Usually a fish-out-of-water set-up spells comedy, but that couldn’t be further from the truth for the new miniseries Coma, which airs tonight and tomorrow on A&E. Based on Robin Cook’s 1977 medical thriller of the same name (which was adapted into a 1978 film starring Geneviève Bujold and Michael Douglas),Coma sees med student Susan Wheeler (Lauren Ambrose) relocate from New York to the South. Despite the reputation that everyone’s friendlier down South, Wheeler notices an alarmingly high coma rate in her new hospital and begins to suspect her colleagues might be involved.
Ambrose, 34, remembers Cook’s skin-crawling novel “was kind of in everybody’s house” during her childhood, but she otherwise came to the story with a clean slate. Originally drawn to the script because Susan was “a badass and a very driven young woman,” the former Six Feet Under star admits Coma “was definitely a new role for me. Usually the women are supporting the man in figuring it out. In this case, it was the opposite. … To be able to do ‘woman on a mission’ was different and appealing.”
The setting and Susan’s verging-on-action-hero activity level aren’t all that are different from the originals. Ambrose says director Mikael Salomon (Band of Brothers, Drew Peterson: Untouchable) “wanted to make it scarier and get more into the technology.” She adds, “The look of it is very different. There were these wild, elaborate sets built,” including futuristic coma pods, skintight silver unitards, and a HAZMAT-style suit that Ambrose says crew had a particular fondness for. “It had many nicknames on the set: Marshmallow Suit, Bunny Suit,” she recalls. Black Swan screenwriter also brought an element of “not knowing what’s real and what’s not real” with his teleplay.
If all this sci-fi standbys don’t do the trick to give viewers the heebee jeebies, Ambrose thinks her Oscar-winning costar Ellen Burstyn as an up-to-no-good superior will do the trick. “She went so far [for the character]. She wears this scary leg brace, and her hair was teased out into this blond halo, and she had this scary Southern accent,” Ambrose laughs. “She just really scary and really great.” EW’s exclusive sneak peek from last month can certainly vouch for that statement.
Lauren Ambrose didn’t have time to do her “usual nerdy research” before she started filming “Coma,” a two-part miniseries launching Labor Day on A&E.
The actress, perhaps best known for her Emmy-nominated turn as Claire Fisher on HBO’s cult hit, “Six Feet Under,” accepted the role as a doctor-in-training in the medicalthriller on a Friday. Work started two days later. But Ambrose said she leaped at the job because it provided so many firsts, primarily a chance to star in a project executive produced by Ridley Scott and the late Tony Scott and appear with A-listers Ellen Burstyn, Richard Dreyfuss, Geena Davisand James Woods.
And Ambrose would be playing a gutsy medical resident uncovering sinister doings at a hospital, where healthy patients keep lapsing into irreversible comas after routine surgeries. “It was an opportunity to be a tough woman on a mission,” Ambrose said from her Berkshires home recently. “I’d get to play that Denzel [Washington] man-on-a-mission role, which is obviously a far cry from my usual fare.”
She also had the chance to do her own camera work in a pivotal scene where — mild spoiler alert — she’s trying to escape from some bad guys while under the influence of the sedative propofol. “At times, I had a hand-held camera pointing at my face and other times I had a couple of different rigs strapped to me, so the camera was my partner,” she said. “We wanted to re-create a drugged stupor and what that would look like from the character’s perspective.”
The result is a shaky, nightmarish sequence that Ambrose said she took extra pains to get right, deciding to do multiple takes and honing her newfound behind-the-scenes talent.
Ambrose, a trained singer who has performed for years with a cabaret-flavored band called the Leisure Class, had no opportunity to belt out a tune during the heart-pumping sci-fi-tinged “Coma.” “But there was screaming and lots of guttural sounds,” she said. “I’m sure the singing training helped with that.”
“Coma,” airing Sept. 3 and 4, is based on a bestselling novel by Robin Cook that Ambrose said “was on every bookshelf at all my parents’ friends’ houses when I was growing up.” The book became a 1978 feature film from Michael Crichton with Michael Douglas, Genevieve Bujoldand Rip Torn. “Rescue Me’s” Steven Pasquale takes over the Douglas role as mentor and love interest for Ambrose’s Susan Wheeler.
The current incarnation of “Coma” came to A&E from the same creative team responsible for the cable network’s hit 2008 miniseries “The Andromeda Strain.”
Executives at A&E said they saw real potential in an updated version of the creepy classic. Its medical conspiracy story revolving around secret scientific research and organ farming — the stuff of ongoing urban legend — is as relevant now as ever, they said.
David McKillop, the channel’s executive vice president of programming, said he reread the book and rewatched the feature before making the “easy decision” to air the telefilm. “The originals were fantastic in their day, but so much has changed, especially technology, which makes this premise even more plausible,” he said. “This is a reinterpretation for 2012.”
Since sister channel History’s record-breaking run of “Hatfields & McCoys” that kicked off the summer, there’s been considerable industry chatter about the resurgent miniseries. McKillop said he thinks viewers are more willing to commit to a short-term program these days, particularly one that has big stars and heavyweight producers.
“People are really responding to event TV,” he said, “but it has to be quality.”
The relatively new habit of binge viewing, where fans watch multiple episodes of TV shows in one sitting, may also be fueling an interest in miniseries, he said. Audiences don’t have to invest time for weeks on end, plus they’ll find out the answers to all the mysteries within a few nights.
Ambrose, who admits she wasn’t much of a genre fan before, said “Coma” felt like a big-screen production, complete with a two-month location shoot in Atlanta.
And she doesn’t draw much of a distinction between TV and film work, having hopscotched back and forth frequently. Just before ”Six Feet Under” premiered, for instance, she starred in the campy “Gidget” spoof “Psycho Beach Party.” She’s done teen-targeted flicks such as “Can’t Hardly Wait,” a short-lived Amy Sherman-Palladino TV series, “The Return of Jezebel James,” and a Starz drama, “Torchwood: Miracle Day.”
She started her career in live theater, with a number of recent acclaimed Shakespearean roles under her belt, and Ambrose expected to be on a stage again soon. But the Broadway revival of “Funny Girl,” in which she had been cast as Fanny Brice, has been put on hold because of financial constraints.
Ambrose, who said she’s days away from giving birth to her second child, was disappointed that the play wouldn’t be going forward. She’d worked on songs for several months, and designers had already made sets and costumes. But such is show business, she said, reflecting a grizzled veteran attitude at age 34.
“I used to get my heart totally broken,” she said, “but now, I feel like it would’ve been nice, but I try not to be too devastated about it. There’s always something else that comes along in work or in life.”