Interview with Tom Riley Da Vinci’s Demons
Da Vinci’s Demons, a Starz original series airing Fridays beginning April 12, introduces us to a young, swashbuckling Da Vinci tortured by his gift of intelligence.
Art history class would have been so much more interesting if only we were schooled on the young Leonardo da Vinci, a sexy, smart, complicated, arrogant outcast — a vision that’s rarely conjured when you think of the Italian Renaissance man and his masterpieces.
Cowriter of The Dark Knight trilogy and this summer’s Man of Steel, David S. Goyer shatters any stereotypes you may have had of the famed artist with his own masterpiece, Da Vinci’s Demons, a Starz original series he created, wrote and produced. The series is rich with visual detail and lavish costuming, but more so abundant in complex characters and storylines. And that’s all Goyer, a genius in his own right, who champions character-driven stories that touch on the superhero within them. He finds da Vinci not all that different from some of the blockbuster characters he’s created for film.
“I’ve never done anything historical or period before. But it really wasn’t that difficult because he’s kind of superhero-y anyway,” Goyer says. “There’s so many legends that have grown up around da Vinci, and there’s so many tall tales about him. People have said that aside from Christ, he’s the most recognized historical figure in the world. So in that regard, my approach to it was not dissimilar to adapting Batman or Superman. But obviously we did a lot more historical research.”
The research yielded a vast amount of source material to work from, and the series plays off it, showing da Vinci’s struggles as a bastard son yearning for legitimacy from society, his disdain for his father, his disgust for the church and its leaders, his confusion surrounding his mother’s death and mostly, the challenges of being a genius. Playing da Vinci was no easy task for England’s Tom Riley, who likens da Vinci to his dream role of Hamlet.
“He’s an incredibly fast-minded, quick thinker, and he was embroiled in all this conspiracy among his family. It feels like I got the chance to do a version of Hamlet in a very entertaining, sort of fun action/adventure show,” Riley tells us. “It’s funny, because it’s swashbuckling but there’s also a lot of intellectual knowledge as well.”
While da Vinci’s genius was certainly a gift, it was also a flaw, as his impatience for stupidity, intolerance of boredom and arrogant demeanor often resulted in problems.
“For him, he sat on the top floor of the house and he never needed to climb the stairs and everyone else looks up at the stairs and says, ‘How do these work?’ And he’s going, ‘It’s easy, you idiots!’” Riley explains. “That makes being friends with him really hard, because he’s a combination of being charming and charismatic but at the same time once they are in his inner circle they have to keep up and, if not, they bore him and he doesn’t care about telling you. He hurts people as much as he charms them.”
He does charm his way into the arms of Florence’s famed beauty Lucrezia Donati (Laura Haddock), who is the well-known mistress of Lorenzo Medici (Elliot Cowan), ruler of Florence. Her motives are far from being clear.
“Biographies of his time spoke about how insanely charismatic he was, how he was wanted at all the courts, how he was borderline ADD,” Riley says. “He could bend steel bars with his bare hands. This guy was thought of as a legend and I never learned any of that in school. Being able to bring that whole side of it to a new audience is great.”
While Goyer says some storylines are embellished for TV, the majority of the series is based on actual research.
“He obviously was an incredible artist, but he was an incredible scientist and inventor and war engineer. And, he was known historically to have been a good writer and a good swordsman,” Goyer says. “I would say 80, 85 percent of what’s in [the series] actually really happened, and then we’ve embellished it with a little bit of what I’m calling ‘historical fantasy’ or things like that. But he has a pretty incredible life. We didn’t have to embellish as much as you would think.”
And that makes this a fun, edge-of-your-seat, historical thrill ride.
(pictured of Tom Riley Da Vinci’s Demons, Credit: Starz/Greg Williams)