‘Radioactive’ Director Marjane Satrapi on Hollywood Sexism: ‘I’m Allowed to Be Pissed’

Marjane Satrapi Radioactive Director
Courtesy of Laurie Sparham/Amazon Studios

Marie Curie’s barrier-breaking work as a physicist and chemist has inspired countless movies, plays and books over the years. But Marjane Satrapi, the director of “Radioactive,” a new film about Curie’s life and career, wasn’t interested in telling a conventional story of birth-to-death hagiography. 

Satrapi, Oscar nominated for her 2007 animated film “Persepolis,” has made a movie that’s equally engaged with the consequences of Curie’s pioneering work in isolating radioactive isotopes and her discovery of polonium and radium. “Radioactive” doesn’t just show the way in which these scientific advances helped doctors develop more effective treatments for cancer; it also dramatizes their role in unleashing destructive forces such as the atomic bomb. 

Would you describe “Radioactive” as a biopic?

I don’t think it’s a biopic. That would be [saying] we’re telling her story from beginning to end. It’s as much a biopic of her as it is a biopic of radioactivity. It’s not just about Marie Curie, this great woman. It’s about the aftermath of her discovery of radium. If it was a straight biopic, I’d have never done it.

Rosamund Pike is wonderful as Marie Curie. She’s such a chameleon in this and in “Gone Girl” or “A Private War,” but I feel like she doesn’t get the opportunities to shine that she should. Do you agree? 

You’re right. She’s very beautiful and studios don’t see the brain that is inside her head. She’s striking as a woman. The first time I saw her I thought she’s a star, she’s a goddess. But what is inside is more beautiful than the outside. She has lots and lots of capacity. When I met her for the first time she had this fire in her eyes and this intelligence. After that, I knew the only person who could play Marie was only Rosamund.

There’s been a lot of talk about the need for Hollywood to hire more female filmmakers and tell more stories about women. Has that resulted in change?

Beyond a certain budget, they don’t trust women directors. We can make smaller films, but bigger films — it’s “Oh, she doesn’t know how to handle it.” Of course we can handle it. It’s 5,000 years of culture. We cannot change it in five years. It will take time.

Half of the population of the world are women, but half of the movies are not about women. Women are always depicted in relation to men — they’re somebody’s wife or mother or lover. People say, “Oh, Marie Curie is tricky.” But she’s a genius, and if she was a man, people would just say, “Oh, he’s brilliant.” Women are just expected to be nice and very feminine. 

Have you experienced that kind of sexism?

As a director, if I become angry, they tell me, “Don’t become emotional.” They act like I’m being hysterical. People will ask, “Are you having your period?” — as if it’s a hormonal problem. And I say, “It’s not that; I’m allowed to be pissed.” 

People have asked you that in a work context?

Oh yeah. I say, “No, it’s not hormones. I’m just angry, and if you want, I can punch you in your face to show you how angry I am.” Society has decided that women act in a certain way. We always have to excuse ourselves for certain behavior and talk in a certain way. This is why Marie Curie is so modern. She was never part of a feminist movement, but she is a feminist. By her actions, she shows that she’s the equal of men. Most of the time she was much better than them. 

“Radioactive” will premiere on Amazon Prime. Are you sad that it won’t have a traditional theatrical release because of coronavirus?

There’s no filmmaker alive who prefers to be on a streaming thing rather than in the theaters. If it’s just going to be shown on a small screen, believe me we’re not going to make all this effort. I think about every detail in the background of the frame, because I know that in the cinema you will notice it. I prefer to see things in the cinema. It’s magical. I like to be in a dark room with lots of people. I’m not sitting there thinking, I’d like to make a pee pee or it’s time to send a text message. I’m in my seat for two hours, just concentrating on the film. I love that. At a same time, given the situation today, I’m very happy that people can watch “Radioactive,” even if it’s on streaming.

What’s one thing that you can’t live without?

My cigarettes. I know I shouldn’t say that, but it’s true.

What’s something that would surprise people about you?

Probably that I love gardening. I love to see plants grow. I can sit on my terrace and start to cry as a rose blooms in front of me. I don’t think I look like a gardener.

Have you been working on any new projects during lockdown?

The thing about the lockdown is it does not inspire any creativity in me whatsoever. For that, I need emotion, and I find that when I see people in the street and watch them going about their lives. I thought I was a misanthrope, but coronavirus made me realize how important it is to see people and hold them in your arms and just be close to them.

We need to be together. This virtual stuff is fine, but we should never forget that we are mammals and we need to smell each other and we need to see each other and have a sense of each other.