From David S. Goyer, the new Starz drama series Da Vinci’s Demons tells the secret history of Leonardo da Vinci’s (Tom Riley) tantalizing life, revealing a portrait of a young man tortured by the gift of superhuman genius. With a quest for knowledge that is sure to be his undoing and armed only with his genius, he finds himself caught in the conflict between truth and lies, and religion and reason.
During this exclusive interview with Collider, British actor Tom Riley talked about how he came to be a part of this fantasy adventure series, what appealed to him about playing such an iconic historical figure, that he was able to read eight scripts before they started shooting, how much he loves the physical side of the role, that there will be both season-long and series-long arcs, that a lot of threads will be tied up by the end of the season while some are left open, and how he’s able to identify with the human side of the man. Check out what he had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are some spoilers.
TOM RILEY: David [Goyer] was in London, seeing a few people, but they’d been all over the place seeing people. I can’t quite remember how I snuck my way into the audition. Someone else dropped out, or something. I just lucked out, in the room. It was one of those things, in the room, where you go, “Oh, this is going well!,” which never happens. Half-way through, I suddenly realized that some of the people were nudging each other. I’m just terrible at auditions. I don’t know how anyone does it. Once in awhile I get one that I do okay in and, fortunately, this was one of them. People are shattered. It’s the end of the day and they’ve seen 50 people, and they’re like, “Yeah, okay, we know it’s not you, but say it anyway.”
What was it about this show that appealed to you, and did you have any hesitation about taking on such an iconic historical figure?
RILEY: It’s funny because I originally thought it wouldn’t be as much pressure because there is no Da Vinci, particularly in pop culture. Aside from Assassin’s Creed or popping up briefly in a SHIELD comic, there isn’t really any representation of him in fictional stuff. But that said, you forget how fiercely art historians will be like, “Do not trample on the memory of this man!” I’d like to think we haven’t done that. It’s far more likely that a bunch of kids in high school will watch this and go, “I want to learn more about this guy. What did he paint?” It’s a service, in a way, I hope. But, I had no hesitation because the part was just so well-written, and David [Goyer] is such a passionate guy. His energy is amazing. You just get completely caught up in it. He knows the mythology. I can safely say that I know the answers to all the little threads that dangle in Season 1. It’s not out there in an ambiguous way. He is sure, and we know who these people are, where they are and why they are. That’s why I wanted to be a part of it.
RILEY: We had scripts for eight episodes before we started, and that’s quite rare. There were moments where I could do something with the knowledge that, in six episodes, something about this would matter, so I could have a reaction that could foreshadow it. That’s quite a gift.
Does it feel like Leonardo had a bit of ADD?
RILEY: Oh, yeah, absolutely! In real life, he couldn’t finish any of his commissions. He started paintings and then got bored and just did something else. If you infrared his paintings, you can see another painting behind it that he’s drawn over. It’s true! Certain people speculate that he was somewhere on the spectrum autistically. He’s socially inept, and part of that just came simply because a bit of his mind was open that no one else’s was and it was incredibly frustrating for him to be surrounded by people who just couldn’t keep up. So, being able to play someone who was like, “Okay, you’re boring me, I’m going away,” and yet was charming, was so much fun. He managed to wangle people into his world, and they’d go, “Oh, you’re so interesting!,” and then he’d go, “I don’t care. I’m doing something else!” I think it’s fascinating to have a character like that. But yeah, he had ADD and ADHD, and was on the spectrum. What’s great about it is that there will be consequences to that. Being able to breeze through life as through nothing will touch you and sleep with the head of the Medici’s mistress as though it’s nothing is going to come back on you, no matter how big your brain is. He doesn’t have self-doubt, and that’s a very dangerous place to be. It’s a lovely feeling to say, “I’m fearless, and I know what’s right and what’s wrong,” but that can get you. It can sting, eventually.
RILEY: I love it! It’s like the stuff you did on the playground when you were young at school. The physical side of it was amazing because it was like playing as a kid. I get to do sword fights or literally be three feet away from a giant explosion. All that stuff is great! I’d be lying, if there wasn’t a little bit of me that said, “I’m being paid for this?! For getting blown up?!” All that stuff is so cool!
Were you surprised at just how life-and-death trying out his inventions truly could be for people, and how the people who tested them could actually even end up dead?
RILEY: There were huge stakes, yeah! And it didn’t particularly bother him, either. That’s the worst thing. He’ll just move on.
Do you feel like Leonardo has any loyalty to anybody?
RILEY: It’s interesting, yeah, I do. I think that he would fight fiercely for his friends, but not in any way that would make them feel like they were particularly loved, just from a strange, ingrained sense of justice. He feels injustice very strongly and indignity very strongly, and he just wants to make sure that things don’t go wrong. If people are mistreated, he’s on the side of the underdog because he, himself, is a bastard. He’s illegitimate, he’s spat on and he’s looked down on and, as a result, people that he feels he should fight for, which tend to be his friends, are the downtrodden.
RILEY: There are season-long arcs and there are series-long arcs. Certainly, a lot of the threads will be tied up in the first season, but some will remain open. That’s a huge driving force for Leonardo. He’s got all of these commissions that he’s not finishing because there is this thing that’s tied up to the one thing that he can’t remember, and that drives him nuts. It’s the same with Lucrezia (Laura Haddock). He just can’t quite figure out what it is about her. Something is not right about her. It’s that puzzle that drives him. Rather than it being, “I’m fascinated by you. You’re beautiful. I’m in love with you,” it’s “What’s wrong here? That’s annoying!” As long as the puzzles exist, he’ll keep driving on. Some will remain open, and some will close.
How will the relationship with Lucrezia continue to develop?
RILEY: It’s great! There’s so little I can say about Lucrezia without ruining it, but David has written the only character that’s a match for Leonardo. It’s hugely powerful. It’s such a strong female character, and Laura smashes it. She’s amazing! It’s a real gift of a role and a real journey. It’s a great relationship.
RILEY: Both of them are driven by completely diametrically opposite ideals. He has a completely unswerving belief in the divine, and that he’s doing something for a greater power and for God and the Holy Father. You’ll find out, later in the series, that there are more personal things at work there, as well. Leonardo comes from an imperial point of view, where everything is humanist and the Church is a lot of nonsense. So, they are completely and utterly opposed, and they will never be able to find common ground, yet they’re quite similar in a lot of other ways. They’re similar in their self-belief and similar in the fact that they think they’re cleverer than the people that they’re around, and that’s going to lead to them butting heads, a lot.
Do you find yourself identifying with this character more than you expected?
RILEY: It’s tough because far be it from me to say that anyone can identify with the greatest mind that ever existed. There are moments of the more human side of him, with the frustration of not getting things right and the constant striving for perfection. He’s a perfectionist, but it’s always just out of his grasp. I try to key into the more human side, as much as I can, and then let the brilliant script do the rest. He was just a man, but a man who had a mind unlike anyone around him. He came from basically no education, so where it came from, who knows? But, we do our best to make it look incredible.
Da Vinci’s Demons airs on Friday nights on Starz.