You probably wouldn’t describe Albert Einstein as sexy, and that’s understandable, given what most of us know about the masterful physicist’s looks (read: that unforgettable, unruly hair). In National Geographic’s first scripted series, Genius, though, audiences will encounter a different sort of Einstein — a young, vivacious, morally flexible, swoon-worthy Einstein, played by Johnny Flynn, and an elder version, performed by Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush, who’s still every bit a ladies man.
EW caught up with the South African-born, English-bred Flynn to get to know the young man behind the mastermind, the moments he feels like a genius, and what his Einstein has in common with Bob Dylan.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve mentioned that you and Geoffrey Rush would pick and choose from famous personas like Bob Dylan to create your version of Einstein. What’s the relationship between Einstein and Dylan, in your mind?
JOHNNY FLYNN: Bob Dylan has and Einstein had their own way of perceiving the universe and translating it for us. Through his life, but especially as a young man when he’s making these breakthroughs, from all accounts, he kind of had the manner and the sort of atmosphere of like a bohemian poet rather than a scientist. He was kind of rakish, young sort of bon vivant, and had a group of friends where they’d stay up all night drinking and talking about like famous philosophers. That was part of his engagement with his subject was having that kind of brightness in the approach and also the kind of fun that he had with it. I’m like a student of Bob Dylan so I know that that was also his whole deal when he was younger; his songs reference T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, and all these other poets and philosophers. … There’s a really good Schopenhauer quote which is [like] “extraordinary ability is defined by somebody who hits a target everyone can see, and a genius is somebody who hits a target no one can see,” and that kind of singularity is what links the two.
Based on that definition of “genius,” are there any other geniuses you’d like to play?
The world that I know and the world that I come from is from the arts, and my wife’s an artist, and I’ve been a musician since I left college, and there’s tons of musicians I’d love to play. There’s been so many Bob Dylan movies and in Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, there’s like 10 actors — I missed out on that. There’s a country musician I love, Townes Van Zandt. Hank Williams. I haven’t seen the Tom Hiddleston film [I Saw the Light] but I almost don’t want to because I am incredibly jealous that I didn’t get to do that. And then from the arts, there’s a guy I love, Grayson Perry. I’m a huge David Hockney fan. … There’s a lot of talk about who would be good to be the subject of the next season of Genius and I think it’d be great to have a woman as the subject, but I fear that wouldn’t be me playing them.
But maybe someone she encounters.
I actually think that Marie Curie — who comes into the story of our portrayal of Einstein [and is played by Klára Issová] — is a worthy subject. I wouldn’t be allowed to play her, but yeah, she’s up there. I think Leonardo DaVinci would be interesting if they were to do another guy. Michelangelo too.
Did you research the theories you’re discussing [in the script] or is that just by rote? And did you talk to any real-life physicists?
Oh yeah. They were very thorough, the production. Ron Howard made sure that there were people on hand who understood what we were talking about, at all points, just because you have to tread carefully when you’re portraying this stuff. I had to learn what I was actually saying, even though it didn’t make sense to me, and then I would spend ages with these brilliant mathematicians and try and work out at least just what the important part of the sentence of gobbledygook was that I was saying. But I did gain a basic understanding through talking. Obviously I wasn’t the person to come up with that idea, but I was saying it and I had to have an understanding of it, so that was one of the hardest things about doing it. Especially the scenes where I’m writing equations and saying them or even talking about something else whilst writing equations, that’s incredibly difficult to do. I just had to spend a lot of time kind of cramming. It was like learning how to juggle from scratch. I loved all that stuff. I loved learning. I already played violin, but I had to learn the pieces that they wanted to include — the Bach, the Mozart — that were so important to Einstein and were big parts of his thinking process. I loved doing that, and the math, and talking with people about what these ideas were.
When do you feel the smartest?
Right after I drink my morning coffee [laughs].
The time period you’d most like to live in?
I think Shakespearean London.
What’s next on your acting bucket list?
A genius moment you’ve had?
[Laughs] Oh my God. Well, I wrote a song about Einstein long before I knew about this project.
Right-brained or left-brained, or both?
I think I swing wildly between both. I try and stay in my right brain as much as I can, but my left takes over.
Genius premieres Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET on National Geographic.
This interview has been edited and condensed.