If there’s anything viewers should know going into Starz’s new television drama Da Vinci’s Demons, it’s that it won’t be what they expect. David S. Goyer’s take on Leonardo Da Vinci’s unknown years stays true to the artist’s life while also expanding on his mythology.
Spinoff Online spoke with leading man Tom Riley about the upcoming series in anticipation of its debut tonight on Starz. He had recently come from the show’s premiere in Florence, Italy, where Da Vinci’s Demons is primarily set. He said the Italians in attendance were “so for it,” despite the drama’s deviations from known history. “It’s very bold and unapologetic about the liberties it’s taken,” he said. Still, as can be seen in the interview below, Da Vinci’s Demons also stays true to Da Vinci’s life in many ways.
Spinoff: Are all of the inventions featured in the show actually ones created by Da Vinci?
Tom Riley: All the inventions are from his notebooks. It’s absolutely astonishing. We went to a museum in Vinci [Italy] a couple of weeks ago — or no, last week — and it begged belief. We’d just watched Episode 4 where there’s a particular construction that’s huge and insane to look at it. You watch Episode 4 and you think, “Well, that’s silly. What a silly idea.” Or maybe, “That seems preposterous.” And then you go to the exhibition and it’s there. It was invented. It’s virtually completely recreated. So yeah, they’re real. It’s quite extraordinary what his mind came up with all those years ago.
The thing is, we don’t know how many of them were actually made and how many were just designs that he attempted and then didn’t go through with. But for the purpose of the show, and then David seems to work at whether they would work or wouldn’t or whether they have failings that would never be shown.
Da Vinci also has some daddy issues in the show. How did you guys determine what parts of his family history you wanted to depict?
It’s well documented that he really didn’t get on with his father. He had a very, very hostile relationship with him. In Episode 1, where Da Vinci’s in the dungeon with his dad, that stuff that Leonardo is saying to him, that quite angry stuff, is actually nothing in comparison. There’s a letter that was written by Leonardo to his father on the discovery — when Leonardo discovered that his dad had just had a new son, an heir — and it’s brutal. I mean, it’s brutal, angry language.
I think the producer actually said, “You can’t say that. Surely that’s not real.” But no, he actually did that. It ended up being cut out because it was too harsh. Those issues definitely, definitely existed, and their fun to play. For me, it was what motivates this man. He was illegitimate, he couldn’t join the guild of artists, he couldn’t do any of that stuff, so that struggle for recognition that obviously plagued him for so much of his early life before he was finally recognized as the genius he is is obviously something that is [there], in a microcosm with his father just refusing to recognize that his son’s achieved anything.
This version of Da Vinci has been described as part Indiana Jones, part Tony Stark and part Sherlock Holmes. What was your experience like getting to play a version of those three iconic characters combined with Da Vinci?
First and foremost, fun. But when David came out at New York Comic Con last year with that quote, I thought, “Oh, no! That’s a pretty bold statement.” I knew the scripts held up to that and I knew that what I’d seen of the show that seemed to be the case, but it’s a scary idea to put out there.
Also, so much fun to play. To be able to always be the smartest guy in the room and play the frustration that comes with it, and to have those Sherlockian moments whereby you’re building up to a big revelation and the audience isn’t quite sure what it’s going to be until they hear it, the idea that the Indiana Jones sort of swashbuckling, whip-cracking, slightly vulnerable type thing. There’s elements of these great characters all combined in one, and then you add the greatest mind in history on top of it, you get this gem of a role.
There are some really gorgeous flight motifs throughout the first couple of episodes. What do you think they represent for Da Vinci?
Certainly it’s symbolic to him of freedom. Nothing is worse for a man who’s desperate to pursue knowledge and understand the entire universe than being cooped up, and I think the idea of flight and just being able to leave earthly concerns behind is something that really appeals to him.
Do you think fans will respond well to the supernatural and fantastical elements of this show?
I hope so. That stuff’s really exciting. Basically the whole concept of the Sons of Mithras, which is the underlying mythological sort of … you could say supernatural, it’s not necessarily supernatural, but it’s the idea that all knowledge has existed previously, that the answers to everything have just been forgotten by mankind. When you’ve got the greatest mind in history, in order to create drama around him it can’t be the usual obstacle. It has to be something that can’t be explained and that really creates the drama for him.
That throws the protagonist off course, and in this case it’s the idea that out there is the answers to everything. For a man who’s so desperate to understand the world, the idea that somewhere there is a book that contains the answers to everything is going to be absolute catnip to Leonardo. And it perfectly sums up with this slightly odd, mythological, fantastical element that may be in his imagination, probably not. We play with the idea of time and fantasy and understanding and whether it’s the opium or whether it’s his … imagination or whether it’s real, sort of strange temporal shift that he finds himself caught up in.
Is that going to be something that’s played with in future seasons, because David has said he has a plan for a long story arc?
Oh, yeah. I mean, knock on wood, if we get a Season 2, things get stranger. And as they get stranger, suddenly they’re explained, and other bits that look like they make absolutely no sense are very, very logical and clear. It’s the bits that you think are logical and clear are skewed; it’s really clever.
There are plot twists this season that I’m like, wow. I remember reading the first draft of one of the episodes and being like, “What? That’s insane!” And then David explained it, and explained why and where it was going, so it’s kind of nice to know that even with the strangest stuff within the series, David has very clear map of how it’s going to map out.
There’s stuff in episode 1 that leads very clearly to stuff in Episode 8. There’s props in the background of scenes in episode 2 that will only be used in Episode 7. It’s the luxury of having the time and the scripts, really.
What were some of the most fun parts for you making this show since you’re involved in just about every facet of it?
It’s weird. I think that’s the great thing about the show is I got to do the stuff you dream of doing as an actor when you’re a kid and you think being an actor is all explosions and sword fights and horse riding. I got to do all that stuff. Racing across — literally galloping across — a meadow on horseback is incredibly exciting, but then at the same time there’s the stuff that’s hinted at in the beginning with Lucrezia, that storyline, is really fascinating when it all comes to a head.
I absolutely loved playing those scenes, that kind of emotional “Is it a relationship? Is it love? Are they using one another?” Those things were always the most sort of exciting to play. And then on top of that you’ve got these cerebral moments of deduction are also great. To sort of storm into a room and say, “I know what all this means!”
Since the show premieres Friday, is there anything else you’d like viewers to know going in?
Just that it’s not what they’re expecting. Everything interview I’ve done out here in New York has been, “I didn’t know what to expect but that wasn’t it!” I think once you realize we’re sort of skewing the world through a very modern prism and you climb on board then you’ll have a great time. We’re really proud of it. It’s a fun ride.
Da Vinci’s Demons premieres tonight at 10 ET/PT on Starz. You can watch the first episode below.