Marcia Gay Harden once described winning an Oscar as a double-edged sword: Although it is a wonderful honor, it does have its pitfalls.
"It's disastrous on a professional level," the actress said in 2003, a few years after winning a supporting actress Oscar for her portrayal of artist Lee Krasner, the wife of troubled painter Jackson Pollock, in Ed Harris' "Pollock." "Suddenly the parts you're offered and the money become smaller. There's no logic to it."
Those drawbacks seem to have had minimal impact on Harden during the last few years, as she's ridden a steady flow of featured roles in several high-profile projects on stage and screen. She has injected her blend of warmth and smooth toughness to recent films ("Grandma") and vehicles such as HBO's "The Newsroom," ABC's "How to Get Away With Murder" and NBC's "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit." She scored a Tony Award in 2009 for lead actress in a play for "God of Carnage" and last year played Christian Grey's mother in the hit film version of "Fifty Shades of Grey."
For all her scene-stealing accomplishments, Harden, who costarred in ABC's short-lived "Trophy Wife" in 2013-2014, has rarely found herself in the leading role. It's a pattern that almost repeated itself when she was originally cast in CBS' new medical drama, "Code Black," premiering Sept. 30.
But when producers realized that the original lead of the show, Maggie Grace ("Taken"), was not working out, they made a change. And Harden is now heading the "Code Black" ensemble of veterans and newcomers, taking on the role of Dr. Leanne Rorish, the residency director of a relentlessly busy hospital emergency room in Los Angeles.
Being first on the call sheet has taken some getting used to.
"I was really nervous, being the lead of a medical drama," Harden, 56, said recently during a break on the set of the drama at Walt Disney Studios. She was dressed in her show uniform — blue scrubs — and her dark hair was pulled back in a ponytail. "I'm a single mother and I have three kids. But I talked it over with them and they said, 'Go for it, Mom.' I also don't think of me being the star. I feel if it's not a circle, I don't want to be in it. It's a true ensemble of people working together."
And though she has done only a handful of episodes, Harden is already calling "Code Black" a career highlight. "This is some of the hardest and most interesting work I've ever done. The cast is fantastic and the writing is sublime."
The series was inspired by an award-winning documentary from physician Ryan McGarry exploring the life-and-death chaos of the country's busiest emergency department at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center. The term "code black" refers to the moment when the influx of patients is so great that it overwhelms the hospital staff and not everyone can be treated properly.
McGarry is an executive producer of "Code Black," working with show runner and executive producer Michael Seitzman (CBS' "Intelligence"). The cast includes Luis Guzman ("We're the Millers"), Bonnie Somerville ("NYPD Blue"), Raza Jaffrey ("Smash") and William Allen Young ("Moesha").
Seitzman and McGarry said "Code Black" will be distinct from other medical dramas because of its realism and attention to detail where the proceedings can be messy and turbulent. Actual trauma nurses work alongside the actors on and off camera and often give instructions during the frantic treatment scenes. The series has bloody and graphic moments — one life-saving procedure in the pilot may be tough for some squeamish viewers to watch.
"It's authenticity with specific intent, to show the humanity behind the chaos," said McGarry.
After Grace was cast and rehearsals went on, the producers said they felt they needed to make a change.
"Ultimately, she was too young," said Seitzman (Grace is 31). "We needed the character to have a history of experience and pain, a sense of gravitas and credibility. Marcia was in a different role when we made the change. But we knew she has tremendous credibility and muscularity as an actress and a deep reservoir of emotion, all of which the character requires. So we ended up in the right place."
Harden said she felt a connection to her role as Dr. Rorish: "She is a teacher. She wants the younger generation to be the best equipped and do the best job they can. She has suffered loss. She is compassionate."
But the role has had its share of challenges. Harden, along with the rest of the cast, had to attend medical "boot camp," held in early March at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center. Eight stations manned by trauma nurses and supervised by McGarry were set up and the main cast, as well as 70 extras, were instructed in emergency room procedures, using equipment that would be seen in the series.
"There's so much jargon, and we have to look natural while doing it," Harden said. "Putting on gloves and making it look smooth. We have to make it look natural to the audience without being frantic."
The actress is particularly proud to be joining the group of distinctive actress such as Viola Davis ("How to Get Away With Murder"), Mariska Hargitay ("Law & Order: Special Victims Unit"), Marg Helgenberger ("CSI: Crime Scene Investigation") and others who are heading up TV dramas. "There's these amazing, strong women carrying the mantle of being the lead. It's a blessing to get to try and do it myself, with these ladies as my example."