Interview: Monica Wyche on Spending Five Days at Memorial on Apple TV Plus
The actors discusses her harrowing role in the new series.
As far as harrowing television shows go, Apple TV Plus's Five Days at Memorial is among the most difficult to watch. The series follows the days before and after Hurricane Katrina at one hospital in New Orleans, as the waters rise, the power goes, and doctors are forced to make potentially lethal decisions on behalf of their patients during the evacuation process. It is based on a true story.
Actor Monica Wyche plays Sandra LeBlanc, one of the real-life figures depicted in the series, who struggles to rescue a family member stranded at the hospital. Wyche has her own memories of Katrina and stranded family members, so that made this role all the more real. Here, she tells us about putting together her performance.
Five Days at Memorial is a very heavy show, and it's based on a true story. I know you're a performer and you have to compartmentalize that sort of thing, but how do you get through it, especially with your own familial experiences during Katrina (and can you talk a little bit about that, too)?
We shot Five Days at Memorial in Toronto and New Orleans. The flooding scenes were all shot in a giant tank, surrounded by blue screens. One day we'd go to work, and there would be a dilapidated house in the tank; another day, it'd be full of submerged cars. All of the crew was in waders, and it was very "movie magic." It wasn't until the background actors were added in, as people who had lost everything, that it started to feel real. Seeing people wading through waist-deep water, holding their children on their shoulders, carrying their clothes in garbage bags, that really was moving to see. Those were the moments when it felt very real.
My aunt, uncle, and great-grandmother all lived in New Orleans together during Katrina, and lost everything in the storm. I was living in South Carolina at the time, trying to locate them and make sure they'd survived the flooding. They were among the folks stranded in their attics, the ones rescued by boats from their roof. For several days, we heard nothing. We couldn't find them, call them, nothing.
Playing Sandra LeBlanc, a real person who orchestrated a rescue of her family member stranded at Memorial hospital, was a remarkable opportunity to pay respect to not only my family, but to the people of New Orleans. Being entrusted to help tell that story was an honor, and I felt a strong connection to the project.
You were a drama teacher before you started acting full time? Why did you make the decision to give up teaching to become a performer?
I'd always done theater, and have an MFA in acting. In my younger days, I did some regional theater, toured a bit, taught at the college level before moving on to middle and high school drama in my home town of Columbia, South Carolina. I wasn't getting any younger, and my husband and I both wondered, "What if?" He's a playwright/screenwriter, Dean Poyner. He'd gone back to school to get an MFA in dramatic writing at Carnegie Mellon, and my school year teaching was wrapping up, so we thought, why not now? We'd just gotten married, it seemed like a time of big change was already happening, so we added to it and moved to New York City.
What do you look for in a play, and how does something like Scab, which just closed, fit that bill?
I've embraced my "type" these past few years, and have found myself playing women who are a bit hardened, who have been through a lot, who are strivers. When this script came along, I was intrigued by the chance to embrace a character with views that are different from my own. Also, I have found that the less makeup I wear, the happier I am. Gilda, my character in Scab, has worked hard her whole life and still can't catch a break. I found that appealing.
As someone who goes back and forth between mediums, do you have a preference? Does acting for the stage require a different skill set than doing TV or a movie?
I'd been mainly focusing on TV work since my son was born in 2012. Theater hours and parenting didn't work with our family schedule until recently, and TV was quicker and more financially lucrative. I'd not done a play since before the pandemic — Together We Are Making a Poem in Honor of Life, by the talented Dean Poyner — and diving right back in with a two-hander has been thrilling. I've had to dust off my memorization skills, time management, and frankly, my stamina. Two show days are a real workout.
Performing multiple shows a week gives an actor the opportunity to deeply explore a character over time, to get to know them. Television, at least the roles I've played so far, has a shorter preparation period. With TV, I get to make strong choices and go with it in that moment. It's thrilling in a different way.
I like the accessibility, and permanence, of television, but the rehearsal process and continued discovery of theater. In an ideal world, I can keep doing both.