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CONTAGION

The First Patient Is Identified
MITCH EMHOFF: We need an ambulance. My wife…

"Steven sent me the script with a note that said, ‘Read this and then go wash your hands,'” says Matt Damon, with a laugh. "After seeing this movie in a theater filled with strangers, I'm sure that thought will definitely cross peoples' minds.”

The actor describes his character, Mitch Emhoff, as "an everyman, one of the human faces of the epidemic. In very short order he loses his wife and stepson to this supervirus, leaving him with only one surviving family member, his 15-year-old daughter, Jory. For him, it then becomes all about keeping her safe.”

Soderbergh explains, "Mitch isn't from the medical or scientific world and so doesn't know what's happening, and in that respect he represents most of us. The challenge was to keep his situation dynamic so that he isn't simply being acted upon, and Matt was a great collaborator. He understood what we were trying to accomplish in each moment. You never catch him acting. There's no vanity, no self-consciousness in his performance; it's as if the cameras aren't there.”

"Mitch is the audience's proxy and their way into the story,” says Sher. "Watching him do things that, days earlier, he didn't think possible, makes you wonder what you would do to protect your family and survive, and if you could do it with the same degree of grace and courage.”

The movie's themes of fear and unpredictability hit home in the relationship between Emhoff and his daughter, played by Anna Jacoby-Heron in her feature film debut. Damon says, "It was very easy for me to relate, being a dad myself. Even though they're going through this extraordinary experience, they're still dealing with typical issues of parents and teenagers. She wants to see her boyfriend, and Mitch keeps trying to impress upon her the severity of the situation and why even the slightest contact with him, if he's infected, could kill her. It leads to some highly charged moments.”

Mitch is also left to deal with emerging truths about his wife.

Gwyneth Paltrow stars in the role that reunites her onscreen with Damon for the first time since "The Talented Mr. Ripley.” She says, "Beth Emhoff is a working mom who audiences meet as she's wrapping up a business trip to Hong Kong and on her way home. She's already sick, but it doesn't seem serious enough yet to worry her.”

Though Beth succumbs early, she remains a vital thread running through the movie as research teams at home and abroad work to pinpoint her part in the epidemic. Says Soderbergh, "Beth's story is revealed gradually. She's the center of the detective aspect of the movie, the mystery of how it all started, and audiences learn more about her character as the action progresses.”

Ultimately, a series of snapshots Beth takes while visiting Asia helps to retrace her steps and uncover the source of her infection. Soderbergh suggested that Paltrow take those photos herself, while on location. A first-time visitor to the city, she says, "I was just another tourist in Hong Kong, taking pictures. At the same time, I did feel a little pressure. When Steven Soderbergh gives you a photo assignment, you had better come back with something decent.”

Paltrow acknowledges her character could be considered lucky, in a way, to be among the burgeoning plague's first casualties, because it's the survivors who face the thorniest challenges: "You start to wonder what you would do in that scenario, and where you'd go for clean water and food. You ask yourself how prepared you would be for a crisis of this scale. We rely so heavily on the infrastructure of society, I think the answer is that we'd all be in quite a lot of trouble.”

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