“What was Voltaire like in bed…?” Stylist sits down with the A-lister ahead of the release of her latest film, A Private War
Rosamund Pike understands that not all heroes wear capes. Some of her own female role models wear a very different kind of armour. Like Marie Colvin for example – the late, great war correspondent who Pike plays in her new film, A Private War.
“She loved nothing more than a chance to go to the Prada outlet in Florence,” Pike says of the American journalist. “On the battlefield, she wore red nail varnish and a Prada leather jacket with a North Face parka stuffed underneath. What a look!” Designer looks are part of the Rosamund Pike day job. She broke out back in the Nineties, in the Pierce Brosnan era of James Bond when she had the dubious honour of becoming the first Oxford-educated Bond girl.
It wasn’t until 2014 that she walked the Oscars red carpet after her big Hollywood break, Gone Girl, where she was nominated for her turn as the prim, polished and secretly psychotic Amazing Amy – a role which helped her lose the baggage of being an MI6 accessory. And she’s back on the awards trail this year, most recently at the Golden Globes in LA in January, where she was nominated for Best Actress thanks to her portrayal of Colvin.
A little over 24 hours after the Globes, Pike is back in London, where we meet for her Stylist cover shoot. Though Gone Girl put her firmly on the map in LA, she still calls the British capital home. Life for Pike is much more normal here, with school runs on the to-do list and a bicycle as her preferred mode of transport.
We’re here to celebrate the Londoner’s heroes; apt, as since playing a beyond-brave war correspondent in her latest role and the first female to win the Nobel Prize (Marie Curie) in her next, Pike has been getting familiar with quite a few remarkable women. Colvin, a war correspondent for The Sunday Times, was killed in Homs, Syria, in 2012. A much-acclaimed journalist, she often worked alone and in the most brutal places. She lost the sight in her left eye after a grenade blast in Sri Lanka, a nightmare scenario depicted in A Private War. In a later scene, we see her quietly confront herself in the mirror, assessing what years of covering some of the world’s deadliest conflicts have done to her face.
It’s a tough watch, but Pike’s performance takes you right to the heart of a woman coming to terms with loss, mortality and herself. The role proved a learning experience for Pike: “You know, there are moments when I’m taking something too seriously or I’m nervous about something and I’ll think, what would she do?”
In person, Pike is composed, though she lets out a hearty laugh when she hears one idea for the shoot: an empty chair next to her to symbolise a place for her heroes. “Brilliant,” she beams, “like therapy!” She is also amusingly straightforward about dealing with the scrutiny that’s often doled out by the tabloids – she simply blocks their URLs on her household wifi. “Anyone can do it!” she says.
Next on her agenda is Radioactive, an adaptation of Lauren Redniss’s graphic novel about the scientists Marie and Pierre Curie. It’s primarily a love story, but that doesn’t mean Pike plays it cute. “Marie Curie was an astonishing person,” she says. “I love her because she didn’t need to be liked. It’s a gutsy quality in women, when they don’t have to please people. I’ve really taken that to heart.”
Below, Pike puts her questions to Curie and the other four inspirational women who have helped to shape her…
Émilie du Châtelet: What was Voltaire like in bed?
Enlightenment scientist and mathematician
“My husband introduced me to Émilie du Châtelet when we first got together about 10 years ago. He’s a feminist and we were talking about the women I admired when he said I must read about her. She was an 18th-century French aristocrat who suddenly realised, after having married and had children, that there was more to life than society, opera and fine dresses.
So, she got herself a maths teacher and it became apparent that she had a brilliant mind. But she was cast out of society because of it, she became an object of ridicule because women just didn’t do that at that time. She ended up translating Isaac Newton’s book Principia into French and understanding it all.
She loved learning and so do I. When I was playing Marie Curie, I had a chemistry teacher come to my house four times a week. I went back to school and it was wonderful. I think it’s very important that we understand that the brain is a muscle that we can train. I really admire Émilie’s ability to flout convention and consider that a woman’s mind can be more attractive than her face. That’s something I adhere to as well, because I think it’s the truth. In the end, when I’m attracted to someone, it’s because of their mind.
Émilie was also the mistress of the writer and philosopher Voltaire for years. He was utterly bewitched and inspired by her because of the fact that she was a highly unusual figure. Those are the people I admire: people who do things differently and aren’t scared of ridicule. She wasn’t scared of scandal. If I had the chance, I’d probably ask her something silly like whether her husband or Voltaire was best in bed. Voltaire was apparently not so good.”
Mulan: What does any army general do when she gets her period?
Legendary Chinese warrior and leader
“Mulan interests me because – well, was she a real person or not? The story goes that she was a woman during the Northern Wei dynasty (386–535) in China when every family had to send a son to fight in the army. Mulan’s father was ill and her little brother was too young, so she decided to go instead. She disguised herself: wore boys’ clothes, cut her hair short and never let on to anyone. She ended up rising through the military ranks and was said to be one of the most fearless, brilliant warriors that China had ever seen. Nobody ever found out that she was a woman.
If you speak to a Chinese person, they will say she was absolutely real. But many people say she is just a fabrication from poetry and literature. But isn’t that interesting? That you have this woman who has fooled a whole generation of men and straight away people say, well, she can’t have existed. To me, that’s proof enough she did.
