On a chilly Friday night last January, lights are blazing inside Glenridge Hall, a stunning but secluded mansion in the suburbs of Atlanta. The location frequently is in demand for weddings and parties, but tonight it's standing in as the home of Dr. Theodore Stark ( James Woods), chief of staff at fictional Peachtree Memorial Hospital, in a TV remake of the 1978 medical thriller "Coma." The new two-part movie premieres Monday and Tuesday, Sept. 3 and 4, on A&E Network.
In the glittering party scene being filmed, Oscar winner Geena Davis is playing Dr. Agnetta Lindquist, the chilly head of psychiatry at the hospital, as she meets new medical student Susan Wheeler ( Lauren Ambrose, "Six Feet Under"), the heroine of the piece, who sets the drama into motion when she notices that an improbable number of the hospital's patients are lapsing into comas.
When her scene wraps, Davis gapes at her surroundings before joining her interviewer in a small kitchen area down a warren of corridors from the grand room where filming continues. She cheerfully anticipates the first question about why she's playing a supporting role in a TV movie and explains it's partly because Ridley Scott, who directed her to an Oscar nomination in "Thelma & Louise," is among the "Coma" executive producers.
"This year is the 20th anniversary of 'Thelma & Louise,' and I hadn't gotten to do anything with Ridley since then, so I decided to check it out, and after I read the screenplay, I decided it was pretty cool," she tells Zap2it. "Actually, I've never played a character quite like this one. She especially thinks that ethics and morals actually are on her side, that the end justifies the means. She's pretty sure she's on the right side of this issue, which is more interesting than a character who knows she is doing something she shouldn't be."
Later that same night, another Oscar winner, Richard Dreyfuss, adjourns to an unoccupied
room upstairs to talk about his character, an avuncular professor at Atlanta University and a close friend of Susan's late grandfather, and why this remake is being done in the first place.
"You don't want to remake a really good film. Why bother?" the actor says with a shrug. " 'Coma' had a really good idea, but this script is actually better.
"My character, Professor Hillside, is an Ubermensch, someone who doesn't have the patience to wait around for mankind to perfect itself, so he's pushing it along. As a doctor, he has to work out the morality of what he does, as most doctors do, and as he says, 'It took us thousands of years to get here, and it would have taken us thousands of years more if we hadn't come to this decision.' "
As Susan starts obsessively trying to understand why otherwise seemingly healthy patients are lapsing into comas, she finds a ready ally in Dr. Mark Bellows ( Steven Pasquale), a hotshot young doctor who is being fast-tracked for a seat on the hospital's board of ethics. Soon he also becomes Susan's love interest, even though he also is warming another highly placed bed nearby.
Pasquale's role as this whip-smart and articulate surgeon is light years from the role with which most fans identify him, comically dimwitted Sean Garrity on "Rescue Me."
"It's OK. You can say it. He was a really dumb guy," Pasquale says, laughing. "And you have to be really smart to play a guy that dumb. That's why I am making a concentrated effort not to play a dumb guy or do a comedy right now, because I did that for seven seasons. It was great fun, but I made a promise to myself that I wouldn't do a comedy after 'Rescue Me,' because it's easy in this business to get stuck doing the same thing forever and ever."
A few weeks after the party scene was filmed, Ambrose, whose character appears in nearly every scene of this remake, explains why she decided to sign on for this production.
"I'm drawn to things I've never done before, and in this case, it was that I had never done a thriller, and I knew there'd be all sorts of things that went along with that, like stunts and cool sets and creepy imagery," the actress says. "The [scenes with] the bodies were just incredible. They took this old Sears building and turned it into this really scary, futuristic horror medical landscape. It was just incredible, how they photographed it. I knew this would be a new realm and it really was a lot of fun."
While this new "Coma" is premiering at a time when health care is a hot-button topic in the news, this TV movie generally skirts around making any social or political statement in that regard.
"It's a medical thriller, and in those terms it inevitably explores and exploits our fears of being abused by powers bigger than us in the medical system. That's definitely a theme," Ambrose says.
Davis, however, thinks this production resonates strongly with a generalized nervousness in the air these days.
"I think the movie definitely plays to the fear that we're not being looked out for, that there are things that are going on that are not in the public's best interest but that other people have decided they'd rather we didn't know about," she says. "I think that's kind of a lurking fear in society, and it seems that it is heightened in these times, doesn't it?"
Photo/Video credit: A&E