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Geoffrey Rush on playing Albert Einstein in Genius

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Geoffrey Rush on playing Albert Einstein in Genius
Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush plays the iconic Albert Einstein in Genius, National Geographic's first fully scripted series. Here's how he did it

What does the word genius mean to you?
The word 'genius' gets bandied about a lot these days. I remember in Australia a football commentator was saying how everyone is called a genius these days, everyone is a genius footballer, scores a genius goal, a genius play. I looked it up, most people agree that you could say that whoever the geniuses are, they can combine ideas staring everyone else in the face. They can connect things no one thought about. They were all polymaths, like Chaplin: he could write music as well as perform and he was around, they all had longevity, it involved endurance.

The German philosopher, Schopenhauer, says: "Talent hits a target that no one else can hit, genius hits a target that no one else can see." We can apply that to Einstein. He engaged in thought experiments. He would let his mind wander and drift off and speculate and always obsessed from youth: "What if I could travel faster than the speed of light, what would light look like?" Pretty trippy.

What were you most surprised to learn about Einstein?
He was famous for being famous as a scientist. Everyone knows he had ridiculous hair — it probably came out of his youth at the Prussian Academy where scientists were a little woolier. There are so many photos of him meeting other famous people, like meeting Marilyn Monroe, and of him sticking out his tongue and being cheeky. The great thing about this series is that it looks at his youth. Ultimately, although nonlinear, the series shows Einstein from age five, when his father gave him a compass and young Albert was intrigued at what forces were at work that made the needle always point in one direction, until 76 when he died. The series shows the crucial adolescent development and him being a young adult, as well as his domestic issues and wives.

Einstein
What were you most surprised to learn about Einstein?
I suppose how open and gregarious and truly childlike he was for a man with such complexity of ideas. Some people have tried to classify him as somewhat autistic, but I don't think it is true because he loved sailing and intellectual company. He came out of a flourishing Jewish societal world in early 20th century Germany and he would hang out with his friends and they would play music. I don't know how good he was, there is no record of that. Eventually he loved to travel and he had an expansive personality and I was lucky enough to get a lot of footage of him visiting Britain and the USA and he seemed to greet press like Groucho Marx. He had people laughing and was kind of clown-like with his naivety. Rumour has it he was thought of as dopey and a slow starter but he was just day-dreaming and that ended up being his greatest strength.

How did you and Johnny Flynn, the young Albert, make sure your portrayals of Einstein synced? Did you practice together?
That had only happened once before with "Shine", where they had someone play the boy, the character in his 20s and me after that. Johnny and I met on skype and talked about what the script presented. He would be Einstein from his teens to mid 30s and I took over after World War I, from around age 40 to his death. We had clear cut shapes and brushstrokes and looked at how his behaviour manifested pre and post fame. There is a lot of photographic evidence for young Einstein but no moving images. I was lucky to see Einstein do public speaking on NBC radio and see him on fantastic colour home movies from his Princeton years. One home movie had him just putting on glasses and it was great that I could watch his mannerisms. These movies gave me little wisps of eternal rhythms that could be externalised.

Johnny Flynn as Einstein

Johnny and I met in London and he suggested a mentor at his drama school and thought it would be great to muck around: how do we walk, what is our center of gravity. As a young man, Einstein was slim and attractive and then he got pudgy in middle age. We shared ideas and interviewed each other, the old speaking to the young and vice versa. That was fun and we played with his little vocal mannerisms. I heard radio broadcasts and watched newsreel footage and saw him always as a character in the public domain, but don't know how he was when in private and so there is a degree of invention there.

Did you know he was such a ladies' man?
I didn't know about that. I think he had many young lovers because he moved around a lot. He gave up his German passport and was a bit of a gallivant. He was bright and some women find that deeply attractive. And he had humour. He liked a partner in his life and he found that with Elsa, after his sad and awkward failure of a first marriage to Mileva Maric. He knew his gift only functioned if he lived a well-ordered and coordinated life. He was fortunate with Elsa to find someone happy to be that person. She didn't match his intellect like Mileva did. Mileva was brilliant but Elsa was happy to be his manager, mother, organiser, PR person and that marriage was one of deep friendship but not particularly passionate. She gave him license to have affairs. They were radical progressives on that level.

Have you played the violin before?
No but I quite like these different tasks. I did a film where I was a tailor and I had to chalk and cut up a suit. I don't think anyone would want to wear it. I liked the time it took to learn how to sword fight in Pirates of the Caribbean. I thought I would need to be pretty savage with a blade if I wanted to be credible. And I learnt like I was playing the piano and accordion for roles. With the violin, I think most people who play it well have done over ten thousand hours of practice probably when they were aged five. It takes a lot of skill and precision to get the quality of tone and notes. There are no chords and if you miss by a nano millimeter it is the worst sound in the world. I have major movie magic assistance to be as good as Einstein could have been.

Albert
Why did you choose to play this role?
I'm in my mid '60s. I am a character actor and this is one of the great parts and the scale is so big. The whole series is about an epoch and a tumultuous one and global concepts, even if someone had invented this guy! He is the one who journeys through massive social and political forces, with so much pushing through this brilliant brain. The role has four dimensions not three.

Genius premieres in Singapore on 23 April at 7pm on National Geographic, on Singtel TV CH 201 and StarHub TV CH 411.

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