The ten-part series, from Fox 21 Television Studios and Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s Imagine Television, chronicles Einstein’s rise from his humble beginnings as an imaginative, rebellious thinker, through his struggles to be recognized by the establishment, to his global celebrity status as the man who unlocked the mysteries of the cosmos with his theory of relativity.
Howard directed the first episode, his scripted TV directorial debut.
The series alternates between Einstein’s days as a young student struggling against his father’s wishes and those of other authority figures in academia to his worldwide acclaim while exploring his extraordinary professional achievements along with his volatile, passionate and complex personal relationships including with his two wives, his children, and various romantic partners outside his marriages.
Actor Johnny Flynn portrays the younger version of the great scientist, and Emily Watson plays his second wife — and first cousin — Elsa Einstein.
Genius is set against an era of global unrest over the course of two world wars. Faced with rising anti-Semitism in Europe, particularly in Einstein’s home country of Germany, surveillance by spies and the potential for atomic annihilation, Einstein struggles as a husband and a father, not to mention as a man of principle, even as his own life is put in danger.
Rush, who has starred in films including “The Kings Speech,” “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Shine”–for which he won the Oscar for Best Lead Actor– talked about his role as the celebrated scientist with National Geographic.
How much did you know about Einstein before you started working on Genius?
Geoffrey Rush (GR): I was four years old when Einstein died, so there was not a huge amount of overlap. Everything I know is from the legend of who he was, because he was one of the most idiosyncratic figures of the 20th century. He was a cult figure, he was as famous as Charlie Chaplin; in a precelebrity world, they were household names. Chaplin for being an amazing filmmaker and clown, and Einstein for being a complex theoretical physicist who wrote a theory that toppled all the existing orthodoxy that had been around for 300 years. He toppled the early era of science with Galileo and Copernicus with his theory of relativity, which no one knows what it means.
What were you most surprised to learn about Einstein?
GR: There was quite a bit. He was famous for being famous as a scientist. Everyone knows he had ridiculous hair that no one had else worn — it probably came out of his youth at the Prussian Academy, where scientists were a little woolier. There are so many photos of him meeting other famous people, like meeting Marilyn Monroe, and of him sticking out his tongue and being cheeky. The great thing about this series is that it looks at his youth. Ultimately, although nonlinear, the series shows Einstein from age 5, when his father gave him a compass and young Albert was intrigued at what forces were at work that made the needle always point in one direction, until 76 when he died. The series shows the crucial adolescent development and him being a young adult, as well as his domestic issues and wives. There is a lot of that people don’t know.
Brian Grazer said of the series, “We get to see Einstein fail.” In what way?
GR: In some ways, his scientific legacy. Apart from when he formed general relativity and achieved notoriety, some may say he didn’t do much after that. He didn’t believe God played dice with the universe so, as young scientist, he was pursuing quantum mechanics and atomic structure even though he thought there were too many variables. He wanted to find the perfect formula for the entire physical world that made mathematical sense. He didn’t find it. On the more day-to-day side he would probably have said he failed considerably because of the rapport he had with his family and kids. There was some lingering unhappiness around that.
What were you most surprised to learn about Einstein?
GR: I suppose how open and gregarious and truly childlike he was for a man with such complexity of ideas. Some people have tried to classify him as somewhat autistic, but I don’t think it is true, because he loved sailing and intellectual company. He came out of a flourishing Jewish societal world in early 20th century Germany and he would hang out with his friends and they would play music. I don’t know how good he was; there is no record of that. Eventually he loved to travel and he had an expansive personality and I was lucky enough to get a lot of footage of him visiting Britain and the USA, and he seemed to greet press like Groucho Marx. He had people laughing and was kind of clownlike with his naivete. Rumor has it he was thought of as dopey and a slow starter but he was just daydreaming, and that ended up being his greatest strength.
How did you and Johnny Flynn (young Albert) make sure your portrayals of Einstein synced? Did you practice together?
GR: That had happened only once before, with “Shine,” where they had someone play the boy, the character in his 20s, and me after that. Johnny and I met on Skype and talked about what the script presented. He would be Einstein from his teens to mid-30s and I took over after World War I, from around age 40 to his death. We had clear-cut shapes and brushstrokes and looked at how his behavior manifested pre- and postfame. There is a lot of photographic evidence for young Einstein but no moving images. I was lucky to see Einstein do public speaking on NBC radio and see him on fantastic color home movies from his Princeton years. One home movie had him just putting on glasses, and it was great that I could watch his mannerisms. These movies gave me little wisps of eternal rhythms that could be externalized.
Johnny and I met in London and he suggested a mentor at his drama school and thought it would be great to muck around: How do we walk? What is our center of gravity? As a young man, Einstein was slim and attractive and then he got pudgy in middle age. We shared ideas and interviewed each other, the old speaking to the young and vice versa. That was fun, and we played with his little vocal mannerisms. I heard radio broadcasts and watched newsreel footage and saw him always as a character in the public domain, but don’t know how he was when in private, and so there is a degree of invention there.
What were some of his quirks?
GR: I noticed in early footage, in his teenage years, that he was very rebellious and anti- authoritarian and he hated the German militaristic sensibility. He was quite outspoken and forthright and sometimes lacking in confidence, and I noticed that when Johnny was playing the younger Einstein, he was licking his lips because he hadn’t quite found the assurance and authority that he later did I thought I would incorporate that and I saw that in his speech-making in his later years. I noticed Einstein had this tasting in his mouth of the simplicity of what he needed to say. Johnny and I are the same height and I wanted to create the silhouette shorter. I played Einstein short so my natural ectomorph becomes more rounded and stocky.
Did you know Einstein was such a ladies’ man?
