The premise sounds a little outlandish even for a TV series: A young tech baron builds his own hospital dedicated to the most cutting-edge medical techniques. So when “Pure Genius” star Augustus Prew, who plays said young tech baron James Bell, saw that Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan had spent $600 million on a medical research facility called the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, he was a little surprised. “This wasn’t even art imitating life or life imitating art,” Prew told Variety. “They’re parallel.”
That ambiguity is at the heart of CBS’ Jason Katims-helmed medical procedural, which premieres Thursday, Oct. 27. “Jason is really the pure genius,” Prew said. Prew, a London native who has since relocated to Los Angeles, called up Variety to talk about Silicon Valley’s concentrated influence over society, Brexit, Donald Trump, and the true nature of genius.
We live in a world right now where there’s some ambivalence about these Silicon Valley billionaires, like Peter Thiel and Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk. Do you have your own personal thoughts about the power they can exert over society?
Peter Thiel, he’s an interesting one. As a gay man myself, anyone who’s a gay Republican to me, I’m kind of shocked. I’m like, “Sorry, what? Trump’s the most LGBT-friendly candidate that’s ever been? Are you for f—ing real?” It seems to me that people live in their own echo chamber that’s probably re-augmented by your own social media and the people you surround yourself with.
I think that was proven with Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump, who is the American Brexit, in my opinion. I think that Brexit did sufficient damage that America seems to be looking across the pond and going, “Yeah, no.” There does seem to be a self-destruct button that got disabled in the U.K. But I think it’s going to be okay. Getting close, though!
There does seem to be this very popular idea in the culture of just turning businesses and newspapers and public services over to billionaires, hoping the billionaires will run them better.
We’ve sort of returned to almost a Victorian blueprint of society, where you have these people who have amassed enormous wealth because of a system that doesn’t redistribute wealth like it used to in the 1960s and 1970s, when, interestingly, the middle class economy was pretty much its most robust in every country. But now we have this deregulated world where people are able to amass huge amounts of power. I think the show is a comment on that.
Whether you agree with how James Bell and the others are using it, the fact that someone can amass that kind of power is scary. That’s one of the planks of the show. The hospital is positioned as a utopia, initially, where anything’s possible. “We’re cutting through red tape, we’re doing all these cool things, we’re making real headway!”
But Silicon Valley, as an unregulated place, is able to do that. And it’s arguable whether medicine is a forum for that. That becomes an issue in the show: Just because you can do something, should you? It does draw on a lot of questions of medical ethics and morality and these ideas of religion versus medicine and the conservatism of tradition, especially when it comes to medicine. “There’s a tried-and-tested way, we do it this way because we know it works and it’s safe.”
Whereas the James Bell approach is about, “Well, what haven’t we tried? What could work better? Why are we working in a system that repeats the same mistakes over and over again?” But can James truly be pure, given that the reason he has for starting the hospital in the first place is essentially to save himself? We’re already in murky water there, in my opinion. As the story progresses in the first season, that definitely becomes a recurring theme.
Is that what attracted you to the show in the first place?
I like playing parts I haven’t played before. There are no two people in the world who are the same and therefore there should be no two characters that I play that are the same. It was also more about a personal relationship to the script. You read some scripts and you go, “Okay, that’s interesting, that’s cool.” And you read some scripts and you get this gut reaction, “I know exactly how I’m going to play this guy, I know exactly who he is.” And that was this script. I could hear his voice, I could tell how he moved, I could see James has two sides.
There’s the very public face of James Bell, this very smart image he’s made for himself in the manner of Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. But there’s this dark, dark, lonely, middle-of-the-night, sitting on your own in your room very vulnerable lonely person that underpins it all. This guy is actually obsessed with power and his own status. But also, he does want to do good!
There are two ways of going with this: You become more selfish and wield your power in a way that is based on fear and force people into doing things just because you can. Or do you lean on other people and create a relationship with people that is collaborative? Where you take ideas and create a community and use that as a power and strength to change things. Both are explored in the world of James Bell.
Who did you use as inspiration for James?
I did research into various billionaires and how they operate. I was interested in the mythology that comes along with being a billionaire. So Steve Jobs, definitely. And Mark Zuckerberg. It’s all guys, isn’t it? That’s kind of depressing. We’re not quite there yet. But those were just inspiration — James is his own man.