It's a popular image: Albert Einstein sitting with wild hair in front of an equation-riddled chalkboard. The German Jewish physicist who reinvented the way we looked at gravity, energy, time, and is heralded for adding a fourth dimension to Newton's description of a three-dimensional space, had a little-known scientific sous-chef: his wife Mileva Marić.
SWAAY spoke to Samantha Colley, the British actress who took on the challenge of playing Marić in National Geographic's new series, Genius, about Einstein's softer side, women in science and the role her character played in her husband's fame.
“I didn't know Mileva Marić was even a real woman," says Colley. “To me she's this feminist icon who just sat there in history who really needs to be unearthed. So when I went about researching her, I learned along the way [she was] this amazing trailblazing, independent-thinking woman. She's an example of a woman who wasn't given the credit that she deserved. Many do not know Mileva Marić was instrumental in some of Einstein's most eminent work." In fact, it is widely rumored that Marić helped Einstein finalize his Theory of Relativity.
Samantha Colley as Mileva Marić (National Geographic/Dusan Martincek)
Marić, a Serbian scientist who was married to Einstein between 1903 and 1919, was Einstein's only female peer at Zurich's Polytechnic, and the second in history to finish a full math and physics degree at the university. During a time when women were not credited for their work in the scientific field, and many of their discoveries were incorrectly and sexistly attributed to their supervisors, Marić was an unsung hero.
According to Colley, the relationship between them greatly influenced what Einstein was able to accomplish. “They were connected mentally and physically; it was a meeting of minds," says Colley. “They were incredibly sexually attracted to one another. Their letters are full of humor, and this kind of bohemian desire for each other, and passion. It was a beautiful, beautiful love story. I honestly believe if the domestic side didn't come into it, if there weren't kids and home and marriage and if they just stayed being research partners and pushing towards advancements together, then we'd know them as like the Curies [scientific superstars, Marie Curie and her husband Pierre Curie]. I think it's important the Mileva Marić's role in Einstein's life was so instrumental."
Samantha Colley Courtesy of Parade
For Geoffrey Rush, who played adult Einstein in the Ron Howard-directed series, stepping outside of the stereotypes and focusing on the person behind the scientific accomplishments was also an important strategy.
“I wanted to think outside of him being a scientist because that's a given," says Rush. "There's a kind of deep-rooted Yiddish spirit or level of wit that he was obviously very good at because when you see some of the footage of when he first went to America or Britain and he got off the boat, within seconds he'd have a group of newfound friends or reporters cackling pretty seriously. His optimism and sparkle are present in his humanitarian outlook, and he seemed to work a lot off of comic presence... He was a glass half full kind of guy."
Here are 10 questions with Samantha Colley, the woman who played Rush's on-screen better half.
1. What drew you to this role?
When I found that out [about Marić's life and accomplishments], and seeing that I didn't have that [role model] when I was growing up or for myself now, it energized me and made me excited about doing the project. I think one of the triumphs of the series is that they really give time to Mileva's story – the proper arch of her jumping out as this person with huge potential. [The show] shows her meeting Albert at the University and scoring higher than him on his exams and really setting herself apart, promising she wasn't going to be someone's mate, that she would be an individual herself, have a glittering scientific career and contribute to the scientific landscape. And then having very real female choices comes in, which happens to this day, between being someone's wife, someone's mom, and someone's career.
Johnny Flynn (young Albert Einstein) with Samantha Colley National Geographic/Dusan Martincek)
2. How did you prepare to play the wife of such a beloved icon?
If you Google Mileva Marić you see these black and white photos of this very rigid woman. She seems like you can't really access her. The writing about her [from that time] is that she was a very formidable, stern, prickly woman. She was born with a congenital hip misalignment, so she limped and is presented as a bit of a dark soul. But actually my first lesson revealed her to be incredibly warm, loving and vulnerable and riddled with self doubt. She wondered if she was worthy of love. It's heartbreaking to know then that she wasn't given recognition. In Albert Einstein's letters he calls her his "right hand." He says, “I can't work without you. I can't live without you, I can't think without you." What I connected to in playing her was that it was very important to me to respect her. I really wanted to breathe life into her story, and I really fell in love with her. I just kept thinking 'I hope she's happy with what I'm doing.' She suffered from schizophrenia as well later on in life and I was just very conscious about making it a truthful, but respectful, telling of her story.
