The former “Grey’s Anatomy” star is unrecognizable on National Geographic Channel’s anthology series “Genius.”
For most of his TV career, T.R. Knight has looked like, well, T.R. Knight.
On five seasons of Grey's Anatomy, it took only the slightest embellishment -- shaggy hair, scrubs, a white lab coat -- to physically transform the actor into Dr. George O'Malley, a Seattle Grace Hospital surgical intern-turned-resident.
In fact, most of Knight’s TV roles have purely depended on the actor’s ability to fully embody characters, ranging from Jordan Karahalios, Peter Florrick's campaign manager and Eli Gold's rival on season four of The Good Wife, to an abusive husband on Hulu's Stephen King adaptation 11.22.63; or as Alice’s (Mireille Enos) unbearable brother, Tommy Vaughan, on season two of ABC's dramedy The Catch. The latter marked his return to Shonda Rhimes’ TGIT lineup, which was “surprising and fantastic” for Knight to get that call “because, obviously, for Shonda, working with her again,” he tells ET, “but also because I had been a fan of Mireille's for 13 years since I first saw her on Broadway” in the 2005 revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
But it’s Knight’s chameleonic transformations for National Geographic Channel’s Genius anthology series that’s earned him attention and critical praise. Sometimes spending up to seven hours in a makeup trailer, the actor was unrecognizable as J. Edgar Hoover in 2017's Einstein and now in Picasso as French poet and painter Max Jacob, Pablo Picasso's confidant harboring an unrequited romantic love for the famous Spanish artist.
“As an actor, so much of your time is spent unemployed, so when you get to work and when you get challenged, it gets to be the cherry on top of the cherry on top of the cherry,” Knight says. “Having that challenge is so exciting, and it's rare.”
Unlike Picasso, who is portrayed by Alex Rich and Antonio Banderas at varying ages, Knight -- still blessed with a baby face at 45 years old -- embodies the full range of Jacob’s life on the series, sometimes shooting the painter as a young man and a sexagenarian in the same day.
Younger Jacob relied on nose, lip and hair alterations to transform the actor, while the older version of the character required Knight to wear full facial prosthetics to get into the wrinkled skin of advanced age. Peeling off the jelly goop affixed to his face at the end of the day was like “coming out of a cocoon.” It’s a process, he admits, that “makes me a little nauseous, I’m not gonna lie. It’s fascinating, but it’s a little gross.” Bringing Jacob to life was a collaborative effort between the actor and the makeup team, who are “building the character with you,” Knight says, “so when you’re they’re done, they hand you the baton and you carry that on set.”
The stakes on Genius were higher, too.
“Even if this was, say, a fictional character, not a real talking, walking, breathing human being, there would still be a respect due,” Knight says, “but it intensifies tenfold when it's a real person and you have to honor that.” It's a new challenge, he says, to portray real historical figures like Hoover and Jacob on Genius, and LGBT advocate Chad Griffin on ABC’s When We Rise.
However, feeling buoyed by the Genius cast and crew, Knight found himself taking more acting risks. They pay off, especially during one affecting scene where Jacob expresses his affection for Picasso only to have Picasso, as gently as he possibly can, affirm he loves him back -- just not romantically. “It’s painful, it’s honest, it’s raw and it’s difficult,” the actor says. "And, you know, it’s something I can’t take credit for because they don’t let me write it -- and they should not let me write it.”
Knight laughs, though the actor certainly deserves credit for the glazed look in his eyes, conveying the sunken feeling of a heart that's been smashed to smithereens. He relished getting to explore the depths of Jacob: his sexuality, his heartbreak and his tremendous artistic influence on Picasso. Of Jacob's sexuality, Knight, also gay, says, “It was a very shared expression. The sad part is, that was a long time ago, but times have not changed enough.”
Just before he was to be sent to a Nazi concentration camp, Jacob died of pneumonia in 1944 at the age of 67, but Genius maintains focus on his enduring friendship with Picasso. “Especially in the story we tell, it wasn't easy and it was very fraught, but there was no denying the love they had for each other,” Knight says. “It teaches by example in the kind of generosity that they had for each other. There's an honesty there that they constantly go back to, no matter how hard their friendship gets.”
Ultimately, playing someone -- especially the likes of Jacob -- who is so far from O’Malley is a “very uncommon experience,” says Knight, who grew up watching actors at the Guthrie Theater regularly slip into new personas in a single day, during the matinee and evening shows, while growing up in Minneapolis. “That gets my acting nerd going. So, to be able to do that in a film setting for a film performance, it's so rare and so incredibly exciting.”
Genius airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET on the National Geographic Channel.