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Arts & Entertainment

COM Alum Brings Another Genius to Life on the Screen

Producer Sam Sokolow talks about Einstein, Picasso at tomorrow’s Cinemathèque


When BU Today talked to Sam Sokolow last year, he was awaiting the premiere of the National Geographic TV channel series Genius. Sokolow (COM’91) is an executive producer of the series.

The show, starring Geoffrey Rush as Albert Einstein, went over big, drawing large audiences in 175 countries and earning strong reviews. The Guardian called it “a sassy, robust ride: whiplash-smart and littered with imaginative visual connections.” The series also earned 10 Emmy nominations.

Now a second season of Genius is about to debut, this time focusing on Pablo Picasso and starring Antonio Banderas as arguably the 20th century’s most important artist. The show premieres on National Geographic on April 24, but before that Solokow returns to BU tomorrow to screen the first-season pilot of Genius and show the trailer for the second season as part of the Cinemathèque series, a College of Communication program that brings accomplished filmmakers to campus to show and discuss their work. (His contract prohibits showing a new episode before the premiere.)

Sokolow says the response to the first season was everything he could have hoped for. “It was my first Emmy nomination,” he says. “To be nominated for best limited series, when the other nominees included Big Little Lies and Fargo and The Night Of—to me these are the best shows on television, and to be in a category with them was an honor that I’ll cherish forever. I was just so proud of the show.”

Sam Sokolow (right) with Genius star Geoffrey Rush at a premiere event for Genius in Palo Alto, Calif. Photo by Julia Fowler, courtesy of Sam Sokolow

Sam Sokolow with Genius star Geoffrey Rush at a premiere event in Palo Alto, Calif., for the first Genius series. Photo by Julia Fowler, courtesy of Sam Sokolow

The COM grad is also living the dream in other ways. “I just left a breakfast meeting in West Los Angeles, and I’m driving to Beverly Hills, where my office is, on a 75-degree day,” he says in a phone interview. “Then I have to run up to Hollywood for lunch with a director. It’s almost a caricature.”

Sokolow credits BU with helping him get his start, which included shooting commercials and working on game shows and series development. He got involved with Genius because his production company, EUE/Sokolow Entertainment, owned the film rights to Walter Isaacson’s 2008 book, Einstein: His Life and Universe. Sokolow was instrumental in pushing to make it a TV series rather than a movie.

It takes a special kind of genius to carry 10 hours of TV, and choosing a subject for the second season required a lot of research.

The company started looking at inventor Nikola Tesla, who designed a system to deliver electricity.

“He may have been brilliant and had phenomenal discoveries that affected our lives, and he may have had business dealings that were dramatic,” Sokolow says, “but he was a workaholic and for the most part went to the same restaurant and ate the same thing for dinner every night at a table for one.”

Picasso was more promising. An innovator who lived a life set against major historical moments, he completely changed his discipline, and he also has a global brand.

“And he has 10 hours of story to tell,” says Sokolow. “Picasso certainly lived a dramatic life that at times could be akin to a primetime soap opera.”

And once the producers learned that Banderas was from Picasso’s hometown of Malaga, Spain, there was little doubt about who would play the artist. “Just that itself, from a cultural perspective and a language perspective, an understanding-of-the-world perspective, makes him such a rich choice,” Sokolow says. “From what I understand, this is a role and a character he has been interested in since he started acting.”

Watch the trailer for the second season of National Geographic’s Genius, which stars Antonio Banderas as Pablo Picasso.

He says showrunner Kenneth Biller and executive producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer have formed a sort of repertory company, not just with respect to the crew, which is normal, but also for some of the cast members: both Johnny Flynn and Samantha Colley return in different roles this season. Howard also directed the season opener, which was shot in Budapest, Malaga, Paris, and Malta.

Although National Geographic has not formally committed to a third season, Sokolow is confident that it will. And while his team hasn’t decided who the third genius will be, they have decided that it will be a woman.

In the meantime, they have plenty on their plate. EUE/Sokolow Entertainment just closed a deal to turn “a really significant contemporary American novel” into a premium television series, and they are working on another series set in the multicultural Latino community of Miami.

Sam Sokolow speaks and screens an episode of his National Geographic series, Genius, tomorrow, Friday, April 13, at 7 pm, at the College of Communication, Room 101, 640 Commonwealth Ave. The event, part of the BU Cinemathèque series, is free and open to the public.

The second season of the Genius series, about Pablo Picasso, starring Antonio Banderas as Picasso, premieres on National Geographic on Tuesday, April 24, at 9 pm.

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Joel Brown, Staff Writer for BU Today, Bostonia and BU Today Marketing & Communications
Joel Brown

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@bu.edu.

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