Walter Isaacson’s 700-page bio of Albert Einstein might have scared off some readers, but it makes a great source for National Geographic Channel’s first scripted series, Genius, premiering April 25. Emmy and Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush and Lovesick breakout Johnny Flynn star as the older and younger versions of Einstein as the story of the Nobel Prize winner’s life, loves, and, of course, genius career unfolds.
The first two episodes of the engaging series — where were these kinds of shows when we were suffering through boring high school history lectures? — spend a lot of time on the randy physicist’s love life. “It doesn’t hurt that he was such a Lothario,” says executive producer Ron Howard, who helped develop the series and will continue to be involved as Season 2 will focus on a new genius.
Howard and co-producer Gigi Pritzker talked to Yahoo TV about what inspired the series, the surprising things viewers will learn about Einstein and his love life and involvement with politics, and the woman — worthy of her own biography series — who may have been the single biggest influence on Einstein’s career.
When you use the word “genius,” Albert Einstein is likely the first name that comes to mind for a lot of people. Is that the main reason for choosing his life as the focus for the first season of Genius?
Gigi Pritzker: When we, seven, eight years ago, first read Walter Isaacson’s book [Einstein], and I heard him speaking on his book tour, we really wanted to delve into this man’s life for so many reasons. But the main reason is, people just don’t know so much about him. We have such a surface understanding of who he was, and I think his life and his accomplishments and him as a person were so compelling and so interesting. And the reality is, we tried for years to develop this as a feature film, and looking at how it’s unfolded now with Imagine and Ron as our [premiere episode] director, and Nat Geo as our platform, I am really grateful to the mercurial winds of our business that we didn’t end up making it as a feature.
As you said, we have these images of Einstein — the famous photo of him sticking his tongue out on his 72nd birthday, for example — but most of what we know is surface, a few facts. What are you most excited or interested to have people learn about him?
Ron Howard: For me, the interpersonal stuff is fascinating. The really strong women, of very different personality types, who influenced him. I think there’s an element of the story that is actually a kind of cautionary one, that when you look at the pressures that were on him… I just had no idea how close the world came to not actually benefiting from Albert Einstein’s genius. And it makes you wonder how many geniuses we failed to benefit from and how many we could be putting in jeopardy today.
The first impression the series makes is that Einstein was someone who saw the world differently, related to it differently than most people, and that the first instinct for others was to try to make him conform. As you said, it’s a cautionary tale on one hand, but on the other hand, it’s very inspirational.
Howard: I agree. The other thing that I think I can see in Albert Einstein’s story, and now as I think about all the people that I would characterize as genius-level achievers, I can see it in them, too… it’s a kind of personal and creative courage to allow their own instincts, their logic that defines their principles, to follow those principles. And when those people lead the way to breakthroughs, then I think those are the individuals that we can begin to define as geniuses. But it’s fascinating to me how bumpy the road was for Albert Einstein. I just had no notion of the burden of his genius, on him.
Especially in the younger version of Einstein that Johnny Flynn plays in the series, there’s a confidence in him, even in the face of his father, teachers, so many people trying to make him conform to what they think he should do. It’s certainly one of his defining characteristics as we get to know him.
Howard: For the rest of his life, I think he continued to follow his principles, even if it wasn’t in the area of his passion, which remained theoretical physics forever. But when his principles demanded that he actually become involved in political issues, and allow himself to be the voice of controversial causes and positions related to science and religion and society, he did so.
There are some political themes that seem frighteningly current, of course, but it’s also a wonderful part of the story to go in depth on the historical context of the times that he was operating in, which is one of the many things that we don’t necessarily associate with him.
Pritzker: Yeah, listen, when we were shooting in Prague and some of the scenes that were being recreated with the brown shirts… it was lost on no one that there is real resonance, and I think one of the things that I hope [happens] when people see this series is that a light bulb goes off and they do realize that history is calling us to remember, and to think about what we’re doing now in that context.
The series is another bit of proof of just how much more interesting learning is when you use a narrative to unfold history in this way. How do you approach a project like this from the beginning to make sure that it is as entertaining as it is informative?
Howard: There were some advantages with Einstein’s life, because as a person, he had this impish sense of humor, a kind of playfulness, and a love of life. It doesn’t hurt that he was such a Lothario. That’s pretty entertaining to learn about. And of course, he did, sort of by default, wind up either influencing or witnessing much of the real drama of the 20th century, and that had a huge impact on him on a personal level that we can all relate to. So the short answer to what you’re saying is, allowing people to be able to relate to Einstein as a human being, and realizing that, yes, he’s an undeniable genius, but that doesn’t make him immune to the feelings and the twists and turns of life as we mortal folks would all relate to.
About his love life, he was a pretty busy guy, and I’ve only seen the first two episodes. But these women, especially his first wife, Mileva Maric (Samantha Colley), were incredibly important to his success. Especially the second episode, which focuses so much on the brilliant Mileva — it could be the launch of a whole series on her.
Howard: Yeah, I knew actually nothing about her, because even the screenplays I had read where Einstein was a key character, that I never felt made good movie stories over the years, never really dealt with his early years. It was always more around the bomb and his later life as a professor, once he was firmly established. So, it’s fascinating, and of course there are so few women who were even allowed the opportunity to utilize their brilliance. So there’s definitely a tragic quality to Mileva’s character, and it’s interesting to understand the ways in which Einstein was influenced by her. Look, he loved people. He loved collaborators. A couple of his buddies are very, very helpful when he’s in the patent office, helping him formulate ideas. Later, when [second wife] Elsa comes into his life, she helps in very significant ways. Not with the math and the physics, but with other important problems of his life, as his life became more public and political. He leaned very heavily on these relationships, even though he always wrote of himself in a poignant way, as a kind of emotional island. Even though he liked the world and he loved people and was a sexual person, I don’t think he ever felt entirely connected to any person the way he sort of did to his work.
Pritzker: And I think for us, in trying to break down the material, because there was such an enormous amount of it, one of the framing devices was the women in Einstein’s life. I’m sure he didn’t know as he was going through his own life, but when you look back on it, it was kind of the right woman at the right time. And Mileva was critical to his early successes, and was a real partner in the math piece of what he did. To the point that he gave to her the prize money from winning the Nobel, because I think he knew that she was as much a partner in that as anything. I’ve always chosen to believe that was his kind of way of thanking her for what she did.
What do some of the later episodes of the season focus on in Einstein’s work and relationships?
Howard: Einstein being thrust into political controversies in a way that really threatened him and threatened those that he loved, is very, very interesting. And I think there’s a great deal of nobility there, because again, I don’t think his passion was to get involved in those areas. His passion wasn’t to be famous. And yet, he couldn’t ignore a sense of responsibility and a calling. I think in some ways, it’s a little bit like what you begin to feel about the Queen in The Crown, that there’s a sense of duty. And his life is very complicated. Here’s a soulful individual at the middle of this, who will put the principles and the sense of responsibility first. And I think you see the senior, iconic Albert Einstein evolve into this other individual with a life that he never would have planned for himself. And I think it’s very interesting, very dramatic, very poignant.
Genius premieres April 25 at 9 p.m. on National Geographic Channel.
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