Arts & Culture
Johnny Flynn on Playing a Young Albert Einstein in 'Genius'
Has the actor come to understand the theory of relativity?
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For a man whose thinking changed the course of history, Albert Einstein—the German-born physicist who lived from 1879 to 1955—is best known these days for his wild hairstyle. That could all change when Genius, a new series on National Geographic—based in part on Walter Isaacson’s biography Einstein, His Life and Universe and produced by a group including Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, and Gigi Pritzker, gains a steady following. It premiered on April 25.

The program follows Einstein as a bored, rebellious student whose favorite pastime seems to be getting kicked out of Germany’s best schools, to his life as the world’s foremost thinker. It’s a part that’s so epic, in fact, that it requires two actors to play. The Australian actor Geoffrey Rush plays Einstein as we know him best—rumpled, wild-haired, brilliant, world-famous; a younger, less familiar Einstein is played with charm and vigor by the British actor Johnny Flynn. Here, Flynn talks with T&C about stepping into the shoes of one of the world’s greatest minds.

Albert Einstein is famous around the world, but not many people know a lot about him. What was the learning curve like for you to take on this role?

Like a lot of people, I didn’t know anything. I thought I understood the concept of the theory of relativity but I didn’t; I don’t think anyone does. There’s a story about a guy who was on the ship with Einstein coming to America. They were on a boat together for a month crossing the Atlantic. Later, he was asked if he understood relativity and he said, “Every night Einstein would explain it to me, and by the time we got off the shop I was almost convinced that he understood it.” 


How did you come to the role?

The script came through while I was on another job, and when I first saw it—a story about Albert Einstein, directed by Ron Howard—I thought it was too outlandish. I don’t look anything like Einstein, and I wouldn’t presume to be able to play him. I missed the deadline to send the tapes; I wasn’t going to humiliate myself by getting rejected.

But I mentioned it to a friend who said, “You’re an idiot and you have to do this.” She made me do it, she read the other parts and we taped a scene, and then next thing I knew Ron Howard was asking me to Skype. We had this long chat and he was immediately very engaging about the project, and I could see that this was something he was very passionate about. I dug how he was talking about Einstein and wanting to strip away any sense of his myth and go into a very personal account of who he was and the obstacles he faced to get where he did.

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Because there are two of you playing Einstein at different parts of his life, what do you do to make sure both interpretations feel like the same man?

We obviously do our own private work, but the first point of contact in terms of looking at the character was with Geoffrey. Ron put us in touch immediately and we started sharing information; there was lots of “Have you seen this letter?” We’d walk around in circles in a room and watch each other’s movements or we’d watch each other’s scenes or sit in on dialect classes. Geoffrey gets to play him after the point when he’s quite famous, and I play him when he’s not known at all. Yet, a lot of big discoveries come from that early period. We had different energies to realize for each epoch in his life, but we also discussed how one Einstein became the other. How did an angry young man become the twinkly, bourgeois Berliner who was a household name by the 1930s?

The series offers a much deeper look at Einstein than most people have taken before. What do you think the most important thing we learn about him is?

The more I got into the role, the more I realized how burning his relevance is now. Here is an individual who’s fearlessly seeking truth and presenting it as a gift to humanity. That’s what he saw as his task in the world. That kind of individuality is very rare these days. He lived in a time when it was encouraged, when European cities hosted intellectual salons; his friends were people like Kafka, Jung, and Curie, who shaped the course of history. He’s also a flawed character who faced some tragic circumstances—and some of his personal relationships broke down—but you still feel like he was living a course that he had to.


Did playing the part bring you any closer to understanding his work?

What I understand can be summed up by saying that the governing principals of our universe are not absolute. The universe is much more mysterious than we think.

This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.

* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.

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Adam Rathe
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