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Exclusive: ‘Genius’ star Samantha Colley on Dora Maar’s parting with Picasso

Antonio Banderas, Samantha Colley
Antonio Banderas as Picasso and Samantha Colley as Dora Maar in Nat Geo’s “Genius”

This week’s Genius: Picasso closes with Dora Maar undergoing an intense electroshock therapy treatment after her romantic relationship with Pablo Picasso has, for all intents and purposes, ended.

It shows the pattern of how Picasso affected and treated his lovers over time but especially Maar (Samantha Colley), who he considered more an equal in terms of intellect and talents than most of the other women in his life.

The episode also shows older Picasso (Antonio Banderas) brazenly managing two love affairs between Maar and Francoise Gilot.

The drama also weaves in footage of the younger Pablo (Alex Rich), who finds kinship with legendary poets Apollinaire (Seth Gabel) and his friend Max Jacob (T.R. Knight), who he later abandons in a time of need.

Colley gamely took on the role of the fiercely independent and free-spirited Marr for National Geographic’s 10-part global event series, which follows the storied and turbulent life of the 20th century’s most prolific artist.

Antonio Banderas, Samantha Colley
Picasso drew and painted Dora in very jagged styles, unlike Marie-Therese, his other famous muse and lover

Colley is resplendent as the French photographer turned artist and activist who was so much more than a muse.

Earlier in the series, Dora famously had a stellar knock-down drag-out with Marie-Therese Walter, Picasso’s other lover who bore him a daughter, Maya.

We spoke to Dora today about her role as Dora:

Monsters and Critics: Dora was so much more than a muse — she was an artist and activist. How did you interpret Dora Maar as an actor?

Samantha Colley: Well, I mean, I’m so glad you say that because it’s something I keep saying in interviews. How is it to be the muse? I say, “Well, it is a shame that she’s just seen through the prism of Picasso because, actually, she was a terribly vital, important, politically engaged artist in her own right.”

I always say, “Have you seen any of her artwork?” They’re startling and amazing. It’s a shame that she’s just known as a muse. How I approached her…in the same way as I think any actress who has the privilege of getting such a well-rounded, interesting human being that isn’t just a sort of cardboard cutout. I devoured any book I could find on her. I loved poring through her work and reading her poetry and learning about such an interesting, inspirational woman, really.

It was really important to me again that…I was on Season 1 [of Nat Geo’s Genius] and I played Mileva Maric, who much in the same way was stopped in her tracks with a terribly important physicist and scientist and a great mind and was sort of just known as Einstein’s wife.

It was really important to me to make sure that Dora Maar wasn’t just presented as Picasso’s weeping woman because, again, that’s what I get, “Oh, she’s Picasso’s Weeping Woman.” That was one facet.

She was also incredibly funny, incredibly witty and incredibly deep-feeling and playful and naughty and passionate. I really, really wanted to make sure that she came across as a fully blooded woman and not just a sort of an inspiration piece for a man. I hope I managed that.

M&C: What do you think attracted Dora the most to Picasso?

SC: Well, as I say researching Dora and I often say this as well, people say to me, “Oh, Picasso sort of chewed up women and spat them out.” I said, “Yes, but so did Dora.” There are quite a few amusing letters from men saying, “You can’t mean what you said to me last night. You can’t just throw me away. You can’t be done with me.”

I love reading that from her. That she is an artist as well who needs inspiration. She got bored of men very easily. She was really in the circles in the 1930s in Paris and trying to engage in a sort of a fluid bohemian lifestyle where they were interested in avant-garde art and behavior and sexual practice. I think she got bored.

Dora was a very powerful woman who needed someone powerful to meet her on her level. She needed her minds met, she needed her passion met, she needed her views challenged and met.

I think she collided with Picasso, saw Picasso, wanted to be met and she did. She went after him. I don’t know if you’ve seen that scene where, bit of a spoiler, but the story goes that she sought to sort of meet him. I don’t want to give a spoiler but she sort of arranged to meet him and to kind of come into his crosshairs.

I think she loved what he was, and that is the thing that is attractive about genius. Someone who wasn’t a sheep. She loved that he didn’t, for want of a better phrase, “give a shit” and he was going towards what he thought was the right thing to do. It’s quite potent.

I found myself in a museum in Spain and I was at the Picasso exhibition and I was watching this video loop of actual Picasso as a very old man painting on to some Perspex in front of the camera. And he was sort of…he was painting just freeform brush strokes, a bowl, and the next one it looked like a pair of woman’s legs going up to her crotch but then it turned into a flowerpot and a plant.

