LOS ANGELES -- Ming-Na is in a good position to observe how things have changed on the ER set over its six seasons.
She appeared in the hit drama's debut season as intern Deborah Chen. She returned this month as Dr. Jing-Mei Chen.
So how is working at Stage 11 on the Warner Bros. lot any different today than it was in 1995?
"Not too much actually," says the actress formerly known as Ming-Na Wen. "Everything was the same. The energy was still there; the people are still just as incredible."
And ER, airing Thursdays at 8 p.m. on DE and 11 p.m. on Q, is still the No. 1 drama in primetime.
"I think the main thing that's changed since the first year is that then I stayed in my trailer a lot because I wasn't sure if they needed me to walk around in the background," Ming-Na recalls. "So I had a lot of 14-, 15-hour days. Now it's down to a science. We're in, we do the scene, boom, we're out."
The frantic pace of shooting ER can be intimidating to a newcomer. Just ask the acclaimed French actress Jeanne
Moreau (The Lovers, Nikita) who bailed on a five-episode sweeps story in which she was to play the mother of Dr. Elizabeth Corday (played by Alex Kingston).
"She came. She looked. She left," ER star Julianna Margulies summarizes in her best French accent.
"It's unlike any other television set or movie set," veteran Anthony Edwards explains. "It's an incredible pace and energy that's going on and it can be overwhelming for people.
"It could very easily take a 72-year-old woman and make her panic." Maura Tierney, Goran Visnjic, Michael Michele
and Erik Palladino have all been added to the cast while George Clooney, Gloria Reuben and William H. Macy have left in the past year.
Margulies and Kellie Martin are due to leave this spring.
"It's exciting when you have new characters because they interrelate with your old characters and you can explore things," says producer John Wells, who co-created ER with Michael Crichton. "We've done 120-what-it-is-it? episodes... you start to feel like you've done all of the possible combinations you can in your writing."
"Yeah, it's been a challenge to kind of recreate our storytelling a little," says producer Lydia Woodward.
"It's difficult but at the same time exciting," Wells says.
And excitement is precisely what Wells was counting on this season.
"I think that we all felt last year there was a bit of a lull in the show and we needed to stir it back up again," he says. "These wonderful new cast members gave us the opportunity to do that."
Edwards (who plays Dr. Mark Greene) had an opportunity to get to know the new cast members when he directed his fourth episode of ER this winter.
"I was able to work with a lot of the new cast and the old cast. It just renewed my faith and confidence in what we're doing here," he says. "The new members seemed to have the same kind of energy and spirit I remember we had
when we first got here. I felt a kinship in knowing they were in that same starting ground of: 'What the hell is all of this stuff?' "
Even an actor with experience in cranking out a weekly drama can feel out place. Former Homicide regular Michael Michele is still finding her way around the examining rooms five months later.
"It's a constant process and I would imagine that if I'm sitting here next year, I'll still be learning the technical aspects of being in the show," says the rookie, who plays Dr. Cleo Finch.
Erik Palladino, meanwhile, is learning the reality of being on a show watched by 10 or 20 million people every week.
Not to mention 10 or 20 million viewers irked by his obnoxious character, Dr. Dave Mallucci.
"I get dirty looks on the street," Palladino admits. "I had one person come up to me and say: 'Why
did you call that patient a veggie burger?' I didn't write it!"
ER's producers deny Goran Visnjic is sort of, kind of, the new George Clooney.
"We never really looked at anybody as a 'George replacement,' " says Woodward. "We sort of looked at where we needed the relationships to go and develop. "
So it was just a coincidence Visnjic -- like Clooney's Ross -- was nice, easy on the eyes, good with kids, and, did we mention easy on the eyes?
"Well you know, we liked Goran we had hopes that other people would," Woodward says. "And they were realized."
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