Q&A: Geoffrey Rush looks beyond the scientific equations in his role as Albert Einstein in ‘Genius’

Academy Award-winning actor Geoffrey Rush plays Albert Einstein in the NatGeo anthology series "Genius."
Academy Award-winning actor Geoffrey Rush plays Albert Einstein in the NatGeo anthology series “Genius.”
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Being in his mid-60s, Geoffrey Rush felt the offer to play Albert Einstein was a gift he couldn’t refuse. But he did at first.

“That put me into a spiral for a while,” Rush recalled during a recent sit-down in Los Angeles.

Other commitments made him unavailable to take on the role for the first season of National Geographic’s anthology series “Genius,” which tracks the scientist’s young-adult years through his rise to rock star of the science world. But with some tweaks to the production schedule — focusing first on the filming of young Einstein — he was able to sign on.

“I thought, this is the kind of role that is someone offering you a gift,” he said. “It’s scary because it's a very challenging role. It's full of big dimensions. He's to be honored and respected for the celebrity and the brilliance that he had as a theoretical physicist.”

The actor spoke to The Envelope about exploring Einstein, the man.

Was Einstein a figure you had ever felt drawn to play?

It’s a rare part to be offered, I have to admit. In an actor's life, you're probably really lucky if you get a handful of roles where you think, "I think I can own this one.” You're never completely sure, but as you work on it and go into it you look back on it and you go, “wow.”

Was it harder to make it look like you could play the violin, or to speak the way he does and look like you understand it?

I'm not really a musician. I played piano from when I was about 8 to 14 — it wasn't really classical repertoire. And then 35 years later or something, I ended up being in "Shine" where I had to learn to at least look and mime-play the piano. In "The Book Thief," I learned my way around the button accordion. Even sword fighting in "Pirates of the Caribbean” — I love these kind of challenges. And they can sometimes serve as an interior monologue.

I had about six to eight weeks before we were actually going to shoot that violin scene in the first episode. I had to go into a very serious crash course. The neck does a lot of work. You start activating muscles that you don't use in any other way of life unless you're playing the violin.

Being now in my mid-60s, I thought this is the kind of role that is someone offering you a gift.

— Geoffrey Rush on playing Albert Einstein in "Genius"

What had been your view of Einstein before starting this project and how did that change during the making of the series?

It was a steep learning curve. I was 4 when he died, so my memory of him is only as the great pop-cultural icon. A kind of level of celebrity that's not the same as celebrity now. In the first half of the 20th century, three of the biggest celebrities were probably Chaplin, Einstein and Charles Lindbergh. I knew almost nothing about the intricacies of his marital life, domestic life. There are so many strands to him.

There's a beautiful moment right near the end of the whole series, I don't want to give spoilers or anything, but his father gave him a compass when he was 5 — Walter Isaacson wrote about this in his book [“Einstein: His Life and Universe,” from which the series is based]. Einstein was vibrating with this kind of ecstasy and asking questions at 5 — why does this needle point north? Does it know why to point north? He was just thrilled by that kind of magic in science. Not alchemy, but the kind of wonder of it.

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When you got the part, did you find yourself looking in the mirror trying to see it?

No, not really. And look, I know my body quite well and I would liken myself physically more to a stalk of asparagus and Einstein is a bit more like a potato. And I was shorter than he is so at all of the costume fittings I was saying, we need to round out my torso because I have a completely different body shape. And that affects the way you move. And we made sure that the crotch of the trousers was lower than normal. That shortens the legs. And widen the pants with heavier cloth because I want to give him a slightly more stocky, squat look.

"I would liken myself physically more to a stalk of asparagus and Einstein is a bit more like a potato," Geoffrey Rush says of portraying the theoretical physicist in the National Geographic miniseries "Genius." (Dusan Martincek / Associated Press)
(Dusan Martincek / AP)

The first time we meet Einstein in the series, he’s making love to his mistress. Did you feel sexy as Einstein?

I don't think you play sexy. You have to discover what are the events in any particular scene where you go, Ah! He might actually be seducing someone here, or charming someone here. And why is that happening and in what particular context.

If he were here today and you could ask him a question, what do you think you would ask him?

He'd probably ask me a question. Because he was that kind of guy. I'm not saying he didn't have ego. But he was always in pursuit or at work, asking the questions.

But I would love to know and just see where the conversations go. Because I think he may well have tired of people saying, can you explain the theory of relativity to me?