Albert Einstein: physicist, Nobel laureate, romantic and … owl? Trying to get a handle on the complex person whose name is literally synonymous with genius was the biggest challenge for Nat Geo Channel’s first scripted anthology series, which even has the title “Genius.”
Einstein was best associated with his theory of relativity, which is one of the two pillars of modern physics, and his mass-energy equivalence formula, E=mc². Beyond the science and iconic shock of grey hair, though, was a man who started out very differently from how we now perceive him.
“The goal of the show is to really humanize, get under the skin of Albert Einstein,” showrunner Ken Biller said. “We discovered that he lived this big, bold, brash, complicated, messy life.”
Einstein as a Young Man
Executive produced by Brian Grazer, Ron Howard and Gigi Pritzker, the 10-part series stars Geoffrey Rush as the Nobel-winning physicist. The series’ pilot shuttles back and forth between the older Einstein (Rush) and a teenage Einstein (played by “Lovesick’s” Johnny Flynn) in flashbacks. Through these dual timelines, it’s easier to reconcile the elderly scientist we picture with the rather dashing young man who’s vibrant, charming and a bit of a screw-up.
The device also serves as foreshadowing. The older Einstein is married to — and cheating on — his wife Elsa (Emily Watson), but before that, he was once married to a woman named Mileva Maric, whom the younger Einstein meets for the first time in flashback at the end of the pilot. What happened between that fateful meeting and what ultimately became a failed marriage? The next few episodes stick with the younger Einstein to tell that story, following his path through university, his first romantic relationships and his early jobs and discoveries.
“He was very complicated,” said Flynn, who portrays Einstein from ages 16 to 38. “He was not a perfect human being by a long stretch. He was flawed in lots of ways and let people down, and some of his relationships didn’t go so well.”
Flynn had to hide his blond hair and blue eyes under a wig and contact lenses in order to play Einstein, and even then didn’t start to resemble the scientist’s iconic look until his character begins to grow his hair and mustache out.
“I had some kind of rubber or silicon prosthetic things around my eyes which gave me some of the facial structure that Einstein had,” Flynn said. “He has this kind of droop around the eyes that Einstein had and Geoffrey has, so I had to come in line with them. The fact that when I looked in the mirror when I was on set, I looked totally different, that gave me a certain amount of courage in going there and inhabiting it.”
In order to create a more cohesive portrayal of Einstein throughout the decades, Rush and Flynn also spent hours on Skype and later in person to discuss acting references, such as key adjectives or people.
“We came up with this idea that his spirit animal was an owl, in terms of the image of him with his eyebrows slightly raised,” Flynn said. “Geoffrey got this word ‘strigine,’ which is like pertaining to an owl or owl-like…We also would send each other clips and videos and pictures of things that we thought were sort of Einstein-ian, whether it was Harpo Marx or Bob Dylan at his press conference in 1964. Things so that we could kind of own [the role] ourselves … trying not to do an impersonation.”
The two also worked with the same dialect coach to perfect a form of speech that would convey through English, enough of a German accent tinged with Yiddish to represent Einstein’s Jewish heritage. On his own, however, Flynn realized that the proper accent was just part of what informed how Einstein spoke. He would need to learn enough of the language and theory behind physics in order to deliver Einstein’s enthusiastic speeches on the subject.
“It wouldn’t have felt right to just head into saying that stuff without having attempted [learning it],” said Flynn. “We had these guys from University of Prague and various mathematicians and everything that was presented on set and the stuff that we’re writing on boards and lectures and the equations and arguments, everything is checked by about 50 million people. Then I would have private tuition with physics professors and things like that.”
Einstein the Romantic
In these early episodes, Einstein also reveals that he’s a man of passion, and not just for stuffy theorems. Not only is he a well-documented lover of music and an avid violinist, but he was a diehard romantic when he was younger and fell for Mileva Maric (Samantha Colley), a brilliant fellow student at Zurich Polytechnic.
“He met her, and he fell in love with her mind. It was just a fantastic meeting of intellects, and she inspired him,” said Flynn. “For years really, she was his main confidant and advisor and sounding board, and I think really shaped his early ideas and was instrumental in that. There was the Annus Mirabilis, and in 1905, he wrote four scientific papers that really changed the course of physics and he did all that whilst working as a third-class patent clerk an office in Bern, in Switzerland. I think she was instrumental in checking the work and reading his papers.”