Playback: Geoffrey Rush on 14 Years of ‘Pirates’ and Tackling Einstein in ‘Genius’

Welcome to “Playback,” a Variety podcast bringing you exclusive conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films.

The summer movie season is in full swing and next on the list of massive Hollywood extravaganzas is Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.” The franchise, which debuted to considerable skepticism in the summer of 2003 as there was no successful pirate genre to speak of, has gone on to become one of the biggest successes for the studio. Five movies deep and it’s still raking in billions of dollars.

Actor Geoffrey Rush has been along for the ride every step of the way as Captain Hector Barbossa, and without giving much away, he’s able to put something of a period on his work in the series with the new film. There’s obviously something big and robust and Baroque about playing a pirate, and looking back, Rush acknowledges that was a huge draw and catnip for a theater actor like himself.

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“I do get drawn towards big landscapes that have characters that occupy that space,” Rush says. “I’m not really a kind of domestic, psychological, interior actor. And I love silent films, which had that in bucketloads. And that drew me to study mime and movement. So when ‘Pirates’ came along, I don’t know, it was breaking the mold in a certain degree. I had been playing more serious characters, like Walsingham advising Queen Elizabeth I, or Javert [in ‘Les Miserables’]. It goes back to when I was a theater actor in repertory situations. I just liked being different role by role by role, season by season by season.”

Meanwhile Rush is also on the small screen in National Geographic’s “Genius,” playing the iconic figure of Albert Einstein. And indeed, iconography was something of a hurdle with a role like that.

“Einstein’s image was an Apple ad on the side of a building,” Rush says. “He’s a T-shirt. He’s an emoji. Everyone knows the hair, everyone knows he was a theoretical physicist. [But] with the pleasures you can get from a 10-hour, limited form series, you get to go into more character detail. I suppose with any of those historical characters you have to kind of go, ‘OK, what was they’re domestic life like? What was their daily life like?’ Walter Isaacson’s book is forensically detailed in his research, and the dramatic qualities of Einstein’s life emerged.”

Speaking of the small screen, as companies like Netflix continue to grow and expand and push the boundaries of the business, Rush has a few thoughts on the progression. And he’s kept up with the debate raging at the Cannes Film Festival, where no film will be allowed in competition going forward if it doesn’t have plans for a French theatrical release. Pedro Almodovar and Will Smith had a testy exchange about it at the start of the fest.

“That kind of dialectic is what makes the whole shebang important and fascinating, that this debate rears its head,” Rush says. “I think the essence of what Almodovar was saying, and I agree with it and was more enchanted by, he said there’s something about the big screen. And the history of cinema is it’s bigger than the room you’re in. You kind of lose peripheral extremities of what you’re being immersed in. And I love the fact that he used the word — as an audience member you must be ‘humbled’ by the world of the imagery that you’re being asked into by the masters of film language. I take that on board.”

However, he takes Smith’s counterpoint as well, that the access to content is crucial in the modern context of film education.

“You sometimes get locked into the primitiveness of early technology,” Rush says. “You look at the musical films that came out in 1928, ’29, four years later Busby Berkeley was in there and there was a new consummate medium. If we didn’t have these kinds of arguments, we’d probably still be watching short titillating films in Nickelodeons.”

For more, including a random aside about 1999’s “Mystery Men,” listen to the latest episode of “Playback” via the streaming link above.

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