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Genius: Jude Law on the 'chalk and cheese dynamic' of Thomas Wolfe, Max Perkins

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Marc Brenner

Directed by Michael Grandage, Genius (out June 10) centers on the friendship and professional relationship between Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law), the esteemed and charismatic American author behind Look Homeward, Angel, and Of Time and the River, and Max Perkins (Colin Firth), a senior editor at Scribner’s Sons in the late 1920s who saw potential in Wolfe’s work when others passed. Through Wolfe and Perkins, the drama reveals the process behind making books — but that process was not so easy to realize on screen.

“You don’t want to sit there watching people write or watching people paint, you want to see the painting or read the book,” Law explains, but the film found its approach. “What we’ve done, which is so interesting, is physicalized the process and physicalized the relationship of one person creating, the other person receiving and translating, and so the relationship becomes a physical embodiment of the process and creativity.”

Law, who previously worked with Grandage on stage productions of Henry V and Hamlet, characterizes the relationship of Wolfe and Perkins, which had “a huge amount on the page” in its script by John Logan that’s based on the book by A. Scott Berg, as being made up of two very different parts. So during rehearsal, Law wondered if he was doing too much, and if Firth felt like he was doing too little, but realized, “In fact, what we felt was the chalk and cheese dynamic, really what was at the heart of their friendship.”

Going into production, Law had an admiration for Firth’s work and an excitement to finally collaborate. “He is indeed as charming and as joyful to be around and as entertaining and as smart and funny, so there was also a natural pupil-teacher, father-son, brother relationship, which came out of our own relationship.” As for other actors, Law reunites with Nicole Kidman, who plays Aline Bernstein, a costume designer and Wolfe’s lover. “I don’t think I’ve worked with someone braver,” he says of his Cold Mountain costar. 

Guy Pearce and Dominic West are also in the drama, assuming the roles of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, respectively, whom Perkins also edited. “They’re playing two of the literary world’s biggest figures [and] they do a phenomenal job,” Law says. “You need the reference of Fitzgerald and Hemingway because, first of all, [Perkins] contributed to them too, but also to give a sense of how highly Wolfe was regarded in such an extraordinary landscape of writers at the time.”

The film, of course, addresses that extraordinary landscape of writers, and their artistic reputations. “In a way, the very name of the film raises the question of ‘What is genius?’ Genius comes in many guises and places,” Law explains. “I think it’s an overused word, but equally you could argue it’s an underused word. The genius in this piece is the relationships and the combination of people working together, as well as the individual genius that maybe each man or each woman has.” 

As for Wolfe’s genius, “There’s something very clear about his infectiousness and his vitality and his enthusiasm, but equally … it’s temporary,” Law says. “He was temporary. He died very young. He was on the one hand a genius, but on the other maniacal and driven because he knew his time was short.” 

To read more of our Summer Movie Preview, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands now, or buy your choice of four collectible covers here – and subscribe now for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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