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Sam Riley took science lessons to play Pierre Curie in 'Radioactive'

Sam Riley stars in the new movie Radioactive. File Photo by Rune Hellestad/UPI
Sam Riley stars in the new movie "Radioactive." File Photo by Rune Hellestad/UPI | License Photo

LOS ANGELES, July 24 (UPI) -- Sam Riley and Rosamund Pike play Nobel Prize-winning scientists Pierre and Marie Curie in the new film Radioactive. Riley said that to be convincing in presenting scientific monologues, director Marjane Satrapi insisted the actors learn about the science the Curies studied.

"We had science lessons from a professor in Budapest, where we shot the movie," Riley told UPI in a recent phone interview. "[We had] to learn how to handle the equipment and to understand what it was we were pretending to do."

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As the Curies, Pike and Riley explain their discovery of elements radium and polonium to the turn-of-the-century scientific community. Riley said Satrapi was the best teacher on set.

"Marjane explained a lot of it to me and would explain it to me again and again when I failed to grasp certain aspects," Riley said.

Riley became even more confused when Satrapi asked him to meet Pike for a chemistry test. Most movies test their lead actors together before they finalize casting. Given the subject of Radioactive, Riley was worried he was about to be quizzed.

"I bought Chemistry for Dummies and desperately tried to read," Riley said. "Then I learned that a chemistry test is a movie term to see whether we had any on-screen chemistry with one another."

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When learning about the background of Pierre's discoveries, Riley said he found he had become a better student since becoming an actor, and has added science to the list of skills he's learned for various roles. That list also includes horseback riding, fighting and languages.

"Now that I'm an adult, I actually enjoy learning more than I did when I was in school," Riley said.

In his preparations, Riley said he also found documentaries on the Curies on YouTube, and he made a playlist of Claude Debussy music of the era. He said he had time to immerse himself in that research while undergoing daily makeup to apply Pierre Curie's beard.

"My beard was individual yak hairs glued on, so there was lots of time to read or listen to music," Riley said.

Riley went through similar processes for playing historical characters like author Jack Kerouac in On the Road and Joy Division singer Ian Curtis in Control. Because Pierre Curie died in 1906, before the widespread use of motion picture cameras, most images of him are still photographs. Riley felt that gave him more freedom than a media figure like Curtis, whose stage performances he had to mimic precisely.

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"You're able to interpret that yourself and bring something emotionally honest to it," Riley said. "It doesn't have to be quite so much of an impersonation of somebody."

Working in close proximity to radioactive chemicals gave Pierre and Marie Curie radiation poisoning. Pierre's illness manifests with a cough in Radioactive.

"Once you really start making yourself cough like that, you really can't stop," Riley said. "On those days, I felt hoarse."

Radioactive portrays the Curies' relationship developing in concert with their scientific discoveries. During their courtship, Pierre offers Marie space in his lab. They appear as excited about moving into a bigger lab as they are about the plans for their wedding.

In one of the film's occasional departures from strictly scientific scenes, Pierre and Marie spend an afternoon skinny-dipping together.

"Marjane thought it was important [to show] that passionate people are passionate in all the diverse aspects of their life," Riley said. "They're very passionate about their love of science. They were very passionate about one another."

Pierre also saw the potential for combining his background in psychics with hers in chemistry, Riley says. The Nobel Committee wanted to award Pierre Curie the Nobel Prize for the discovery of spontaneous radioactivity. He would not accept unless they awarded the prize to both of them.

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Riley admired Pierre's progressive views on gender equality. The Curies received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903.

"He's not a modern man," Riley said. "He's a man of the future in a way."

Radioactive premieres Friday on Amazon Prime.

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