Geoffrey Rush done up as Einstein and killing time on bench outside the enormous Prague soundstage where National Geographic’s Genius filmed begs an instant double take.
For actor/musician Johnny Flynn, embodying the younger Albert proved a bit more challenging.
“All the footage that exists of him is after he came to America,” Flynn explains of the man he calls “quite maverick and punk.” “The exciting thing about the potential in this show is to create an idea of him before that.” Thus, the two actors opted to build their shared character together, working with Rush’s longtime dialect coach to make sure the Alberts shared the same vocal rhythm and energy. They had some good fun, too. “I got my old drama teacher to be the instigator for a series of exercises that we did,” Flynn chuckles. “We interviewed each other as Einstein. Geoffrey has a wonderful sense of the older character through videos and stuff, and I really got a series of imaginings as to who this person was as a young guy. It was like advice to your younger self. We’d burst out laughing.”
Flynn says, as a young creative himself, he understood Einstein’s frustration with the rigid academic landscape of the time. And he found the scientist’s personal foibles intriguing. “The coolest revelation I had about him was that his discoveries about time and space not being absolute extended to his personal life,” Flynn says. “He rather foolishly applied some of those theories to his relationships, and he hurt people by doing so. In his early sense of it, love wasn’t absolute. He lived to regret that. He lost his first family and there’s accounts of him breaking down and weeping for weeks. He followed his heart impulsively, which led him on that course.”
Rush agrees that breaking down stereotypes about science’s first pop culture icon made for intriguing work. “Albert had estrangement from his children — quite mortifying and difficult arrangements there,” he says. “Complicated marriages. A sense of isolation, because he knew he had a gift that required solitude. There was no malicious intent, but the curiosity of all the forces that came on him, he would retreat if his head was imploding and he was emotionally not able to deal with certain things.”
But it wasn’t all Sturm und Drang.
“There’s just as much Groucho Marx in him as there is scientist, you know?” Rush grins. “And a bit of Harpo, as well. There’s footage of him talking at the White House or in some big kind of Congress-type situation and he seems more interested in the NBC microphone. So there’s a nice clown in there to play with.”
A lifelong science buff, Rush says he longed to be an astronomer as a boy dazzled by the space race. But like many a starry-eyed student, his plans changed “once they got into replacing numbers with X and Y and all of that. I got very, very, very poor grades. But that also coincided with the time when I took over the running of the school drama club.” A twist of fate that led to scientific genius after all. Well, sort of.
“We did a pub quiz together the other night,” Flynn grins. “We came fifth. We didn’t tell them that we were playing Einstein. We kept that under our hat.”
Genius airs Tuesdays at 9/8c beginning April 25 on National Geographic.