Geoffrey Rush (‘Genius’): Playing Albert Einstein and how to win a Grammy to reach EGOT [Complete Interview Transcript]

Geoffrey Rush is just a Grammy Award away from EGOT, having prevailed on his first attempt at the Oscars (“Shine,” 1996), Emmys (“The Life and Death of Peter Sellers,” 2005), and Tonys (“Exit the King,” 2009). His latest role as Albert Einstein in “Genius” had competing at the Emmys again this past September and at the upcoming Golden Globes and SAG Awards.

Rush spoke with Gold Derby this past spring when “Genius” was debuting on NatGeo. Watch the video above and read the complete interview transcript below.

Gold Derby: Geoffrey Rush, your latest role is as Albert Einstein. You’ve done a lot of historical figures over the years, true-life people. How is that different for you as an actor than when you’re playing a truly fictional character?

Geoffrey Rush: They sort of vary. I did a count-up. I don’t know how many films I’ve done, 45 or 50 or something, and I think maybe 10 of them were real-life people, and the spectrum of that ranges from David Helfgott, who I now know terribly well, but at the time when I played him in “Shine” he wasn’t a public face that people would recognize. Whereas someone like Einstein, there’s already three or four famous photos that everyone seems to have in their public consciousness. But there’s no rulebook for it. I look at what they have to do, what events that they encounter as a central protagonist in the story, what’s washing over them, what are they good at, what do they fail at, and whether it’s a pirate or a pelican, you try and dig into the same kind of portrait of giving as much dimension as you can to the individuals.

GD: Ron Howard, we talked to him last week, your director on the first [episode] and producer on the whole project, and he said you really wanted some conversations with him before you started to take the role to make sure it was right for you.

GR: Well, as a now much older character actor, there’s a responsibility, I think, that comes with that. For someone who’s as treasured in the public imagination as Albert Einstein, you have to honor the gift of being given that role to play. So I got a friend who’s a very good Photoshop person, my daughter took a photo of me in the same angle as this classic Einstein photo and I said to this guy, ‘cause he was brilliant in all the computer, I said, “Make it 15% of Einstein and 85% of me. I just want to see how it goes ‘cause this is like a makeup test for me.” And the results were pretty good ‘cause my face is different shape and longer and all of that, and once the eyebrows went in and I saw the head, the head didn’t come out so well in the mashup, so I just got some white-out, liquid paper, and hand-drew Jackson Pollock-style hair. And I scanned it and sent it to Ron and I said I think we can do this ‘cause this is one of those parts where not just through mimicry but through a credible likeness I thought was fairly important to giving credibility to the character.

GD: And Johnny Flynn plays the younger Albert Einstein. You’re both in the first installment as we go back and forth in time, then he’s there for a while and you come toward the end again. Did you watch any of his work? Did he watch any of your work, to feed off of each other?

GR: Yeah, we both got cast within a week of each other, ‘cause I think they looked very closely at trying to find the right team who were gonna match up, one play a younger Einstein and an older Einstein. So Johnny and I, I was in Melbourne at the time, and he was in the U.K., so we got together on Skype and had really pragmatic conversations about shared mannerisms, how much does he change from being such a rebellious, almost punk-like teenager into a very comfortable bourgeois Berliner in his later life, and we talked about his pre-celeb and post-celeb personality and I said, “When I’m looking at photos of me when I was in my teens and 20s, it’s like I’m looking at another person,” and I said “It’s just enough to convince an audience that we are that guy earlier and later in his life.” And the only time I encountered that before was “Shine” where Noah Taylor played my younger self and I was playing his older self. And we would get it down to things like, for David Helfgott, how does he put his glasses on? Just little flavorsome mannerisms, and we shared the same dialect coach and that was very useful, ‘cause from the newsreel footage Einstein had quite a high tenor voice, not that we wanted to lose the sound our own voice. There needed to be some of the actor in there as well, I think, but they were the sort of things we played with. And I noticed on Skype, I said, “Oh yeah, I’m looking at you and you’ve got eyes like my son.” I could see a resemblance. I said, “That’s maybe what we need, if there’s something there,” and most people seemed to be going, “It’s uncanny how you guys look like each other,” and we don’t at all.

GD: As you looked at the screenplay, you looked at the life of Albert Einstein, the whole project, one thing that I love about it is it covers so much aesthetically. You’ve got drama, you’ve got a little bit of humor, you’ve got religion, you’ve got politics, you’ve got science. Is that part of the appeal for you as an actor?

GR: Yes, and that’s another reason, I suppose, why I’ve coincidentally gravitated toward certain famous, well-known people. It’s not that I have a Paul Muni complex or anything like that. I do get interested in characters that are rich in ideas and if there’s any common thread, they tend to be creative people, let’s say. The Marquis de Sade was a writer, Peter Sellers was a performer, [Leon] Trotsky was a political theorist. And I really enjoy the worlds that they open up, the landscape and the time period that these people exist in. I love the immersion intellectually and kinetically, finding out how they tick as a human being within their own sphere.

GD: And about Einstein himself, once people have seen the whole thing over the next few weeks, what do you hope they find out? What do you hope they take away about him?

