In a pivotal scene in Genius: Picasso, a young Pablo Picasso is sketching within a small Paris apartment. His roommate, the French poet Max Jacob, notices Picasso's fatigue. He implores his friend to rest beside him in the small bed they share.
"Max, I love you. But not the way you want me to," Picasso says.
The remark sparks an outpouring from Jacob. "I am disgusting," he says, on the verge of tears. "Just once, couldn't someone love me back?"
The second season of Genius may center on the life of one of the 20th century's most famous artists, portrayed in his youth by Alex Rich and in his maturity by Antonio Banderas. But it is a character like Jacob, a lesser-known historical figure, that helps give the National Geographic anthology series its soul, as well as a rare glimpse into the life of a queer person under fascism's growing shadow.
For actor T.R. Knight, the opportunity to portray the gay poet was the chance of a lifetime. “It's just one of those insanely rare occurrences, at least in my life, where you get to play this brilliant and troubled and loving and generous and selfless person,” Knight said.
This is not Knight’s first time in the Genius universe. The gay actor played J. Edgar Hoover, the closeted first director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in the Emmy-nominated first season, which centered on Albert Einstein. Ken Biller, who codeveloped the anthology drama, persuaded Knight to return to Genius as Jacob. He was elated to rejoin the company.
“It's exciting no matter what,” Knight said. “But then also to be with such brilliance and kind and hardworking and funny people, it makes all the difference.”
Knight speaks with reverence of Jacob and his story. Born Jewish, Jacob converted to Catholicism in 1909. Regardless, he was arrested by the Gestapo during the Nazi occupation of France in World War II. He died en route to a concentration camp of bronchial pneumonia at age 67. Many of his family members were also killed by the Nazis.
“His was not an easy life. It didn't start easy. It wasn't easy during his 67 years, and it certainly didn't end easy, being taken by the Nazis in 1944. So that lends itself to a certain weight, if that makes sense,” Knight said.
In Genius, Jacob is no one-dimensional character. As evidenced in the aforementioned scene, his relationship to Picasso is complicated, layered with friendship, unrequited love, and jealousy. He yearns to create poetry of meaning and to find love, while also struggling with substance abuse. Knight humbly credited the show’s writers with showing the “full portrait” of the poet. “I hopefully build upon that,” said Knight, who portrays Jacob in both his youth and twilight.
“[Max] has a number of scenes that are very uncomfortable. Exploring those is delicate territory. And I'm lucky that we had directors and actors who were sensitive to that and were interested in honoring that," Knight said. "Because as much as Max lived a long time ago, there are kids still going through this right now today."
Indeed, Jacob’s persecution due to his sexuality is not contained in the pages of history books. Today, there is a death penalty for homosexuality in countries like Iran and Somalia, to name just a few, with reports of gay and bi men being rounded up and killed in Chechnya. Even in the United States, there is an epidemic of violence against transgender women as well as a soaring rise in hate crimes against Jewish people and LGBT people alike.
This pain makes Jacob’s story all the more necessary to see today.
“As difficult as it is to come out privately, it's hard no matter what. But for some people, it's a death sentence. As long as that still happens, the weight of that, and the sadness and the tragedy and the horror of that, remains very palpable,” Knight said.
Tonight, viewers will see the death of Jacob. And (spoiler) complicit in his death is Picasso. When asked by writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau to add his name to a petition demanding Jacob’s release from Nazi captivity, Picasso refuses to sign.
In Genius’s depiction of this real-life refusal, Picasso — a critic of the Nazis — worries that adding his name would only make his old friend’s situation worse. As The Wall Street Journal noted, however, records indicate that Picasso abstained from signing the petition because he said Jacob did not need assistance, and “Max is a little devil.”
Does Knight, knowing this history, judge Picasso for not advocating for his friend’s release? “It's hard to, for me personally, sit in judgment of that and know exactly what was going through his head,” admitted Knight, who stressed that hindsight is 20/20. “It's so easy to look back on it in a month's time, in a year's time, let alone since 1944 and say, well, ‘Clearly he did something terrible, and he should have [signed] it.”
“The tragedy is that it had to happen anyway … that gay people, that Jewish people were being taken and exterminated,” he said. “The idea that someone could sign their name to a letter and have it maybe make a difference is a frightening and horrific idea.”
Knight, who came out as gay while on ABC's Grey's Anatomy in 2006, is hesitant to say that his identity gives him special insight into Jacob's struggles. In fact, he sees a “universality” to the character, in part due to the intersection of Jacob’s marginalized identities: queer, Jewish, and Catholic convert, among them. He recalled bristling when asked recently, “Why was he taken [by the Nazis]? Was it because he was gay or because he was Jewish?”
“My back was up viscerally when I heard that, because why does that matter?” Knight said. “He was taken. Had he not died en route because he had pneumonia, because his lungs weren't very strong, he would have actually been in a concentration camp. So once you're there, what does it matter?”
Knight sees the question as an example of a divisiveness born from the tribalism of today's politics. The plight of someone like Max, who was the victim of organized oppression, should spark universal concern and a coordinated effort to fight back. It's a timely lesson for today.
“If we all got together, rather than just concentrating on taking care of our own, the strength would be beyond anything, I think, that even could be imagined,” Knight said.
Genius: Picasso airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. Eastern on National Geographic.