The no-end-in-sight writers' strike may derail Noah Wyle's expected four-episode return to ER (come to think of it, it could derail a final season for the veteran medical drama). But after years away, Gloria Reuben slipped in under the wire — and in front of the pickets — to film a one-time reprise of her role as former physician's assistant Jeanie Boulet in the episode airing tonight (10 pm/ET NBC).
TVGuide.com: So how is it you're returning as HIV-positive Jeanie Boulet to ER?
Gloria Reuben: [Longtime executive producer] John Wells and I reconnected last spring just as the writers were coming up with ideas for the next season. Neal Baer, who's a good friend and now runs Law & Order: SVU, wrote a lot of Jeanie Boulet's storylines on ER and he had told John what I was up to with HIV/AIDS activism, particularly with African-American women. The media has dropped the ball a lot on that. When I was on the show, it really kept the issue in people's minds. We did such great things and we thought it would be wonderful if we could do something again. Since I left the show, there hasn't been another HIV-positive [series] regular on [nearly] any network show.
TVGuide.com: Did playing Jeanie start your involvement in the fight against AIDS?
Reuben: It was kind of a natural thing for me to be the face of hope for HIV/AIDS when I was on the show, and that led to activism. But when I left the show, I felt like my work was done. But the rates of infection here in the U.S. have slipped back into shocking numbers, and I have become an activist again. Even though I'm doing just one episode on ER, it's a very powerful one, and if this is brought back into peoples' awareness even for a minute, it's a good thing.
TVGuide.com: Why does Jeanie come back to County General?
Reuben: Jeanie is running two HIV/AIDS clinics in Chicago. Her adopted son, Carlos, is HIV-positive and after he passes out in gym class, he's rushed to the ER. What happens is they see a spot on his brain and they need to do a [test] to figure out whether he could have a lymphoma, a possible first signs of AIDS.
TVGuide.com: Should we get our tissues ready?
Reuben: Are you kidding? It's Jeanie Boulet. Of course it's a weeper!
TVGuide.com: Who's still there from Jeanie's time, hence Gloria's time, on the show?
Reuben: A couple of the nurses — including Yvette Freeman's character — so it was great to see them. It was so wonderful being on the set. It's like going home after you haven't been home for years. How will I be received? I was completely embraced. I had the best, best time.
TVGuide.com: Do you see any of your colleagues from the glory days of ER?
Reuben: I've run into Eriq [La Salle] and Noah [Wyle] a couple of times recently when I've been in Los Angeles, and sometimes I'll see Julianna [Margulies] and Laura Innes. It's always great when I see them, but it's a random thing.
TVGuide.com: Didn't you leave ER because you thought Jeanie's storyline was no longer interesting?
Reuben: It ran its course — and frankly it ran its course emotionally for me. No one put the burden on me, but the personal responsibility I took in portraying that role became a little too heavy for me.
TVGuide.com: Didn't you film this new episode after the writers' strike had begun?
Reuben: Yes, it was really spooky to cross a picket line, though everyone was fine with me. Warner Bros. was like a ghost town.
TVGuide.com: What's up with Raising the Bar, your TNT legal drama for Steven Bochco?
Reuben: It's about public defenders in the South Bronx, from a fascinating, disturbing book called Indefensible. TNT was supposed to decide about the pilot in December, but with the strike, nobody is deciding anything.
TVGuide.com: You quit three series prematurely in the last eight years — ER, The Agency and 1-800 Missing. Are you really ready to commit to a regular series gig?
Reuben: Actually, yeah. The beautiful thing about cable is that it's only 13 episodes, which is conducive to having a life outside of work.
TVGuide.com: You had a recent hit on stage at the Public Theatre in New York playing Condoleezza Rice in a political David Hare show, "Stuff Happens." Did Condi show up?
Reuben: She did not. But I met her in D.C. at a State Department dinner and, believe me, I had some reservations [about] even going. We shook hands on a receiving line and she said to me, "I admire your work very much." I said, "Thank you," but I couldn't help but think, "Gosh, did you hear about my portrayal of you?" [Laughs] 'Cause it was all over the Washington press.
TVGuide.com: It's pretty well known that after you left ER, you joined Tina Turner as a backup singer. Have you been singing much?
Reuben: Just recently, I recorded a trio of holiday songs for my website. My next goal is to put together a standards evening and do a cabaret here in New York. Then I start rehearsing another play at the Public Theatre. It's called "Conversations in Tusculum." It takes place in 45 B.C. Tusculum was a place where the wealthy and politically connected — including Cicero and Cassius — would have villas. It parallels the kind of dictatorship that's happening with our administration and how it is similar in some ways to Caesar's time.
TVGuide.com: Any other news?
Reuben: This year has been a busy year with film festivals. I executive-produced a film that won [at] Sundance this year. It's called Padre Nuestro — Our Father. [Her boyfriend, Christopher Zalla, directed.] It's all in Spanish.
TVGuide.com: Didn't you take it to a Cuban film festival in December?
Reuben: That's right. I did not tell Condi I was going to be visiting Cuba. Though I'm Canadian anyway, so it's not a problem. [Laughs]
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