Interview with Luis Guzman

Luis plays Jesse Salander, known as 'Momma', a senior nurse who manages the residents. Jesse is tough on the outside but caring and supportive of the students.

Luis Guzman

Your character's recovered from his heart attack...

Yes. It's not an easy place to work here. But I wouldn't want to work any other place. I love coming to work here, I have incredible staff, an incredible crew of people and we learn a lot. This show is not about memorising your lines and just hitting your mark, this show also entails understanding a procedure, knowing how to work the instruments and being confident about doing it. And one of the things that I learned when you've worked in this environment, this trauma centre, is that when you go about saving someone's life, in real life a lot of it is improvised.

Because even though you can go and study anatomy and this and that at medical school, when you're in that trench you can see a thousand people with bullet wounds but each bullet wound has a different influence on the body. The same thing when someone gets stabbed or hit by a car or even when someone has a heart attack. So we learn that and in the last three weeks we've delivered a baby by C-section, and the special effects are amazing. We do the incision, open it up, do the C-section, you move the bladder because it's in the way, you see the sack, you cut that and out comes the baby. And that's how it's really done! And the baby is anywhere from 5-8llbs so it feels like a real baby.

Two weeks ago we did another procedure where we opened someone's chest, you break their ribs and take out their heart and you try to massage it when everything else has failed. So these are the things we learn and you go through a lot of the emotional stuff too. We had an episode last year about the single father and his son who committed suicide because it turned out he was gay and that was a really hard episode because it's a real story. And I remember one of the tapes where the father is crying and I'm in the scene with him and I start to cry because emotionally it really gets to you so they said cut and the director told me not to cry and I said you can't tell me that because we're not immune to emotion in this world and people do die like that all the time. Some kind of strike an emotional chord. So I didn't cry but I felt it. I thought that was a really beautiful story.

This year we've done a story where we were working with a transsexual who's a woman who used to be a man; we're working for four days and on the fourth day I said I just have to ask you because even I was confused, she was beautiful, and she told me her story and everything like that so you learn too and humanity about how the world changes and how people change and it's all good.

Jesse's relationship with Leanne is incredibly touching - is that on the page or is it something you and Marcia have developed?

Well I think we genuinely love each other as Marcia and Luis and we have a wonderful chemistry as Mama and Leanne and that just really comes natural to us. And any time we're in a situation, we're always looking to make that contact that visual contact, are you ok? I'm ok, you ok?

It almost diffuses the tension of what's going on as you crack each other up as well...

Yes you have to. I've been to the real trauma centre here in LA. I've seen them working on somebody that died and the way they deal with it, talking about what they're doing this weekend. You've got to break up the emotional charge that exists because when this is centre stage it is for a reason. You have to come in there and have a miracle or you're going to die and that's the emotion that we deal with.

Somebody made it and is going home to his family and someone died and we lost one. And what happens in that world there's someone to die and in comes another person 10 seconds later and then you're in to that and what just happened becomes an afterthought, The hardest thing is when you lose one of your own, when a doctor or a nurse comes in to centre stage and when you have to call it and you can hold down those emotions for so long - because that's the world we work in.

You have a real emotional connection to the character and the world he's in - was that part of the appeal of taking the role?

Before I became an actor I was a social worker and worked with people in NYC on the Lower East Side, I adopted four children. So I come here and my path has been very different to other people in this acting career and when I come in here to me it's that social - being a social worker helps me in this role and I genuinely care about people. I care about people that I work with and my patients, I don't feel like when I come here that I'm coming to a movie set, I feel like I'm coming to this hospital to this place to do my shift. That's how I feel.

I don't get bored, I always want to learn, I take a tourniquet and just for fun on someone's arm I'll tie them up and I can do it with my eyes closed now! I take pride in this role and I will say that when this project was first presented to me, one of the requests was that I want to do this show but I don't want it to be sugar coated. I want to do something that's down and dirty and gritty and real. I think network TV has an incredible challenge because now you have so many cable shows and Amazon and Netflix and you can take a look at the Emmy's this year and network TV was pretty much shut out. Everything was cable or streaming shows and so this show I'm proud of it because they do cross the line. And we have to do that, and we have good stories that are human and real. This is not any TV show to me, there's a different challenge every week when we show up to work, every storyline is different with different emotions that play out and jokes. And we do learn stuff really well. That's what I love about it.

When you want to get something right to make it real but also have to deliver a narrative, an emotional scene - is that easy or hard to make it look legit?

