National Geographic’s first scripted drama series Genius charts the incredible life of theoretical physicist Albert Einstein. As well as his scientific endeavours, the story tells of the icon’s rise from modest beginnings, his struggle to be taken seriously by his establishment and peers as an intellectual radical during a time of global unrest.
Genius also tells of Einstein’s tumultuous love affairs, his anti-Semitic battles in Europe and problems he faced as a husband and father which made for an exhilarating, challenging life. HeyUGuys met with first episode Director and Executive Producer Ron Howard, Exec Producer Gigi Pritzker, Geoffrey Rush (Einstein) and Emily Watson (Elsa Einstein) to discuss the series, its origins and process of bringing such remarkable characters back to life…
RON HOWARD (Director): “I had been looking to get involved with a great TV opportunity. We do a lot of shows at Imagine like 24 and Empire but I hadn’t directed any of them and was getting a little envious because I hadn’t found the right subject. I had also always been curious about Einstein and had read scripts and outlines that didn’t really work as movies but this script [to Genius] was incredibly exciting. It was funny, sexy, unexpected, more political than I imagined the story to be and really captured my imagination.”
HEYUGUYS: How did you go about building the character arc along with telling the history of events as a story? Was that a challenge?
RON HOWARD: It was very exciting. Noah Pink’s first draft suggested that but Ken Biller (Exec Producer) thought it was important to draw out elements from the Walter Isaacson book (Einstein: His Life and Universe) and research to include in the first episode which pressurised the story. It was really what Noah began and Ken Biller continued, using the book, the research, interacting with writers to very carefully build episodes. In the beginning we thought it should be eight hours but National Geographic wanted it to be ten and within a couple of weeks we realised we could fill fifteen hours and there were going to be elements of his life we still had to simplify or skip over.
HEYUGUYS: In the process of changing it from a feature film to a series, did you find yourselves having to re-draft different character stories and plot arcs for each individual episode or was it a straight forward transfer/breakdown?
GIGI PRITZKER: No, that’s a good question though, once we shifted our thinking, what we knew is we had to fully flesh out one episode and then we would go and get a show-runner, director and somebody on board who would really work with us to carve and shape the rest of them. So it was really a matter of, how would you take all of what we learned over five years about Einstein and all the key themes we would try to get into this, then write one and suggest for all the rest. But we learned a lot during those years. The failure that we experienced trying to fit this all into a feature, really informed what became, hopefully, the success of the series. It was perfect time to abandon the feature film and move to TV but if this had happened six or seven years ago, we wouldn’t have had that bridge into television to cross, and that’s what’s so exciting now.
RON HOWARD: We knew we had Geoffrey Rush (playing older Albert). With Johnny Flynn (Young Einstein), we had somebody we could transition from the younger to senior version. At first Johnny’s colouring was a problem but the bone structure was similar. A casting director sent a photo of the two of them side by side. I gave that to our make-up artist. They did some digital mock-ups and demonstrated that by changing the colouring and adding a few prosthetics to Johnny, they could be similar. Johnny’s audition was great and then I went back and looked at some of his other work. As charming as it is, you can see he’s a good actor but still, it was the audition, because he had a natural instinct for the character.
Geoffrey Rush on approaching the role:
GEOFFREY RUSH (Albert Einstein): I didn’t accept the role in the beginning because it clashed with an agreement I made with my wife to edit this script she had written. I had been on the road with Pirates 5 back in 2015 then did another film here in Britain, so was away for 18 months, and then this role came up and they wanted to start shooting in August. Sadly I had to turn them down because I was being a very honourable man but then a week or two later, Ron Howard called my agent and asked if it would work if they shifted the schedule around and start in November and I said “perfect, that would be great”. For a sexagenarian, as a character actor, a role like this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. You might get lucky enough to have a go at playing King Lear but when Einstein comes up… it’s scary, and you know you might fall flat on your face and do a terrible job but you have to go there because it’s a great part that’s going to be stimulating on so many levels.
HEYUGUYS: How did you find relaying all those complex equations with total conviction without having any idea what they meant?
GEOFFREY RUSH: I’m going to pinch Peter O’Toole’s brilliant statement about that kind of thing and say it’s “private study”. And that’s what you do. I love that because you have a five month immersion into something that expands your knowledge about the world. Sometimes that involves learning how to sword fight for a Pirate film or working with a monkey. It’s a great experience. For this I had to read up on national socialism and get the feel of what was happening in 1932-1933 Germany.
HEYUGUYS: Woody Allen’s Zelig has been mentioned as a basis for comparison in terms of the series alongside Groucho Marx as a character reference. Between that childlike aspect of Einstein and the genius side, how did you go about filling in the gaps?
