The inside of David S. Goyer’s mind must be something akin to what Den of Geek would look like if it were a brain; a citadel teeming with comic book heroes, video games, Star Wars, horror movies, and Wesley Snipes… Goyer’s latest vision is an historical one for the small screen that takes the superhero antics back to fifteenth century Florence and channels them through the young Leonardo Da Vinci, a polymath in skinny jeans played by Tom Riley.
Riley (Monroe, Lost in Austen) is our kind of leading man; one who effuses over both the Justice League and Goya, declaims against Ewoks, and uses adjectives like Lostian. His co-star Laura Haddock (Upstairs Downstairs, The Inbetweeners Movie) too, is a treat to speak to, with a laugh that can probably be heard all the way from this posh Soho hotel to South Wales, where the eight-part Starz series was filmed.
Den of Geek met Riley and Haddock to chat about the anarchic new series, our arrival in the room coinciding with a tray of coffee and biscuits that must have been a desert oasis at the tail end of a full day’s “I play a very complex character/This show has such a unique vision” junket-ing. Biscuits selected, coffees in hand, we sat down to hear about Leonardo Da Vinci and his demons…
So Tom, your character, let me get this right, is a genius, heretic, artist, war-engineer, vegetarian, bisexual, sword-fighting, ambidextrous bastard?
Tom Riley: Yeah.
[Laura Haddock lets out an extremely loud burst of laughter, as she will continue to do intermittently throughout the next ten minutes. She is, in a word, brilliant.]
Have I left anything out?
TR: No, I think you’ve covered all the answers I’ve given all day! It’s playing the most mercurial, volatile, split-personality character I can imagine, it’s fantastic. All those things are fascinating to play as well as being elements that we know were true, or certainly were speculated as being true.
He’s the composite superhero isn’t he? Described as a bit of Indiana Jones, a bit of Sherlock Holmes, a bit of Tony Stark and so on. If you aren’t already, you are going to get so sick of hearing people reel off that list of names soon…
TR: I think I started it actually!
[Another massive laugh from Laura]
LH: Also, it did stop didn’t it? And then you continued it…
TR: ‘You’ve forgotten the Tony Stark bit!’. David certainly pitched it as such because he thought very validly that for that time Leonardo must have seemed almost superhuman with his knowledge and how ahead he is of everyone else.
The Renaissance Man…
TR: Yes. And to achieve this stuff without seemingly doing any of the steps to get there. He just [in his enthusiasm for the fifteenth century, Riley has neglected to correctly husband the angle of his over-filled coffee cup, which veers dangerously towards the expensively upholstered sofa until Haddock saves the day] There’s also stuff about him that wasn’t necessarily known, like Vasari in The Lives of the Artists, who knew him and wrote about him, said that he could bend iron bars with his bare hands, and that he was aesthetically pleasing…
So obviously they came to you
TR: [laughs] No, that was the one bit they skipped over.
LH: They did ask him to bend a bar in the auditions though.
TR: Which I could do.
Well as it happens [reaching into my bag], I’ve bought one along…
TR: I could smash through some phone books for you? All that kind of crazy stuff, people actually treated him with awe so it’s not a gigantic leap. Though we now recognise him as this very sage, wise old man, that was accumulative experience and years and years of mistakes that led to that wisdom. It’s far more interesting showing the mistakes than have a twenty-five year old man sat around going [adopts solemn genius voice] ‘That’s not going to work’ and be above it all.
Laura, it’s fair to say that, on the basis of the first episode, your character is something of a dark horse…
LH: She’s certainly a mystery.
A mystery, is that how you’d sum her up?
TR: A mistress, who’s mysterious!
LH: A mysterious mistress! There are so many things about her that we won’t know until the series progresses. She is absolutely fighting for a cause that we don’t know of yet, and justifies every move that she makes with this constant battle for this cause, and it’s tough because… [notices Tom is grinning at her, and says with faux exasperation] What?
TR: I just love watching you know you can’t say it.
LH: [Shouts] I can’t say anything! It’s really hard! [Composed once again] She is completely different with everybody she comes across, she’s completely different with her husband, she’s completely different with Lorenzo, she’s completely different with Riario, with Da Vinci, because she has to play all these different parts with these different people because if she ever exposes who she really is and what she’s really fighting for then it’s detrimental to her and it’s huge…
And dangerous, I imagine
LH: Yeah. She’s playing with her life essentially.
She’s similarly multi-faceted then, like Leonardo?
LH: She is.
