RADIOACTIVE from director Marjane Satrapi premiered in Irish cinemas during the Dublin International Film festival, it was scheduled for a wider cinema release this summer before the Covid-19 outbreak changed its release plan. The film will now be available to stream at home from June 15th. We caught up with lead actress Rosamund Pike to talk about playing the role of Marie Curie.
The film tells the real life story of Polish scientist Marie Sklodowska (Rosamund Pike), who arrives in Paris intent on furthering her career. Thinking outside of the box, she challenges the accepted scientific beliefs of the age, battling sexism and defiantly preferring to work alone. That is, until she is approached by Pierre Curie (Sam Riley). He recognises her talents and proposes a collaboration of equals, working together to improve their world. Hesitant at first, she accepts and they later fall in love and marry. Marie discovers two hidden elements in atoms – radium and polonium. Together, they present their findings to the scientific community and attempt to harness the power of radioactivity to further mankind’s knowledge, for better and for worse…
Rosamund, what was it that attracted you to Madame Curie’s story in the first place? It was her brilliance; her determination and it was her sense of identity. She was confident in her intelligence, confident in her ability to get her work done against the odds. She forged her own path. I always admire that she was not swayed by praise and not brought down by criticism. She just does her own thing. She’s got all the qualities I admire, resilience, courage, bravery, and then she’s kind of eccentric and I’m drawn to eccentric people. I also liked that she had such a wonderful marriage with Pierre. I think in a way they are an exemplary couple even today, never mind how radical they must’ve been as a pair at the time they were living. It still can be hard to find a man who’s willing to let the woman shine today, to allow her to stand as his equal. I just thought what a cool couple. It’s beautiful to me to have that romance and the shared interests that led them to change the world together.
We all know who Marie Curie is, but when I saw the film, I realized there was so much I didn’t know about her. Did you know much about her before the film or did you have to do a huge amount of research to try to unlock her? Like you, I realized how little I knew, and it’s terrible. I didn’t learn about her in school. I equate her name more with the charity than I do with her actual achievements. It blew my mind when I realized that that whole term radioactivity was coined by Marie, that she was the person who revealed that phenomenon to the world. She made the invisible visible, and thereby obviously, you know, how radical and exciting that discovery was. She first isolated two elements, radium and polonium and the world went crazy for radium because it glowed green. People wanted a piece of it in everything, in face cream and matches and chocolate and cigarettes. The thought of doing that now is appalling with what we know now about radioactivity, but no one knew the dangers then. There are astonishing stories connected with Marie Curie. The story is a biography of her, but it’s also a biography of radioactivity and this phenomenon that changed the world, but one that we have to be intensely respectful of.
I believe that you learned all about the science behind radioactivity, did it help your performance? I wanted to know because it seemed like an amazing opportunity to re-educate oneself and I thought it’s my responsibility to her. If I’m going to play her, I need to know what she knew. I had to know what her brain might be thinking about, what are the questions she’s asking herself? I needed to know what she was thinking. What was it about this information that was interesting to her? It made it fun. It’s like anything, the more you invest, the more your curiosity leads, the more you get out of the experience.
We often see male geniuses portrayed and they can be grumpy, they can be rude, they can be direct, and that’s fine because they are geniuses but we so rarely see female geniuses where the female isn’t portrayed as almost perfect. We don’t get to see direct, rude women who are also heroes. Here we see her, we see the many different sides– the rude, the rash, the brash. Did you enjoy getting to play her warts and all? I loved it. I loved it because I find that directness and abruptness rather charming. They’re sort of eccentricities that I find tremendously appealing because you know, she’s not leading with trying to be liked, she’s leading with her brain and I find it attractive. You’re absolutely right. We’ve had that in films so long – instead of strong women we see bitches or women who are not likeable. I have seen Marie viewed in that way, but she changed the whole face of the 20th century. She’s a rock star and she’s brilliant, driven, ambitious and a pioneer and yes, she might be a bit of a rebel. She’s a bit unruly and people are not so comfortable with that. Well, men aren’t, let’s say it like it is, men are not so comfortable when their women are a bit unruly. I think it feels threatening to them or not feminine, but you can see she had an amazing marriage and an amazing love affair. She was deeply emotional. It’s just not what she led with. I think we could all take some cues from her. I think historically girls have been very worried that, if you’re brainy or you show off your brain too much, the boys won’t like you. And that is rubbish. Whoever thinks intelligence isn’t one of the sexiest qualities should, should think again. I find it tremendously sexy. I think nerd culture has been owned by men. For a girl to identify as a geek, it’s always been a bit trickier for her.
Without spoiling anything there is a scene where she deals with a bunch of male colleagues briskly. She goes in, says her piece, and she is off again. It summed her personality up so well. I took that from a lot of her photographs. The thought this woman hasn’t got time to muck about, she’s very rarely posing for a photograph without looking faintly sort of displeased at the time wasted in posing in the first place. She always sort of looked like she had better things to do and she did.