GEOFFREY RUSH: The Zelig thing came up in an interview yesterday while I was doing a pod-cast. That film is in my top five favourites. I just love the fact that it is completely faux actual footage. The whole story is fake news reels, fake home movies, stills and it’s not a bad analogy. I often try to look at Albert Einstein with the view that it is a fictional script and the central protagonist is a theoretical physicist who confronts the landscape of his life, the epoch of his time and goes into a golden age of scientific discovery, two major world wars and the rise of totalitarianism all over Europe. Then I thought, now it’s like King Lear, a huge story of a central character and the shape of the world they have to move through. Like Zelig, he was a completely fictional character who fell out of fame and you’d see lots of interviews and viewpoints. I love how this series jumps around in time, a bit like the theories of where your standpoint or perspective of the memories of childhood come from. Is it an old man thinking this? You get a feeling that Johnny and I are symbiotically linked as practitioners playing older and younger Einstein.
RON HOWARD: Albert’s mindset was more like a writer or painter’s. He had a kind of bohemian, free thinking approach to the world that surprised me. He was an extrovert and not a quiet introvert. He also had some very complicated relationships and that was probably the most difficult thing to depict. There’s a regular nobility in the man but there are other qualities that are less than noble and a way of dealing with it was to focus on the female characters and try and see understand through those women and try and see what it was about him that they connected with and what it was they loved and appreciated about him, so we can understand how important they were to his achievements.
Emily Watson on Elsa:
EMILY WATSON (Elsa Einstein): Elsa was really interesting. She wasn’t Albert’s lover for very long but she was his manager, carer, confident, partner. Her and Albert had a romantic relationship but he had a lot of other women which was really tricky for her. They were also kind of partners, as well as first cousins, so related on a molecular level. I think she saw it as a privilege, job, her duty to protect this great mind, to insure his survival. In a way he was like a child. He had a childish attitude to life which was fantastic because it made him a great scientist. He also had a devil-may-care attitude to being an adult which was quite difficult. He doesn’t recognise the normal rules by which people assume we all should live. His attitude was: if I want to do this, why can’t I? He trained his mind all his life to think like that and thank God he did because we would still believe that time was absolute. Although he was, in some sense, a very conscientious, moral, humanistic force for good in the world, I think he had difficulties.
HEYUGUYS: As this is the third time you have played Geoffrey’s wife on screen, was it quite a challenge to play wife to Geoffrey Rush differently to how you have done before?
EMILY WATSON: No not really, I mean there were certain similarities because The Book Thief was set in Germany and there were Nazis but I love that we just have a good language together. It’s a very nice situation to be in as an actor when you have that kind of comfort and to have that kind of creative space set up and you don’t have to feel your way.
GEOFFREY RUSH: It’s tragic Albert and Elsa’s marriage fell apart. I don’t think Einstein was a philanderer. I think there might have been an extraordinary naivety but logically, his scientific brain could have argued that monogamy was not a natural state. We talked a lot about demystifying the two dimensional emoji of Einstein with the mushroom cloud hair that everyone has in their head then we started to talk more about Groucho Marx and looking at some of his footage. He was very funny, a great clown. Johnny Flynn described him as Rambo the Poet, a bohemian artist and eventually he becomes a very bourgeois Berliner with the comfort zone of middle age. There was pre-celebrity and post-celebrity and how that influenced how he walked and dressed. There was also this footage we saw where he was speaking to a congress in America with very straight suits, people in their forties. Einstein is there with his hair blowing in the wind and he was just looking at everyone and seeing the absurdity and joy of it and then you see him look at the microphone. It’s interesting that he is constantly scoping the world.
EMILY WATSON: What I really had fun with was the fact that they were first cousins, physically similar, almost like bickering twins in a way. It was just really fun to have that sense of being tight and close in a team. It was a laugh, I really enjoyed that. I loved Elsa’s political smarts. She understood celebrity when it was a new thing. Their relationship was very socially awkward and when Albert disrespected her that was very difficult. It’s not how everybody does things but for them it was ok. Eventually she did say to him “I come first. I am your partner and you have to respect me as that.” I think she felt that she had a precious, distinguished job to do which was to save the greatest mind of the twentieth century. To give him the space to work. If you take the gender politics out of it, she was like a custodian of one of the great gifts to mankind. Gender politics were quite difficult because she was in a way quite an emotional person but I think she saw her role as his partner was greater than that. Something that was very rewarding and fulfilling.
Genius starts Sunday 23rd April at 9pm on National Geographic.