He aged four decades and played Max Jacobs, a good friend to Pablo Picasso. T.R Knight discusses taking on the role in National Geographic’s Genius: Picasso.
National Geographic’s Genius latest season gives us a glimpse at the life of Pablo Picasso. T.R Knight takes on the role of Max Jacobs, poet, writer, artist and critic. Knight plays Jacob through the ages, but it’s also a look at the life of a gay character in Europe as Fascism rises around him. In a key scene and probably the most heartbreaking scene of the season. Picasso and Jacob rest next to each other and Picasso says, “Max, I love you. But not the way you want me to.” Jacob replies, “I am disgusting. Just once, couldn’t someone love me back?”
Read my chat with Knight about taking on the role and being a series regular, but also learning about this lesser known figure, Max Jacob.
What’s it like playing someone who goes from his early 20’s to the 60’s. How great was that to cover four decades as an actor?
I also did it for J. Edgar Hoover, but it was a much shorter period of shooting time. This time, we extended it for longer. It’s a rare opportunity and I’ve been exceedingly lucky to do it twice. A lot of the credit has to go to the amazing makeup and prosthetics department. They’re just artists who sculpt and create and paint these different ages. You’re the beneficiary of being able to take that excellent work that they’ve done and carried it to the next stage. It’s thrilling. It’s challenging. Normally, you get to do age work in theater, but it’s a very different experience. To do it on film, there’s not much room for error. It’s very unforgiving because the camera is so close. It’s insanely challenging but I love it. I haven’t had this experience much and now I’ve had it twice in two years. I’m honored to be a part of it. It’s still unbelievable for me.
I just had my last ADR and now I’ve officially said goodbye to Max.
Awww. That’s heartbreaking. The ADR is the last moment.
It is. I had another goodbye moment. Right after we filmed, I went to London for a few days and the Tate Modern was doing a retrospective on Modigliani and he painted two portraits of Max Jacob so I got to sit on the bench and say goodbye to him. It was powerful because you realize he sat for those portraits.
The monologue was destroying. When he tells Picasso, and you’re saying those words. Talk about that scene.
It’s a tightrope, isn’t it? It’s all in the writing. It’s really painful and beautiful writing. The director was patient and was a wonderful collaborator in this. That kind of panic and self-hate is just something you have to tread carefully with. It’s hard. What starts out as a simple request and an act of kindness on Max’s part is deeper than Max even knows. Picasso does something that is so generous but also heartbreaking. He names it, he names this thing that has been underneath their friendship and that’s something that Max is not ready for. Max isn’t ready for it at all, but when will he be ready for it? What comes out is this stream of conscious because he’s not prepared for it. It’s not a moment that he’s prepared to deal with at all. So, you get a lot of ugliness and that is something that I really wanted to explore at that moment. I’m grateful to Kevin for letting that happen.
Now that we know who Max Jacobs is. I had never really heard of him until this show. How did you delve into him?
Likewise, I was unfamiliar with him and I Wasn’t sure if it was my lack of education or if he’s just not known as well outside of France. Some of his biographies aren’t even translated into English. Luckily his poetry is. I got some books that were translated beautifully that had his children stories, his prose and some of the biographical information. I actually don’t speak French but to read letters that someone wrote in a time when they weren’t recorded, to hear his own words when he’s removed himself from Parisian society as punishment to himself for his sins, still being consumed with this acceptance, but also his thinking that he didn’t deserve any great happiness. He looks at himself from every angle and he sees weakness and sin.
He banished himself from his life for almost fourteen years. There was a period when he went back and resumed his life in Paris so it’s this constant push and pull of trying to accept who he was and hating himself at the same time.
Was it fun to play a real-life character?
It was a fun challenge. I love that idea of trying to do right by them. He was someone who walked and talked. You want to be true and respectful of his soul. That challenge is the most fun you can have as an actor. It’s a lot of work but you have to put that in to feel that you are doing or attempting to do their life justice.
You got to play your scenes Antonio Banderas and Alex, playing opposite two Picassos.
To be able to have that one scene with Antonio and to see that bridge. To be able to bridge that gap of friendship and betrayals and frustration and to act with Antonio and to see how Picasso changed, it was all very lucky. I felt lucky to be a part of that bridging.
You’ve become a Genius regular. Would you like to do it next season?
Of course, I’d love to. I’d feel awkward to ask for it. I did think it would be funny to have everyone who has appeared in Genius to audition for the monster. Just doing their own version of who the monster is. Geoffrey Rush and everybody for the monster. Tracee Chimo who plays Gertrude, I’d love to see her audition tape for this.
That’s a great idea.
At least it would be funny for the DVD extras.