On the genius of Mileva Maric, Einstein’s first wife.
Dress and earring SIMONE ROCHA
“Discover the man behind the mind,” reads the tagline for National Geographic’s new show, a ten-part series that examines the life of Nobel Prize winning theorist, Albert Einstein. Traditionally more privy to exporting documentaries, Genius is the 16 year-old channel’s debut foray into scripted drama and boasts an accomplished line-up: Geoffrey Rush shares the lead role with Johnny Flynn while Emily Watson appears in two episodes; Ron Howard has a director’s credit.
In the stylist’s chair of an east London studio – on a bright Thursday afternoon sometime in early April – is the actress Samantha Colley. Previously starring opposite Richard Armitage in The Old Vic’s rendition of The Crucible, Colley’s next move is Mileva Maric, a Serbian physicist and Einstein’s first wife. The pair met at Zürich Polytechnic – Maric was the only person to score higher than Albert on the entrance exam.
A role which saw Samantha shooting in Prague for six months “I started out in real sweaty, hot blistering sunshine,” she says, “and then we ended in deep deep snow in the middle of winter,” the show also introduced her to Maric’s early feminism, something the actress took great delight in exploring: the woman behind the man behind the mind. And no doubt fans will too.
Top MULBERRY, jeans NORDIC POETRY, shoes SIMONE ROCHA
So talk us through Genius.
I think the main thing I want to say about it is it’s not just about science and it’s not just a nerdy programme – it’s not focusing on physics or anything like that – it’s actually his life, in terms of being a very important icon. It also opens up to the wider people in his life, and that’s where my character comes in, Mileva Maric who was a bit of a feminist icon, that I had no idea about; she was a fiercely intelligent person in her own right, and also the mother of his kids and his first wife.
What kind of research did the role require?
When I first got the audition I thought they’d made a love interest up for Einstein, which I thought was a bit naff, and then I researched and found out she was a real person, and again was blown away because she’s this feminist icon. I found the letters between Mileva Maric and Albert Einstein, and also between Mileva Maric and her best friend Helene Savic, and that was really where I went; it was like a goldmine. You go onto Google and you see these stock, black and white images, and you know who those people are, but these letters were just like so amazing. It kind of revealed Albert Einstein, we think of him now as like this old man by a chalkboard but in these letters, he’s sexy, humorous, witty, kind of a hedonistic bad guy, I mean I was reading them thinking ‘yeah he’s really hot’.
And Mileva Maric?
As I say, from a feminist point of view I couldn’t believe that there was this woman sat there, who I had no idea about, and I would just love to have known about her when I was younger, or still now, as an example of courage and pushing forward for equality and not taking no for an answer. She was born with a congenital hip misalignment so she had a physical limp, so she overcame that adversity, and also she rose through higher education when it was kind of impossible for women; she was the only woman at the Zürich Polytechnic. It’s this known thing that she scored higher than him in a mathematics exam to get into university, so she was this amazing woman who used the first part of her life, before meeting Albert, to just push to be taken as an equal to the other men, to be taken seriously in the world of science, and to be taken seriously as a woman.
And in terms of the cast, you share screen time with some pretty established names.
I mean it was nerve-wracking at first of course, meeting Geoffrey Rush and Ron Howard, but when you meet people like that, you suddenly go ‘oh my god’, people who are at that level get to that level because they are brilliant people and they’re hardworking and they’re amazing storytellers, and in the end we all became a real tight knit group. And then Johnny Flynn, one of the most generous actors I’ve ever worked with.
(LEFT) Dress PREEN BY THORNTON BREGAZZI, shoes BOTTEGA VENETA
(RIGHT) Top ROKIT, trousers HOUSE OF HOLLAND
Where did your own interest in acting stem from?
I’m not from an acting family at all, I had no idea how one would become an actor or that you could do it as a job, I just didn’t have that on my radar; I was doing really academic subjects at A Level – I needed something to level them out – I picked drama and got bitten then, my life course changed and I went off finding out how to become an actor.
You’ve worked on stage previously, how do the two compare?
I’d say there is a difference, I was trained mainly in theatre so I feel more at home there, I really love the collaborative sense of the theatre, you’re a company, and I love the concept of being able to start again the next day. But TV, I’m new to it, it’s a beautiful skill in its own way. So theatre, you almost have to accentuate everything, and for TV the art is kind of thinking loudly and making everything a bit smaller. But there’s an immediacy of TV, you do loads of takes, but you can’t keep working on something and keep it being this moving organic thing.
And your acting heroes?
I’ve got loads, one of my favourites is Michael Shannon, some of the things he says about acting are just… I kind of devour any interview he does because I love the things he says, I love the reasons why he’s an actor, it’s not about fame and fortune, it’s about storytelling. One of my favourite things he ever said was something like, “acting is an appreciation of people” it was saying people are that special, stories are that special and then I love how he is varied in every role, his detail. I mean obviously, the god that is Meryl Streep, Cillian Murphy I love, I love Helen McCory, I love Michelle Williams, I just re-watched Blue Valentine recently and oh my god it really, it affected me more now than when I watched it the first time.
Such an emotional film! So as a young actor in 2017, how important is social media as a professional tool?
It’s a bit of a double edged sword, I think there are actors who use it and need it, I’m just wary of the amount of followers that you garner starting to be important with who gets jobs. From my point of view, the actors I like the most are when they disappear into the role and I don’t recognise them, like Michael Shannon, I don’t know what he had for breakfast that morning or where he was on Friday night or what he thinks about something mundane in his life, but I really believe him as the people he’s trying to portray, and I like the magic of that. There are some actors who don’t need it and don’t use it and then there are other people where it’s a bit of a tool. I’d like to not live and die by how many followers I have.
Genius premieres on National Geographic on 23rd April.