Fresh from her turn in the controversial drama Apple Tree Yard, in which she played a scientist who has a steamy affair with a stranger, with disastrous consequences, Emily Watson returns to the screen in a somewhat less racy but equally conflicted role this month, playing a scientist’s wife – Albert Einstein’s to be precise.
She was in Prague filming Genius, the ten-part drama about the Nobel Prize-winner, when Apple Tree Yard was broadcast here in January and February – much to her relief.
‘It was great making Apple Tree Yard but when I saw all the reaction online I did think, “Oh my God!”’ she laughs.
‘I was nervous about the sex at first, I knew some people would disapprove of a middle-aged woman having an exciting affair, but I’m glad I did it.
‘I was surprised it became such a big deal. It was watercooler-moment TV and I haven’t really done anything like that before.’
She’s back on more familiar territory in Genius, playing a dowdier character in the shape of Elsa Einstein. ‘She and Albert had a very complicated relationship,’ Emily says.
‘They were first cousins and by the end of the story they’re a bit like brother and sister. They were always at loggerheads but they were very close. She created a world where he could exist, where he could just be Einstein. She protected him.’
Genius is the first scripted drama made by the National Geographic channel and it’s attracted a starry cast, with Australian Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush playing Einstein, Robert Lindsay as his father and Johnny Flynn, half-brother of fellow actor Jerome Flynn, as the young Albert.
The aim of the show, produced by another Oscar-winner, Ron Howard, is to reveal the man behind the mind and the pivotal role he played in world history.
Emily Watson plays Elsa Einstein, the actress describes the relationship between Albert and his wife as ‘very complicated’
‘For most people Einstein is that scientist with all the hair that looks like an atomic bomb going off,’ says Geoffrey Rush. ‘But there were so many parts of his life that were a complete revelation to me.’
The show is certainly a very modern look at Einstein. When we first meet him he’s having extra-marital sex with his secretary against a blackboard covered with mathematical equations.
‘It’s a great way to introduce Einstein and really very funny,’ says Emily. ‘The secretary ends up with all these chalk equations on the back of her dress and they have to dust them off.’
THE SECRET DAUGHTER THAT ALBERT NEVER MET
Albert Einstein will always be seen as the archetypal boffin and the embodiment of genius, eccentricity and free thinking.
His revolutionary theories changed the way we see the universe, but he was far from a genius in his private life which was a litany of chaotic affairs and messy marriages.
He was born in Ulm, southern Germany, in 1879 and encouraged by his parents to be independent.
When they moved to Italy in search of work, Albert stayed on at school in Munich, where a teacher said ‘he will never amount to anything’. He renounced German citizenship to avoid military service, and was accepted into a Zurich technical college at the second attempt. Here he met fellow student Mileva Maric, a Serb.
They began a relationship against the wishes of both sets of parents and married in 1903. The couple had two sons, Hans and Eduard, although letters discovered in 1987 revealed they’d had a daughter called Lieserl in Serbia, where Mileva was staying with her parents. She returned to Zurich without the child and Einstein never met her.
The letters suggest she may have died of scarlet fever in infancy. He was soon expressing strong feelings for a Swiss teacher’s daughter, as well as having an affair with his cousin Elsa. Just months after divorcing Mileva he married Elsa, who had two daughters, Ilse and Margot, from an earlier marriage.
His career was a mess too and he ended up in a mind-numbingly boring job in the patent office in Bern as he struggled to gain an academic post. In 1909 he was finally appointed a professor at the University of Zurich.
His general theory of relativity followed in 1915, overturning Newton’s ideas on gravity, as well as explaining the planets’ movements and black holes.
In 1921 he went to New York with Elsa where the people took him to their hearts. In the same year he won the Nobel Prize for Physics. He was vociferous in his support of civil rights, Jewish issues and pacifism before his death in New Jersey in 1955 aged 76 from an aneurysm. His brain was removed and sections are on display at the Mütter museum in Philadelphia.