Part of our quality here is that we rehearse a couple of days before we shoot a scene. This is the first medical show I've ever done and will probably be my last, but we rehearse stuff and so we see how everything works. I'm like this person that just floats around because I am the senior ER nurse and I run the floor. That's my mentality; it might not be scripted but that's what I employ because I watch real nurses. You practice what you do. Last year we had the scene where we opened someone's chest and we had to do it again this year and it becomes a little bit of second nature.

Just so you know we have enough medical training that in the state of California we could be certified ENT's. So don't go having a heart attack! But to answer your question I think what we do really is we honour the profession of people who work in trauma centres. I have had nurses and doctors come up to me to commend me about the show and thanking me for representing us in the light of the work that we really do. So that means we must be doing something right and not sugar coating because I'm not in to that.

Honestly I'm very proud of this show and the challenges it presents to us - this is the hardest job I've ever had. I love it, and love coming in to work every day. The hardest thing about this job is being on your feet sometimes for 14 hours a day because if you're in this centre stage or anywhere else you're always on your feet. So one of the things you learn really early on is what kind of shoes to wear and I ask when I go to the trauma centre about their shoes and what they wear. That's what we do. Reading blood pressure, understanding if that someone is 40 years old and their blood pressure is 150/90 they're borderline hypertensive, stroke maybe heart attack. We've done some episodes here where you do a procedure on somebody and then watch it on TV and I'm like tell me when it's over! Did you see the episode of the girl where we had to cut her tendon? I'm in that scene! But the thing for me is that I'm providing the service in that moment so I can do it because that's what I'm there to do. You watch it on TV though and it's so real that even I can't watch it. We watched the first episode of this season last week and it's very emotional. The show is really well written and I'm really proud of the writers and the cast.

What are the differences to this season?

Well we do have new cast members. We have the next round of first year residents. We don't call this the second season; we call it the second year because the first years are second years. We went from 8 writers to 12. We have a military doctor played by Rob Lowe and that's a real reality because USC medical centre where we do all our research actually have a unit of military doctors who actually do work within the hospital as well and they bring sometimes with them from fields of combat certain medical procedures because sometimes in the United States the streets are a battlefield. We have expanded the stage. We have an incredible lobby, across the street we have operating rooms and x-ray and decompression chamber, so we expanded cast wise, space wise, writer wise.

Do you like the change?

One of the things I learned about going to the real trauma centre is that it's always changing. So somebody comes in and it's up to that person to blend in - we don't blend to them, they have to blend to us because we've been there. So they're introduced and then again it's all about the writing and how that meshes together. The reality is there's always going to be someone new because in the medical field it's not a quick turnover but there are just so many people. You go to a real hospital and it's 10-15 stories - you start at the trauma centre in ICU and then on surgery on the sixth floor and recovery on fourth floor and so you have all kinds of people.

Before emergency medicine did not exist so you went to the emergency room 30-40 years you might have been attended to by a dermatologist or a paediatrician or even the hospital dentist. And it was in this hospital they did have emergency nurses. We shot the pilot at USC medical so when you walk in this hospital this is what it looks like and we found out two weeks ago that where the third gurney sits in the centre is where it was announced the death of Kennedy who was shot at the Ambassador hotel. So it's a very incredible, powerful, spiritual kind of place.

But Code Black is a very different kind of show. I'm very proud of it. I feel that the audience that watch this show they're really getting a real perspective of what it's like for the people who work in trauma centres, it's a real education. I feel that we provide that. This is not just entertainment; it's also a message in life, what people do.

How have the new cast fitted in? Do they have to fit in to your way of doing things?

Not really. Think of it like this, we're all building something here and we're all carpenters and everybody has that carpenter skill, and then I come in, another carpenter who's decided to work with you guys and it's like two things can happen - you can learn something new from me or I could learn something new from you, and at the end of the day we have done our project and it's successful. The same thing when a new doctor or nurse comes in, they know and understand what they're doing because they're in the profession of course but they may have done something different and teach us, or we might have done something different that they haven't seen. And at the end of the day we just saved eight people by working together and learning from each other.

I'd not worked with Rob before no. How do I find Rob? I've found Rob as someone who is eager to learn, who is very committed to it and so I welcome that. He does not show up here as 'I'm the guy now', he shows up here to be part of the team, because this is a team effort, this show is not about the 'me' person, this is about us. I feel it's a mistake if anybody makes it about me because me does not save a life, we save a life.

When you go to the trauma centre, how do people respond to you? Do they recognise you?

Yes it's quite hard for me to not be recognised. I really try to be low-key but that doesn't quite work out. But I do really try to be under the radar because I don't want to be a distraction. But people know who I am.