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The Response
CHEEVER: So we have a virus, no treatment protocol and no vaccine.

Representing a cornerstone of that infrastructure is CDC Deputy Director Ellis Cheever, leading the effort to protect, inform and set public policy in the U.S. amid the fast-moving crisis. Cast as Cheever, Laurence Fishburne says, "He's a smart, competent guy, the voice of reason. He's the one people look to for reassurance that everything is under control, that we have the best people working on the problem and it's going to be fine.”

"Laurence is immensely credible as an authority figure, so commanding,” Soderbergh declares.

Cheever works closely with his boss, Lyle Haggerty, but though they're both physicians and friends, and united toward a common goal, they don't always see eye-toeye. Haggerty's military background affects the concerns uppermost on his mind, bringing another nuance to the situation. Bryan Cranston, starring as Haggerty, says, "There are highly sensitive issues here, with global implications. You have to be very careful with the dissemination of information and its ripple effect toward countries around the world. Everything has to be very specific and triple-checked.”

Under their aegis, researchers work around the clock to isolate, analyze and try to produce a vaccine for the deadly pathogen that's always a few steps ahead. Chief among them, in both drive and expertise, is the maverick Dr. Ally Hextall, portrayed by Jennifer Ehle, who describes the facility's high-security labs as "the place to go when you have no idea how a virus is transmitted from one person to another, you have no idea where it comes from, how it travels, how it grows, or how to stop it.”

While Hextall and her team race to find the answers to these questions, Cheever addresses the media from the eye of this hurricane. Under pressure from all quarters and with no solid news to impart, he must constantly decide what to say versus strategically holding back details that could do more harm than good.

Cheever has been following protocol for years, never revealing confidential intel outside the bounds of his office. But when he becomes privy to information that could mean life or death for the woman he loves, Aubrey, he faces a deeply personal and potentially damning choice: does he tell her—and her, alone—what he knows before it's public knowledge? Aubrey, portrayed by Sanaa Lathan, is the world to him. Surely he can trust her not to tell anyone else. But, screenwriter Burns concedes, "In the same way a virus cannot be contained, it's very hard to keep a secret.”

"This dilemma really is the measure of his character,” says Fishburne. "In his official capacity, he has a responsibility to protect the public and he takes that very seriously. But as a man, he has an obligation to his family. So he's conflicted and has to make a tough choice.”

"We made that Cheever's Achilles' heel because it's everyone's Achilles' heel,” states Soderbergh. "In the same situation, would I tell my daughter?”

Cheever is further torn about having handpicked Dr. Erin Mears as the Epidemic Intelligence Service officer to lead the charge among first responders in the field. By granting her the assignment she earnestly wanted and deserved, he may have unwittingly sealed her fate.

Cast as Mears, Kate Winslet feels it would not have deterred the novice officer one iota had she known the true risk at the outset. Researching the role, Winslet spent time at the CDC and met with past and present EIS officers who offered her a real sense of not only the job but also the kind of person who fills it. "I was told by some that they feel most alive when they're on a mission,” she relates. "You have to be incredibly determined to do this work. It means sacrificing a lot of sleep, a social life, and your own safety, but it's an honor to be chosen. It's what they all train for and want to do. These are people who can be sent into war zones where there's been an outbreak of a new virus. Fear is not an option. If they feel it, they learn to push it aside.”

"Mears serves as another gateway for the audience,” says Soderbergh. "It's part of her job to explain the macro and micro of the situation simply and accurately, right down to the ways in which social distancing can prevent the infection spreading. But she's confronting people in panic mode who are not always rational.”

Most importantly, "She brings it down to the layman's level so we understand the impact without being bogged down by the science,” Winslet adds.

Starring as Mears' counterpart in Geneva is Marion Cotillard as Dr. Leonora Orantes. As clusters of illness appear in London, Hong Kong, Tokyo and other cities around the world, simultaneously with cases in the U.S., Orantes begins to trace the sequence of transmission. "While everything else in the movie is hurtling forward, Orantes is effectively working backwards in time to unravel the mystery of where this thing came from, which is the key to figuring out where it might strike next,” says Shamberg.

Says Cotillard,” She starts with Beth Emhoff. Beth was the first person known to have died from the virus so Dr. Orantes tracks her itinerary. Fortunately for her, we now have video cameras everywhere so the first thing she does is study the footage from the cameras in the hotel, the elevator and the casino.” But even that can only take her so far. "You can discover a point of contact between two people, and you know both of them became ill, but it could have gone either way—the question is, which one of them infected the other?

"Meanwhile,” she adds, "Time is the enemy. As quickly as Orantes and the others work, the virus is moving even faster. People are dying and desperation is growing. When there is no more water and you need to drink, you will fight for water.”

Additionally, Orantes must always be aware of how events and investigations, and their potential consequences, might play out diplomatically on the world stage. "She gets dropped into situations and has to deal with cultural as well as scientific issues that are sometimes at odds,” says Soderbergh.

Perhaps because of that, he further explains, "Orantes is a somewhat locked-in character, very professional but also remote and dispassionate. But something happens to her in the course of the story that causes a significant emotional shift… something that would not have happened if not for her pursuing the origins of this virus.”

Joining the principal cast in Orantes' sphere of the investigation are veteran German actor Armin Rohde as Orantes' supervisor, Damian Leopold; and Chin Han ("The Dark Knight”) as Sun Feng, her official liaison to Hong Kong and Macau. John Hawkes ("Winter's Bone”) also appears as Roger, a maintenance worker at the CDC who is concerned about the health of his young son.

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