Now that you’ve seen more of the horrors inside Memorial Hospital, we’ve got more insight from some of the stars on Five Days on Memorial.
Julie Ann Emery, Cornelius Smith, Jr., and Adepero Oduye play three pivotal characters — administrator Diane Robichaux, Dr. Bryant King, and nurse Karen Wynn, respectively.
Find out their thoughts as the drama unfolded for their characters and the hospital.
All the actors were tasked with bringing to life one of the greatest disasters of our generation. Julie Ann Emery had to do it with a 13-pound prosthetic pregnancy belly. That helped her get into the role of something she otherwise couldn’t imagine.
Emery had finished shooting something in New Orleans just two weeks before Katrina hit. “It felt personal to me to watch on the news, but I don’t think I had any awareness of what was happening inside New Orleans hospitals while this was going on. And I hope our dramatization of that, I hope, can really bring that to life for folks.”
When Emery talks about Diane Robichaux, she says she’s a “really beautiful combination of real compassion and grit that I think is so lovely.”
Despite the disaster unfolding and being very pregnant, Diane continued “to care for her patients and lead her staff safely through the storm” and “to lead in a compassionate way,” for which Emery has a lot of respect.
Even though the production was visually taking viewers inside the situation, what the cast encountered wasn’t at all like how dangerous the conditions got inside Memorial. In August in New Orleans, “the heat is upwards of 100 degrees,” Emery said.
“On the upper floors of the hospital, it’s upwards of 113. But at that time of year, it’s so humid in the city that it almost feels like you’re breathing water. It’s hard, even in normal times to sort of catch your breath. So, I think the show does a pretty good job visually of taking the viewer inside that situation.”
Robichaux was in an impossible situation, caring for the most desperate patients in the hospital, trying to navigate for them and her staff between Memorial staff and LifeForce, and she did it while pregnant, which meant she was facing physical challenges at a more alarming rate than others.
Emery said, “I didn’t know this before, but pregnant people need about twice the water as non-pregnant people. And so, the severe dehydration sets in for her much quicker, and there are bigger physical ramifications for her.
“So what she’s battling internally, physically, and the brave face she’s putting on for her staff, or the compassion that she’s still trying to show her patients without bringing her own struggle into it, I think, is pretty extraordinary.”
Emery thinks Robichaux’s downfall was thinking that everyone was working with the same moral compass.
“She just assumed, of course, we’re getting everyone out, and of course, we get the most critical patients out first. Of course, the ICU and LifeCare get evacuated first. These are patients on ventilators. These are patients who need electricity to survive.”
Heavily pregnant, Robichaux treks downstairs in the hospital multiple times trying to get a read on the evacuation, and each trip costs her physically.
“It’s interesting. I went through a thing in the middle of the pandemic where I had kind of lost some of my faith in humanity because of how we were or the lack of group effort, and I think Diane really suffered a crisis of her faith in humanity in the midst of this.
“There’s this scene with Cherry Jones and Jessica Greco, who plays her assistant, where I go down, and I’m looking for the list I gave them and where I confront them. And the moment of it dawning on her, what’s actually happening, is still heartbreaking to me. And it’s such a huge moment for the character.”
Emery continued, “It’s the moment that she realizes that we’re not all on the same page here. We’re not all on the same moral compass. We are not all operating with the same goal here.
“And there are assumptions made about her patients because of their age, and that’s also not okay. I think there’s an ageism issue here. There’s a systemic racism issue here to take a look at. I hope the show can be a conversation starter for a lot of these issues,” she said.
“I hope that this can be a call to action, a conversation starter on how we want to be as a society together,” Emery said. “Look, these collective crises, the global pandemic, the natural disasters that are happening with much more frequency and ferocity, they’re not going to stop.
“They’re just going to come more often, and we need to decide how we’re going to be as a society together, how we’re going to show up for each other. We have the resources in this country. We need to demand better of our leaders and our institutions.
“I really hope this can start that conversation. I also think there’s a real conversation on the LifeCare side of the story here to talk about the failure of corporate medicine. It’s not okay for people in a boardroom of a corporation to make business decisions that affect people on a human level. Medicine should be human if nothing else.”
Like others involved in this project, Cornelius Smith Jr. didn’t know a lot about Memorial Hospital, but after picking up Sheri Fink’s book, he sought out more material to help inform his role as Dr. Bryant King.
“At first, I was just dealing with the shock that I had never heard about it,” Smith said. “That was kind of the first thing of like, ‘wait, this happened so recently, and this is the first time I’m hearing about it. Where was I?’ It wasn’t necessarily a proud moment where I realized where I didn’t hear about it.
“But then after that, it was just taking all that information in and just understanding that this is a real story, and I’m really lucky to have been a part of the production and help retelling this story, to help get the story out there and educate people about what actually happened.”
Dr. King is new to Memorial Hospital, and he’s one of the people who seems not to lose sight of the best interests of his patients above all else.