GR: What I hope they don’t expect or want to take away an intimately detailed knowledge of the special theory of relativity, because you’ve gotta go and study at university for about eight years to understand the complexities of what he was discovering. I hope they take away a feeling that there are so many echoes from this epoch, I think is one of the main characters in the series, this golden age of scientific and industrial invention from when Einstein was a young man, with cinema, automobile, the discovery of X-rays, electromagnetism, Marconi and wireless activity, so much was going on. The devastation and the scale of two major global conflicts. And Einstein is, to me, an ideal 20th century every-person who moves through that storytelling landscape and humanizes the response to often cataclysmic events on a global scale, and also within his own marital and domestic life where he did have tragic relationships in a way with both wives, to a degree, estrangement from his sons. I hope people identify and recognize something about the fascinating contradictions that can exist within a human personality and that’s the family we’re all a part of.

GD: We might see you back at the Emmy Awards again this summer. You’ve already got an Emmy, you’ve got an Oscar, you’ve got a Tony. We were looking this up the other day, and I’m not 100% certain on this, but of the people that have gotten those three, and that’s 50, 60 people that have gotten those exact three, I think you’re the only one to win on your first try at all three places. First of all, before we get into that, only 12 people have gotten the EGOT, which I’m sure you’re familiar with, meaning you need a Grammy Award to be no. 13. Have you thought about what you might do to get a Grammy Award?

GR: No, no. I’m a toe. I’m a T-O-E. I’m very happy about that, actually, because ours is a profession where sometimes people can be quite mean. So sometimes, not so much the award, it’s the reward of, in particular cases, that some of your work has been given an accolade, mostly by a peer group. That’s a nice feeling. I don’t know about a Grammy. People write stuff and say, “You could do an audiobook or you could this,” and I don’t know. I wouldn’t be sure where to go. A singer I’m not.

GD: Ron Howard, who we just mentioned talked to, he just won a Grammy a couple of months ago for The Beatles documentary. I told him I said, “For a non-singer, non-composer, that’s the hardest thing to have.”

GR: Did he really? Well, that “Eight Days a Week,” that is a poem. I just found that such an extraordinary piece of work.

GD: When you got to the Oscars for “Shine” that night, what were you feeling? You’d won quite a few awards leading up to that night. Did you feel like this was probably gonna be yours?

GR: No expectations apart from the fact that I was there and I was one of four other nominees. I had no idea where it was gonna go. I think in those days there were Las Vegas odds and I could never interpret them. I didn’t know how they polled or anything like that. I was in very good company. Again, I felt a great sense of reward that I was there present, playing an Australian character in an Australian-made, very low-budget independent film. And I was sitting in that particular era with people like Emily Watson was nominated for “Breaking the Waves” and Brenda Blethyn was there for “Secrets & Lies” and Billy Bob Thornton. It was just that lovely mushroom of low-budget, independent, edgier filmmaking kind of having its day in the sun.

GD: And what was the reaction back at home, an Australian winning the Oscar?

GR: I’ve only seen this on replay but it was broadcast through one of our free-to-air commercial networks, Channel 9, and you know how they have the little boxes of who the nominees are, there’s Woody Harrelson, there’s Ralph Fiennes, there’s Tom Cruise, me, etc. etc., Billy Bob. And my mother, they had taken her to a special luncheon at the 9 Studios or whatever, and when my name was read, she just fell out of her chair, like, disappeared from the box. It’s hilarious. And then I spoke to her on the phone and she was so excited but I could still feel that she felt for her age group, people like Spencer Tracy win Oscars, not my son. But it was proud and I hit the front page. Actors in Australia up until that point never hit the front page of the newspaper, even for scandal, so it was nice to see that creativity out of country was suddenly headline news for a day.

GD: And since your win we’ve had Nicole Kidman, we’ve had Russell Crowe.

GR: Cate [Blanchett]. Cate’s got two.

GD: Cate’s got two now. You’ve gotta run to keep up with her. Your Emmy win, you mentioned Peter Sellers earlier, that to me is, regardless of film or television, one of the great performances of the past half-century. Did you feel very good about that as you completed that project?

GR: It was a very scary one and it took me a long time to wrap my head around saying yes, ‘cause I thought, “There’s gonna be other actors or other comedians or fans who are gonna have knives ready if you do something wrong with it,” but I thought the screenplay was so imaginative, to take the idea of this would be like a Peter Sellers film that he could have been in, where I played other characters, multiple characters like he did in his own films. And the key for that was I was so busy every day because sometimes, with the weight and I had rubber latex prosthetics at that point, when he had up and down weight and then transformations to look like the Chance the Gardener or Merkin Muffley, and then I secretly enjoyed, I thought I would never get to play an American president in anything, but to get to play Merkin Muffley really was a personal feather in the cap. And I realized about a week in, I was so busy with diverse makeups every day, sometimes it would be up to five hours and we’d only start shooting at midday and get five more hours, every day I looked in the mirror, I was being someone else, and I thought, “That’s what this character is. it’s a complete mosaic.” And Stephen Hopkins, who was the director, we worked really hard, and an amazing makeup team, I said, “As long as we get the characters that were seen that he played, like Chance the Gardener, like Clouseau, as long as we get pretty forensic accuracy in that, and recreating the bits from the films, then we can invent the more private parts of his life.” But mind you, he left a lot of footage. He loved gadgets and he loved filming things, so there was a lot of access material.

GD: Well we’re loving “Genius.” I can’t wait to see how it all concludes. I’ve seen the first three so I’ve got quite a few to go and you’ll be making your return toward the end of the run so thank you so much for your time today.

GR: My pleasure, thank you.

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