Da Vinci’s Demons: Tom Riley Talks Final Season

We spoke with Da Vinci’s Demons star Tom Riley about the final season and his reflections on the show's run...

In Starz’s original series Da Vinci’s Demons, Tom Riley gets to play the ultimate artist. With the third and final season of the show set to begin, Riley’s Leonardo Da Vinci is shocked to see his inventions being used in war, at least being used by someone other than him.

When season three picks up, Da Vinci and Riario (Blake Ritson) are on speaking terms, for now, but there’s still 10 episodes to go. Though the current season is being promoted as the series’ last, creator David S. Goyer told us that there’s a chance they do a limited run follow up down the line. 

We got one last chat with Riley in Los Angeles for the final season of Da Vinci’s Demons.

Den of Geek: Would you have continued on if they’d decided to do more Da Vinci’s Demons?

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Tom Riley: Yeah, I think so. I think there’s more to be said. Obviously, the guy’s life was long and storied and interesting, particularly the version we’re telling is so crackers that we would’ve been able to find different things to do with him. But fortunately, we do come to a point I think as a natural conclusion, a good end. 

David talked about the Bonfire of the Vanities. Did he get your hopes up for that?

Well, we always knew that we’d kind of found a conclusion to three but should we be asked to do a four, there was possibilities of how to do it. Bonfire of the Vanities, his relationship with Michelangelo that was crazy and they really didn’t get on at all. They hated each other. So that kind of stuff would’ve been interesting to explore, but no. I mean, that’s the whole point of doing a TV show. You’re constantly being told, “This might happen” and then it doesn’t. By this point I’m just like, “All right, we’ll see, we’ll see.” 

Knowing it was final, did it make the last season more intense? 

Yeah, for sure. It’s definitely the most ambitious and powerful and emotional season we’ve ever done. It’s going to wipe people out, I think, the fans who’ve watched this far. And of course it’s emotional on set when you’re shooting scenes that you know could be the end, or feels like the end. 

It was the end for some actors before the last episode.

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Yeah, that’s true. That is true. It’s always hard to say goodbye to people, but also because we did the reshoots and did some additional photography in April, a lot of people came back that we’d said goodbye to anyway so we got to say a proper goodbye. 

So the reshoots were even for early episodes?

We went back and retrofitted the whole season to make it feel more like a good end. 

Has your idea of Da Vinci changed since you began in season one?

Not really. I knew who he was and the version of him that people didn’t really know, that version we had in the first season where he was cocky and arrogant and difficult. And I knew the version that people were more familiar with, which is what we managed to get to by the end. I think we finally provide him with some humility and we break his ego down slightly. I feel like we finally got to where we needed to get with him. There are always inventions that they brought to me and I thought, “Well, this is crazy” and they went, “No, this was real as well.” That kept happening but I felt like my idea of who he was and the journey we wanted to take stayed the same.

How much does it shatter his world to be faced with his own inventions? 

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It’s the worst, because he’s got such a massive ego that his pride, just seeing that someone else could not only take them on, but make them better, that doesn’t sit very well with him. Not only because of that, but because they’re ideas that have been stolen from him by somebody he trusted, so his whole world kind of crumbles in on him.

He always thought he was unique, and now he sees there’s someone else who can think like him. 

Exactly. He’s always liked being the smartest man in the room, and the idea that there might be another smart man who’s been waiting there the entire time, he’s not keen on. But it’s the best for him. I was begging for two years to have Da Vinci fail at something, to not be able to MacGyver his way out of a situation with a bag of llama spit. Finally, the best way to beat him is by making him face himself.

Does he go a little crazy? 

Yeah, he always goes a little bit crazy, but this time I think he realizes more the consequences of his craziness and his disregard for other people’s emotional well being hasn’t necessarily worked out for the best for him in the past. He’s going to have to face up to the fact that he can’t be quite as crazy as that. He needs to grow up. I think that’s what he does this season. 

Did you always know that he would go that crazy when you began?

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Yeah, I mean, right at the beginning, you see elements of his craziness right in that first season, in the first episode where he’s in solitary confinement for so long. I knew we were going to take him to the very depths of his madness before he’d come back out and that’s what we did this year.

Was solitary confinement nothing compared to the eye torture in episode three?

That was the worst. I remember Blake had to have it in season two. We were going, “It’s nothing, it’s no big deal.” He said, “No, it’s really painful. You’ll hate it.” I got in there and it’s not so much the eye torture, it’s being stood in that rack for so long. Your neck is messed up. Also we shot that in a cave deep below the ground. So it was freezing wet, cold and then it took an hour to climb back to the surface. Not the least claustrophobic thing I’ve ever done. 

Did you get to do any of the zip line yourself? 

I did all of the zip line myself. I really do feel I did all of it. I don’t think there’s any stunt guy on that, because it was a very safe setup. We had a great stunt coordinator this year, so pretty much every stunt this year is me I think.

Was that your first experience on a zip line?

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Yeah. You just kind of shut your eyes and jump. 

How did you like it? Will you be trying it on vacation ow? 

