Before he was a world-famous physicist with an iconic shock of hair, Albert Einstein was, at least by the account of the Emmy-nominated TV show Genius, a vivacious cad about town—"a bit of a ladies' man," according to Johnny Flynn, who plays Einstein in his rebellious youth in the National Geographic anthology series (Geoffrey Rush plays the famed Einstein we all recognize in his later years). Flynn, who was born in South Africa and raised in England, is equal parts musician (he released his fourth album earlier this year with his band Johnny Flynn and the Sussex Wit); stirring, gentle presence in independent films like 2013's Song One, as Anne Hathaway's love interest, and 2014's Clouds of Sils Maria; and comedic performer, as the star of Netflix's rom-com series Lovesick. Here, in an interview by Lynn Hirschberg in W's August issue, Flynn recalls the first thing that he auditioned for, as well as his first kiss. One turned out very well; the other, not so much.
What was the first thing you auditioned for?
The first thing that I auditioned for was a sort of cable TV murder mystery, afternoon matinee kind of thing. And I got the job.
What did you play?
I was the murderer. So you shouldn’t watch it now, it wouldn’t be enjoyable, because that’s the whole point—trying to figure out who the murderer is. It was called Murder in Suburbia. I had to get naked in it.
You had to be naked?
Completely naked. On set, at least, and then in the thing you just saw my ass.
Was it difficult to act while you were naked?
It’s weird. I’ve been asked to be naked in a bunch of different things, and I’ve been naked on stage twice before. The first play I was naked in was a production of Twelfth Night, an all-male production that we took to BAM in New York.
Why were you naked in Twelfth Night?
[Laughs.] Good question. There’s nothing in [Shakespeare's] text. I played Sebastian, who’s the twin brother of Viola. The director had this idea, that in the scene just after he’s met Olivia—he doesn’t know that Olivia thinks he’s Viola—and they spend the night together, he wakes up and he’s just in a sheet. He gets out of bed and wraps the sheet around him, and the joke is that he hears somebody come and then he drops the sheet, like, you know, “Ta-da.” That was the big reveal.
But every night of the production there were, um, schoolchildren in the wings, in the balcony level, and they were the only ones that could see this part of me. So there would be a lot of screaming and, like, angry looks from teachers.
Did you get nervous before the big reveal knowing what the reaction would be from children?
I have to say I did. I mean, it’s weird that we’re talking so much about being naked, but I found it quite, um, liberating, to an extent. Not the exposing myself to children part, just the thing of being naked. It was awkward because often it would be, like, an all-girls school, and they wouldn’t stop squealing. So it kind of ruined the whole second act of the play, me exposing myself.
And how did Genius come about? In what I’ve seen there’s no nudity involved yet.
Not too much.
Although you are quite… popular.
You know, Einstein was quite amorous, and he had many lovers. It wasn’t that he was, like, a complete player, but let’s say he enjoyed women and he fell in love hard. They sort of celebrate that in the series, the relationships he has with these women that are instrumental. And although he was very dedicated to his first wife, that marriage eventually broke down. From that point he actually did become what you would call a bit of a ladies man. He kind of gave up on monogamy at that point. In the show, he has all these affairs and things.
So you get to be brilliant and have a lot of girlfriends. [Laughs.] Did you feel that you had to bone up on physics?
Yeah, I did. There's a huge sense of duty to this idea of a person who is very well loved and who deserves a lot of respect. I’ve failed at maths and stuff in school, so I felt like I needed to work hard at that stuff. They had these amazing physics professors from local universities on set all the time; I would have these tutorial sessions with them and talk about dark matter, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and these things, which I have just the barest grasp of now. But I really loved going into it. I think just doing some of that work helped me feel like I at least deserved to be there a tiny bit. You know, I don’t look like [Albert Einstein].
He's iconic-looking. People are very aware of how he looks.
Exactly, yeah. There’s a tiny amount of grace in the fact that in the period that I play him—Geoffrey Rush plays him from age 40 onwards, I’m him from 16 to 40—Einstein really became a celebrity in his late 30s when people started listening to some of his crazy theories which were, up until that point, considered outlandish and ridiculous.
His hair was more under control when he was young.
Little bit, yeah. Well, firstly, there’s less pictures of him then, and no video footage of him, which is helpful for me in terms of having a certain amount of freedom to create this character. But obviously I had to pay a lot of attention to stories about him. But what I found was that he was not the sort of archetypal absent-minded professor; he was young, rakish, very energetic, slightly rebellious sort of bohemian poet. He was like a philosopher, or a Byronic sort of thinker. And charming, and attractive to his peers and the girls that he fell in love with and everything. So that was cool to explore.
