Sexy, funny and a little bit feminist: the story of Albert Einstein’ early life isn’t what you’d expect. One of the most inspirational characters in National Geographic Channel’s new show about the famous scientist Genius, premiering tonight, is his first wife—and long-rumoured co-author of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity—Mileva Marić. A great scientific mind in her own right, Marić met Einstein at Zurich’s prestigious Swiss Polytechnic School where she was the only woman in their class and only the fifth in the school’s history. (Oh and P.S. she also scored higher than him on the school entrance exam, NBD).
English actress Samantha Colley (who recently made the leap from theatre to TV where she’s had roles in Endeavor and the PBS period drama Victoria) is bringing Marić to life for the first time on television in the new series. You may recognize the show from its Super Bowl commercial where Einstein (played by Geoffrey Rush) rocks out to Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” on the violin—an ad that made it clear Genius *not* your great-grandmother’s stuffy Einstein biopic. Rush plays the more elder wild-haired version of the rebel scientist, post-fame, while poet, musician and actor Johnny Flynn takes on the role of young Einstein, a punk whose curiosity and divergent thinking caused a lot of problems for him in his early life. On the show, we encounter different facets of his personality: the drop-out, the musician and the womanizer.
Here, FLARE chats with Colley about portraying a woman whose life was so unbelievable she thought Marić was a fictional character upon first reading the script, how she connects with the character on a personal level and why she totes gets the Einstein attraction.
What was your first impression of Mileva Marić?
I feel quite ashamed, actually, because I didn’t know who Mileva Marić was, so I made the assumption she was a fictional character that had been created. Once I researched her, it was this gold mine of amazing, inspirational material. She’s a bit of a feminist icon, actually, which just sat there in history and nobody really knows about it.
What was it like playing her?
It was such a refreshing thing to be playing a really rich role where the woman isn’t just a piece of fluff. She’s a real inspirational, badass person and I love watching those kinds of roles and stories. It was a really special time to be given the space to make this wonderful woman live and breathe again and getting her really important story out there. I really hope that a young girl or young woman will watch and think that things are possible and to be inspired to go for things more.
Marić’s lines are very scientific and complex in the show. How did you connect with this character on a more personal level?
What I really connected to, in my research, were Mileva’s letters and the self-doubt and vulnerability in them. I connected to the human side. When you look at photos of Einstein and Mileva, you see black and white pictures that seem very stiff and they don’t seem like modern people anymore. But the things that we are bringing to life are very modern, especially the women’s issues—the very real choice of being someone’s mother, someone’s girlfriend, someone’s wife, or going towards your hopes and your dreams and your capacity to reach your full potential. That’s a choice I struggle with as an actress now in 2017.
Was there anything about Einstein’s life that you were surprised to learn?
So much! When I was reading his letters to Mileva, I was surprised and happy to see he was this cheeky, witty, humorous, punk of a person. I could see why Mileva was attracted to him. I could see why Einstein was this heartthrob, rock star of the scientific world. I was also surprised at what a gifted musician he was.
Could you see yourself marrying Einstein IRL?
I noticed Albert Einstein is like a light. You can really feel when the light is shining on you, but you can really feel it when the light’s taken away. I don’t know if I can marry that. You can have some fun with that, but marrying? I don’t know.
If you could have lunch with one woman you consider a genius, who would that be?
Mileva Marić. One of the things I love knowing about Mileva is she scored higher than Albert Einstein at their first exams at university. Before she got with him, before she fell pregnant, before she dropped out of university, she was on a stretch to have more of a glittering mind than he did. I’d love to sit down with her and ask her about a lot of stuff.
What’s the first thing you’d ask her?
I’d ask her about courage and bravery. During the time she was alive, women didn’t rise through the ranks of education, especially in Serbia, where it wasn’t really done. The pressure to be the wife and the mother and sit within the female role was so strong. She had a wonderful father who championed her but it took guts.
The show brings up a lot of themes, like the idea that science can be sexy. What do you hope audiences take away from the show?
It’s inspirational. It’s the idea that people want minds like Albert Einstein. He started as a little boy who could barely speak and people thought he was just this kind of annoying, contrarian voice. It gives hope to the curious minds and it gives hope to the idea that one can be a free thinker. One can not take no for an answer and one can think outside the box and that can be okay. If anything, taking away that trying to be a free thinker and questioning things is always a good thing.
Genius premieres April 25 at 9/8c on National Geographic. National Geographic is on National Free Preview until May 15.