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Playing the wife of a 'Genius'

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An interview with actress Emily Watson

The first episode of “Genius,” National Geographic’s first scripted anthology series, aired last week to largely favorable reviews. The first season of the series, airing Tuesdays at 9 p.m. through the end of June, focuses on the life of Nobel-prize winning theoretical physicist Albert Einstein. “Genius” is executive produced by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer.

The series stars Johnny Flynn (“Lovesick”) as the young Einstein, Geoffrey Rush (“Shine,” “Shakespeare in Love”) as Professor Einstein, Samantha Colley as Mileva Marić and Emily Watson (“Breaking the Waves,” “The Theory of Everything”) as Albert’s second wife, Elsa Einstein.

Over the course of 10 episodes, “Genius” follows Einstein’s life from his early days as a student and struggling patent clerk, to his celebrated later years, highlighted by his development of the Theory of Relativity and subsequent celebrity.

Einstein’s life, with its myriad complications and controversies, has been well documented, according to Watson, but some of the most stunning events in his life, as seen in “Genius” have been largely overlooked until now. 

“He was a fascinating mixture of components that made up his life and personality and he profoundly changed the way that humanity sees the world,” Watson said during a phone interview.

Regarding the relationship between Einstein and his second wife, Watson believes that Elsa loved being Mrs. Einstein, but she often had issues with her husband.

“They kind of have a molecular relationship,” she said. “There’s something about them that is very similar. They’re always at loggerheads but very close. They don’t have a conventional marriage and they don’t have a sexual relationship for very long. First of all, Elsa and Albert were first cousins, which is really quite strange.”

Prior to developing his Theory of Relativity, Einstein practiced his theory of infidelity, and Watson says that Elsa begrudgingly accepted it. 

“Monogamy was not something that he believed in,” she said. “He was a philanderer and that was part of the deal. She kind of reined him and said ‘You have to respect me and put me first. Otherwise, do what you like.’”

Watson believes that if Elsa Einstein had not been in her husband’s life, history might have been quite different. 

“She saved his life when they first got together. That part of the story is in the series when Albert and Elsa are played by Johnny Flynn with Gwendolyn Ellis as the younger Elsa,” she said. “He was incredibly ill and she nursed him back to health at a time when he easily could have died.”

An important moment in Einstein’s life regarding citizenship is depicted in “Genius,” and according to Watson, it is one that is often overlooked. Einstein first visited America in 1921, shortly after winning the Nobel Prize in Physics. His second trip, in 1930, was nearly derailed.

“It’s a little-known fact that Albert and Elsa were almost denied visas to enter the United States. They applied to travel to the US for what was kind of a lecture tour and eventually ended up staying and not going back to Berlin,” Watson said. “Elsa could smell what was in the air and she made sure they got out of Germany and ended up prolonging the Einstein that we know by doing that.”

Not long after Albert and Elsa settled in Princeton, New Jersey, Elsa was diagnosed with heart and kidney problems. Watson believes the severe strain she endured over several years was a factor.  

“She saved Albert’s life twice over, but the stress of fleeing the Nazis and getting out of Europe, not to mention the death of one of her children, contributed to her condition. She didn’t have long to live once they moved to America,” she said.

“Genius” is produced by Ron Howard’s company, Imagine Television, with Howard directing the first episode of the series. Watson says his presence on the set was freeing and reassuring for the actors.

“You have complete faith in his ability to guide you through the nuances of the story that you need to tell. He has such strong surefire instincts about exactly where in the story we are, right down to the fine subtle little things that surround it,” said Watson. “It feels very clear and relaxing when he is there. It’s a great feeling.”

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