Tom Riley plays the ultimate Renaissance Man, Leonardo Da Vinci in new TV show Da Vinci’s Demons, a dream project of Batman Begins and Dark Knight writer David S. Goyer.
British actor Riley plays 25 year old Da Vinci, a witty lover and fighter shaping his future and redefining his era with his artistic talent and his ambitious inventions years ahead of their time. “He is a really complicated figure and Tom is playing him brilliantly,” says Goyer. “He is almost by definition, one of the smartest guys that ever lived and very hard to cast. We saw over a hundred people and we saw Tom and we were absolutely blown away.”
Perched on a sideboard in his trailer on set near Bridgend, Wales, Riley talks about his career-changing lead role. He’s dressed in brown leather, head-to-toe, with cowboy boots on. Next to him is a large cardboard box of Myprotein, used for sports nutrition. There’s plenty of action scenes in this demanding role and Riley intends to be at his peak for every single one.Da Vinci’s Demons premieres exclusively on FOX Movies Premium (Astro Ch 413) and FOX Movies Premium HD (Astro Ch 433) on 28 April 2013 at 11.00pm and thereafter every Sunday at the same time.
Q: When they approached you to play the most presiding genius in Western civilisation, how did you get into a character who is so different from anyone around today?
TR: Good, so we’ll start easy! Yeah, it’s incredibly over-whelming if you’re going to play, not only someone who existed, which in itself is hard enough, although you’re obviously aided by the fact there are no records, there are no pictures, there is no particular character description apart from what’s found in court records and stuff, but the fact he had a mind like no-one else… he’s someone that you can’t really get inside of but you let David’s words do it for you. I did as much as could in so far as research is concerned, going to the Da Vinci exhibition at Buckingham Palace (at The Queen’s Gallery, London), which was overwhelming. Halfway through, the weight of history combined with the weight of his genius and you’re walking around looking at these things that were so far ahead of anything. 400 years ago, what he was onto that he never even had published, the anatomy stuff, if he had ever had it published he would have been one of the most important anatomists of all time. But as it is, that’s just a footnote to everything else about him, which is insane. So, yeah, really overwhelming. I remember, really, specifically, there was one picture of a woman’s reproductive organs, his idea of what it looked like inside and his thumbprint was left on it, this tiny little thing. It’s just one of those moments that just blindsides you. I was doing my research and then I saw that and thought, “He was an actual, living human.” That was the moment I thought, “Don’t cock this up!” (laughs)
Q: He was a genius but how did you relate and find your way into his more human side?
TR: Right, David’s written him as very tormented and the fact that he is blessed / cursed with a mind that is like no-one else’s around him means that lends a humanity to him in just the way he deals with the people around him, how he deals with his friends and tries to have moments of his mind not working nineteen to the dozen, where he can just enjoy his life, fall in love, be a human and be fallible. That is constantly tempered by the fact his mind is working quicker than everyone else’s around him and that’s exhausting and tiring for him as much as it is for everyone else. It’s tough to be his friend and it’s tough for him to have friends and that’s where the humanity comes from.
Q: Can you talk about his closest friends and relationships in the show?
TR: Yeah, there’s a little band, we call the ‘Scooby Gang’ (laughs), Nico, his apprentice who is 18 and is in awe of Da Vinci and everything he stands for and is kept around as a whipping boy, almost; Da Vinci likes him but he likes messing with him more. Zoroaster, played by Gregg Chillin and he’s brilliant at playing, I hesitate to say the comic relief because he does the dark stuff brilliantly as well, but he’s completely unimpressed by Da Vinci which I think is why they’re friends. Everyone else is slightly in awe of everything he’s coming up with and this one guy is like, “Oh shut up! Shut up!” And there’s his mentor, Verrocchio, played by Allan Corduner, who is another one. The thing about Da Vinci’s friends is that they are the only people he can be honest and straight with.
Q: Is there much humour?
TR: Yeah, there’s lots, particularly from the supporting cast and then Da Vinci has this very quick wit, obviously, and sees light where other people see dark and vice versa.
Q: You’re wearing britches and boots, so he’s an action hero as well?
TR: Yeah, he’s very scrappy because he was raised relatively on his own, left by his father with Verrocchio, as a child and has had to learn on the streets but his mind enables him to see a fight seven or eight steps ahead so he knows what’s going to happen and he finishes it in the smallest number of moves. I’ve been practising with nunchucks too. Because of the ambidextrousness of Da Vinci, he paints with his left and his right so I’ve had to do exercises with my left hand every night with these nunchucks.
Q: It’s like Leonardo boot camp?
TR: Not boot camp exactly but I was doing training, like an hour a day. I was doing a show that I finished in Leeds called Monroe. I was shooting that in the day then doing the training in the evening. Then fighting for three or four weeks and horse-riding for three or four weeks.
Q: Da Vinci is always a few steps ahead, you said. David mentioned the new (TV drama) Sherlock, a similar character. Did you use it as a point of reference?
TR: Certainly in the way that Benedict (Cumberbatch) plays Sherlock, another character who’s outside of the norms of the people around him, he has an impatience with the fact they just can’t get up there with him. So there’s that and certainly the way Sherlock has slightly unprofessional methods of solving a case, is something that we brought to this as well, yeah.
Q: How were you cast?
TR: It all happened really quickly because I was up in Leeds and it was a case of, come down, meet David, do a lot of scenes and hope I don’t go wrong. But I think that, usually, when I have a job I really want I go over the top to prepare and you’re feeling, “I’m perfect for this and I’m desperate as well.” And that is never attractive! (laughs) But because of doing the role, I just hadn’t had time so having to do that thinking on your feet thing that is such an integral part of Da Vinci, it fed into the audition and I think it help me blag it. I generally blagged it! (laughs)
Q: Whilst making the show, have there been many surprises for you about Leonardo, the man himself and his accomplishments?
