who you are as a person?
I think Kyle has a lot of arrogance when you first meet him, in a way that I don’t think I – [or at least] I hope I don’t – come across as. He’s a guy who thinks he’s the best of the best. He’s a ranger and he’s being assigned as medical unit and I’m imagining this guy probably thought this is going to be a cake walk for him. He wasn’t going to be in any real danger. He’s seen danger. But little does he know that he’s adopted this incredible enemy that could put the country, and the world, at risk. So I think watching his arrogance kind of get checked – and it gets checked right out the gate by Nancy [Julianna’s character] – was a departure for me personally. It was kind of fun to go through that, just even in the first episode.
But I think another part of that consciousness that I could relate to was [that] he’s also very excited. Here’s an opportunity to show off his skill set. I think this is public, but down the line in show, he’s in this elite unit of soldiers called the 91-Tangos, that’s in the book, and they are tasked with a specific mission of controlling the outbreak. He gets to take a leadership position there and he’s excited to do that. He had been trained for years and he finally gets to show off those skills. So I can relate to that, cause I’ve worked on projects before, but this was a new experience for me. I’ve never done a limited series, with such an incredible cast like this; the storytelling format was different since it wasn’t a serial TV show that goes for 21 episodes, but it [also] wasn’t a film, you know? It was just a different format. I was excited and up for the challenge and I think that’s why I related to Kyle.
Yeah. So you mentioned the phenomenal cast that’s a part of the show, Julianna Margulies and Topher Grace. I’m just curious, like what was it like working with everyone?
I worked a lot with Julianna, only a little bit with Topher. Unfortunately, a lot of that was in those blue suits and [I say] unfortunately because we were all just enduring this thing together; wearing the suits for 12 hours, it’s literally painful. You’ve got all of these backpacks and batteries and fans. Julianna’s suit, especially, because of their attention to detail, I don’t think the suits were even tailored for women at the time. So it was just a lot. But [even though] she was really kind of enduring this thing, she was such a professional and went through the long hours, didn’t complain and was up for it, got in the suits and was really friendly to me through the process. It’s our first time working together, so she was the best. She could say all these crazy Latin medical-jargon words with precision. I’m sure her experience on ER helped, but she was on it and it was just great to work with her. And it was weird too, because we’re both in the suits and it feels very isolated. So you’re working with someone but you’re in your own bubble and quite frankly, sometimes with the fans, you can’t really hear and it’s very chaotic in there. So it was just a really cool experience to be thrust into this intense moment with this actress that I’ve respected for so long.
With Topher, I think the only story I have with Topher, it was funny. I was complaining about how much zippers and straps you had to undo to take these suits off to go to the bathroom and Topher was like, “Man, you don’t know. This ain’t nothing. I remember when [I] was Venom in one of the Spiderman films.” Apparently, one of the suits was a solid piece and it was beautiful, but it was solid. And every time you had to go to the bathroom, they would have to cut a hole out of the latex for him in his bathing suit area. He would go to the bathroom and then come back and they would have to sew that piece back onto the suit, which is wild. I would feel very guilty drinking all that coffee, you know? But yeah it was awesome and weird to work with these two actors I’ve respected but in a situation where we’re wearing these big blue spacesuits was pretty cool.
Were you in the blue spacesuit essentially 24/7?[laughs] There are actually two versions of the suits. Well, they are three. I only had to wear two of them. I went from the blue suit to a few days of like, “Oh, I just get to wear my military uniform. Great. I’m comfortable.” Then I got back into this other suit; it’s the orange one that you see on the trailer. Those things are very cumbersome and they fill up with air and that’s a whole new process to get used to. And then later on, something happens to my character and I am then put into another very claustrophobic environment. So I just kept getting into more and more claustrophobic things as the show went on [laughs].
Were you claustrophobic before this?
No, I was not and thankfully so, because I don’t know how I could’ve gotten through it if I was. Honestly, because I mentioned that space element, I was having fun with it, but I wanted to keep how much fun I was having with this quiet because I know other people were suffering with it [laughs]. I just didn’t want to smile too much when I had to walk around looking like one of these oompa loompas. Wait, not oompa loompas….. oh Violet. Violet Beauregarde. You see, sometimes the orange suits made you feel a little bit like Violet. I just remember trying not to bump into walls and stuff, but it was fun, but was a challenge nonetheless.
That’s awesome. So I want to ask you, too, about your event production company BBQ Films. For our readers who may not know what it is, what exactly is it and what inspired you to start this company?
We are an immersive film and television company and what that means is we put you inside your favorite story for night, whether it’s a film or TV show. We do that with sets. So we’ll take over a particular venue that feels like a set piece from a movie and we’ll start with a moment and build out from there where, through actors in costumes, music, food, drink, interactive props and set pieces, you are inside this movie. Then after that, we’ll screen the film. So it’s a group of people who are passionate about movies and get to watch it together inside of a set from that movie. For example, we did Back to the Future in a high school gym and had people at the “Enchantment Under the Sea” dance. We’ve done Ghostbusters, where we basically made a Ghostbusters headquarters out in Brooklyn and we had the proton packs and we basically gave a call to action for people in New York to come and sign up to be a Ghostbuster and train people.
But maybe one of my favorites is Blade. We did it for New York Comic Con a few years ago, I don’t know if you remember in the movie, but in the opening scene, there’s a vampire taking the human down into this nightclub that’s like a speakeasy buried beneath the butcher shop. There’s a DJ and when the beat drops, the sprinkler system comes on and blood is pouring out and everyone’s dancing in blood.
Oh, that’s awesome.
It was pretty cool. And I thought, “Well, wouldn’t that make a great party if we found a blood that was actually water soluble and didn’t stain your clothes?” So we actually pulled it off. We actually had a thousand people come to this big warehouse party at Terminal 5 in Manhattan as a part of New York Super Week, which is a series of Comic Con events. We called it the Blade Rave and people came to a vampire rave. We had actors playing Blade and Deacon Frost and different vampires throughout the night that would interrupt music and help propel the story, but really everyone is there for the blood drop. We had Crystal Method DJ, and they played the iconic song for the movie and we had sprinklers come out and [covered] people with blood while they danced.
That’s so cool.[laughs] It was awesome. The photos looked terrifying, but people were having a lot of fun. You can see everyone is smiling. But yeah, it’s just celebrating community and celebrating fandom and letting people experience these movies that they maybe have seen a lot in a new way. It’s been exciting to kind of grow it.
I didn’t start it [though]. I went to a party, I loved it and I signed up. I went to an immersive American Psycho experience, where they turn the basement ever New York hotel into an 80s nightclub and it was wild. But I was like, “This is cool. This is a very theatrical blend with film. I feel like I’m at a live Broadway show, but it meets a movie experience. Everyone here is dressed in costume.” It was just very participatory, so I fell in love with it and been doing weird shit ever since.
Last question — our website is called Talk Nerdy With Us because we all have an inner-nerd. So what is something you are currently nerding out about right now?
Let me see, Barry. I love the show Barry on HBO. I can’t wait to see John Wick 3. Yeah. I just, I love it all. I consume a lot and I consume more than I should of pop culture and entertainment, but I can’t get enough of it. I also play a lot of video games. I just finished Red Dead Redemption 2, which is like the longest video game of my life. I can’t believe I made it there, but I beat the thing [laughs].
The Hot Zone premieres May 27th at 9/8c on National Geographic. Make sure you follow Lenny on Twitter and Instagram. For more information about BBQ Films, check out their website.
Photo Credit: Ariel Roberson