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Twenty years ago, Apple used a now-iconic photo of Albert Einstein — along with Bob Dylan, Martin Luther King Jr. and Alfred Hitchcock, among others — for its “Think Different” campaign.
But when Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush signed on to play the famed figure in the first season of the Nat Geo drama Genius, Rush knew he wanted to go beyond and show a, well, different side of Einstein.
“[We were] hopefully trying to humanize that face that we sort of know from T-shirts or Apple billboards or something but that almost nobody apart from Walter Isaacson, who had written the book, knew,” Rush tells The Hollywood Reporter.
“He was a man who wept, he was a man who laughed. He had a fantastic sense of humor, I’ve seen that in some of the newsreel footage where he could get journalists laughing at the drop of a hat. Rather than trying to breathe life into some documentary portrayal of him, you have to find a kind of ownership.”
Rush clearly succeeded, seeing as he earned an Emmy nomination for best actor in a limited series or movie. The role marked his largest TV endeavor since 1996, in which he starred in Mercury, an Australian miniseries about a newspaper that was released the same year as his Oscar-winning turn in Shine.
Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, Rush discussed working with director and exec producer Ron Howard, the biggest misconception about Einstein and showing his lighter side.
What was it like working with director Ron Howard?
There was phenomenal momentum because it was one of Nat Geo’s first scripted dramas so there was a lot of energy around it and a lot of expectation around it at the network. Ron Howard and Brian [Grazer] from Imagine [Entertainment] really kind of moved it along. I only heard about it in June, I think Ron had only come onboard in March and saw maybe the first episode [script] and the synopsis for the other nine and went, “Let’s do it!” in a kind of enigmatic Ron Howard way. Because it’s really settled nicely into his ongoing body of work. I think he was very excited that he got 10 hours of television to look at. Having done Mars, it’s just part of his bag to go, ‘Einstein is one of those great historical, classical figures — how exciting to have this opportunity.’ They were looking at one point originally of doing it as a two-hour television movie and then they realized, Ron just kept asking all those key questions which were invariable for me as an actor when I got onboard. Why would this guy, as a physicist of all things, why would he become one of the greatest celebrities before the word celebrity had been invented? He’s a physicist but he’s a household name. And so in 10 episodes, we had the time to go back to the 1880’s when he was a child, back to when he was five and picks up a compass, he’s already a great and curious mind and he’s going, Why does the needle always point to the north? What makes that happen? We got to explore a very big developmental arc, hopefully trying to humanize that face that we sort of know from t-shirts or Apple billboards or something but that almost nobody apart from Walter Isaacson, who had written the book, knew.
Given the celebrity of the character, what would you say is the biggest misconception about Einstein?
Well, in a funny sort of way, it was the anonymity of his identity. Most people would say, “Yeah, he’s the guy with the big halo, as they called it, of hair,” and 99.99 percent of the public had no idea of his mathematical brilliance, and the revolution — he overturned Newton’s well accepted theories. So really the bottom line for all of us was to try and humanize things so he didn’t become just a wax work. We kind of put a clock into his back and tried to wind him and the more we researched it, from the great 19th century scientific explosion, which was really a golden age in Europe, right through two major world wars, Einstein’s journey to America and [being investigated by] J. Edgar Hoover and all of that, we had to look very closely at, ‘OK, what was going on in Einstein’s mind apart from the headlines?’
This is a huge time commitment given the project spans 10 episodes and 10 hours. What were the challenges of that commitment?
We have a very agile production team in all kinds of production, from the challenges to the makeup artist to the hair people and costuming and the cinematographers to showcase years of this guy’s life. I had done a 13-part series back in 1981 for [the Australian] national broadcaster, and again, just after I had done Shine, I got offered another 13-part series in Australia which was a drama about a newspaper. At that stage, I had barely just gotten feature films and I thought, ‘Gee, this is a great six months of working with the camera and the pressure of episodes being made. I needed to learn a lot more about working on my toes, I suppose, on a film set.’ But this one, of course, had the profile of a very revered, iconic figure. I wanted to do that kind of, I suppose, objectivity. I wouldn’t want to condemn or condone or overpraise who or what he was. We kind of wanted the contradictions that were inside this character and on the outside in his relationship to this very turbulent world that he moves through so there were a lot of rhythms. I would say I’m a fairly introspective actor, not so much a psychological actor. But you look at the psychological impact of what shapes a person from their childhood, because he was from a very young age, he was a bit of a dope, (laughs), and you kind of go, what does that to a person? That probably gives them a bit of an ego,
I had thoughts and I had to find a way of getting them out there and that was one of the challenges for me personally, to recognize why he was such a passionate person. He clearly had accolades but he never got the Nobel Prize ever for his greatest work, and that was him running up against some fairly anti-Semitic kind of attitudes that were very prevalent in Europe. So the rhythms of all that, that gave me some good fundamentals to play with.
He was a man who wept, he was a man who laughed. He had a fantastic sense of humor, I’ve seen that in some of the newsreel footage where he could get journalists laughing at the drop of a hat. Rather than trying to breathe life into some documentary portrayal of him, you have to find a kind of ownership. And Johnny Flynn and I talked a lot about that in very broad strokes.
We got two big chapters, one where he’s aspiring to getting his ideas out and the older Einstein where he’s navigating the twists and turns of science becoming something news-y, and also dealing with the celebrity that I think he was quite fed up with. I read the other day that famous shot where he’s staring at the camera, it sold for $145,000 at an auction — I think it was taken at Princeton — and he got sick of smiling to people and he didn’t want to be a performing monkey, you know?
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