Geoffrey Rush emerges from the makeup trailer with a spoon hanging off his nose and says, “Guess what I am!”
The answer he’s looking for is: “A koala.” And it’s true, he does look a little like a koala. The Australian accent helps, too. But he’s also wearing a bushy mustache and a huge halo of a gray wig, so what Rush most looks like is Albert Einstein, spoon notwithstanding. After an hour or two in hair and makeup, this is precisely as it should be.
Rush plays the brilliant physicist in National Geographic’s new 10-hour biopic, Genius, debuting April 25. This is his first television series lead. It’s also Nat Geo’s first fully scripted series. No less a talent than Ron Howard makes his TV directing debut with the pilot of the series, which is as much a social history of the 20th century as it is a map of one man’s restless mind.
Genius began life as a movie script. When it arrived at Imagine Entertainment, the script quickly made its way to co-founders Howard and Brian Grazer. “I had read a number of scripts on Albert Einstein over the years as movie proposals,” Howard says. “But I never felt that they could capture the breadth of his life in the appropriate way.”
He thought television, particularly in its modern incarnation, could. “We all liked it immediately as a miniseries, not as a movie,” Grazer says. Recalling Howard’s work on a 2001 feature about another genius, he adds, “Movie people wouldn’t pick to do A Beautiful Mind today. So therefore it was very easy for all of us to go, ‘This works so much better as a 10-part series.’”
For more information, they turned to Walter Isaacson’s 700-page biography, Einstein: His Life and Universe. The 2007 bestseller would become the script’s primary source material. “I realized it was such an eventful life,” Howard says. “He was thrust into so many vital pivot points throughout the 20th century.”
Howard and Grazer had already worked with Nat Geo as producers on the hybrid drama- documentary Mars, and on Breakthrough, a documentary series about light-bulb moments in scientific history.
“Fox and National Geographic had a history of making certain types of things,” says Bert Salke, president of Fox 21 Television Studios. “But they had never aimed for the type of rarefied, broad, scripted entertainment that places like HBO and FX do, in part because it’s incredibly expensive.”
The new ambition came from the top. News Corp and 21st Century Fox, which expanded their joint venture with National Geographic Society in 2015 to form a new venture owned 73 percent by 21st Century Fox, wanted to build the channel into a world leader.
Einstein seemed like a perfect opportunity to do that, especially after Fox Networks Group chairman–CEO Peter Rice and National Geographic Global Networks CEO Courteney Monroe said they wanted to make fully scripted dramas of ambitious scope and scale.
Monroe is delighted with the results.
“Genius is another thrilling moment for our network as we continue to realize our vision to be a premium network for science, adventure and exploration. We wanted to make sure our first entry into scripted series was not only something that made sense for our brand, but also a series that was emblematic of the type of programming we aspire to deliver — for our audience and our clients. Genius delivers on all fronts.”
For Salke, “it was about going back to the basics of doing what we do… getting the best people we can find — in this case Brian and Ron and [executive producer and showrunner] Ken Biller — to do really interesting and daring programming.
"I think you’re going to see that Genius is very much a flagbearer for what Nat Geo is going to be doing. It’s not going to be typical network fare — it’s got lofty auspices with ambitious material. The idea is to make [the channel] a home for that kind of thing, somewhere you expect those kinds of series.”
With that level of backing, Howard said he wanted to set the tone by directing the opening episode himself. It would be his first hour-long TV drama.
First, however, they had to find an Einstein — no mean feat, given that Noah Pink’s time-traveling script features the scientist at two stages of life. With Howard directing (“He’s an artist magnet — they all want to work with him,” Grazer says), they decided to shoot for the moon.
Geoffrey Rush was their first choice. One of the few performers who’s won the so-called Triple Crown of acting (the Oscar, Emmy and Tony), Rush loved the project and the script. Unsurprisingly, he is known for his diligence: when he takes on a role he takes it on fully. In the case of Genius, he felt he wouldn’t have enough time to prepare, so he turned it down.
