Radioactive director Marjane Satrapi and actor Sam Riley on their “unconventional” biopic

Radioactive director Marjane Satrapi is more than happy to admit she was good at science at school. Better than good. “I was very, very good,” she grins, appreciating that it makes her a great choice to direct the latest biopic of radiation pioneer Marie Curie. But she tempers it with the memory that “I got 20 out of 20 for maths, but only 2 out of 20 for economics and my teacher couldn’t understand why somebody who was so good at maths was so bad at economics. For me, economics meant that if I had money, I spent it and if I didn’t have it, I didn’t spend it!”

She and her leading actor, Sam Riley who plays Pierre Curie, are both clearly proud of their film, one which takes a less than conventional approach to telling the life story of the woman who discovered radium. It’s also radiation’s own biopic, taking its inspiration and lead from the original graphic novel by Lauren Redniss and it was an approach that Satrapi was determined should be reflected in her film. Including scenes that showed the atomic bomb and cancer treatment, among others, didn’t come without challenges. “You have to think about the moment when they appear, because it has to be done in a smooth way. You can’t just drop them in anywhere, so there was a lot of work to make sure they were there at the right moment so it would make sense. The first third of the film is like a standard biopic, because the characters are being introduced and they’ve not discovered radium, but once they have, it just takes off.” And she adds, “But if it had been a normal biopic of Marie Curie I wouldn’t have wanted to do it.”

As well as being the story of Marie Curie and her discovery, it also belongs to Pierre Curie, who shared the Nobel Prize with his wife. Before he was approached to be in the film, he knew “embarrassingly little” about the man. “When I was growing up there were famous women in history, such as Marie Curie, so I had an idea of what she had done and knew her discovery had made her ill but I knew very little about Pierre. It was reading the script and meeting Marjane and the enthusiasm that she had for the book written by Marie Curie about Pierre Curie which she gave me – a gift of information written by the woman who adored him – that drew me in. What an incredible man and what an incredible couple.”

The prospect of working with Rosamund Pike, who plays Marie, was another reason he couldn’t turn down the part. “She’s a fabulous, intense actress and the thought of working with her was exciting and the chance to be part of that chemistry was really appealing. And when I read the book that Marjane gave me, I was sitting in the airport reading it and, while it sounds ridiculous, I felt I could understand it on whatever level that’s required and I had an incredibly emotional response which I can’t quite explain. I was invited to do a chemistry test with Rosamund, which I thought was very thorough of the production team to test my chemistry skills – then I learned what a chemistry test is! Her interpretation of Marie – and the writing and Marjane’s ideas – really appealed to me. Rosamund is such a great performer that you can’t fail to be fascinated by how she’s doing it all. And when you work with people who are electric like that, you receive it and you give it back and it just happens. It raises your game.”

Both hope that the film will help with breaking down the traditional view that science isn’t for women. “If you look at the history of aviation, in the beginning there were just as many women pilots as men: the patriarchal culture hadn’t influenced it and there was freedom,” says Satrapi. “As soon as it did, the women couldn’t be pilots any more. Now, in 2020, we’re surprised if we get on a plane and find out that the captain is a woman and yet 120 years ago, half of them were! By repeating to women that what we do is emotional, we become like little cute cats and if you repeatedly tell somebody they’re incapable, that’s exactly how they become! I hope things will change. There’s so much talent that gets wasted because the girls wouldn’t dare to do it.”

Riley is due back on screens, potentially towards the end of the year, in the latest from regular collaborator, director Ben Wheatley. He confesses he’s not seen the finished version of Rebecca yet, but “Ben’s version will be different to the Hitchcock one, otherwise he wouldn’t have done it. He’s very good at menace and suspense, so I think it’s going to be great. It’s lovely when somebody wants to work with you again and doesn’t just say it, but does it.” At which point, he and Satrapi both hint at working together again in the future and, while they won’t reveal more, she’s clearly enthusiastic about the idea. “The second I get a chance, I’ll dive head first into it!”

Marjane Satrapi and Sam Riley were talking to Freda Cooper

Radioactive is released on Friday, 20 March 2020

Read our review here