One of the world’s loftiest performers, Oscar-, Tony- and Emmy-winning actor Geoffrey Rush is back in the fold at the TV Academy’s 2017 soirée for his portrayal of Albert Einstein in National Geographic’s first scripted series, Genius.
On the surface, it seems that Einstein is the role the Australian actor was born to play—with his thick, wild tufts of gray hair, Rush bears a striking resemblance to the man. And with nearly forty years in front of cameras, Rush has also played his share of historical figures, in such Oscar-winning films as Elizabeth, Shakespeare in Love, Frida and The King’s Speech.
As a series, though, Genius goes far beyond the surface. In its first installment, Rush uses common notions of Einstein as a jumping off point toward a more fleshy and fleshed out portrait of a man we only thought we knew. Speaking with Deadline, Rush touches on the elements that attracted him to Genius, one of the only television series he’s taken on in his accomplished career, and the process of finding his way into Einstein.
What were the elements that attracted you to Genius? I imagine the opportunity to portray Einstein would be at the top of the list.
It was precisely that. Being in my more senior years now, you hope somewhere along the track that you’re going to get to collide with a role that feels very special, and Einstein is such a magnificent figure.
The series spans about 70 years of his life, and the more I read about him—particularly from the blueprint of Walter Isaacson’s book [Einstein: His Life and Universe], which was kind of our basic bible—it just had the dimensions, whether, you wanted to find the hero or anti-hero of the story. The characters moved through such an astonishing period of 20th century time and politics, through the totalitarian states between the two major World Wars.
Ron Howard directed the first episode and [executive produced] the whole series, and he just kept saying, “We want to humanize this guy, because most people don’t know about the intricacies of his personal life.” Humanizing him was a way of trying to put dimensions and contradictions into the character that we kind of know the look of.
We know the logline of his celebrity, but we hadn’t opened up as much his domestic [life], the camaraderie between the members of the Prussian Academy, and his shift to America in a very politically unstable time. The more we shot it, the more the themes of the piece seemed to allow the contemporary in their references, even though they’re very much studied in the context of their own political era.
Having mentioned Walter Isaacson’s useful “blueprint,” what kind of preparations did you go through in taking on the role of Einstein?
Certainly for the period I was playing, from his early 40s until his death at 76, there was a lot of extraordinary material. I just noticed the other day they sold the tongue-out photo for a hundred and twenty five grand at some auction in America. I hadn’t quite known where that [shot] happened—it was at some event in 1951. I think he got sick of the celebrity, and always having to smile for photographs, because he had elements of his personality that were so clown-like.
He did kind of what Harpo Marx would call “doing a gookie,” sticking your tongue out and going, “Aahh, there you go. Take that.” He liked it so much, apparently, that he bought about eight copies, signed them and gave them to friends, so they’re now out there on the market somewhere.
This is an unusual project, in the sense that you share your role with a younger actor, Johnny Flynn. What was the experience of that, logistically or otherwise?
Well look, we just called each other, each other’s doppelganger. It was a great way of looking at broader shapes in the narrative. He’s playing, as Ron Howard always said, what created this guy that became the older, iconic Einstein, because no one knows as much about his teenage years, being a young man before he was famous. Johnny was really looking at the pre-fame—that’s the bigger arc—and I was looking at post-fame.
There’s some fantastic shots of Einstein speaking to members of Congress, or speaking to the press. There was one very memorable one where he’s out delivering his speech, he’s surrounded by a lot of Congress-type dudes, and he’s very drab, 1940s—I believe they were called the “dead mens’ suits”—they were in Australia. They were this kind of cloth-saving device during the final years of the war. Einstein is there and his eyes are just scoping with bemusement at everything around him. He seemed more fascinated by the NBC microphone than he did by the assembly, or the crowd that he was addressing.
We realized that his way of seeing was also a kind of ground base. There was something about the character, the curiosity of looking at the minutiae of everything that was going on around him, and probably a prop of his own weaknesses, because as a scientist he loved his privacy, he loved his sense of solitude, because he was a thinker, he was a daydreamer.
At one point where they wanted Johnny and I recreating a shot of him up against a bookcase, in the very early days of shooting, I said, “What were you giving the man?” He said, “My default position is to go into the owl,” and that became a kind of running joke, but also a good reference point for it. I love all those words like “bovine” and “ovine” and I looked up what [word] pertains to an owl. It’s “strigine,” so our shorthand was, “Are you going strigine in this scene?”
