That I might have a fighting chance at getting to be a part of [Genius]—I ran around my apartment like a madman.
If you don’t know Alex Rich by name, the twentysomething actor is shaping up to becoming something of a hot property in 2018. Deadline was the first to announce his casting as young Pablo Picasso for the second season of National Geographic’s Genius—sharing the lead role with Antonio Banderas—which chronicles the life and work of the visionary, prodigious Spanish painter. Picasso ushered in modern art, painting through the Spanish Civil War and both World Wars, and produced some 50,000 works over the course of his lifetime until his passing in 1973 at the age of 91. Rich joins a returning repertory company of actors from the anthology show’s first season centering on Albert Einstein, played by veteran actor and sometimes-pirate Geoffrey Rush.
Despite his brief gig on True Detective’s second season in 2015 and a recurring role on GLOW in 2017, not much is yet known about Rich in the lead-up to the premiere of Genius this month, for which he’s receiving an “introducing” credit. This is where Anthem comes in with some curiosities.
Genius makes its sophomore season premiere on National Geographic on April 24 at 9/8c.
I noticed that you’ve been spending a lot of time in Málaga, which is where Picasso is from.
Yes, it is—and Antonio [Banderas]. We had the Genius premiere there and watched the episodes cut together for the first time. We worked really hard on the show so it was really exciting to sit there with everybody. Then I stayed for an extra week and had the once in a lifetime experience of being there for La Semana Santa. Antonio really showed me his Málaga, which is exceptional. The people were so incredible and his friends are so diverse, warm, and open. It really made me feel like if I have a chance go back to Málaga, I would feel at home in a very real way.
Before we get into Genius, you’re fresh on the scene and quite mysterious right now. So the basics: how old are you, where are you from, and how did you get here?
I’m in my 20s. I’m from Florida. I moved out to L.A. for music, but had some issues with my vocal chords so I started acting to shift my focus. I love storytelling. I just hit the ground running. I started auditioning and taking acting classes. I found an incredible manager who put me through self-taping bootcamp. [Laughs] I’ve been sitting in my apartment with friends just doing tape after tape after tape after tape. I think that’s really where the growth comes from because you get to explore all these different characters and be in a space where you can follow your own instincts.
That’s a skill in itself, right?
Yeah, there’s a learning curve. I mean, I think it’s in a lot of ways much more like the job than auditioning. You can do multiple takes. On set, you often establish relationships with your castmates and you can bring that into the takes. So in a similar way with tapes, you can work with friends who can help you draw out different aspects of the character that you think are important to represent. You can also watch your performance back and have the opportunity to direct a little bit.
Did you put yourself on tape for True Detective?
No, that was actually one of the few where I went into the room and booked it in-person.
The episode you were on was directed by James Metz, who’s probably best known for his Danish documentary Armadillo. He also has Borg vs. McEnroe out in theaters this month.
That set was amazing. We had such extraordinary talent on set, including [creator] Nic [Pizzolatto]. I was obsessed with the show so when I got the call that I was going to be able to play even that small part, I was ecstatic. With a show at that level or The Crossroads of History level or the GLOW level, the directing and the talent is so strong that you’re always going to be in good hands. It was so nice to have that be my first real TV job. It set the bar as to what a set should be like.
I recently spoke to Lynn Shelton, who directed an episode of GLOW, and she mentioned the challenges of covering a 15-person cast. Did you feel like the new kid in school?
The nice thing about GLOW was that everybody was so there for it. All of these women who were playing wrestlers, and the women who created it and writing it and were on set to craft this really unique story, were so invested. It really was a family in a sense. They spent a lot of time together off-set and enjoyed each other. That made it easier for the new kid on the block because sometimes you walk onto a set and it feels like your in somebody else’s house. They were so excited to be there and had so much joy in what they were doing. It made it much less… cold. [Laughs]
How did Genius come about?
My manager sent me an audition and I taped in my little apartment in Valley Village with my friend who’s my downstairs neighbor. We sent it onto London to [casting director] Rose Wicksteed. A couple of weeks later, I got a call from my manager saying that Ken [Biller], our showrunner, wanted to do a Skype call. It was supposed to be pretty informal—he just wanted a conversation. I gathered all of my scripts because I was like, “This is definitely going to be a read.” [Laughs] So I sat in my bedroom with my iPad and Skyped with Ken and we walked through some notes. Then I went and read for FOX that night. Then I went in and met with National Geographic and Imagine Entertainment that following Monday. We were waiting, then we heard we were going to Europe.
