“Radioactive” isn’t your everyday biopic, and that’s just how star Rosamund Pike likes it. Director Marjane Satrapi’s Marie Curie biopic doesn’t just avoid the usual tropes of the genre, but goes one step further, injecting the story of the pioneering scientist with biting nods to how her work in the world of radiation impacted the world for decades to come. Tucked alongside scenes of personal tragedy and professional triumphs, Satrapi’s film intersperses footage of Chernobyl, Hiroshima, and other world events steeped (for better and certainly for worse) because of Curie’s work. For Pike, a film about the implications of Curie’s work and the greater cost of it could not come at a better time.
“I think if we’d been releasing this film at this moment and we’d made something insipid about Marie Curie as the sort of just a lovely heroine, who was a very clever woman wearing lots of pretty dresses who had a lovely husband who died, it would be a disservice to the wrestling that everyone’s doing over science [right now],” Pike said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “I think we’ve delivered a film that deals with the cost of being a scientist, the fallout from scientific discovery. I think it’s very timely, as well as [being about] a woman who’s not easy to know.”
Curie’s story is typically viewed through a tragic lens — the Nobel Prize winner died at age 66 from aplastic anemia caused by her years of exposure to radiation — and she’s often touted as an outlier in the scientific world because of her gender. And yet Satrapi’s film, with a script from Jack Thorne and based on Lauren Redniss’ graphic novel, doesn’t get caught up in the oft-told elements of Curie’s story, finding something richer (and more wild) in the process.
“She’s struggling with the very fact of the distraction of being a woman in a scientific world,” Pike said of her character. That’s something that hasn’t abated in the decades since Curie came on the scene.
“Marie Curie, obviously she was a geek, as we would see it, and a very cool one,” she said. “I suppose, science is still sort of part of being a nerd, [and it] has kind of been hijacked by men, really, hasn’t it? The sort of ‘nerd female’ is treated with suspicion, especially if the nerd is sort of suddenly king. I mean, I’m being a bit flippant obviously, but it has some truth.”
And yet Satrapi’s film — and Pike’s role — has much more nuance than just kicking at the gender divide. Curie might have felt restricted because of her gender, but Pike saw her as someone more hung up on the biological differences between herself and male scientists, like her own husband Pierre (played by Sam Riley in the film). The sexism was certainly there — the Nobel committee initially wanted to award its 1903 physics prize “in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena” to only Pierre and fellow scientist Henri Becquerel — but Pike sees Marie’s pain as having a different root.
The actress pointed to a key scene in the film, in which Pierre meets with the Nobel Prize committee without Marie, who was unable to take the trip because she had just given birth to one of the Curies’ daughters. “She says, ‘you took my brilliance and you made it your own,'” Pike said. “That’s the kind of stuff that comes out in the heat of the moment, I think what was really maddening to her is the fact that she’d just given birth restricted her from going to receive the prize. She was infuriated by the fact that being a woman, which didn’t normally hold her back on a sort of biological level, suddenly was a major obstacle, she’d just had a small baby and she couldn’t travel. She resented the freedoms that a man has.”
That kind of emotional truth is often hard to come by in fact-based historical features like “Radioactive,” which is why Pike sparked to Satrapi’s unique take on the material. “I think that’s how most history is delivered, without nuance,” she said. “I always wished that history was never taught through facts, because facts have always left me really cold. Unless there’s story and emotional truth, I don’t engage. I don’t engage with facts. I need things to have an emotional through-line.”
That’s not to say that Satrapi’s film is not filled with important historical context (and, yes, plenty of key facts) regarding Curie’s life, including a deep exploration of her early years, when she was simply fighting for her survival.
“Everybody’s fight is different, depending on the obstacles that they’ve suffered,” Pike said. “The things that you feel, the risks that you’ve taken. She lived in Poland under Russian occupation. Education was underground for as long as she could remember. They’d had to be educated in secret. Flouting regulations against what was expected or what was sort of the norm, that was sort of in her nature. I sort of played her as a rebel, really.”
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When Pike spoke to IndieWire in 2016, as she was simultaneously readying for the TIFF premiere of Amma Asante’s historical drama “A United Kingdom” and filming Scott Cooper’s grueling “Hostages,” the Oscar-nominated actress opened up about the opportunities Hollywood affords its actresses.
“Any actress, goodness, we’re lucky to be working,” Pike said at the time. “We all know that. There are few parts, a few good ones. There was a time during ‘Gone Girl’ that I’d come home and I’d say, ‘I get to be every part of being a woman in this role.’ For me, I feel it much more as a springboard for the work I’m going to take on thereafter.”
Four years on, Pike said she thinks that desirable, meaty roles for actresses are increasing, pointing to the influence of performers and producers like Reese Witherspoon and Margot Robbie. There are “actresses who are kind of leading this sort of tastemaking, really, putting stuff out there,” Pike said. “That’s all tipping the scales. Women are no longer waiting to be asked.”
She added with a laugh, “Ever since marriage was deemed that the man asked the woman, women have been waiting. On some level, I think it’s been awoken. These women have been waking up that they don’t need to wait to be asked. They can be the ones asking.”
Pike also thinks that Hollywood’s affection for the prototypical “strong female character” might also be waning as more projects that embrace nuance, emotion, and different kinds of “strength” become the norm. She’s currently working on just one such project: Amazon’s splashy TV adaptation of Robert Jordan’s massive fantasy series “The Wheel of Time.”
Speaking on location from the Czech Republic, Pike said that she’s been so steeped in her character, Moiraine Damodred, a member of an all-female group of magic users who inhabit a mystical version of Earth, that she’s not spending as much time seeking out new parts as she normally does. But she certainly remembers reading scripts and taking meetings in which the term “strong female character” was thrown around with little to back it up.
“A strong woman is not someone who kind of looks tough, they have to have agency,” she said. “So often people say, ‘Oh, there’s a really good strong female character in this one.” And you read it and you’re like, ‘Well, sorry, where is she?’ And it’s because she’s a lawyer or she’s clever or she’s an FBI agent. That doesn’t make her strong. I mean, it might, but unless she shows agency over her own life, she’s not strong to me. It’s about whether you’ve got agency in the story.”
For Pike, those roles have become her bread and butter, from “Radioactive” and “Gone Girl” to “The Wheel of Time” and, hopefully, whatever comes next. And she sees that change coming for the rest of the industry and its many talented female stars, too.
“That’s changing, Marie Curie is definitely an agent of her own change,” she said. “I mean, a ‘strong woman,’ it sort of makes me slightly groan, really. You’ve got to convey the breadth of female experience. Strength takes all forms. Femininity takes all forms.”
“Radioactive,” an Amazon Studios release, will start streaming on Prime Video on Friday, July 24.