The Sunday Conversation: Alan Alda

Hollywood hyphenate Alan Alda adds playwriting to his credits with the opening of “Radiance: The Passion of Marie Curie,” which runs through Dec. 11 at the Geffen Playhouse. Alda, 75, also appears on-screen as a Wall Street swindler in the Eddie Murphy-Ben Stiller caper comedy “Tower Heist.”

Tell me about your fascination with Marie Curie.

What led me to write a play about her was I realized from reading what a dramatic and important life she led. But what kept me writing about her is how much of a hero she’s become to me – a personal hero – because she never let any obstacle stop her, and she had many, many obstacles, as a woman, as a scientist, as a foreigner in the country in which she worked. She’s pulled me through a number of times when I thought, “This is getting too tough.”

What was tough about it?


Any play is hard to write, and plays are getting harder and harder to get on the stage. It’s not only about the play. I hear her in my head when I’m facing any kind of a problem quite apart from this play or professional life in general. Men and women alike hold her as their hero. And it’s because she’s such a strong force through her concentration and in a way through her obsessive application of herself to science. I think that obsession was a function of her extreme ability to concentrate. But she was passionate about her work, and she was passionate about the people she loved. So she was a fully committed person. That’s one of the things that was so beautiful about her.

Is this your first play?

I’ve been writing plays since I was 8 years old. I call it my first play, because it’s the first play that’s going on the stage except for a short piece I wrote about Einstein that we did at the World Science Festival four years ago.

This isn’t your first entertainment project involving science. How far did your studies go?

I never formally studied science. In those days you were either interested in the arts or you were interested in science. No one thought you could be interested in both. I took a summer course in chemistry because my father wanted me to be a doctor and it was a premed course, and I really didn’t want to be a doctor, and that showed in my grade. But I’m fascinated with science, and that’s pretty much all I read. For 50 years I’ve just immersed myself in it, so whatever little I know is self-taught. Plus, I have a lot of friends who are scientists who’ve helped me out. I love to watch how scientists’ minds work. The great pleasure for me on [the PBS series] “Scientific American Frontiers” was not only to hear about their work but to hear their minds working as they described the steps they went through to get where they got.

One of the things I love about learning more about Marie is the process she went through, the leaps her brain took when she absorbed the data and figured out what it meant. Because almost nobody understood what radiation was when she and other people were discovering it. And to just form a hypothesis about what was going on was a big deal. Her hypothesis that radiation was a property of the atom itself was a tremendous leap because nobody thought anything could come out of the atom, that the atom was an indivisible solitary thing.

And yet as your play shows, she wasn’t able to accept her own Nobel Prize onstage.

That’s why most of the play takes place between those two Nobels. Because she goes from having to accept the fact that they won’t let her up onstage to eight years later, having grown into her own power to be able to say, “No, I will not give up the prize because you think my personal behavior is scandalous [she had an affair with a married colleague after her husband died]. You’re giving me the prize for my work, not for the person. And I’m coming to Stockholm, and I’m taking the prize so get ready.”


You’ve been a champion of women’s rights for many years. How did you become a feminist?

I don’t know. What I was conscious of is it just seemed fair; it seemed like the right thing to do, and I was also aware that I could be helpful by being public about it because it was coming from an unexpected direction.

But I haven’t said anything public about politics or feminism for about 25 years. It’s really important to me that nobody think that this play is an attempt on my part to write a tract or a feminist play. I think Marie Curie – and I’ve really been careful not to overstate anything – I think her story if told with accuracy leaves you outraged at unfair behavior like that. By the way, it wasn’t just anti-female barrages she had to endure; even anti-Semitism was aimed at her even though she wasn’t Jewish, but a way to diminish somebody in France in those days was to hint that they were Jewish. But I’m not trying to make any political points. I really don’t like plays or movies that service propaganda.

“Tower Heist” is a revenge fantasy on Wall Street, which is so different from movies during the Great Depression, which were fantasies about becoming one of them, not ruining them. What do you think that says about us?


I have no idea, but you have to realize the picture was planned starting 20 years ago. The timeliness of it is a function of what happened in the country, not what happened in the minds of the movie makers. Eddie Murphy had the idea for the movie 20 years ago; that’s what I’m told. It’s been in development for a long time. Brett Ratner, the director, has been working on it for two years, so it predated Bernie Madoff and it certainly predated the Occupy Wall Street movement. But I suppose to some extent it was influenced by the financial collapse that we had. The picture doesn’t go after Wall Street; it goes after one guy who cheats his clients, which is an age-old story. The whole question of fiduciary responsibility is a very old concept. You could make a movie about someone making that rule at any point in history, and within a few months, it will turn out to be timely.