He was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, his drama school cohorts at the Webber Douglas Academy in London included Homeland‘s Rupert Friend and Sleepy Hollow‘s Tom Mison, and he’s now starring in a Nat Geo drama that you should definitely be watching.
Johnny Flynn plays Genius‘s pre-fame version of Albert Einstein in a breakout performance that introduces viewers to a more infectiously charming and confident (and surprisingly friskier) Einstein than we might have known about before. Yahoo TV talked to the 34-year-old actor, singer, and songwriter about the highlights of playing a genius, his role in one of TV’s best romantic comedies (Lovesick), and the many things he has in common with Einstein.
Here are 5 things you need to know…
1. If his performance as young Albert has already won you over, May 2’s episode will only strengthen your fandom. The installment focuses on Albert’s connection with the equally brilliant and impressive Mileva, a fellow scientist who becomes his first wife. Theirs is a complicated affair, to say the least, but their relationship becomes one of the most important in Einstein’s life.
Flynn is also the star of the Netflix sitcom Lovesick, which was known by the unfortunate (although not inaccurate) title Scrotal Recall when it debuted on Channel 4 in England in 2014. Flynn plays Dylan, who’s diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease and must contact everyone he’s ever slept with to let them know. Helping him, and tormenting him, along his trip down heartbreak memory lane: his BFFs Luke (Daniel Ings) and Angus (Joshua McGuire), as well as Evie (Antonia Thomas), the smart, sassy woman Dylan is obviously in love with. Evie shares those feelings, though the two of them have the kind of bad timing that’s especially prevalent in will-they-or-won’t-they romances. The sweet and funny series began production on Season 3 this week, which is the perfect excuse to catch up with the friends’ antics in Season 1 and 2’s 14 episodes. Especially since Flynn hints at more Dylan/Evie (DylEvie?) drama to come.
“I think they’re meant to be together,” he says. “I think we can see that. But the story would be over if we [got them together right away], so there’s some more stringing out to be done. And there are things to learn still about their past that will help to illuminate why they haven’t just taken the plunge.
The first meetings he had with Genius executive producer Ron Howard were on Skype while he was filming Season 2 of Lovesick in Glasgow. “It felt just hilarious how different the two things were,” Flynn says. “But I love it, and I’m super excited to get back up there with those guys, who’ve become my best friends — the three or four people that act in that, and the crew, and everybody. So I’m really excited to continue to tell the story.”
2. Folk-rock singer and songwriter Flynn is touring in support of his latest album, Sillion. In 2013, long before he knew he’d be playing the genius, Flynn wrote a lullaby called “Einstein’s Idea,” in which he attempts to explain the theory of relativity to his then two-year-old son, Gabriel.
3. Flynn also shares a birthday — March 14 — with Albert Einstein. Does the fact that he wrote a song about Einstein and shares a birthday with the Nobel Prize winner lead him to think he may have been destined to eventually portray him? “It’s just like a lovely coincidence at this stage,” Flynn says. “There’s a playful sense of serendipity to that, but I don’t pay too much attention, otherwise it would just sound really arrogant. But it is a good dinner party story.”
4. A father of two (Gabriel, 6, and Ida, 1), Flynn says what he most identified with from his portrayal of Einstein was the physicist’s attempts to be a good father. “I was playing him for a period of the series where he has young kids,” Flynn says. “He was starting to be this very famous physicist and his marriage was breaking down, but in that period, he was trying to be the best father that he could be. Actually, what is said about him is that he was not a very good father, and that’s where you get to in the end, sadly, because of the breakdown of the relationship with his first wife. But [earlier], as a father, he was trying very hard, and we get to show some very tender scenes between him and his sons. I think it’s touching to see somebody who is starting to be extremely famous, in an age where there weren’t that many celebrities of his stature in Europe, just trying to make things work at home. And it’s kind of heartbreaking, but we had a few very tender scenes with the sons that I liked doing, and I related to, because of my own relationship with my kids. I try and keep a grounded relationship to my home life. I’m on the road a lot, and I’m doing this promotion and filming and stuff. But when I get home, I really try and turn my phone off and just be with my kids.”
Baby Ida, by the way, as well as Flynn’s sister, Lillie, co-star with him in his most recent music video, “Raising the Dead.”
5. Flynn thinks, like one of his personal idols, Bob Dylan, that Einstein was a rock star in his day. “He saw things differently, and he quite liked to let people know that he’s got these ideas, like it was burning in him,” Flynn says. “His task while he was on the planet was to give that truth that he perceived, and that he saw nobody understood, to humanity as like a gift. He was a truth seeker. And so from that perspective, I almost see him like a sage or like a spiritual medium. But as a young man, at times, he had to very rebellious, because he was shouted down by all of his teachers. He was trying to overthrow Newton, and these inherited ideas that we’ve had since Galileo, and just the level of disruption that he was having to create to state these ideas was huge. So he had the vibe of a punk or a rebel, or at least a bohemian kind of poet in his outsider thinking.”
That kind of swagger is generally attractive, Flynn says. “And from my book, it’s to be encouraged,” he adds. “He understood his subject so well that he was able to innovate from a very young age. That was his brilliance, and I think that’s what genius is. There’s a Schopenhauer quote, ‘Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see.’ And that was what [Einstein] did.”
Genius airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on National Geographic Channel.
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