Einstein had multiple affairs, something Elsa – whose romance with her cousin started when he was still married to the mother of his two sons, fellow physicist Mileva Maric – had to accept.
‘He had a dysfunctional relationship with women,’ says Emily. ‘But he was a man full of love. His relationship with his sons was terrible, partly because his relationship with their mother had broken down so terribly.
‘The younger son Eduard had mental health problems and was diagnosed as schizophrenic. He was resentful of his father because he didn’t turn up when he said he would – he was neglectful.
‘For a long time Mileva refused to divorce him but when Albert started to become famous, Elsa insisted on it so Einstein promised to give Mileva his Nobel Prize money if he won.’
He divorced Mileva and married Elsa in 1919, before winning the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921, investing the money in three properties for Mileva and their children, although she had to sell two to pay for Eduard’s treatment. But he continued to have affairs throughout his second marriage, which lasted until Elsa’s death in 1936.
‘He had lots of other women and in the end Elsa had to accept it and say, “OK, you can do what you like but you have to be discreet and put me first. I am Mrs Einstein and you treat me with respect,”’ says Emily.
‘It kind of worked. It was bizarre but in a way he wasn’t really an adult. Elsa understood that what made him so brilliant was his childishness. He never grew out of being curious, and that curiosity changed the way we look at the universe.’
The drama has fictionalised certain episodes, for example showing Einstein, who was Jewish, trying to flee his native Germany after being spat on by a Nazi, only to find his application to travel to the USA held up at the American Embassy in Berlin by one of FBI chief J Edgar Hoover’s agents before eventually being let out.
In reality Einstein was on a lecture tour in America – where his theories on relativity had made him a star – when the Nazis came to power in 1933. He never returned to Germany and became an American citizen in 1940.
The physicist made friends with and enemies of some of the most important figures of the 20th century. We see his rivalry with anti-Semitic scientist Philipp Lenard, who won the Nobel Prize in 1905 for his work on cathode rays.
Lenard was obsessively jealous of the younger Einstein, calling his work ‘Jewish physics’ and lobbying the Nobel Prize committee not to honour him.
Einstein became friends with two other Nobel Prize winners – Marie Curie, who developed the theory of radioactivity, and Fritz Haber, who had formulated the poison gas that killed thousands of Allied soldiers in World War I. Charlie Chaplin was a close acquaintance too, as was the psychoanalyst Carl Jung.
The series portrays Einstein as one of the world’s most pivotal figures during a time of huge flux, when he was both revered for his work and reviled for being a Jew. ‘He was a strong Zionist and that was a political pitfall,’ says Emily.
‘Elsa knew the more he spoke out politically about Israel, the more they would be a target for anti-Semites. She knew Albert to be a person of great integrity but if he wasn’t careful he would endanger their lives.’
He persuaded many fellow German-Jewish scientists to leave Germany in the 1930s while they still could, and used his influence to find them jobs in the States.
When he was informed that the Nazis could be working on developing an atomic bomb, he wrote to US President Franklin Roosevelt in 1939 urging him to get the Americans to start a rival project.
As we know, the Americans won that race, although as a lifelong pacifist Einstein tried to persuade them not to use the bomb.
‘He lived as a protagonist through two major global conflicts,’ says Geoffrey Rush. ‘He had this fundamental goodness which he radiated to the world and it was the first time a physicist had become a celebrity. But he was mortified at being identified with the atomic bomb.’
For Geoffrey and Emily, the project is the third time they’ve played husband and wife after 2004’s The Life And Death Of Peter Sellers and 2013 war drama The Book Thief. ‘We’re like an old couple now,’ says Emily, who’s been married to actor-turned-writer Jack Waters for 22 years.
‘A big part in wanting to do this show was to work with Geoffrey again but, also, what a great story! We need stories about real people and when you see what Einstein was up against, the anti-Semitism he faced, it makes you think about the lessons of history. But are we listening?’
Genius starts on Sunday 23 April, 9pm, National Geographic channel.