Framed by a monitor on the Prague set of National Geographic Channel’s Genius, Emily Watson’s face is a mask of quiet fury. Portraying Elsa Einstein, Albert’s first cousin and longtime lover, she is newly aware that his impending fame will expose the truth of their adulterous relationship. “Do anything,” she seethes, “to get free of Mileva.”
They say that behind every great man, there is a great woman. In Einstein’s case, there were two. Though he indulged a lothario nature throughout his entire life, when Albert fell, he fell hard, leaving an indelible mark on the two remarkable — and remarkably different — women he married. Genius not only spotlights the two Mrs. Einsteins, but also ponders how much his first wife, brilliant mathematician Mileva Marić, contributed to his scientific discoveries and the ability of a difficult and distracted man to put them out into the world. And what compelled Elsa to endure a seven-year affair before they wed.
Samantha Colley plays Marić, a Serbian spark plug who cast aside her own professional aspirations to bear Einstein three children, rise above a uniquely callous rejection and ultimately collect his 1921 Nobel Prize payout as the price of their divorce. “It was completely unheard of that she would go to secondary school, let alone university,” says Colley, who wore a “Spice Girl boot” to mimic Marić’s limp from congenital hip dysplasia. “She was one of the first women at Zürich Polytechnic [where the couple met]. She was a bit too headstrong.” And the youthful Albert found her irresistible — until domesticity proved stifling.
“In their letters, Albert always writes, ‘Will you check the math? Will you prove my work?’” says Colley. “Albert often talks about ‘our’ work. He actually was quite insecure and needed a lot of supporting in the beginning. She honed him, in a way that women do. … But she’s definitely a leveler. There are points where she fells him like a tree!”
Enter Elsa, a plain and plainspoken divorcée who knew Albert since childhood.
“Elsa sees herself as his partner, and, in a way, she’s like his manager,” says Watson. “She controls the public image — or she tries to, as much as his wayward nature would let her. I think she’s very modern in that way.” And also in her ability to get Albert to make an honest woman of her after the pair moved to America and fame came calling. “The moment when they are in Cambridge University and he’s being presented as the guy — he’s changed the laws of physics and relativity — and they are presented as Mr. and Mrs. Einstein, it’s terrible. But she gets her way. She wins.”
Watson, who costarred with Rush in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers and The Book Thief, calls their reunion, “quite a treat. We really understand each other’s way of doing things. It’s like putting on an old coat that fits.” Simpatico that proved useful in playing a pair joined by blood and matrimony. “They are very similar in their DNA,” Watson says. “They have a molecular relationship. Before we started, I e-mailed Geoffrey and said, ‘I think we should play them as Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee.’ That’s the attraction — the familiarity and a sense of home.”
Genius airs Tuesdays at 9/8c beginning April 25 on National Geographic