INTERVIEW: Geoffrey Rush and stars of Genius on the new series about Einstein as you’ve never seen him before
Everybody has heard of Albert Einstein, but how much do you know about the man beyond the crazy hair and the theory of relativity? National Geographic’s first ever scripted series, Genius, explores the man behind the myth as you’ve never seen him before.
Genius boasts an award-winning cast including Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush, BAFTA-winner Emily Watson plus the filmmaking talents of the legendary Oscar-winning director Ron Howard. It explores the life of the world famous scientist Albert Einstein, from his turbulent youth to international fame to the final few moments of his life.
We spoke to some of Genius‘s acclaimed cast and creative team, including Geoffrey Rush (Older Albert Einstein), Emily Watson (Elsa Einstein), Johnny Flynn (Younger Albert Einstein), Samantha Colley (Mileva Maric), Ron Howard (Executive Producer) and Ken Biller (Executive Producer) about the many surprises that lay in store for Genius audiences.
The first surprising thing we learn in the new series is that Albert Einstein, played by Lovesick’s Johnny Flynn as a young man and Geoffrey Rush in his later years, was far from the stock image of a geeky, reserved scientist. An extroverted individual who loved engaging with his friends, family and the public – Genius reveals the scientist was also a hit with the ladies and maybe even somewhat of a womaniser.
Howard explained: “He was an extrovert, not the sort of shy intellectual introvert that say John Nash or Alan Turing was. He loved being a part of the scientific community and those conversations. He loved women, and all the world – the universe. I think that the things are linked. He was a very Earthy man connected to the human experience.”
In fact, he was such a ladies’ man that he was not faithful to either of his wives, and later agreed an open marriage with second wife Elsa Einstein.
Biller is reluctant to use the word ‘womaniser’, however. He said: “Womaniser is a pejorative way of describing it, he certainly was not a morally squeaky clean individual. He was an intensely moral person in most ways. He was genuinely concerned with social justice, he was genuinely compassionate, he really cared about strangers, he took the time to speak to people – to his tobacconist or his taxi driver – but he could in fact be very cruel to some of the people who were the closest to him. I guess he was a human being – he was imperfect.”
For those of us with a certain image of Einstein in our heads, it is hard to reconcile this new information. When we asked what the ladies saw in Einstein, Flynn joked: “He had a huge… mind.”
Rush added: “With his humour and his intelligence and his amazing hair, I think people of both sexes would have gravitated towards [him].”
Flynn continued: “I think he would have been a magical person to spend time with because he wasn’t concerned with being a celebrity so he was relatively ego-less in that sense. He was a very devoted friend. He had all these amazing correspondences with a huge range of different types of people, some of them were the women he fell in love with. I think with the women he had a connection with he was a wonderful friend.”
The women who he did fall in love with – and who indeed played an instrumental role in his success as a scientist – are also a primary focus of Genius. Albert Einstein married twice, firstly to his fellow scientist Mileva Maric, with whom he shared two children, and secondly to his first cousin Elsa Einstein, who nursed him back to health at his weakest. The two women could not be more different, and yet both offered him a crucial stability at a time of need.
Colley even went so far as to suggest that Einstein could never have achieved his scientific success without the mental stimulation and support from Maric. She said: “The effect that she [Maric] had on his work was instrumental. In the letters, they talk about ‘our work’. He references that she’s checking his maths and helping her tease out problems. That’s the thing about Mileva Maric – she challenged him.
“Yes, on the domestic side she bolstered him and supported him and loved him, but we forget that Albert was a young man and he was curious. He was questioning things that people didn’t think he should be questioning, and he needed someone to tell him that was okay. That was definitely what she was doing. She did everything for him really, so she definitely deserved credit she didn’t get.”
Second wife Elsa Einstein was also crucial to Einstein’s success – by keeping him alive and out of trouble.
Speaking about what Einstein would be without Elsa, Watson said: “Interestingly, I think he might have just been dead. When they first together he was very very ill and quite possibly could have died. She nursed him. Also she got him out of Germany in time. If he stayed… he would have died for sure. For someone who was so astute, he was not astute about that. He was not mindful of his own safety.”
Einstein’s safety was to become a crucial concern – he was a Jewish German national living in Germany during the turbulent interwar period that saw the rise of fascism in the country. As he sought to escape Germany, the United States refused entry to Einstein.
Asked what surprised him while working on the series, Howard said: “[Einstein’s] free-thinking bohemian lifestyle threatened his stability in school. I didn’t realise that early on in his life his Judaism challenged his career advancement.
“I certainly didn’t know that America and J E Hoover was trying to keep him coming to the US. I had no idea about any of that.”
Howard believes it was Einstein’s strong individualism and curiosity that thrust him into the politics of the period, admitting: “His logic demanded truthful answers to honest questions. His mind led him in these directions that were unconventional, including his understanding of himself and his sense of purpose in life, and what his relationship with women and family and so forth would be.”
Colley added: “He didn’t get to where he was in an easy way. Nothing worth having ever comes easy. There’s failures and disappointments and struggling and fighting.”