Einstein actor Geoffrey Rush: I’ve never been but I love saying ‘Brno’

Geoffrey Rush as Albert Einstein, photo: National Geographic

This week sees the release of the first episode of Genius, a new National Geographic series on the life of Albert Einstein that was filmed here in the Czech Republc. The older Einstein is played by Geoffrey Rush, the Oscar-winning Australian actor known for movies such as Shine and The King’s Speech. While Rush was still in Prague he spoke exclusively to Petr Dudek of Czech Radio’s Radiožurnál on a host of subjects – including playing the famous Einstein.

Geoffrey Rush as Albert Einstein,  photo: National Geographic
“In his own lifetime, in his middle age, he was probably as famous as Charlie Chaplin, who was really famous.

“This is before the contemporary notion of celebrity.

“They were, let’s say, examples of two people who became instantly recognisable. Charlie Chaplin more, because of the phenomenal impact he had on silent films and then into talking pictures.

“It’s probably more extraordinary that Albert Einstein, who wrote a theory of general relativity that no-one could understand anyway, became extremely well-known and a kind of iconic figure.

“In my preparation, the study I did for the part, I was able to research quite a lot of film footage.

“Not that there’s so much available, but you get to see him in public orations, when he’s speaking in America, Britain, Germany or wherever. That’s the public voice.

“And the rest of his life is fairly well chronicled in photographs.”

Which period of Einstein’s life does the series focus on? The time he lived in Germany and had to put up with growing anti-Semitism?

“In his own lifetime, in his middle age, Einstein was probably as famous as Charlie Chaplin, who was really famous.”

“Yes, absolutely. But it’s a big epoch. The story is probably more about the times he lived in, even though he is the central protagonist.

“Ultimately, without it being told in a traditional linear narrative, over the 10 hours, over the 10 episodes, you see him from five right up unto his death.

“But you don’t see it all in the traditional order. Because thematically the storytelling jumps around between various themes of domestic rifts within his family, battles with scientific colleagues and also the devastation of two world wars that cut right across his life.

“The first world war really challenged his moral beliefs. Because science was being used for creating good things, like Fritz Haber, who was a German scientist, discovering how to extract nitrogen out of the air to make fertiliser, because Germany looked as though it was not going to be able to produce a harvest in the next three years.

“So that was a great thing. But at the same time, Fritz Haber also invented chlorine gas, which was hopefully going to end the war more quickly, but it killed a lot of people.

“Einstein was very vocal about his opposition to science being used to in that way.

“And of course in the second world war he had to confront his surrogate involvement in the development of the atomic bomb, which came about in the race between Berlin and Washington for supremacy with atomic weaponry.”

Geoffrey Rush as Albert Einstein,  photo: CTK
One more question about the series: You shot at different locations in the Czech Republic. How do you like the country – if you get a chance to see it?

“Very much. I know Žatec very well. I know Liberec quite well. I’ve never been to Brno, but I love saying it. I went up to Karlovy Vary today.

“I was here 20 years ago. The first international film I did was Les Miserables. We shot it at Barrandov and I was here for maybe five or six months.

“I came back four years ago to do a Giuseppe Tornatore film, The Best Offer. We shot it at the Old Town Square and a little bit around Praha.”

Young Czech people know you as the pirate Captain Barbossa from Pirates of the Caribbean and Czech moviegoers of course remember Lionel Logue, the character you played in The King’s Speech. Now it’s going to be Einstein. And of course you have under your belt many, many other roles in film and theatre. What is important for you when you decide whether you accept a new offer, or not?

“I don’t think there’s any rule book for that.

“Sometimes when my children, who are now young adults, were younger and at school it was a question of balancing domestic timetables, domestic harmony [laughs], trying to find jobs where if a film would take three months it would often be more favourable on one level if their school holidays were in the middle of that shoot for a month.

“That would make it that much more attractive.

