It was a no-brainer. The team behind the new National Geographic series, “Genius,” which tells the life story of Albert Einstein, ran into a conflict when trying to cast Geoffrey Rush as the noted scientist. Rush wasn’t free to work because of a scheduling conflict.
Because Rush was the top choice by the production team to play Einstein, the problem was solved by switching the filming schedule so the early years – when Einstein is portrayed by Johnny Flynn – were filmed first. Rush’s portion was shot after he finished his other project.
Rush was happy the change could be made as he had desperately wanted to play the role.
“As I have gotten into my mid-60s, I have been getting more persnickety about the kind of roles I want to do. I want engaging roles that have great characters. As an actor, that’s what I look for in a great part,” Rush says.
Working out the scheduling woes was great news for executive producer Gigi Pritzker. Her company had been trying for years to make a feature film based on Einstein’s life but had never found the right approach. Pritzker knew the elements of Einstein’s life – from politics to womanizing – would make a great production. The problem was trying to tell such a massive story in a movie time frame.
The solution came when the decision was made to tell Einstein’s story in a 10-part series for television. And, it would not just look at his scientific achievements but the story would be framed around the women in Einstein’s life.
Once the structure was defined, Pritzker knew it would take a very talented actor to handle the part, and that’s why Rush was such a perfect choice.
“We talked to a lot of actors who said they would not be up to the challenge of playing Einstein,” Pritzker says. “We always knew Geoffrey could do it. We were right because he really infused this character with so much life.”
“Genius” tells the story of Einstein’s rise from humble origins as a rebellious thinker through his struggles to be recognized by the establishment. It also shows how he became a celebrity because of his examination of the cosmos with his theory of relativity. The series also looks at his emotions and heartlessness in dealing with his closest personal relationships, including his children, his two wives and the various other women with whom he has very personal relations.
The series unfolds against an era of global unrest over the course of two world wars. Faced with rising anti-Semitism in Europe, surveillance by spies and the potential for atomic annihilation, Einstein struggles as a husband, father and scientist.
The part of Einstein’s life where he’s married to his second wife, Elsa, was easier for Rush to play as Emily Watson was cast. This is the third time Rush and Watson have played a married couple, having worked in both “The Book Thief” and “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers” before making “Genius.”
Rush jokes that the biggest challenge playing another German couple was how to react differently when the Nazis came knocking at the door.
“We hung out a lot 20 years ago when we were on a press junket orbit, so there is a great comfort in working with someone when you share that kind of rapport in an industrial landscape of a film set in another county far from home,” Rush says.
Without having to worry about how he would work with his co-star, Rush was able to concentrate more on how he would be able to show the human side of such a huge iconic figure. Rush was 4 years old when Einstein died, so his exposure to him was only as a legend who became one of the most idiosyncratic figures of the 20th century.
Rush compares the kind of cult following Einstein had as being as big as Charlie Chaplin in a pre-celebrity world where it was not easy to become a household name. Rush likes that the series starts before Einstein became famous and shows what helped create the man who would become the best known scientist in history.
This broad look at Einstein started with Walter Isaacson’s book “Einstein: His Life and Universe.” Pritzker heard the author talk about Einstein several times during his book tour.
“He talked about how we all think we know Einstein, but he’s far more complicated,” Pritzker says. “Most people know him as that crazy professor sticking his tongue out in the poster.
“That’s just what most people know of him on the surface. This series speaks of him as a real human being who had quirks. He was a womanizer and a creative individual. This series looks at the complexity of the man and the times he lived in.”
The series mixes the human elements with his impact on the scientific world. That was another part of the story that was easy for Rush to play because he was obsessed with math and science while growing up in Australia.
“It started with John Glenn because he flew over Australia and everyone turned on their lights so he could see us,” Rush says. “My obsession continued with the Gemini and Apollo programs.
“I wanted to be an astronomer. Then I took calculus and bombed out totally. It was about that same time I got distracted by the drama club.”
He started acting professionally in the early ‘80s and has amassed a long list of credits that include his Oscar-winning work in “Shine” and the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series that have been massive box office hits. His “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” will be in theaters May 26.
Most of his work has been in feature films. Rush compares the high production values of “Genius” to productions made for the big screen.
Pritzker says that not only was television the perfect way to go with “Genius” because the story could be told in multiple parts, but the connection to National Geographic Channel was a perfect fit because the cable channel demands the same high quality look for its TV productions as it does for its magazine.
It’s a look that helps the production team and Rush convey that while the world might know the iconic elements of Einstein, “Genius” will show his very human side.
- 9 p.m. Tuesday, April 25, National Geographic Channel