"In Australia, people will call a lemon meringue pie 'genius,' you know," cracks Australian actor Geoffrey Rush - who currently can be seen playing Albert Einstein in National Geographic's 10-part limited series Genius, the network's first foray into scripted entertainment - as we sit down at New York's iconic Empire Hotel to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's 'Awards Chatter' podcast. "But," continues the 65-year-old winner of an Oscar (1996's Shine), Emmy (2004's The Life and Death of Peter Sellers) and Tony (2009's Exit the King), "Einstein? He was such a lateral thinker, daydreamer, thinking 'outside the box,' as we used to say, and coming up with revolutionary new perceptions."
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For the first four decades of Rush's life, nobody was calling him a genius. He came up through the Australian theater, only briefly stepping away to study in England and France before returning Down Under. "I was always constantly at work," he says, noting that he played "a broad repertoire" of character parts and found his life "very satisfying." But things changed around the time he turned 40. Troubled by the milestone, overextended professionally and worried about his finances as a new father, he started to experience panic attacks and worry about his future. And then, with what he calls "fortuitous timing," came Shine.
On the basis of his theater work, Rush was offered the starring part in Scott Hicks' low-budget Aussie biopic about the schizophrenic pianist David Helfgott. It took three years to get made, and nobody had great expectations for it outside of its own country - but, largely because of Rush's jaw-dropping performance, it became an international sensation, and its star took home not only an Oscar, but also Golden Globe, SAG, BAFTA, Critics' Choice, New York Film Critics' Circle and LA Film Critics Association awards, which cemented his reputation around the world as a film actor of the first order.
Over the ensuing years, he garnered three more Oscar nominations - for his supporting performance in the best picture Oscar winner 1998 Shakespeare in Love (which he says he had hoped would merely be "a nice little smart art-house release"), for his leading performance in 2000's Quills (which he initially turned down) and for his supporting performance in the picture Oscar winner for 2010 The King's Speech (which reunited him with Shakespeare co-star Colin Firth). He also has played the key supporting part of Barbossa in the Pirates of the Caribbean film series, which has encompassed four of the biggest blockbusters of all time, with a fifth on the way.
In 2004, back when it was considered a step in the wrong direction for an actor who had made it in films to take on work for television, Rush did just that in the TV movie The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, which proved to be one of his finest creative experiences. When, 13 years later, Ron Howard asked to pitch him on playing Einstein in a 10-part limited series, he says he was open to the idea and quickly got "caught up in the vortex of [Howard's] enthusiasm." (He had enjoyed his experience on TV and had been a huge science buff as a young man.)
On the show, he plays the older of two versions of Einstein (the other is inhabited by Johnny Flynn) as a human being with nuances and eccentricities beyond his hair - something that most people never have contemplated, knowing Einstein mostly for his theories that they do not understand and for his appearance as captured in Apple's iconic "Think Different" ads. For Rush, getting to show that even our greatest geniuses were also humans was a great joy - so much so that he doesn't want Genius to end after its 10th episode. Instead, he would like it to be just the beginning of an American Horror Story-like show on which the same actors return season after season in different stories. "I've pitched the idea to Nat Geo," he says. "I think it would be interesting."