“He’s only been at the hospital for one year, and he’s one of the only African American doctors there. And so, I think that plays a huge role in coloring and filtering his perspective and his psyche about how he perceives things.
“We all have filters in how we perceive them. And based on how we grow up and some other circumstances in our life, that actually creates the filter through which we experience life and view things.
“And so, Dr. King is coming from a very kind of specific upbringing and school of thought that is not really accepted at the hospital, especially in the time of crisis where things are kind of heightened.
“I think that’s what makes it a really compelling story that will hopefully appeal to the audience. And seeing that inner dynamic conflict and how he kind of navigates that throughout the series.”
Smith, too, hopes that Five Days at Memorial adds to the conversation about these bigger issues.
“I hope it would add to the conversation, as well as just realizing what works and what doesn’t work. And I think if there is a collective consensus on what doesn’t work and we can outline solutions to fix things, we should be making and taking the steps to do that.
“So that history doesn’t repeat itself so that what’s broken is fixed, what’s malfunctioning is corrected, what is too much can be taken away. So all these adjustments, I think, it’s my hope that watching the series, we realize that there is room for work, there is room for change, and there’s always room for hope and inspiration.
“You just have to be specific and really follow through with what it is you want to achieve and see happen in the world.”
Adepero Oduye plays nurse Karen Wynn, one of the most competent and reliable nurses at Memorial. As she was doing her research, Oduye was surprised by the multi-layered failures that led to what happened at Memorial Hospital.
“The levels and the layers of the breakdown in the systems, corporate, as regards to the hospital, government, local government, federal government.
“That was probably the most surprising thing in a space where a lot of things don’t surprise me, but I think what always surprises me is just the levels that I’m always discovering and things like this and stories like this.”
Oduye praised the excellent set design that created the chaotic world their characters were thrust into in the days following Hurricane Katrina. “You didn’t have to conjure anything in your mind. You were literally dropped right into the story.
“And it was complex in that it is a challenging story to tell, but at the same time, I felt very fortunate to be with a group of people that I could go along with on that journey. I felt very supported, and it was great to be around people who cared so much about the story.”
Oduye said that the pressure to deliver the story in an honest and truthful way was anxiety-inducing, but it was nothing like what those at Memorial faced.
Even representing those fateful days, I wondered if she had any thoughts on what they could have done differently for a different outcome of if the deck was so fully stacked, it would have made no difference.
“I wasn’t there, obviously, on the ground in those experiences, but I will say from what we captured in this series, what I experienced in this series is just that unfolding of things that you have no control over, partially how nature affects land and human beings and just the chain of events.
“There’s no way to control the flood waters to even figure out what to do with the generators and the power. And then when that goes, it just becomes this thing that no one can grasp, and they’re just trying to do their best, the best that they can.”
The Memorial Hospital staff did more than help. They became a lifeline for patients to escape by taking patients on a lengthy journey to the top of a precarious helipad. It’s daunting to watch.
“Talk about viewing something with anxiety and stakes and responsibility, that was all baked in there,” Oduye said.
“And at the same time, just seeing how it was all set up was just wowed as an actor, but also, thinking about the fact that people in the story, people were doing this multiple times a day with babies, with all sorts of patients at many levels of care. It feels like a fantasy movie, but it happened in life.”
Since Carlton Cuse mentioned that they reconstructed that helipad to specs similar to those the staff used to carry patients, I wondered if it was as scary looking on set as it turned out for the show.
“Maybe scary in the moment of looking at it for the first time, but then once you’re right in it, it’s almost as if what I imagine the people in the real circumstances, you don’t even have time to take in how crazy or scary it might be.
“You just have to get right in it. And I might have had a moment of, ‘wow. Oh, wow.’ And then it’s like, ‘okay, this is what we have to do. We have a job to do,’ which is what I imagine the real people felt like, definitely for sure.”
Oduye hopes that watching Five Days at Memorial sparks conversation about what happened and the people who lived through it.
“There’s no right or wrong, but just to talk about it. And even if you are, maybe if you’re talking with someone with differing opinions and thoughts, just to talk about it, talk it through. Because I think the problem is that we don’t talk about these things enough.
“I think what’s great about television and film. It’s an opportunity to get an inside look through the story and characters of what it might have been like on the ground because it’s easy to judge and make up opinions when you’re reading something or watching just news, curated news.
“But to see a dramatization, hopefully, just really drops you into the humanity of it and the grayness of it all. It’s not all black and white in the sense that it’s super complex. Your feelings might be black and white, but there’s so much gray.
“There’s so much gray and different shades of gray depending on the day to day, the moment to moment. But it’s okay to talk about those things and maybe come to some semblance of agreement about what needs to change. That’s really my biggest hope.”
Have you been watching Five Days at Memorial on Apple TV+?
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Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She’s a member of the Critic’s Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, conversing with cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film with anyone who will listen. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.