Howard and Grazer, however, were determined to get their man. “He’s an extremely intelligent, incredibly thorough actor, and he was willing not to do it if he couldn’t tackle it in a way he felt did justice to the importance of the opportunity,” Howard says.
“I actually agreed to change my schedule. The network concurred, and so we shot Johnny Flynn, our young Einstein, first — to give Geoffrey Rush more time to prep. We then came back a month later and shot Geoffrey’s portion of the first episode.”
Inside a hulking Prague soundstage once used to make Nazi propaganda films, Rush is at work. He claims accents aren’t his strong suit, but as he reads Tolstoy at the bedside of his dying second wife, Elsa (Emily Watson), the German inflections are perfect. “Everything I understand, I understand only because I love,” he reads, gently touching her face.
As soon as director Ken Biller calls “Cut,” Watson comes back to life. She and Rush have been married on screen twice before (The Life and Death of Peter Sellers and The Book Thief), so they slip easily into a playful mode. As she hums Swan Lake, Rush ballet-dances around the set.
This frolicsomeness is partly Rush and partly Einstein. Flynn, the English actor from Netflix’s Lovesick who plays young Einstein, says Rush contacted him as soon as he was cast. The aim was to make their two portrayals seem like one man.
“Geoffrey was brilliant in sharing what had worked for him on Shine, where he’d also had to share a character with a younger actor. He told me about what worked, and he was quite fearless about it, which made me feel safe.”
They met first on Skype and then in person, sharing a performance coach, doing exercises and studying footage.
“He’s incredibly playful,” Flynn says. “I’ve got this ream of messages back and forth that we shared — we basically came up with this weird faux–German language that we’d talk to each other in. It’s a bit like Spike Milligan, Goon Show–speak. Our fooling around has been part of the process. From Einstein’s letters, we believe that he was similarly playful.”
Neither Rush nor Flynn looks anything like Einstein. Rush is too tall, his face is shaped differently, and his eyes are wrong. Flynn is even more wrong: he’s blond, blue-eyed and dashing.
Rush says: “The first thing I did when I was offered the part was, I sent this classic photo of Einstein to a friend of my daughter’s, who’s a savvy, technical photographer. Then I got my daughter to take a shot of me at the same angle. I said to her friend, ‘I want you to morph 80 percent me and 20 percent me just so I can get a sense of whether this is achievable.’”
The face meld worked, but the photographer couldn’t get the hair right. “So I sat up one night with the photo and some Tipp-Ex [Wite-Out]. And I drew Einstein’s hair on it. I looked at it and said, ‘I think I can have a bash at this.’”
Rush grew his own hair long and ragged for the part, and then makeup and hair designer Davina Lamont was tasked with making him and Flynn look like Einstein at varying stages of his life. Between his evolving wigs and Einstein’s active love life, Rush likes to call the series “Five Shades of Grey.” But makeup and prosthetics weren’t enough to make Flynn and Rush look like each other.
“They look nothing alike, so we had to do it with the hair,” Lamont says. “There still has to be some trickery with lighting and camera, but when you see the two of them together you can see how each might morph into the next one.”
That’s where the actors’ joint preparation paid dividends.
“Even when I’m making them up, they have no idea that they’re doing exactly the same stuff,” Lamont says.
“It’s the little mannerisms that they both have. Both Geoffrey and Johnny, they have this little thing: I put the lenses in and the moustache on, and neither of them looks in the mirror until the mustache goes on. Then they go into Einstein. That’s the trigger. They’re both exactly the same: Look down, moustache on, up, into Einstein.”
Beyond the famous formula (E=mc 2), a notable quotation or two, and the iconic images — Einstein sticking his tongue out or smoking a pipe — Einstein the man has receded into history. His name remains a synonym for genius, but few people know what made him one. Genius tells the story of his life and mind, from a very young age. True to the great man’s theories, the show’s timeline doesn’t move in a linear fashion.
“Ron and I, in discussion with Noah Pink, didn’t want to do a straight biopic,” Biller says. “One of the ways to break out of that was to tell it in a nonlinear way and move back and forth in his life.”