Loved it. Now I’m going to do a proper one like over a ravine or over a canyon or something. 

What other stunts do you get to do this season?

Later in the season there’s a lot of fights. There’s a lot of very difficult, balletic fighting which is far more choreographed than every before and this guy, Nick Gillard, who was the stunt coordinator on Star Wars, he came in and just took our fight sequences to the next level. You can see it in the first episode, those fight sequences are incredible. There’s a lot of good stuff like that. 

Have you and Blake had fun with Da Vinci and Riario’s up and down relationship over the years? 

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Yeah, it’s one of my favorite things about the show. They started out being uneasy enemies. Now they’re uneasy friends. Particularly episode six this season, Blake is magnificent. He gets to do some incredible sh*t. I just enjoy working with him. We keep each other on our toes. It’s fun. 

Is uneasy friends any different than uneasy enemies?

Yeah, because I think previously, they both wouldn’t have thought twice about getting rid of the other one if it served their own ends. At this point, they matter to one another. They like each other a great deal. They respect one another. So even though they don’t agree with one another’s methods, I think this year it’d be far harder for one of them to abandon the other.

When you and Blake work together, do you have a different method depending on where Da Vinci and Riario are?

It’s always the same. Blake has a very particular way he gets into the character. He listens to music and I don’t go near him when he’s doing that. The minute the thing’s running, the thing is, without spoiling it, the Riario that Da Vinci has to deal with this season isn’t the same Riario. So we had to approach that slightly differently but I can’t say anything more than that.

Are you excited for people to watch all 10 episodes at once? 

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Yeah, I think it’s going to be great because this series is a lot more serialized than the last, a lot more cliffhanger-y and I think people are very much going to want to jump to the next episode the minute they can. 

What are you going to miss about Wales?

The weather. That’s not true, I won’t miss the weather. The people. We had a fantastic welsh crew. A lot of locals worked there. A lot of people who had never worked on a film set before cut their teeth on Da Vinci. A lot of the extras had never done it before. It was just exciting to spend time with people for whom it was so fresh and new and I’ll miss those guys.

Does Da Vinci end up in a place we’ll more recognize from history at the end of the series?

Absolutely. Not only we might recognize from history as far as the events are concerned, but as the man, and we always wanted to get him to that point where he could have a little bit more humility, a bit more respect for his own genius, a bit more respect for the consequences of his actions, and I think he’s forced to confront that this year and take him to a place of wisdom rather than arrogance. 

Is it sort of like the Aaron Sorkin line from Steve Jobs, “It’s not binary. You can be decent and gifted at the same time?” Is that what Da Vinci is dealing with?

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I think he didn’t care too much about being a great person. It was always about just doing great things and f*** the consequences. Whereas I think this year, it’s more about those two things are combined. You need to be inspirational. You need to be a charismatic leader. You need to be trying to do things for the right reasons as well as the things that seem great, because otherwise they won’t necessarily land. I think that’s what he has to learn this year. 

Does Da Vinci become a pacifist after seeing his inventions used for war?

It’s that Oppenheimer thing. He has a real struggle dealing with what he’s created and I think that was always the case for the whole of his life. He felt huge guilt for it but at the same time, it was the only way he could survive, he could make any money at the time. He had to sell war machines and he continued doing it well past the events of this series. He sold himself to various people as a war engineer and I think it always sat very badly with him. He eventually retired to France and lived a solitary life painting. It all became a bit much for him I think.

Have you thought about what you want to do next? 

I’ve got a few things coming up that I’m excited about. I’ve got a movie that I start shooting next week in London. There might be a TV thing but I don’t want to play a lead right now. I’m ready to just cleanse my palette and recharge my batteries for a little while before I jump back into that. It’s very time consuming. 

Has playing the lead made you more interested in character work?

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Well, I’ve always loved character work and that was the most interesting thing about Da Vinci is that he was a character and very unpredictable and spontaneous. It’s not so much supporting. A show with two leads, a show with three leads, something where you can share the work load, I would look forward to that. 

What were your favorite moments in the whole series? 

Oh, there’s been loads. Anything that I did with Laura Haddock. She was great fun to work with. I miss her. All the stuff with the revolving relationship with Riario, laughing with Gregg, the stuff with Vlad was always fantastic, the Dracula character. Too many to count. 

Have you kept and of the Da Vinci skills like learning to draw? 

I learned to draw but I wouldn’t say I’m particularly good at it. I learned to fake draw. I’m better at doodling than I am at painting. I just went on holiday to Italy with my girlfriend. We took a painting class and the woman suggested I paint her. It was the most offensive drawing I’ve ever done of anyone. I’m surprised she’s still with me.

Are there any other artists in history that you’d be as interested in as Da Vinci?

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Andy Warhol was fascinating. That entire period that he lived through was fascinating. I mean, Van Gogh was fascinating, they all were. Jackson Pollack. I think because they’re so mercurial, they’re so unpredictable and spontaneous and they’re so driven by creativity, they make fascinating subjects for a TV show. I’m looking forward to maybe trying my hand at another artist in a different medium, whatever that may mean.