When did it all sink in for you?
There were a series of moments where I started to really imagine that this might be happening for real. The moment that had the most weight was when I got the call that Ken wanted to Skype because it had been a couple of weeks. We had other tapes we’d done and you lose track of everything. My manager has this really cool way of burying the lede: “I have news for you…” I know that when he’s calling there’s something up. “You have a Skype call.” I’m like, “Oh, do I? For… what?” [Laughs] There’s no cooler project for an actor than to take on a period and a show involved with someone like Antonio and to be in a ten-time Emmy nominated series. That I might have a fighting chance at getting to be a part of it—I ran around my apartment like a madman.
Where do you start in your preparation to play Picasso? Do they sort of point you in a general direction for doing the research or do you go about that in your own way?
Both. I mean, I went out and got a bunch of books. I think there was only about a week from when I was officially booked to when I left. I met with Joy Ellison in L.A. who’s a dialect coach. Antonio Skyped in for our first meeting so I got to speak with him a little bit. Through the research, we started filling stuff out and crafting the character to present as real a Picasso as we could.
Where did you guys shoot exactly? I know you filmed all around Europe.
We went to Paris, Málaga, Barcelona, Budapest, Malta—we got a little tour of it all.
That’s one of the best perks of acting on a project like this, right?
Yeah! I knew I was going to Europe, but didn’t know where until I saw the itinerary. That was another moment of me running around, wherever I was. That’s going to be a theme in my life.
You’re getting an “introducing” credit on the show. Does that heighten the pressure?
We didn’t know that was happening! When I saw the trailer for the first time—I get to discover a lot of this stuff with the world—it was a really surreal experience. Coming off of a couple episodes of GLOW and then to have it be, “starring Antonio Banderas and introducing Alex Rich”—I was like, “WHAT? Me??” [Laughs] I’m still having those moments talking to you now about the process and what the work was like and how cool it’s been to be involved. It keeps going.
What did you think might be the most challenging thing when you first read the material?
Some of the nuances in his relationships were challenging. The way the scripts are written, everything’s done in a very human way. It’s just about aligning my understanding of it with his experience so that I can best represent a truth in his emotions. There’s a lot of depth, there are a lot of ups and downs in his life, and his relationships took a lot of turns, both with his art and the people he interacted with. So finding some of that nuance—like when he gets into a fight and locks his girlfriend in the studio—took a bit extra in figuring out exactly why and how he got there.
Picasso was a prodigy. He had a studio at age 9. It’s insane to look at what he was painting in his early teens. Were you surprised by the extent of his genius in your study of him?
Anybody who’s aware of Picasso thinks of his Cubist paintings or the distorted images. Very few people realize just how exceptional his early work was. The technical skill he had to master the realist style, renaissance style, and all these different styles better than anyone in his early teens… Once I realized that he wasn’t baselessly exploring distortion and actually approaching it from the mastery of a technical perspective, it was incredible. It happened early in his life, for sure.
There are a lot of quotes from Picasso. One that’s been time-tested for whatever reason is, “I am always doing the things I can’t do because that’s how I get to do them.” He had extreme curiosity and ambition to top his genius. What do you want to explore going forward?
I’ve always been drawn to storytelling and I think that’s also what interested Picasso. He experienced life through his paintings. I’ve done that through music or through writing or now primarily through acting. I think the concept of doing something that you don’t know how to do translates very directly into acting because we find our own way out of our comfort zones in terms of the types of characters that we have to play, whether it be a serial killer or a casanova or whatever an actor’s comfort zone is that they’re asked to play outside of. The only way to understand the human experience is to do it, like Picasso did. I would love to do something different next. One of the joys of acting is getting to experience a variety and a rainbow of different lives. I’m not sure what the next project will be, whether it will be a movie or TV or what, but I would love for the character to be deep and very different and something I can use to progress my understanding of the world and the craft of acting.
What can you tell me about your next film The Honor List, which is due this year?
It’s a coming-of-age story centered on four women who are finding their voices through the experience of young adulthood. My character, Troy, is part of their world. He’s a popular kid who doesn’t necessarily interact well with the female protagonist. He’ll be fun to watch, I hope.
Is there a release date?
It opens the Bentonville Film Festival on May 1st and comes out to a wider audience on May 11.