I do wonder what she did about having her period though; I always wonder about that with any woman in war. I’d ask her about the technicalities. But I’d also want to know what makes a good general? I’d ask her how she commanded an army and earned their respect.
I think Mulan would have found freedom in playing another character. It means that you can channel everything that you’re capable of because there’s a mask. You can say, yes, it’s a shame that a woman has to disguise herself as a man to be taken seriously, but it’s also the way she can have total freedom. I once did a shoot where I asked if I could be a boy. We went to an old fairground and I dressed up as a street urchin in menswear. It felt truly liberating.”
Marie Curie: Why did you have an affair with your husband’s student?
Nobel Prize-winning scientist and pioneer of radioactivity
“There is a wonderful photograph of Marie Curie at the 1911 Solvay conference. In it, all the eminent men of science are posing pompously for the camera, but Marie, the only woman there, is busy talking to the man next to her. That is so attractive to me because it’s the opposite of the self-regarding, modern version of femininity that we’re given today.
Marie didn’t need to be liked. I’ve taken that idea to heart in my performance. In the first moments of the film, I’m not asking you to think, ‘Oh, isn’t she lovely.’ I’m making you think, ‘Oh, actually, she’s quite difficult.’ She had one of the finest minds in the country and she wasn’t afraid to say it. I love it when someone can say they’re the smartest person in the room. It’s so not how we’re trained to behave.
But Marie’s true self was known to very few. A grief journal that she kept after her husband was tragically killed came to light recently and it’s the most moving testimony of a woman’s pure love for a man. It will make me cry even to think about. I read it for the first time in Paris and just dissolved, because you can feel the colossal love that Marie had that nobody else would have known about.
She found a perfect partner in Pierre Curie and, for me, that’s heroic: finding a love that is that true. If I could ask, I’d want to know why she chose to have an affair with Paul Langevin, who was one of Pierre’s students. I have this feeling it was because he was the one person who really understood what she’d lost. He was the one person who could bring her back to Pierre. I’d want to ask if I was right.”
Marie Colvin: What toll did your work take on you?
Award-winning American war correspondent
“I first came across Marie Colvin in the 2012 Vanity Fair article Marie Colvin’s Private War, which Amma Asante, the director of my film A United Kingdom, recommended I read. She said, ‘I saw your spirit when we were out in Botswana filming, you were shedding your skin, and I think should read this piece.’ So I did, and it was startling. What came across was not just Marie’s courage but her empathy and insight. She was a journalist who could penetrate people’s bubbles and those are the moments when life becomes richer.
But she was also an outsider in the world; even when she went to Yale she wasn’t one of the upper-crust, posh girls. She was always slightly looking in, which I identify with. I think most people, certainly complicated individuals like Marie, are actually quite different inside from how they appear. People had no idea about her vulnerabilities and that’s what makes her a hero to me: it’s about what you’ve overcome to be able to do something.
I was surprised by what a romantic she was, too. You think of the tough war correspondent she was and you don’t think she’s going to be crying over boys. But she absolutely was. She loved deeply and passionately and she would be distraught when her relationships fell apart. And she loved clothes, she loved nothing more than a chance to go to the luxury shops in Italy or go shopping with her girlfriends when she got back to London. Clothes were important to her, even in warzones. When I saw a picture of her working in Iraq wearing red nail polish, I immediately thought, ‘She looks interesting.’
I’d want to ask Marie about the physical toll her gruelling and dangerous work took on her body. What was it like sleeping in freezing, sub-zero temperatures in Chechnya in a room of rebels night after night? She probably didn’t fully let on about the effect it was all having on her.
Courage is all the more beautiful if it’s not easy, and I don’t think Marie found life easy. I think she was scared by the job she chose to do. She experienced great fear. As a woman, I’m constantly in conversation with my fears and I try very hard not to listen to them and let them govern me. I relish having done battle, having conquered the fear.”
Cicely Tyson: How do you keep fighting for the stories you believe in?
Actor, model and the first black woman to be given an honorary Oscar
“When Cicely Tyson won her Oscar last year, her speech moved me to tears. She told a story about the first time she was nominated. She had been offered the role in the Seventies film Sounder and went to see her friend in New York to tell him the news. He said he thought she would win an Academy Award for the part and she said, ‘Well, if I do you’re coming with me to the ceremony.’ They did go together, but she didn’t win.
Fifty years later, she’s getting her honorary Oscar and she rings up the same old friend and says, ‘Now listen here! You and I have got a date in LA, I’m putting you on a plane because I’ve finally been awarded that Oscar.’ She left this message on his voicemail and found out a few days later that he had died without hearing it. But she knew he would have accompanied her. I found that really touching. She’s a woman who has kept so true to herself through the decades.
If I got the chance to talk to her, I would want to know everything: the auditions, the rejection, what the industry was like in each decade. At what age did she feel like she was beginning to lose her place? I’d want to know how she fought for stories she believed in, because she’s consistently put characters of worth and dignity on screen. That’s what you felt in the room that night: here is a woman who embodies class, grace and style. It’s a beauty that comes from knowing what you’ve fought for and knowing what you’ve earned.”
An early screening and Q&A with A Private War cast and crew will be broadcast live to cinemas on 4 February, see aprivatewar.film for tickets; the film is in cinemas nationwide from 15 February
Photography: Rosaline Shahnavaz
Fashion: Polly Knight
Other images: Rex Features