Episode one begins with an assassination, moves quickly to a sexual assignation and flits back and forth between Professor Albert Einstein entertaining students and a young Einstein starting his own university education.
“By juxtaposing these two different characters who are actually the same person,” Biller says, “we pose the question: ‘How did this rebellious, impudent, passionate young guy turn into this icon that we know about?’ Then, by telling the story in a way that takes us all around Europe and in time, we put the pieces together as to who this man truly was.”
You can’t tell the story of Einstein’s life without at least attempting to address his work, but that’s far easier said than done. When told that he was one of only three people in the world who understood Einstein’s special theory of relativity, English astrophysicist Arthur Eddington is reported to have paused for a long while and then said, “I’m trying to think who the third person is.”
“The idea,” Howard says, “is to understand [Einstein’s work] well enough to depict it and yet be entertaining about it. It’s Nat Geo, so we felt an added need to express it so that if you’re curious, you’re being offered some good insight. It might not be a complete understanding, but the foundational ideas are right.”
It helped that Einstein himself used to conduct what he called “thought experiments” to help explain his thinking in visual ways. “We use different stylistic devices, depending on the nature of what he’s trying to explain,” Howard says. “That was a lot of hours working around the table with special-effects people and physicists. That’s part of the fun of this. I learned a lot.”
A second soundstage in Prague contains a set for Einstein’s house in Princeton, where he landed after leaving Germany in 1933. In the office, indecipherable equations cover both a chalkboard and a pile of papers on the table. It’s not just window-dressing. The series relies on a math adviser, Jiri Svoboda, and a handwriting expert, Ladislav Kouba.
The writing, which the average viewer will be unable to read, is copied meticulously from letters in Einstein’s own hand. The equations come from manuscripts Einstein wrote in 1951, the year in which the scene is set, when he was working on electromagnetism. So all the numbers are real and would make sense to any astrophysicists who tune in. Unsurprisingly, that’s not how TV usually does science.
“The equations on The Big Bang Theory are laughable,” Svoboda says. “The math is not wrong, but the combinations are crazy. But then that’s a joke. This is serious.” Serious indeed. The production also employs a German adviser, a Jewish adviser, a military expert and a violin teacher.
Einstein’s theories may have been universal, but he was a product of his times. Genius shows how Einstein became reluctantly and then passionately politicized. In so doing, it tells the history of the first part of the 20th century, through his eyes.
“It takes us through two World Wars, the rise of anti-Semitism, into the nuclear age and McCarthyism. All of these -isms really affected Einstein — and he affected them,” Biller says.
Part of the later story involves Einstein, an immigrant, trying to gain access to the United States. His nemesis was J. Edgar Hoover, played by T.R. Knight. “Hoover comes in toward the end of the story and tries to get Einstein out of the country in any way he can,” Knight says, going on to say that even though the scripts were written more than a year ago, there are striking parallels with current political disputes.
“If that sounds familiar with our current politics… well, I don’t mind reminding people about history. It’s frightening how, in reading this script and the research material, you see just how cyclical history is.”
Howard adds: “When we were staging these scenes, it was very disturbing. Yes, it was as events were turning in elections in the U.S., but also there has been the conservative push around the world that tries to limit immigration. It threatens to squelch freedom of speech and expression in the name of safety and security.
"The parallels were definitely chilling. Unintentionally, the Einstein story has something else to say to us right now.”
The series shows how true genius is able to break those cycles, step outside the march of history and cast fresh eyes on situations. And though Einstein was perhaps the greatest example of that in recent times, there have been others.
“Immediately when we got the script, we thought, ‘It’s not only Einstein,’” says Howard, and his production partners are on board. A Nat Geo representative confirms that Genius will become an anthology series, focusing on a different towering intellect or mold-breaker each season.
“When you read most of these stories of genius,” Howard observes, “there is a pattern of challenges that they faced. Because they don’t think like everyone else. They’re not conventional people.
"With that comes a measure of isolation, which can be emotionally punishing — and hard on people around the individual as well. So the price of genius — that’s something I think we’re going to find in every season of this show, no matter who we focus on next.”
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 3, 2017