Alan Alda may be best known for his acting prowess — which has earned him a Tony Award, numerous Emmy Awards, and an Oscar nomination — but his first love has always been writing. His newest play, Radiance: The Passion of Marie Curie, will receive a star-studded reading as part of the World Science Festival at Lincoln Center on June 1 — with a cast headed Maggie Gyllenhaal, Liev Schreiber, Mireille Enos, and Allison Janney — and then have its official world premiere at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles this season. Alda recently spoke to TheaterMania about the play, his writing process, and returning to Broadway, among other topics.
THEATERMANIA: Why did you decide to write a play about Marie Curie?
ALAN ALDA: If you didn’t know about Marie Curie, you would be missing one of the most powerful stories that ever happened — not just as a scientist, but as an extraordinarily passionate and emotional person. She allows you to see her work in a way no other scientist does, and because of that, I am allowed to have a certain amount of science in this play without stopping to do a lecture. I’m in love with her. I said to my wife that she’s lucky that Marie lived 100 years ago, and if she ran into me she wouldn’t have anything to do with me.
TM: Do you remember when you first heard about Marie?
I’m sure I saw the movie, Madame Curie, with Greer Garson when I was a kid. But the movie left out the scandal with her lover. That’s not surprising, since it was based on a book by her daughter, who didn’t want to make much of that event. My play shows Marie in a struggle for her existence as a woman and a scientist — everything was stacked against her, and everything she wanted to do was obstructed by France. That she comes out in a way triumphant, but damaged, is remarkable. The risks she took to understand radiation were enormous.
TM: What kind of research did you do to prepare this play?
AA: I read a lot of biographies, papers, notebooks, letters — whatever has been published. Some of her letters are at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris and they are still radioactive, so I didn’t go there. I am not as brave as Marie. One of my trips to Paris, I went to her lab, and a guy showed me a page from her diary which is under glass and then he removed the glass, held a Geiger counter to page and it registered. She was exposed to so much radium that everything she touched was radioactive. It’s amazing she lived to 67. Oh, and on one trip to Paris, I also walked from the Sorbonne, where she studied, to the apartment of her lover just to be in her footsteps. It took me about 25 minutes, but I figure she ran.
TM: It sounds like you really identify with her in some ways. Is that true?
AA: I do take Marie personally. I’ve been working on this play for three years — and I could have been doing other things. When I would come to a roadblock and things looked dark, I would remember Marie and how she never gave up in order to find something no one ever had seen before. Her courage gave me strength. And maybe people watching this play will gain some strength for her as well.
TM: So what will it take to get you back to Broadway?
AA: I loved doing QED, particularly because I only did it twice a week — Sunday and Mondays — at the Vivian Beaumont. So when I went on each night, I was really ready to go and the audience was ready to be there. I think we need to find more use of those dark nights, both for the people on the stage and the people on the other side of the stage. If I could do that again, I would love it.
TM: You are heading back to television this season as a recurring guest star on Showtime’s The Big C. What can you tell me about that gig?
AA: I love working with Laura Linney. I play her current oncologist, who is very busy saving lives. He’s a fun character to play.
TM: You’re making a mini-career out of playing doctors, from M*A*S*H to E.R. to The Big C. Did you ever want to be a doctor?
AA: No. My father [Broadway star Robert Alda] really wanted me to a doctor. But I wanted to be a writer first, then an actor. I knew I didn’t want to be a doctor, because I was afraid I would be covered in blood. Of course, eventually I was, but it was stage blood, thank god.