Without wishing to insinuate that actors aren’t a brainy lot – far from it, in fact – it’s nevertheless a surprise when junket interviews take in medieval theology, The Platonic Academy, and the six ages of the world. That, however, is exactly what happens when you ask Cambridge graduate Blake Ritson (Upstairs Downstairs, Emma) to tell you about new David S. Goyer series, Da Vinci’s Demons. Thank goodness the similarly articulate Lara Pulver (Sherlock, True Blood, Spooks) was there to lower the tone by bringing up spanking…
As a site, we’re particularly keen to hear about Da Vinci’s Demons‘ supernatural and fantasy elements, can you elaborate a bit on those?
Blake Ritson: A large thrust of the show is this dichotomy between science, as represented by Leonardo to begin with, and the mysticism as represented by the Turk, and I think in the course of this series, there’s a constant tug of war between what is real and what is unreal, what is mythological and what is true and false, religion and science, and I think it becomes ever more clotted and entwined. I think David Goyer does a wonderful job of keeping the mythology so rich and so deep that you will discover unexpected things.
Lara Pulver: This is purely David’s vision, and it’s so obvious that he’s created this unique fantastical world, and what’s so brilliant is that all of the characters are kind of superheroes in their own right, but at the core of this is Leonardo Da Vinci. I didn’t know much about his early life and to find out that he was such a master of numerous different fields means you’re creating the ultimate superhero, and that’s what’s so interesting in this ensemble world.
BR: In terms of the mystical, they’re constantly posing supernatural questions, things which seem utterly improbable and implausible.
LP: Challenging everything, historically.
BR: Absolutely, and some of these things run along for the whole series. He’s very masterful at not giving concise arguments, so quite often it’s left up to the audience to decide whether this truly is supernatural or whether there is some scientific explanation. Things all become unravelled, the rug is constantly being pulled under your feet, so something that seems mythological is given a scientific explanation and then turns out maybe to be mythological. It keeps you guessing.
How do your characters relate to Leonardo then, this composite superhero?
LP: The premise of the show is Rome and Florence. In Florence you have the Medici family, they’re the heads of state, with Lorenzo Medici and I, his wife Clarice Orsini, the devoted wife, shrewd politician, clever businesswoman, power behind the throne, ally, a confidant, and we employ Leonardo Da Vinci as our war hero in a sense, to help protect Florence and defend ourselves against Rome and the knights of…
BR: That’s where I come in, I play Riario, who is literally a ruthless bastard, he’s the illegitimate son of Pope Sixtus the 4th, he’s the Count and Captain General of the Holy Roman Church, so he leads the forces of Rome against Florence. He’s the primary antagonist of the piece, and he’s Leonardo’s nemesis. I hesitate to say he’s the villain, as I remember talking to David Goyer right at the beginning, and him saying that in Riario’s head, he considers himself to be the hero, he’s driven by this very pure belief in the divine, he considers himself a soldier of God, a crusader who must save people’s souls and within that, he’s prepared to go to any lengths to secure what he wants, so it’s not that cruelty is a part of who he is, it’s just that he uses cruelty as a tool, a kind of methodology.
His relationship with Leonardo Da Vinci changes hugely throughout the series, to begin with I’m a kindred spirit, I want to befriend him, to be honest. We’re both illegitimate, we both have that search, we’re both ferociously bright and we both want similar things but coming from very different angles and I think circumstances are such that we’re at absolute loggerheads, but in a different world, we’d probably have got on rather well.
LP: It’s like that tug of war. Everyone sees something in Leonardo that would benefit them, and the challenge is pinning him down and identifying something within him, but these demons that go on within him throw so much mysticism…
BR: In terms of the mysticism, there’s almost a three-way tug of war, there’s Rome and Florence, who each want him, and there’s also the Sons of Mithras, this mythical cult who are also trying to enlist him, so as you say everyone wants a piece of him, everyone knows that he’s this tool that can be activated and used to great effect.
Blame Wikipedia if I’m wrong, but am I right in thinking Blake, that you studied Medieval Italian as part of your degree at Cambridge?
BR: That’s right! It’s incredibly useful in terms of knowing the context. It was an extraordinary era, the whole religious aspect was extraordinary. The people genuinely believed in demons, people believed there were nine orders of angels, that you could form pacts with devils, people believed they were in the sixth and final age of man, the apocalypse was nigh. In religion, there was still a tendency towards the Platonic way of thinking in Florence because of the academy, and a belief in astronomy, in the spheres over God, and debate over the soul…
Forgive me for interrupting, but Lara, was he like this on set? A font of research on theology?
LP: No, not at all!
BR: I’m unburdening myself!
LP: Blake had a wonderful knowledge of it all, but weirdly it’s such a large ensemble cast that we shared very few scenes together. We talk about each other a lot, but we were on set for five months and it wasn’t until the end when we got to the screening that we’d see what anyone had actually done.
BR: They’re quite polarised, the worlds of Rome and Florence. I kind of sally forth on various state visits to Florence but ostensibly, they’re two very different worlds.
Speaking of different worlds, South Wales isn’t necessarily the first place that springs to mind when you think of fifteenth century Florence…
BR: One thing that surprised all of us was how rich the architecture and resources were, in terms of there being sixty castles, there were disused mines, there were Gothic follies…
You weren’t just in front of green screens then?
BR: No, we were working on what I think is now the biggest sound stage on Europe to shoot this. The scale of the sets is unbelievable, quite often you can shoot 360 degrees, the texture and detail is wonderful.
LP: And the CGI was just put on top for the skyline. It’s all there, to scale.
BR: The establishings are amazing, the matte paintings that set up Florence, the level and quality of care that’s gone into it is incredible.
Lara, you promoted the show at last year’s Comic-Con didn’t you? That must have been an experience…
LP: What astounded me most was how many people came dressed up as me from Sherlock!
Er, they weren’t wearing a great deal, then?
LP: They were in costume! [Laughs] I think you had a mix of Sherlock fans and Batman fans and actually David and I looked at each other and said, ‘That’s Da Vinci’s Demons’.
Sherlock meets Batman? That’s your poster slogan right there.
BR: And Indiana Jones!
You must have been chased around that placed and asked ‘What’s Benedict Cumberbatch like?’ the entire time you were there?
LP: The worst thing I got asked was ‘Please can you sign my paddle?’ This fourteen year old boy produced this wooden paddle and I just looked at David and went ‘Is this okay? Should I….?’ This is wrong, there’s something very wrong about this.
Lara Pulver and Blake Ritson, thank you very much!
Da Vinci’s Demons starts in the US on Starz on Friday the 12th of April and in the UK on Fox a week later on Friday the 19th of April. Read our spoiler-free review of episode one, here, and our interview with Tom Riley and Laura Haddock, here.
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