As you say Marie and Pierre were so ahead of their time and very much in love. You and Sam Riley have such chemistry. Is that something that comes organically when you get to know your characters? Or is that something that comes from building a relationship with a fellow actor? It was like a chemical equation. It’s an actor plus character meeting an actor plus character. It surprised me at times. I remember doing ‘A United Kingdom’ with David Oyelowo. We were friends before it. I really respected him and liked him enormously, but I wouldn’t have said David and I have great chemistry. We did the film and the characters were so powerful to us that they had this amazing chemistry. It doesn’t mean that those same two actors would have the same chemistry in another film. It is the important conundrum of actor plus character meeting actor plus characters. That’s what’s so weird about our job. Sam and I did have great chemistry, I really felt the presence of Marie and Pierre. Their love story was very vivid and very real to me, I have no idea whether we would have that if we played two different characters. If Romeo and Juliet had gone on to have six children and maybe get divorced, it wouldn’t be such a great love story when tragedy happens the stakes go sky-high.
What was it like working with Marjane Satrapi? People call her a force of nature. She is exactly that. I have a file on my computer where I keep notes of all the amazing things, she’s told me or made me think about. She is brilliant. I love her. She’s funny and unruly and rude and very clever and just outspoken and delicious and intelligent. I knew she was exactly the right person to direct it.
Do you think that a story like Marie Curie is best told by a female director? And do you think that we should see more or more female directors taking the lead on female-led stories?
At the moment, that’s where the thinking is. I hope we reach a point where it is 50:50 and then it doesn’t matter who directs which story, because, as we know, there’ve been amazing female characters written by a male pen and amazing male characters written by women. You need different perspectives to make it interesting. If you say that women should direct female stories would they become restricted from directing wonderful films about men? I was in Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice and it was beautiful. I think right now, if that was made, maybe somebody would have said, I don’t think you’re right to direct that. I think it should be directed by a woman because it’s all about girls, but he did the most stunning job and, it doesn’t mean just cause he’s a man, he didn’t fully identify with Elizabeth. I think he probably would say, and I am speaking for him, but he probably would say that he did it sensitively and intuitively. We could all lose out, but right now, you’re right. We need to get more women in the game and at the forefront and in the conversation, we do need to do that for now. But my hope is that in time, it is the person who identifies strongest with the work who gets to direct.
Are you disappointed that this won’t get its cinematic moment due to the pandemic restrictions? Marjane told me that it’s going to be re-released in the cinemas in France when they open which is great. I’m really happy for her. There is beautiful cinematography in this film, which was intended for the big screen, but it is good that it will stream. I also think the timing is very good. I think that with the interest in science coming to the fore and scientists being kind of on top again that there are heaps of ideas brewing around in the public imagination. It might inspire people to read more and learn more about science.
Are you excited to find out how the film industry is going to start getting back to work? Are you intrigued how that’s going to work or is that something that you’re worried about? More worried about my friends who work in the theatre than I am about people who work in film at the moment. Our theatres need our support. The British theatre is a breeding ground for so much of the talent that then goes and gets eaten up by the big American TV shows. They rely on our pool of actors trained in the theatre. I do worry about that. I will be going back to work probably in the late summer and it will be interesting to see what will happen and what protocols will be in place. We were quite resilient. You know, one thing about the film industry is that we are quite adaptable. I think people are used to working under very extreme conditions of one way or another, you know, very hostile conditions often, cold freezing conditions at night. We’re used to having odd requests demanded of us. It will be different, but we will make it work.
You said that you are attracted to bold, fearless, complex characters, like Curie, like Marie Colvin, like Amy from ‘Gone Girl’. Is it pulling back those layers and figuring out what makes them tick? Is that the draw? Yes! I liked the fact that they surprise people, what you first get is not all you’re going to get. I think I like that about people in general. I am a curious person by nature. I like to see people and I like to discover what’s beneath the surface and I am interested in people in general. I’m not frightened of people not understanding me first off, in fact, I’ve come to expect it. It was always a bit of a puzzle when I started in this business where people would write about me in a certain way. I wouldn’t read the articles, but then another journalist would come and say, oh, this person described you like this. I would say that is not at all what I’m like, but then I decided to say sod it. It doesn’t matter. That’s what they see me as. If they get to know me they’ll realize all the other things about me. It never worries me anymore and it’s partly because of this that I’m not scared of characters that might rub people up the wrong way. I feel that the qualities that I admire about them will eventually make other people admire them too. That’s the case with Mary Curie. I heard that’s the case that people find her a little bit hostile, maybe at the beginning of the film. And then I think, I hope I awakened that empathy for her. I won’t succeed with everyone. Obviously, some people will switch off.
but you’ll always get that with everything. There’s always going to be somebody who doesn’t like something….. We’ve all got that power at the moment. Everyone’s so quick to judge. God, If you put anything longer than a minute on Instagram, you have to decide whether you’re going to continue watching after 15 seconds. That’s a fast judgment call. With my characters, you have to watch them and spend time with them before deciding.
If there’s one main thing that you want people to take away the film or to learn from it, what would that be? I think people will say what you said, which is, wow, I had no idea what she did. I want that. I want to surprise people with her. I would like people to find what we’ve discussed, her difficult nature. I’d like people to find that appealing. I’d like people to see the appeal in some way, is a person who more narrow-minded people would ascribe the word difficult to. I relish that challenge. I hope that people feel the charm that I saw in her.
Interview with Rosamund Pike by Cara O’Doherty
RADIOACTIVE is available to own from 15th June & available to rent from 6th July.
The movie will be available to purchase on DVD from 27th July