Exclusive: Genius actress Samantha Colley's mission to shed light on Mileva Marić

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May 8, 2017, 3:00 PM EDT

National Geographic Channel's new scripted drama, Genius, based on Walter Isaacson’s best-selling book, Einstein: His Life and Universe, is an episodic deep dive into the life and times of one of the greatest scientific minds in history. But it also peels back the curtain on his peers and the women who made a huge impact on Einstein. In particular, the series shines a light on Einstein's first wife, Serbian physicist Mileva Marić.

Relegated to history as "Albert Einstein's scientist first wife" in most textbooks, Genius actually portrays their passionate romance as peers attending the Zürich Polytechnic in the late 1800s. It was Marić who was his intellectual sparring partner as he developed his earliest ideas of what would become Einstein's general theory of relativity.

Why do most people not know this? Well, likely because of the times, Marić was never cited in any of Einstein's papers despite their personal letters confirming that she read and proofed many of his early drafts. And as his scientific reputation accelerated, an initially pregnant-out-of-wedlock Marić was relegated to the traditional role of housekeeper and mother after they wed in 1903.

Now British actress Samantha Colley has been given the opportunity to personify, and humanize, Marić in Genius. Even for those who reject Marić's ultimate impact on Einstein's published work, there's no dispute that she was a brave, female intellectual who fought the patriarchy for the opportunity to be educated in an almost male-exclusive discipline. Shining a light on that, and many more fascinating aspects of Marić's life, has become a bit of a rallying cry for Colley who talked with us recently about her passion for playing a real-life scientific trail-blazer.

Let's start with your first thoughts about Marić when you were given the script?

Samantha Colley: The first thing to say is that when I was given the script, I thought they invented a love interest for Einstein. "How naff," I thought. But then I Googled her, and felt instantly horrified, that I had no idea that Mileva Marić was a person who existed. There is this feminist icon sat there that I would have loved to have known about when I was a young girl. And now as a woman, I would have loved her as an example of someone who didn't take no for an answer, and someone who forced others to take her as an equal to men. It's a criminal shame that people didn't know who she was. But now people say to me, "Wow, I didn't know she was a real person" and I think that is such a triumph of the series. It's also a real gift to me because I felt such an enormous responsibility to unearth her. If I can do anything to make her visible, then I consider it a success. If one young girl, or young woman, Googles her and then they are taken to her personal letters where they can learn about what an amazing woman she was, then it's a success.

You act against Johnny Flynn who embodies the young Einstein in the series flashbacks. Did you talk much about how to bring their relationship to life?

With Johnny, there was an instant connection and sense of play there. He was one of the most generous actors I've ever worked with. I think we are the same type of actor where we research a lot, and we analyze a lot, with a real respect for the people we are playing. There was an initial spark where we just meshed. We did talk a lot and give opinions of where were thought our characters were coming from.

Based on your own research, what was paramount in what you wanted to bring across about her?

I felt a responsibility to bring her to life in a respectful way. She's often described as schizophrenic with a limp, and just Albert's wife. Again, that sat horribly with me and I wanted to show she wasn't just Albert's wife. She was an amazing physicist in her own right. She was an amazing mind in her own right. She was a deeply feeling, warm, vulnerable, loyal woman with this beautiful Slav soul. More women should know about her because she's so inspirational.

Walter Isaacson’s book carefully charts their history together, which is presented in the TV series. Did she pop off the page clearly in the scripts, or did you have to go back to the book for insight?

The scripts were amazing. Even the script from one of the episodes that I auditioned with, by writer Noah Pink and subsequent writers, was so wonderful. I usually audition for fluffy, banal parts and to have this woman written in a respectful, interesting, analytical, complex way was like coming up for air. And then the process of shooting in Prague was a dream come true. One of the things I'm so grateful for is they gave time to the very female struggles and questions that Mileva had to deal with. They really gave time to her arc. She started out as this rocket ship turning up at University, outdoing others in mathematics, and demanding to be an equal to men. She's this glittering person with the potential to be an amazing genius in her own right. And then life happens to her in only the way it can to a female.

The series portrays that her father was actually her biggest advocate, and her mother was unappreciative of her career aspirations.

Yes, she tells her mother that she won't be someone's maid and is opting out of that female side. But then she does get with Albert, gets pregnant and then has to be his wife and somehow try and keep house for him. It's this death by a thousand cuts. Suddenly, their meeting of the minds and their passion for each other is somehow qualified to this whole other side of her that is required, and she's not necessarily cut out for.

