Executive produced by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer (and with the first episode directed by Howard), the 10-part global event series Genius, the first scripted series from National Geographic, explores the extraordinary professional achievements and tumultuous private life of the brilliant Albert Einstein (played by both Johnny Flynn, in his younger years, and Geoffrey Rush). The series tracks Einstein’s rise from humble origins into an imaginative and rebellious thinker who fought for recognition with his theory of relativity.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, Ron Howard talked about how Genius evolved into a TV series, why National Geographic was the perfect home, the challenge of finding two actors to play Albert Einstein in different stages of his life, and the desire to focus on different geniuses with each season (the series has already been picked up for Season 2). He also talked about why he had to drop out of directing The Dark Tower, still wanting to do a TV component, and that he’s hopeful that there will still be more Arrested Development.
Collider: Albert Einstein is a fascinating character to explore, but could you have imagined just how many layers there were in that?
RON HOWARD: I had no idea. As soon as I began to realize that, I felt like this was the way to tell the story, and that Nat Geo was the place to distribute it. I knew that they would understand it and be able to market it, in the most positive and powerful way.
How did this project originally come your way, and was it always in the form of a 10-hour TV series?
HOWARD: A company had acquired the rights to Walter Isaacson’s book (Einstein: His Life and Universe), some years ago, and they attempted to try to make it into a feature script, but it never succeeded, and I’m not surprised. I never read that, but I had read other feature scripts that dealt with either Einstein’s entire life or portions of his life, and they were never very effective. You always felt robbed and cheated because it wasn’t a kind of life that lent itself to a two-hour movie. But they developed a bible for a 10-hour series and developed the first hour, and they offered it to me and said that they wanted to partner with Imagine, if I was willing to direct. I read Noah Pink’s script and became very excited about it. Francie Calfo, who runs our television, brought in Ken Biller, a very experienced showrunner and very bright guy who immediately began contributing to the shape of the series and helped us execute it in a way, so that we had 10 very compelling and powerful episodes. We had a creative relationship going with Nat Geo, and we simply took the project to them and they said yes. It was never shopped around. We didn’t try to create an auction. We just knew that was the right home for it, and they agreed. It was one of the fastest green lights that I’ve ever had, in my career.
Geoffrey Rush is a genius actor, so you know that he can pull of a character like this. But how challenging was it to find his younger counterpart, and what led you to Johnny Flynn?
HOWARD: Well, we knew that Geoffrey wanted to do it, and that was thrilling to Brian [Grazer] and I, and the network and studio. We all loved that idea, but it was all contingent upon finding a younger person who would allow you to believe that the younger person grew into the senior version of Einstein. Our casting director put forward Johnny Flynn. I didn’t know Johnny. He’d done some very important work, and some great indie movies and stage productions, but he didn’t look anything like Einstein. He did have a shape that was similar to Geoffrey Rush. So, it was with fingers crossed that I looked at his self-made audition tape, and it was fantastic. He was working on a movie, but we asked him to fly in and he did. He got off the plane from London, walked in and gave a great audition for myself and the executives at Nat Geo and Fox, and then turned around and got back on the plane. He won the role, and we immediately went about the process of developing the make-up look that would allow Geoffrey and Johnny to both bare a striking resemblance to Einstein, both young and old. On top of that, the actors worked together to create a cohesive presentation of Einstein. They looked at footage of Einstein as an older gentleman and worked together, so that Johnny could reflect that in a more youthful way, and then Geoffrey could pick up that baton and follow through with a depiction of the Einstein that we’re more familiar with.
One of the reasons that I wanted to direct that first episode was to help establish that. Also, there was just the creative challenge of trying to get it to work on screen and for audiences. It was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed it. With National Geographic, there’s another imperative. If you’re talking about that brand and you think all the way back to the magazine, they are immersive stories that both entertain and inform, and the visuals are stunning. They’re famous for their photography, so I went to our visual team and our cinematographer, Mathias Herndl, because we had to live up to the National Geographic brand. We wanted to be modern and psychologically driven in the cinematic choices that we made, but we also needed to be visually striking. Nat Geo agreed to go to a two to one screen ratio, which gave us a compositional advantage and opportunities to be a little bit more cinematic, and we took it from there.