‘Genius’ director Ron Howard reveals why he’s on a mission to turn scientists into celebrities

Ron Howard’s new television series “Genius” continues the filmmaker’s decades-long love affair with science.

The first season — a biopic of Albert Einstein — is currently airing on the National Geographic Channel. It dramatizes the life and times of Einstein, who developed the theory of general relativity (among other discoveries), in 10 hour-long episodes.

But Howard, who directed the series, seems to be chasing more than just a good story. In the eyes of Howard and Gigi Pritzker, a billionaire who produced the show, it’s also about promoting science and, by extension, the future of America.

Actors Johnny Flynn (left) and Geoffrey Rush (right) star as Albert Einstein in National Geographic’s ‘Genius’ show. National Geographic/Marco Grob

Speaking alongside Pritzker, Howard expressed concern about the current direction of the United States, and — in particular — the recognition of social and economic roles that science plays, given that the Trump administration has thus far exhibited an overall lack of support for (if not antagonism towards) the research community.

“Look at what Silicon Valley has meant to our economy and our ongoing influence around the world. … What we don’t want to do is cede that position to other countries, other nations, other cultures,” Howard told Business Insider.

Howard was born in 1954, was around for the first moon landings, the rise of personal computing, and the advent of the internet — but he’s also seen the missed opportunities.

“We could have had the [Large] Hadron Collider. But 15 years ago we decided not to fund that. So I’ve always lamented the fact that we didn’t stay in that pole position on that front of exploration,” he said. “I’m an advocate of both because I believe in the growth of the knowledge base, but I also believe in what it means to the national economy.”

“Genius” joins a growing list of science-focused productions for Howard, including his films “Apollo 13” (about NASA’s moon mission gone awry) and “A Beautiful Mind” (a drama focused on the life of Nobel Laureate mathematician John Nash). Howard was also behind the recent TV production “Mars”, a science-meets-fiction mash-up of humanity’s efforts to colonize the red planet, which features Elon Musk and other entrepreneurs.

“When it was over, and the scripts had been written, we realised … how much momentum there was in all 10 hours,” Howard said of the process of making the first season of “Genius”. “We could have done 15 hours on Einstein’s life.”

Emily Watson stars as Elsa Einstein (Albert Einstein’s second wife) in ‘Genius’. National Geographic/DusanMartincek

Pritzker, agreeing with Howard, said shows like “Genius” give filmmakers a chance to cut through the politics that often distort science, and remind people about the value of exploration.

“Having people like Einstein in the forefront of popular culture, and really raising scientists to the level of celebrity, is a really important thing — so people who sit passively and don’t think of themselves as scientists or understanding science can really get a grasp of why it’s so important to support science and breakthroughs and research and development,” Pritzker said. “Because it does get politicized and has been for years.”

Howard says that if the Trump administration doesn’t support research, others must make up the difference to keep the US competitive.

“I believe they know that science is at the root of growth, social and economic.” Howard said. “If government funding starts to dry up, that’s where entrepreneurs need to rush in, and universities need to step up and use their endowments.”

Director Ron Howard on the set of ‘Genius’. National Geographic/Robert Viglasky

In any case, the actor, director, producer, and father isn’t keeping his hopes up.

“It’s hard to know … what the Trump administration really believes versus what they say,” Howard told Business Insider. “Trump is a brand-builder and a salesman and will say whatever will help push the sale.”

“Genius” has already been renewed for a second season, which will profile a different scientists. Howard wouldn’t tell Business Insider who the show plans to dramatize next, but said the shortlist isn’t limited just to scientists and includes people who “are very high-profile today.” (When we asked Howard if someone like Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos would be candidates, he dodged the question, saying only that “those are remarkable individuals.”)

You can watch it on Mondays at 8.30pm AEST on National Geographic. Catch up on all episodes in June Long weekend Marathon on Monday June 12.

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