Like Her 'Radioactive' Elements, Marie Curie Didn't 'Behave' As Expected

Jul 25, 2020
Originally published on July 25, 2020 2:00 pm

Like the elements that she discovered — polonium and radium — Marie Curie was "unruly," says actor Rosamund Pike. Pike plays the famous scientist in the new biopic Radioactive.

The film, streaming on Amazon Prime, is about the power of science and how it can be harnessed in both positive and destructive ways. Curie's discoveries led to medical breakthroughs, but they were also weaponized — into bombs and poison.

"[Director] Marjane Satrapi and I both had a vision of her as quite an 'unruly element' that does not behave as it should ...," Pike explains. She and her fellow filmmakers were "interested in really pushing how challenging we could make her, how much we could make her not conform to traditional standards of femininity."


Interview Highlights

On starring in a movie about science in the midst of a global pandemic

I'm very excited because I think there's been a huge rise in people's interest in science. And I think people are suddenly very, very curious as to who scientists really are. Who are these people who suddenly hold life in their hands?

On what she learned about Marie Curie while preparing for the film

She was really little more than a name that I recognized, if I'm perfectly honest. ... I started having chemistry lessons ... which was exciting as a female in film. Historically, a lot of my preparation has been involved, getting myself physically fit. And it was a really refreshing change to be having to get myself mentally fit.

On whether they sought to highlight the sexism and discrimination Curie faced as a female scientist

No, in fact, quite the opposite, really. ... I think it would be slightly wrong to say that she was in some way an ambassador for other women. I think women have certainly used her and celebrated her as a woman to emulate. But I think she was very single minded, maybe even narrow minded. She always seemed rather disinterested when people pointed out that she was one of very few women in the science faculty.

On the sacrifices Curie made for her work

I mean, it made me realize what it cost her — you know, the cost of pursuing one's dreams so wholeheartedly. ... I mean, when war broke out, I know that the first thing she did was take a precious gram of radium in a lead box down to the south of France where she thought it would be safe if Paris was bombed. So it really was the most precious thing in her life.

On the "wonderful love story" between Curie and her husband, Pierre

I really missed Peter and Marie when we finished filming. ... I don't think she ever got over him [after his death]. I can look at any photograph of her and know if it was pre-Pierre's death or after. Grief is etched in her face in a different way.

On playing Marie Curie in Radioactive and war journalist Marie Colvin in the film A Private War

[These roles] both came into my life at a similar time and ... they both sort of stayed with me very profoundly. ... Their lives were so complicated, brave, difficult, challenging. They had sorrows, they had sadness, and I think I took it all on, and took it all in. And I became quite confused with my own identity. I mean, it's sort of partly what you're aiming for, isn't it, is to lose yourself in the character, but you don't want to lose yourself completely. ...

They were both uncompromising. ... I aim to be uncompromising, I aim to make decisions that are just based on my understanding and I try not to be swayed by other people's opinions in general — but it's very hard to be true to that principle.

Sophia Boyd and Ed McNulty produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

"Radioactive" is a new biopic about Marie Curie, the power of science and how that power is used in unforeseen ways, both good and deadly. Marie Curie discovered polonium and radium, and her work deepened our understanding of radioactivity. Those discoveries led to medical breakthroughs, but they were also weaponized radioactivity into bombs, polonium into what's been called the perfect poison. Rosamund Pike plays Marie Curie, the scientist who was the first person to win two Nobel Prizes, in "Radioactive," which is out now on Amazon Prime. She joins us now.

Rosamund Pike, welcome to the program.

ROSAMUND PIKE: Thank you, Leila. Thanks for having me on the show.

FADEL: We should start by saying that this movie was one of many with delayed releases because of the global pandemic. How does it feel to have finally have it out in the world?

PIKE: I'm very excited because I think there's have been a huge rise in people's interest in science, and I think people are suddenly very, very curious to who scientists really are? Who are these people who suddenly hold life in their hands? And I think it's a very exciting time to bring our story not only about a fierce woman but also a very strong subject matter.

FADEL: So what did you learn or know about Marie Curie before you took on this role? I mean, her work was complicated, as you mentioned, very scientific. I'm sure you wanted to embody it, understand it. How'd you do that?

