Gloria Reuben discusses coming back to the character, the show itself and her awareness work for HIV/AIDS

ER is one of the most successful shows in television history, and Gloria Reuben was a big part of that show's success. The actress who portrayed Jeanie Boulet, one of the first TV characters that was HIV positive, from 1994 to 2000 is returning to the show for a one-time guest appearance in the episode "Status Quo" which will air on Thursday, January 3. I was in on a conference call with the actress and AIDS activist and here's what she had to say.

How did it feel going back to the show, after being off it for awhile?

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Gloria Reuben: It was one of those things where I wasn't quite sure what to expect. Like if one is away from their family for seven or eight years. You have anticipation, and you have butterflies in your stomach, and wondering how this is going to be and when I see everybody and anxiety and excitement. I have to say, it was really great being back. It was shocking to realize how much time had gone by, almost eight years which it just seems like it was maybe a couple of years ago. Of course, as you all know, none of the original cast is there anymore, but there were some people that were there from day one, some of the nurses like Yvette Freeman. The crew has changed a lot, but there's still some guys that have been there from the beginning and it was great to see them and to catch up with everybody. I have to say, it felt really really really good. I felt really solid being back. I love the episode and I loved what they wrote for me and of course that just makes it wonderful. It was surprisingly easy for me to step back into the shoes of Jeanie Boulet. Maybe not so surprisingly, because there have been a couple of aspects of my own life that have paralelled what Jeanie has been doing for the past eight years off screen (Laughs). It felt really good, and I'm actually really excited to see the final product and hopefully everyone will be as excited as I am.

What first compelled you to return to this show for this character, and why at this time? Was it simply that they wrote you in an episode?

Gloria Reuben: No, actually. That's not how it came about it all. Neil Baer is a very good friend of mine who was an executive producer on ER, and he's now running Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Neil actually was the prominent storyline writer for my character and we're very good friends and I told him that I had communicated with John Wells this past spring. They were beginning their writers retreat. It was the end of the season and they were just about to head to Hawaii, John and the writers, to work on this next season. John and I connected, which was wonderful because it had been years. We were filling each other on what's been going on and I told him a lot about the activism I've been up to and women who I've met. We were both looking back and saying that we were really doing some great stuff, and thought that wouldn't it be great if we could do it again.

I guess it's a good thing that when you left the show in 2000, you didn't leave the show in a pine box like a lot of ER types do.

Gloria Reuben: Well, I knew that wasn't going to happen. At the beginning of the storyline, we had made an agreement that the reason we were doing this storyline is to show someone living with the virus and not dying from it. This was particularly at a time when the medicines were really beginning to, literally, give people their lives back. I knew that she wasn't going to be carried out in a pine box because of that agreement that we made. It would've really defeated the last four, four and a half seasons of showing Jeanie living with the virus if she was just going to die from it. Frankly, I feel like it would've been a betrayal to those who are HIV positive, who are trying to gain hope into their lives. If somebody is going through their own challenges on a day-to-day basis and something about this character that they watch on ER gives them a little bit of hope and that character was to die? No, that would not have been O.K. with me.

Was your work in HIV/AIDS awareness, and the passion that you clearly have for it, awakened by your work on ER?

Gloria Reuben: No, not at all. It actually was awakened most recently. Of course, while I was on the show, it was kind of natural for there to be some activism, but it actually wasn't that strong until I was off the show. I naively thought, in a way, that when I left the show, that my work was done. We did the storyline, and it made a huge impact, my work is done and I can step away from it. Two or three years ago, I was reading about AIDS being the number one killer of black women, between the ages of 25 and 34, and I said, "Wait a minute. What? The number one killer of young black women in America?" This can not be happening here in the U.S. so I kind of had to pick up the ball again. What an incredible thing to carry along with it, this story of Jeanie Boulet from a few years ago. Anybody and everybody who is involved with AIDS, would know about this storyline. It's kind of that blessing to have a familiar face that is connected to an issue, and then being able to talk about that issue, and people may want to listen a little bit more, and be more interested and just showing up.

ER has changed a lot. What were your impressions on the new ER?

Gloria Reuben: Honestly, I haven't really kept up with the show on a regular basis over the past few years. Again, this is only for one episode, so it was great to just walk in and connect with those I do know, and make new connections with some of the newer actors. I could go in and just do my thing and go. It was great fun.

Was there ever talk of this being a recurring thing?

Gloria Reuben: Well, first of all, this happened right when the writers strike started, so everybody knew that nobody was going to be doing anything afterwards, after the episode I shot. I shot a pilot for Steven Bochco in August called Raising the Bar, so obviously that would very much come into play if I was going to do anything more for ER or not. There really wasn't any further discussions as to something more permanent or more episodes. I think we're all just waiting to see what happens across the board with the strike, and the Bochco pilot, and who knows what's going to happen.

What other plans do you have for 2008?

Gloria Reuben: Well, I start rehearsals in mid-January in New York at the Joe Papp Public Theater. It's a play called Conversations in Tusculum. Richard Nelson, a British playwright and director, wrote this play and it's kind of a parallel between the fall of Caesar and the fall of the Roman Empire and politics and how it parallel's to today's day and age. So I'll start rehearsals for that in mid-January with Brian Dennehy and David Strathairn, which should be great fun. And, depending what happens with the strike, and if TNT decides to pick up the pilot, I'll probably start that right after the play.

The "Status Quo" episode of ER featuring Gloria Reuben will air on NBC on Thursday, January 3 at 10 p.m. ET.

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