“The first international film I did was Les Miserables. We shot it at Barrandov and I was here for maybe five or six months.”

“But also beyond all of that there’s also just the nature of the material.

“There aren’t too many films on my CV that I’m overly embarrassed by. Some of them just didn’t work.

“It was normally finding a sense of adventure. So after the success of Shine as a small Australian film, going on the journey that it went on, from Sundance through to Oscar accolades and stuff, I deliberately chose to work with Billie August, the Danish director [on Les Miserables].

“Because I’d never done anything remotely like playing a cop like Javert.

“I thought this is the best time to jump off the high diving board, pretty much naked, if not in very ridiculous broad shorts, and take a risk.

“Because at that stage I was being offered things that involved the piano. And I was, I don’t want to sit at a keyboard again.”

That’s in a way an answer to my next question, which is, when you consider an offer to play a role in a film, are the colleagues you are going to act with important? Or directors?

“Oh, yes. For example, and this is merely good fortune or coincidence, but I met Emily Watson [who plays Einstein’s wife in Genius] 20 years ago.

“She was doing Breaking the Waves and I was doing Shine and we just happened to meet at a lot of promotional events, in that chapter of the awards season.

Geoffrey Rush as Albert Einstein with Emily Watson as Elsa Einstein,  photo: CTK
“And now we are playing our third on-screen marriage. And our second on-screen German marriage.”

What comes next?

“We don’t know. I want to do a fourth!”

You live in Melbourne but you spend a lot of time in different parts of the world, working. You never had an inclination to move say to Europe, to be closer to possible places of work?

“No. My family and I talked about those options, because they were certainly there.

“I had these opportunities when my own offspring were just starting school. But I kind of wanted them to grow up within their generation’s version of a form of Australian education and on the soil to which they and their ancestors, over a couple of generations, belonged.

“We talked about how it would be great to live in London, or in upstate New York, or in Manhattan, or wherever.

“But I thought, either way, the way the jobs have turned out, you’d still be travelling somewhere.

“It is long, of course: 22, 23 hours from Melbourne to the northern hemisphere.

“But we come from convict stock, so we’re tough.

“I always say, It’s not a six-month boat journey into a penal colony. You’re one day on a plane, ideally up in the nose, and you’re going to get to work with some amazing people in an international film arena.”

“Emily Watson and I are now playing our third on-screen marriage. And our second on-screen German marriage.”

I have a personal question. I really admired the way you played Lionel Logue in The King’s Speech. How did you prepare for that role? Did you have any training as a speech therapist?

“No [laughs]. I remember Googling Lionel Logue. I read the original playscript, which was sent to me.

“I thought if it became a film, it’s too epic, it’s too Shakespearean. There was a lot more about Churchill and the Archbishop of Canterbury and it was aspiring to have Henry V dimensions to it.

“I thought, no, the story seems to be between the speech therapist and the king, this colonial versus imperial unpredictable collision, that these two people even meet, and find out how they talk to each other.”

So you influenced the story?

“Well, I sent it off to my agent and said, I think we should look at this. Then we started to talk about possible directors and all of that. Then it snowballed in its own way.

“But I Googled Lionel Logue and there was one small reference on the Australian speech therapists’ website, down the bottom, that he had worked with the duke of York.

“Now there are a million hits.

“Even when I went over to start shooting the film, I thought, I have to totally invent this character. Because nobody knows anything about him.

Geoffrey Rush as Lionel Logue in 'The King’s Speech',  photo: Bontonfilm
“There was hardly any archival material.

“But the art department had got in contact with one of the grandchildren of the boys in the film and they said, Oh, we’ve got all these diaries and letters and photos.

“So suddenly, and this was maybe six weeks before we started shooting, I had a photo.

“He had this little quiff and I went, That’s kind of a tiny bit theatrical.

“Because Lionel Logue was a great amateur theatre person. He loved doing recitations. So there was some good material to reference.”