PIKE: You know, she was really little more than a name that I recognized, if I'm perfectly honest. She discovered two new elements that are on the periodic table, first polonium and then radium. And she realized that these were both unstable elements that could emit rays without having a chemical reaction with another element taking place. Most chemical reactions involve the meeting of two different substances. I started having chemistry lessons, which was exciting, you know, as a female in film. Historically, a lot of my preparation has been involved getting myself physically fit, and it was a really refreshing change to be having to get myself mentally fit.

FADEL: So what surprised you most during your preparation?

PIKE: I mean, it made me realize what it cost her, you know, the cost of pursuing one's dreams so wholeheartedly. I could almost say that the discovery or the birth as it was sort of radium was more significant than the birth of her own children, I think. I mean, when war broke out, I know that the first thing she did was take a precious gram of radium in a lead box down to the south of France where she thought it would be safe if Paris was bombed.

FADEL: Wow.

PIKE: So, you know, it really was the most precious thing in her life. And then I didn't know that I'd meet this wonderful love story that I found myself so taken up with and very, very moved by - and to the point that I really missed Pierre and Marie when we finished filming.

FADEL: So the love story between her and her husband, both scientists.

PIKE: Yeah.

FADEL: You mentioned the sacrifices that she made for this discovery, but it took a toll on her health, on her husband's health, on her children's health. Why did she keep going?

PIKE: I think, you know, the driving force of all scientists is curiosity, isn't it? And you want to see what happens. I think she started to have a dawning, an inkling that there were ill effects. And obviously, we see her racked with uncertainty over whether radium was responsible for Pierre's death. We will never know, and it was one of those heartbreaking questions that remain unanswered. I don't think she's ever gotten over him. I can look at any photograph of her and know if it was pre-Pierre's death or after. Grief is etched in her face in a different way. You know, I think, like anyone who dived so deeply into their craft, they sort of sacrifice themselves to it. And you put yourself in harm's way for what you believe in, like the doctors on the frontline of this crisis, you know?

FADEL: Yeah. You know, you've been lauded for your resume of complex female characters from "Gone Girl" to the war journalist Marie Colvin in the movie "A Private War." What attracted you to this other Marie?

PIKE: Funny that they both came into my life at a similar time. And I felt that they both taught me and sort of moved my work on because they both sort of stayed with me very profoundly.

FADEL: In what way?

PIKE: I think the lives were so complicated, brave, difficult, challenging. They had sorrows. They had sadness. And I think I took it all on and took it all in. And I - it all became quite confused with my own identity. I mean, it's sort of partly what you're aiming for - isn't it? - is to lose yourself in the character. But you don't want to lose yourself completely. They're certainly both teachers, and they were both uncompromising. And I think, you know, I aim to be uncompromising. I aim to, you know, make decisions that are just based on my own understanding. And I try not to be swayed by other people's opinions in general. But it's very hard to be as true to that principle as one wants to be.

FADEL: You know, this biopic really looks at the struggles Marie Curie faced as a woman, as well, carving her career, her life's work. And this was directed by a woman, Marjane Satrapi, and your own interest in playing strong, complex women like this. Was that a conversation you both had early on that was something you really wanted to highlight - the sexism, the discrimination she faced?

PIKE: No, in fact, quite the opposite.

FADEL: Really?

PIKE: We wanted her to just sort of own equality because I think she was in a way quite selfish. So I think it would be slightly wrong to say that she was in some way an ambassador for other women. I think women have certainly used her and celebrated her as a woman to emulate. But I think she was very single minded, maybe even narrow minded. She always seemed rather disinterested when people pointed out that she was one of very few women in the science faculty. I mean, it seemed almost like irrelevant to her because she saw the faculty more as sort of, you know, the best scientists, didn't really matter whether they were men or women.

I mean, certainly, Marjane and I both had a vision of her as quite an unruly element that does not behave as it should as she describes radium. And we were sort of more interested in really pushing how challenging we could make her, how much we could make her not conform to traditional standards of femininity. And I was really given the best leeway in doing that.

FADEL: That's Rosamund Pike. She stars in "Radioactive," streaming on Amazon Prime now. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

PIKE: Yeah, thanks for a lovely interview. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.