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.
Within their own division, women have reached new heights, received accolades for outstanding physical performance and endurance, and have proven themselves to be as capable of athletic excellence as men. In spite of women's collective fight to be recognized as equals to their male counterparts, female athletes must now prove their womanhood in order to compete alongside their own gender.
That has been the reality for Caster Semenya, a South African Olympic champion, who has been at the center of the latest gender discrimination debate across the world. After crushing her competition in the women's 800-meter dash in 2016, Semenya was subjected to scrutiny from her peers based upon her physical appearance, calling her gender into question. Despite setting a new national record for South Africa and attaining the title of fifth fastest woman in Olympic history, Semenya's success was quickly brushed aside as she became a spectacle for all the wrong reasons.
Semenya's gender became a hot topic among reporters as the Olympic champion was subjected to sex testing by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). According to Ruth Padawer from the New York Times, Semenya was forced to undergo relentless examination by gender experts to determine whether or not she was woman enough to compete as one. While the IAAF has never released the results of their testing, that did not stop the media from making irreverent speculations about the athlete's gender.
Moments after winning the Berlin World Athletics Championship in 2009, Semenya was faced with immediate backlash from fellow runners. Elisa Cusma who suffered a whopping defeat after finishing in sixth place, felt as though Semenya was too masculine to compete in a women's race. Cusma stated, "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She's a man." While her statement proved insensitive enough, her perspective was acknowledged and appeared to be a mutually belief among the other white female competitors.
Fast forward to 2018, the IAAF issued new Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development) that apply to events from 400m to the mile, including 400m hurdles races, 800m, and 1500m. The regulations created by the IAAF state that an athlete must be recognized at law as either female or intersex, she must reduce her testosterone level to below 5 nmol/L continuously for the duration of six months, and she must maintain her testosterone levels to remain below 5 nmol/L during and after competing so long as she wishes to be eligible to compete in any future events. It is believed that these new rules have been put into effect to specifically target Semenya given her history of being the most recent athlete to face this sort of discrimination.
With these regulations put into effect, in combination with the lack of information about whether or not Semenya is biologically a female of male, society has seemed to come to the conclusion that Semenya is intersex, meaning she was born with any variation of characteristics, chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. After her initial testing, there had been alleged leaks to media outlets such as Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper which stated that Semenya's results proved that her testosterone levels were too high. This information, while not credible, has been widely accepted as fact. Whether or not Semenya is intersex, society appears to be missing the point that no one is entitled to this information. Running off their newfound acceptance that the Olympic champion is intersex, it calls into question whether her elevated levels of testosterone makes her a man.
The IAAF published a study concluding that higher levels of testosterone do, in fact, contribute to the level of performance in track and field. However, higher testosterone levels have never been the sole determining factor for sex or gender. There are conditions that affect women, such as PCOS, in which the ovaries produce extra amounts of testosterone. However, those women never have their womanhood called into question, nor should they—and neither should Semenya.
Every aspect of the issue surrounding Semenya's body has been deplorable, to say the least. However, there has not been enough recognition as to how invasive and degrading sex testing actually is. For any woman, at any age, to have her body forcibly examined and studied like a science project by "experts" is humiliating and unethical. Under no circumstances have Semenya's health or well-being been considered upon discovering that her body allegedly produces an excessive amount of testosterone. For the sake of an organization, for the comfort of white female athletes who felt as though Semenya's gender was an unfair advantage against them, Semenya and other women like her, must undergo hormone treatment to reduce their performance to that of which women are expected to perform at. Yet some women within the athletic community are unphased by this direct attempt to further prove women as inferior athletes.
As difficult as this global invasion of privacy has been for the athlete, the humiliation and sense of violation is felt by her people in South Africa. Writer and activist, Kari, reported that Semenya has had the country's undying support since her first global appearance in 2009. Even after the IAAF released their new regulations, South Africans have refuted their accusations. Kari stated, "The Minister of Sports and Recreation and the Africa National Congress, South Africa's ruling party labeled the decision as anti-sport, racist, and homophobic." It is no secret that the build and appearance of Black women have always been met with racist and sexist commentary. Because Black women have never managed to fit into the European standard of beauty catered to and in favor of white women, the accusations of Semenya appearing too masculine were unsurprising.
Despite the countless injustices Semenya has faced over the years, she remains as determined as ever to return to track and field and compete amongst women as the woman she is. Her fight against the IAAF's regulations continues as the Olympic champion has been receiving and outpour of support in wake of the Association's decision. Semenya is determined to run again, win again, and set new and inclusive standards for women's sports.