GR: I didn’t know about that, but I suppose if you put that equation together, he had a lot of celebrity. I think he had many young lovers because he moved around a lot. He gave up his German passport and was a bit of a gallivant. He was bright, and some women find that deeply attractive. And he had humor. He liked a partner in his life and he found that with Elsa, after his sad and awkward failure of a first marriage to Mileva Maric. There were numerous women in his life, but Mileva and Elsa were the two main ones. He knew his gift functioned only if he lived a well-ordered and coordinated life. He was fortunate with Elsa to find someone happy to be that person. She didn’t match his intellect like Mileva did. Mileva was brilliant but Elsa was happy to be his manager, mother, organizer, PR person, and that marriage was one of deep friendship but not particularly passionate. She gave him license to have affairs. They were radical progressives on that level.
And you got to be married to Emily Watson again.
GR: Yes, it is our third on-screen marriage and our second German marriage. We hung out a lot 20 years ago when we were on a press junket orbit, so there is a great comfort in working with someone when you share that kind of rapport in an industrial landscape of a film set in another county far from home.
Had you played the violin before?
GR: No, but I quite like these different tasks. Like, I did a film where I was a tailor and I had to chalk and cut up a suit. I don’t think anyone would want to wear it. I liked the time it took to learn how to sword fight in “Pirates of the Caribbean.” I thought I would need to be pretty savage with a blade if I wanted to be credible. And I learned to look like I was playing the piano and accordion for roles. With the violin, I think most people who play it well have done over 10,000 hours of practice probably when they were age 5. It takes a lot of skill and precision to get the quality of tone and notes. There are no chords, and if you miss by a nanomillimeter it is the worst sound in the world. I have major movie magic assistance to be as good as Einstein could have been.
What was it like working with Ron Howard? Had you worked together before?
GR: We hadn’t worked together. He came on board in March 2016 on the premise of the pilot and he got excited and I got a message through my agent from him saying that it will be great. He said, “I have Johnny Flynn and I need to see if he can pass the baton onto you and that the audience can believe in one central character life story.” Ron was determined and it is the first Nat Geo fully scripted drama series. People have an idea of the magazine as having the greatest photography in the world, and on television in documentary form, and Ron was keen to take elements of Einstein’s life and not fall into the trap of a biopic. He didn’t want it to be stodgy masterpiece theater. Ron has made the series about the theory of his life sandwiched between the major golden breakthrough period of science and through the devastation of two world wars and the atomic age. It has a real dramatic kick. The first episode starts with a major savage political assassination and jumps quickly to Einstein having it off in his office.
What was that like to play?
GR: It is beautifully written. Einstein thought he could convince his secretary Betty to move in with him and Elsa, and Betty says, “You are married, we can’t do it,” and there is a great line about his triangular geometry not being as good as it could be.
Why did you choose to play this role?
GR: I’m in my mid-60s. I am a character actor and this is one of the great parts and the scale is so big. The whole series is about an epoch and a tumultuous one and global concepts, even if someone had invented this guy. He is the one who journeys through massive social and political forces, with so much pushing through this brilliant brain. The role has four dimensions, not three.
What does the word “genius” mean to you?
GR: The word “genius” gets bandied about a lot these days. I remember in Australia a football commentator was saying how everyone is called a genius these days, everyone is a genius footballer, scores a genius goal, a genius play. I looked it up — most people agree that you could say that whoever the geniuses are, they can combine ideas staring everyone else in the face. They can connect things no one thought about. They were all polymaths, like Chaplin: He could write music as well as perform; they all had longevity, it involved endurance.
The German philosopher Schopenhauer says, “Talent hits a target that no one else can hit, genius hits a target that no one else can see.” We can apply that to Einstein. He engaged in thought experiments. He would let his mind wander and drift off and speculate and always obsessed from youth: “What if I could travel faster than the speed of light, what would light look like?” Pretty trippy.
What do you hope viewers will get from this series?
GR: I think people might be quite surprised at how immediate the sense of drama is, in a world particularly undergoing radical shifts. There have been arguments about the value of science for humankind and for goodness. There is a bit in World War I, where Fritz Haber finds out that Germany is going to run out of food and he discovers extracting nitrogen and rescues Germany. He also discovered the weapon of chlorine gas under the assumption less lives would be lost and it would end the war quicker. Ethical dilemmas dominate the science in the story and are interwoven with domestic stuff. Genius is a big thumping novel narrative the size of “War and Peace,” but for people who like gravitating toward 10-episode series, it will seem brisk.
What was it like seeing yourself as Einstein?
GR: I suppose that happened in early camera tests, and it was exciting to look at what adjustments we would have to make. It is a pretty famous look. When they offered me the role, I supposed I could approximate something that would be close. I got a classic shot of Einstein and my daughter took a shot of me at the same angle and I said to a friend, “Can you morph 80 of me into 20 of Einstein and make a composite to see what we can achieve?” And he did and I looked at it and thought that the hair wasn’t right, so I got the photo and some white out and drew the hair and eyebrows and scanned it for Ron and said what do you think? He thought it was great. I liked that it was homemade and me doing a bit of craft to see if I could play Einstein in the school play.
Have you enjoyed playing Einstein?
GR: Yes. Enormously. You think you will have to go in and act playing a genius everyday on set, and it’s finding the banal moments or when he has a surprise that occurs. In the end of the series he meets a neighbor, Alice, and she wants him to help, or basically do her homework for her, and how he handles guiding her mind into the mystery of math in a level that would be exciting rather than rigid and formal. I read that someone who was a student of Einstein wrote of him, “He was just the most generous human being.” We don’t find many of them around now. Everyone has so much ego and stuff and he seemed interested in the better sides of our nature.