We needed to keep that little secret moment of something owl-like—it was identifying something that wasn’t particularly a psychological investigation in this section of his internal life. I remember Johnny said, “I’ve just seen a photo of Bob Dylan at a press conference in 1964, and he looked just like the young Einstein.” I said, “Yeah, well, I first looked at a lot of that footage, when he was clowning around with reporters and stuff.” I got as much from that as I did Einstein. We tried to externalize the references so we weren’t trapped into just making him into a kind of living waxwork.
With the show shifting between so many periods and locations, what was the process with aging you for specific moments, and how did you keep the whole chronology straight while shooting?
In very close collaboration with the hair and makeup and prosthetics people, Johnny and I calibrated the age throughout the story and said, “How many looks do we need?” because there are time jumps that sometimes move very quickly through the Second World War; then, we would go back and just do the Second World War, in relationship to the development of the atomic bomb.
When I was doing my very first costume fittings in the middle of last year, in London, I was growing my hair at that point, because ultimately, for some phases of it, we used the bulk of my own hair. I think we got the old Einstein down to about five weeks, so that with him younger, in his 40s, the hair was just starting to get longer than it was for Johnny.
Then, in his late 40s, in his 50s, in his 60s and in his 70s, he basically ends up very snowy white. We talked about how much age prosthetics he would need to add ten years to me, and they did a wonderful thing—completely, from my forehead down to my cheeks, down to my nasal holes and everything. They gave me this sort of crinkled look, and particularly, the rather, soft drooping eyelids.
All of that is silicone, and you had to kind of invest in that. I knew that it was a prop—this is the great joke for me. Some of the reviews we got have praised me for having an uncanny likeness to Einstein. We tweaked things—I have eyebrows that almost don’t exist, so we had to make them, and put them on, and so forth—and they said, “But of course, he was aided in achieving the look with this marvelous prosthetic nose.” There were no prosthetics involved with the nose; it was just my nose. [laughs]
It’s been over 20 years since you’ve appeared on TV. What are your thoughts on the ways in which the industry is shifting at this point in time?
Well, everyone knows it’s an exponentially runaway industry at the moment. I read statistics the other day that I think for this year, there’s going to be something like 500 shows produced, and that’s jumped up from whatever it was three, four, five years ago.
It’s now attracting great writers, great directors, very good actors. I think Ron Howard and [writer] Noah Pink had considered doing a film [version of Genius], and they then realized, This is just going to end up like one of those 1930s biopics where you’re trying to shoot an entire life in one movie, and it just won’t happen. The great thing of having ten hours is it’s got different whimsical peaks where you can investigate more microscopic details within a life, within a marriage—the failure of the marriage to Mileva [Maric] could be quite brutal and quite disturbing unless you really get the drama of the tragic breakdown of that very special bond.
We got to bounce around between the 1880s up to the mid-1950s and could give a certain amount of weight and gravitas to the details of that lifeline.
While Genius had the gravitas of its stars and EPs, the series marks National Geographic’s first endeavor in scripted television. Was there ever an experimental quality to this production?
I think they experimented with the whole notion of the genre of a biopic by slicing up the time frames so that they could juxtapose things from the pre-fame Einstein in his youth with things that might echo comparable events later in his life.
It goes down at some point into being more an “A, B, C, D, E” kind of dramatic layout, but I love flashing back to when he was five—this was on the very last page of Episode 10. I thought there was an aesthetic at work to make it look like credible, historical events, but somehow, there was also a claustrophobia within the domestic scenes, or a grandeur of a funeral in front of the gate in Berlin. It got to push and pull with the character, all of the obstacles that he was up against.
Having lived with Einstein now for a great deal of time, what are the lessons we can take from the physicist and apply to our present historical moment?
I think the most obvious context around that is his passionate belief in the goodness of scientific inquiry. That is something that we’re battling with, in terms of major global debates about climate change, expenditure for research, or whatever, but I think he always had a rather golden quality, that science should only and can only be used for the goodness of human existence.
Of course, what makes the drama that much more interesting is finding how it’s classic, from Greek drama onwards, putting your protagonist against obstacles and seeing how they shift or change surprisingly, or in contradiction with what you expect from them as they move forward.
Then, there’s that idea of humanizing him. We know from letters—the letters were very, very interesting, much more an internal thing, rather than a public persona—that this was a man who could weep. This was a man who could laugh, this was a man who could cut himself off from his family, or the world. This was a man who could embrace big causes.
I suppose [the goal] was to make him an everyman that people would hopefully identify with, in a funny sort of way, even though he came, very specifically, from his own Prussian Academy environment and so forth.
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