3. How exactly did Mileva Marić influence Einstein?
We think of Albert Einstein as this father of physics and we don't actually think of how we got there. Mileva Marić, I believe, was absolutely instrumental in him becoming the genius he went on to be. The thing I love about the series is we see the start – we see a young man with a curious mind who was questioning things and people kept trying to silence him. Mileva Marić was the first person who said “It's good you're curious, keep asking questions, I support you, I'm here." She allowed him and facilitated him. Yes, there was the nurturing and the support of being a sounding board, but also when he was holding down a job at the patent office, she was in the library researching, checking his math. She gave him three children. Without her, I don't think Albert Einstein would have reached the level of becoming the world's first celebrity. They had a fierce, fierce connection, that he, himself, said he would never have again.
4. What did you learn about the couple that surprised you?
I was blown away that they were these young people who were passionate, funny and very witty. They were these Bohemian, musician poets who were also great minds. We think of Einstein and we think of an old man with crazy hair. We don't see him at the beginning when he was just a curious young man. But, from my point of view, the life of Mileva Marić was a tragic story. She had the potential but she got kind of chewed up and spat out and wasn't given the credit and respect that she deserved. I was really interested in righting that wrong. If a young girl says "that's an interesting woman, I'm going to Google her" and "I won't let that happen to me," I consider that a success.
5. What did you learn about women in science in history throughout this process?
At the time, women's roles were in the house and those science careers were reserved for men. We talk about the late 1800s and there are many women, like Esther Lederberg, Lise Meitner, Rosalind Franklin, Nettie Stevens, all these people who made vast advancements in science, like the understanding the DNA helix. All of their achievements were cited through their supervisors, who were male, and a lot of their positions were noted as volunteers rather than researchers. The Noble Prizes went to the men when they were meant to go to the women. Again, it's still relevant today. You're an anomaly as a woman in science, technology, or coding. Even as an actor you get spoken to like you are 'less than,' just because you are a woman. You have to jump through the extra hoops to prove you are an equal. I'm asserting myself a lot more to give people a signal that they have to treat me like an equal. It's a constant choice that women have to make that men don't.
6. In your opinion, why was Mileva Marić not celebrated?
She's not just the one we don't celebrate; there's an endless painful list of women we don't celebrate. I also think that Mileva Marić wasn't palatable; she didn't care about getting on with people and she didn't care about fitting a particular mold. She was avant-garde in that way. She was flying in the face of things people wanted her to be. Also, the moment schizophrenia or any weakness came into play, it's very easy that people just dismiss you. Being a woman was one thing, but to also be Serbian and have schizophrenia meant there were many things working against her.
7. Do you see this show as timely considering today's women issues?
[With all that's going on in the world,] these issues became increasingly relevant, and continue to be relevant. As an actress in 2017 I still have to wrestle with these choices. I want to be an actress, but in my personal life I want to be someone's partner, and I want to be someone's mom. When Serena Williams announced she was pregnant, there were all these questions about how it would affect her tennis career and how it might hold her back. There aren't those questions when men become fathers. It's these pressures on women where there has to be a choice to go after a career or be a mother. For a women [who doesn't have kids] there's an implication that you are selfish or you are missing out on a huge part of life. On the flip side, women who stay home are shamed into thinking “you are nothing but." For women, I think it's a precarious spot and no matter what you do, you're damned if you do, and damned if you don't. Unfortunately I don't think that's going to change, and Mileva Marić is an example of a woman who couldn't make it work.
Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.