A woman sacrificing her career for more traditional maternal roles is still an issue 114 years later.

You know, Serena Williams just announced she's pregnant, and won the Grand Slam while pregnant. And people are going, "How will she get back to tennis, and will she want to?" The answer there is Andy Murray wasn't asked that when he recently became a father. It wasn't on anyone's minds. Why are we talking about that? And that's why it's relevant today in 2017. I am an actress, and I have the audacity that I have a right to a career, doing what I think I'm good at. But I'm part of these discussions as well because I want to be someone's partner, or someone's mum, so how do I do that? I'm so grateful that they [showed] Mileva within the series being chewed up and spat out, and that's it's wrong. It wasn't fair and it wasn't right.

Even Wikipedia is rather dismissive of her impact on Einstein's life.

It drives me nuts! I feel like going on there and editing it. (Laughs)

You really have to search out scientific journals, or writings that dive into Mileva's personal letters for proper context about her life with Einstein, and their ugly divorce.

Yes, the letters for me became a real safety blanket, and also this mine of interest. I got a bit lost in them. There was the letters between Albert and Mileva, but more tellingly were the letters between Mileva and her best friend, Helene Savic. Those letters are much more vulnerable. I really connected with Mileva's on the basis of her self-doubt and her vulnerability, and extreme warmth and loyalty. One of my favorite things she wrote to Helena was her saying, "To survive all of this, I made this set of armor - this overweening countenance - and that's why I don't think I'm lovable. I don't think I'm worthy of love. Do you think if I approach people on a more vulnerable level without that countenance, people will love me?" It's heartbreaking to know she wasn't given the love and respect that she deserved.

Einstein had a long term affair with his first cousin as Mileva was raising their children in Zürich. He referred to Mileva as bitter in his letters. Did your research illuminate that for you?

I read a few things from her best friend's granddaughter, and she remembers being on a walk with Mileva who was lumbering along the river. She said as a little girl she was scared of Mileva because she was prickly and had a boot she would hide under her skirts. I always imagine her as a conker, which is a prickly shell on the outside and an amazing chestnut inside. She had to make this shell to be taken seriously and smash through all the layers of bullshit. But then underneath, she's this Slavic soul. They are deeply loyal. She never remarried. Her life was about Albert. Once she connected, that was it. She was so loving to her best friend and Albert. I fell in love with Mileva Marić. I was constantly hoping she thought what I was doing was ok.

In the series, were there any moments that were particularly special to you in illuminating Mileva's character?

Some of my favorites include when I have to throw a teapot at Albert. (Laughs) And the initial tussles where she's trying to repel him, and not being able to. I also love the moments when the demise of their marriage started. The points of miscommunication started, and the break in their connection. I remember looking at Johnny (Flynn) as Albert saying, "You don't get how unfair this is to me. And you can't see that it's unfair." For me going through it as Mileva didn't feel like scenes, but an overall acknowledgement of the injustice that was happening, and the deepening sadness that only happens when you're so disenfranchised. Going back to her letters, when she says, "I'm terribly depressed and I'm trying to tell myself I'm imagining things," I'm sitting there thinking you are getting screwed over! It's not you being nuts, or bad, or inherently broken. I think someone with an inward eye can self-judge and self-change, which is what she did. But all she needed was someone to say, "No, love. This is bad actually. It's not fair."

Young Einstein and Mileva clash on campus. 

Was there a breaking point moment for the character in the series?

There's a fire as a result of Mileva taking her eye off the ball a bit, and Albert is cross with her. She says I don't know what's wrong with me, and I'm so upset for her because it's not just her that's broken. The fire endangers the kids, and Albert accuses her of being a bit nuts. She took all the blame and pressure onto herself when everything else was crushing her. The fire was symbolic.

As Genius plays out, we get a much better picture of their failed marriage and Marić's place in Einstein's legacy. What do you hope this show does in terms of reframing Mileva?

I really hope she stops being called Albert Einstein's first wife. I hope people start to say she was an amazing physicist in her own right, and yes, she was instrumental in the beginning stages of Albert Einstein being the genius he ended up being. I hope more weight is given to what she did, not just the research or the maths. There are people who can say there's no data of that and it's just letters. But what you can't dispute is that she was his partner. She supported him and told him it was ok to be curious, push boundaries and she told him it was ok to be different. And a genius is someone showing the future before it's here. She had a part in him being that, so without Mileva we wouldn't have Albert Einstein. And I hope someone edits Wikipedia. (Laughs)

Genius airs on the National Geographic Channel Tuesdays at 9/8c.

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