I was literally transfixed by this. Watching someone so confidently stand there and just freeflow — and this art, this creativity, this gift was literally pouring out of him with such ease. I found myself going, “My god. I think that old man’s gorgeous.” Bloody hell. I could completely see what Dora saw. It’s just unfortunate that he treated her so badly.

M&C: For a moment you had a kindred spirit with Francoise Gilot at that awkward dinner, can you talk about that scene and the subsequent breakdown Dora had?

SC: I think the thing is prior to that scene Dora has engaged in the relationship and from the beginning, knowing about Marie, knowing about Olga, doesn’t yet know about Francoise, but she went in with the best intentions of being able to say, “Hey, I’m an artist. I’m cool with your lifestyle. I’m gonna be a part of it, great.” But she fell in love with him. Then when he was pulling away from Dora, she rightly found that incredibly distressing.

That scene is Dora enjoying that Francoise has brought another man to the table and is sort of messing with Picasso. I think there is a sort of a mania to Dora where she’s enjoying that he’s receiving some punishment. She’s enjoying that he’s not in control. That scene is really…I had to keep not…as you know in takes you do it over and over and over again. I had to keep finding the same stuff funny.

That was one of my favorite scenes to do with Antonio, actually, because I think I had boiled quite a few times. Yeah, again, that’s a true story where Dora sort of tried to engage a lot in the game and thought it maybe would swing back the other way. Then she realizes afterward that she really has loved him and that’s devastated her. He was the love of her life.

She never had anyone else after him. She would never sell him afterward. She just took herself off, dedicated herself to sort of fervent Catholicism and it was very sad. Yeah.

M&C: Talk about the electroshock scene, it was quite something to see. Is this the last we see of your Dora? What happened to Dora after this?

Samantha Colley
Dora received electroshock therapy as part of her treatment

SC: No, no. You see me. You see me again but we sort of jump back and forth. You see other bits of our relationship. Yeah, you’ll see Dora again. You’ll learn a bit more about Dora. That’s not the end, don’t you worry.

M&C: How long was Dora institutionalized? Or was she just in for the electroshock and then she was released?

SC: She wasn’t institutionalized for long. It was under a friendly doctor who Picasso knew within their circle. She went in and had treatment. I think she was in for only a little while and then came out sort of under his care. Pretty much after that she did sort of become a recluse.

I think after that she knew that she had to step away and I think Picasso knew that he had to let her step away. Yes, she wasn’t in there in a straitjacket in a padded cell. She got some treatment and she came out and she tried to just get on with her life.

M&C: I spoke with Poppy about that fight that you had when you were first introduced to each other and how Marie-Therese threw down with you. I was wondering, how did you prepare for that physical scene? How physical was it?

SC: Well, as I say I’d met Pop [Poppy Delevigne] only, I think, the day before. It was probably a bit silly for me but I’m from a theater background where I kind of very much enjoy things feeling as real as possible.

There were the stunt doubles all dressed up identical to us but I just leant to her as we were about to do it and I said, “Hey, why don’t we just have a crack ourselves and see how far we get?” And because she’s wonderful and so well natured of a human, she was like, “Yeah, let’s give it a go.” We ended up just really going for it.

She was swinging this handbag at my chest and we went for it. Poppy is, number one, very tall. I felt like a dwarf compared to her. It’s very hard to get her to the floor and I ended up just sort of ramming myself at her midriff all the time trying to get her to the floor. I went flying several times. Almost broke my wrist on a paintbox but, yeah, we just went for it.

I think it was different each take so it was a bit of hair pulling and a bit of guttural screaming going on but it was a lot of fun and no one was hurt. It was a great icebreaker because we became fast friends after that. She’s wonderful, Poppy.

M&C: What is your favorite artwork by Picasso? What is your favorite painting by him? Do you have a favorite or favorites?

SC: I do. I mean, rather predictably it’s of Dora Maar, isn’t it? In English, it’s The Lady With the Green Fingernails but it says that in French. It’s where Dora looks her most wonderful. A lot of the famous Doras are of her crying with these very jagged elements of distress whereas here she’s in a black sort of suit jacket with beautiful jewelry and green nails and she looks so powerful.

She looks in her element and radiant and in all of her beauty. One side of her face is sort of sliding off almost, but to me that is the Dora in all her glory that drew Picasso. To me, that’s her outside of the confines of what Picasso is seeing in her in all her potency. It’s my favorite. I think she looks wonderful.

Genius: Picasso airs Tuesdays at 9 pm E/P  on National Geographic Channel.

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