TR: Oh yeah, loads. Because we are dealing with a part of his life that is relatively uncharted, I think probably for David the temptation to go, let’s pop in a little bit of stuff that we know he did in his fifties, must be there, but he’s resisting it. There’s certainly earlier drafts of things (inventions) that would become things we recognise later on, dotted about the workshop. A lot of it speculation, combined with a few moments in this life that we know happened.
Q: Were there any aspects of the script about Da Vinci you read and thought, that can’t be true, but on closer inspection it was another remarkable thing about him?
TR: Oh yes, that happens constantly. There’s some incredible moments. Some of the mythology behind the show, essentially the cult of the Sons of Mithras stuff, I thought, well, that’s amazing but ridiculous, that can’t have existed, but it’s verbatim of what was there then, so it’s a perfect representation / reproduction. No-one would believe that there was a cult with strange, unexplained things and there was so much of that going on at the time and we honour that in this (show).
Q: What is the coolest thing in the show that he invented?
TR: Well, in one episode we open with a glider and a guy flying, because he’s absolutely obsessed with flight. There’s also a shield that he genuinely made as a child. He was asked by his father to build a shield and he made one that was absolutely terrifying (with Medusa’s head on it) and smoke came out of its mouth. The third or fourth episode opens with that and you think, that’s not real, and it turned out to be completely true.
Q: What has been your favourite part to play so far apart from the ambidextrous sword-fighting?
TR: I love the character stuff. The sword fights are really cool, all the sword-fighting, and throwing things and catching it the air, the dexterity that I’ve been working so hard is really cool and seeing it in slow motion is even cooler. But the stuff with the characters, the relationships are really nice. Stuff with Laura (Haddock), who plays Lucrezia, is brilliant. She’s brilliant. All that stuff I think the audience is going to love.
Q: She plays your main love interest?
TR: Yeah, she’s fantastic.
Q: Was Leonardo a shagger?
TR: Yeah! (laughs) Let it not be said that I said he’s a shagger! I would say that he’s a man who explored his sexuality in all sorts of ways and we’re honouring that. You see him falling in love left, right and centre.
Q: What do you bring, especially, to the role of Leonardo?
TR: I am trying to be as unpredictable as I can. But also with myself. Like, I will prep really hard and then forget it and hopefully come in and something will happen because I think the whole thing about it is that he kept everyone around him on their toes so I’m trying to keep myself on my toes, as much as everyone else. Hopefully it’s working.
Q: Did you have to bulk up physically for the role?
TR: I don’t know about bulking up but they’ve had me on a regime since February (2012) and it’s now beginning to show its toll on my exhausted body. But it’s all good.
Q: Are you shirtless in many scenes like the actors in The Borgias or Spartacus?
TR: No, not like Spartacus, not as ripped as that. It’s all just about being believable.
Q: The nature of TV these days, actors are having to shape up in a way they didn’t have to ten or twenty years ago, in terms of body, appearance…
TR: Yeah, I know. It is not something you can ever sniff at because it’s great to be able to get in shape, it’s great to have someone looking out for you and it doesn’t just involve that. It involves somebody talking about your food and your nutrition and how you can have enough energy to get you through these long days. That’s been important on the show; how are you not going to collapse by 11pm when you’ve still got to shoot till 4? So that stuff has been great. But there’s always been expectations leaning heavily on appearance. That’s something you come to expect. For this kind of show, that’s fine.
Q: Is it an American thing, in your experience?
TR: It is but it depends on the type of show. If you’re making a show that isn’t about these heightened realities then you can perhaps get away with… I mean, on Monroe I’m certainly a lot more pudgy, and slumped shouldered and pale because that’s the character. Whereas this guy, he’s in incredible shape, he’s a vegetarian and he’s constantly running about on his feet. So it makes sense that the character is lean and ready to move at any point. It’s part of the show.
Q: Does this feel like a big break for you in your career?
TR: I hope so, you never know. There’s been things in the past where, “This is it! This is it!” You get used to going, this is a job, just do it the best I possibly can and if that begets other work or it leads to exposure or it leads to acclaim then…
Q: The scale of this production must feel different?
TR: Oh the scale is huge. I’ve never done anything like it. Having seen stuff on David’s iPad without any finished visual effects, without any score, it’s one of the boldest things I’ve ever seen. It was so exciting, watching it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it. If we do it right and we follow it through to the end, then hopefully, by next June, I bet there will be twenty diluted versions of this that everyone’s trying to do, because it’s brave.
Q: There’s a fake fifteenth century Florence on the set in Wales. Did you get to go to Italy to see the real thing?
TR: No! There’s talk of going to Florence. I think we should go to Florence. I think it’s really important that I go to Florence! It would have been nice to go on a quick tour but I didn’t have any time. I didn’t get a chance to get away, I was so busy doing prep for this, but I do want to go. I’ve been to Italy but never to Florence.
Q: After playing the ultimate Renaissance man will anything you do afterwards feel like a bit of an anti-climax?
TR: Yeah, I think so. That’s the nature of being the lead in a show like this where the part is so incredible. It feels like everything I’ve done so far has lead up to this. Every part I’ve played has had different variations I’ve fed into this. So after this I’m gonna retire and become a landscape gardener. (laughs)
Da Vinci’s Demons premieres exclusively on FOX Movies Premium (Astro Ch 413) and FOX Movies Premium HD (Astro Ch 433) on 28 April 2013 at 11.00pm and thereafter every Sunday at the same time.