The casting is interesting, because you're known for comedy.
Yeah, I have to say I do veer towards comedy, or at least I try to include it in my characterization. I’ve been cast in a lot of comedies, I’ve done things like multi-cam sitcoms, you know, Seinfeld type... not as good as Seinfeld, but that kind of thing. I love that stuff.
Do you have a favorite American television show?
I mean, we only had three channels when I was a kid. There was reruns of Happy Days, so it was a big kick to work with [Genius producer and director] Ron Howard. I was still like, “Oh, it’s Richie [Cunningham]." He had some good stories, actually. But yeah, so American sitcoms, basically, that and Cheers and Seinfeld.
Was Seinfeld popular in England?
Yeah, it was a kind of an underground thing. I can’t remember how it was screened. I definitely got into it big time in my 20’s. I bought, like, the whole thing. I think what happened was I’d seen a few episodes when I was a kid and then I got really into Curb Your Enthusiasm, and then I went back and watched all of Seinfeld. That, for me, is a bit of a Bible as far as TV comedy goes. I owe a lot to those guys.
Who’s your favorite character on Seinfeld?
I love Kramer. When he walks into a room, every entrance of his is a lesson in comedic flow. He has that down. I love George as well.
You’re so not a George. You’re more a Kramer.
Well, I did this show for Comedy Central called Brotherhood, and I based a lot of my stuff on Kramer. At least the energy that he has when he comes into situations. So yeah, maybe more of a Kramer, but I appreciate George. They each have brilliant, you know, what you call comedy flaws.
Like George’s is that he thinks he’s bette- looking than he actually is. He thinks he’s more charming than he really is. And that’s a wonderful thing and an un-self-conscious thing for an actor to embrace, actually. People could learn from that, I think.
Did you have a TV crush?
Well, while we’re on Seinfeld, Elaine was a big, big crush for me.
[Laughs.] Have you watched Veep?
You know what? It’s funny, I don’t want to do it half-heartedly and I haven’t done it yet.
She’s hilarious on Veep.
I bet. I love [Veep creator] Armando Iannucci.
She’s a bit old for you.
Well, I don’t know. I have a thing for older… anyway…
[Laughs.] She looks great. She’s beautiful.
Yeah, gosh, she’s still got it. And I have to say it’s quite a thrill having just met Brit Marling, because I just watched The OA. I think the ending of that is, like, the best TV I’ve ever seen. My heart did something that it’s never done. My whole being was, like, pulsing with this excitement.
Did you tell her?
No, I was too shy.
So what movie or television show makes you cry?
I watched Lion on the plane. I have two young kids and my son is the same age as the kid when he goes missing—that was hugely affecting. I was a wreck—like, I think the stewardess was very worried about me. They brought me a lot of alcohol after that moment. She would walk past and just put her hand silently on my shoulder. I didn't eat dinner or anything.
[Laughs.] So you just got very drunk and cried.
Yeah. Certain films should only be watched at 40,000 feet. Like, certain comedies and certain, uh, emotionally charged movies. I cried in Moonlight as well. That was beautiful and very brave.
Where was your first kiss?
My first kiss was actually with my now wife.
I mean, we kissed other people in between now and then. But we went to school together when we were 15 and 16. It was by a lake.
Oh my god, that’s so romantic.
It was. It started to rain. I hear somebody laughing, like, all my friends were in the bushes watching.
All your friends were in the bushes watching?
Well, just some kids we were at school with. Because I was a bit shy, I was a late starter, and she was new at my school and I got to play the card of being, like, you don’t’ know. I pretended that I was a stud and actually I was very bashful. So yes, I took her for a walk. It was very nice.
And now you’re married. That’s so sweet! Did you stay together after the kiss?
We were together for, like, a month or two months. We were both so shy we could barely, like, hold hands. We were very timid. And then we broke up. She went out with my friend and I went out with her friend, which was not a good move in hindsight. Then we ended up together again by the end of school, and then she went off to art school, I went to drama school, and she went out with everybody in her year, and her guitar teacher and…
And you were naked on stage.
I was being naked on stage and trying my hardest to attract other people. But she ended up coming to New York, actually. She studied at Parsons art scholl for a while and I came to, like, woo her. She told me on the Brooklyn Bridge that she would never be with me ever again, but I knew she was lying.
And you turned out to be right.
I think so, yeah.