No one is likely to quibble with “Genius” being the title of a drama series about Albert Einstein.
Based on Walter Isaacson’s book “Einstein: His Life and Universe,” the program – with executive producers including Oscar winners Ron Howard, who makes his scripted-television directorial debut with the first episode, and Brian Grazer – premieres Tuesday, April 25, as National Geographic’s first-ever scripted show. Fellow Academy Award recipient Geoffrey Rush (“Shine”) and Johnny Flynn (“Song One”) share the role of Einstein at different ages, with the teleplay first focusing on the physics student’s teen years.
The start of World War I and, as one might expect, Einstein’s theory of relativity are destined to have major impacts on his life … as are his complex personal ties, including his marriage to his cousin, as well as his second wife, Elsa (played by Emily Watson, who worked with Flynn in his first movie, “Crusade in Jeans”). When he relocates from Europe to America, Einstein gains an enemy in FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover (“Grey’s Anatomy” alum T.R. Knight) during the era when Adolf Hitler becomes an international concern, including to Einstein.
“We (conferred) on Skype,” Rush reports of matching his performance to Flynn’s, “because I was in Melbourne, in preparation, and he was working in London. Then I went to London and we hung out together, and we did a lot of chatting about being doppelgangers. He plays 16 quite convincingly, up until about the mid 30s … then I rather dangerously take over, from the early 40s until Einstein was in his mid-70s.”
“We had the same dialect coach who was working with us,” Flynn adds, “and that, I think, was a huge help because Geoffrey had worked with her before. She was a medium for us to communicate and get a sense of this person physically and vocally, and kind of combine our ideas.”
Howard deems National Geographic – which is debuting the filmed-in-Prague “Genius” globally in 171 countries – “the perfect home and platform for it, and it suggested some things that I thought were very important and set the bar very high. National Geographic stands for integrity and authenticity. It tells us stories in a comprehensive way, and yet is riveting and very, very engrossing. And, last but not least, it’s always visually compelling and fascinating and immersive. These are all important goals to try to set, for not just the first hour, but in the series.
“I really wanted it to be a psychological study,” notes Howard, “so I felt that as much as we could, (we should) use Einstein’s perspective on the world, and also the key people, particularly the women in his life and their perspectives on him. These were sort of the two pulls that I kept working off of visually and then, in that immersive way, tried to be as visual as we could. We have a fantastic cinematographer (Mathias Herndl), and it suggested a lot of strong imagery, which was exciting to work with.”