TR: I think that’s why they have such a meeting of minds, that connection. He can’t work her out.
TR: Well, minds and genitals… He can’t unravel her and that is what’s fascinating to him about her.
LH: And he’s the only one who truly sees her for who she really is, and he says things to her in that first episode that you’ve seen, that nobody has ever said to her. He talks to her in a way that she’s never been spoken to before, and that throws her off kilter, off balance, and she starts making decisions with her heart as opposed to her head. She’s almost like a man in that way, she’s very practical and she knows how to utilise her sexuality and her gender and her looks and so she uses them in all these different situations because she can and it’s her tool, but actually, she’s a completely different person underneath all of that.
The way you describe her there is reminiscent of many of the women characters in Game of Thrones, and presumably that’s the audience this show is hoping to share?
TR: Certainly, there are certain elements of this that are similar. It’s funny, that the different people and demographics we’ve shown it to, I’m amazed how well it’s gone down with people that are older than I would have expected, and people who are younger. So whereas I thought we’re making a very youth-orientated and exciting show, actually there’s so much in it that people that I didn’t think would go for it have gone for it in a big way, and in that way that you know they’re investing because they stop using your name and starting talking like “Ooh, Lorenzo’s doing that, and Giuliano’s trying to…”
Just not many fans amongst members of the Catholic church presumably?
TR: Well, I don’t know, not so much members of the Catholic church. Have you heard about the gay sauna?
Yeah, didn’t the Vatican accidentally buy a gay sauna? Well, we’ve all been there.
TR: That’s like a parody, you couldn’t make that up.
That’s season two sorted for you…
TR: That’s season two! Leonardo and the gay sauna!
David Goyer said that he didn’t think of this as TV but an eight-hour film. Is that how it felt making it?
TR: What was very rare for this one was that we had pretty much the entire season mapped out and all the scripts before we started, which just doesn’t happen in British TV on anything I’ve done, even on three-parters.
LH: We knew our journey from start to finish and beyond. We could go to David and say ‘Why is this happening at this point in series one episode four?’ And he’d say, ‘Well actually in series three episode one, this is…’ Then you go, ‘Oh, that’s the link’, so he has got the whole thing mapped out in his head.
TR: Even moments in season one that seem so Lostian in their ambiguity, and these kind of strange mythological moments where you go, wow that’s insane and things take a really crazy twist, I know what they are. David’s told me everything that happens in season one, even the things that sound insane, he’s like ‘This is this, and that is that’. So it’s quite nice to know that you’re not just throwing red herrings out there.
David presumably has seasons two and three and four all planned out then?
LH: In his mind, yes.
TR: I think he probably has seasons two, three and four of this show mapped out, of another show he’s probably going to invent, of Man of Steel, of Man of Steel 2… I think he’s probably just got it all going on. His is an amazing mind.
And you’d be on board for future seasons should they come up?
TR: Oh yeah, absolutely. And I’ll be in Man of Steel 2! It’s one of those shows that you don’t want to let go of.
Speaking of Man of Steel, and the Justice League, have you been able to wheedle out any…
TR: [Interrupting] I know everything.
Do you now?
TR: Everything. Everything. Can’t tell you a thing though.
LH: [Laughing] I know nothing!
Just one thing, a small one?
TR: All I’ll tell you is… Because Batman is the only one who has no powers, halfway through, he wants super-speed, so he cooks and eats The Flash.
That’s my headline sorted, thank you.
TR: That’s all he’s told me.
LH: [massive laugh] And the thing is, David often repeats himself so I can also reveal that I cook and eat Leonardo Da Vinci in season two, but then I regurgitate him and so he just comes back and is a genius again.
TR: It’s a Goya motif!
Cannibalism. [Pause] This has all gone a bit wierd hasn’t it?
We’re fans of fantasy and the supernatural on the site, so what can you tell us about the demons in the show’s title. They’re of the figurative and literal variety aren’t they?
TR: It’s a combination of things for Leonardo. Very much his social status is a huge problem. The fact that he was illegitimate, the fact that he was a bastard, the fact that no matter what he did he couldn’t become an artist, he couldn’t take artistic commissions legally, the only thing he could do was be a war engineer and so there’s that firstly. Secondly there are the difficulties he has concerning his search for his mother, the true story that we don’t know particularly what happened to Leonardo’s mother, the difficult relationship he had with his father, which is also documented, and of course, the implications of what being a war engineer will mean. At least in the first couple of episodes he may act in a way that seems brutal for a man that we know was a humanist, we thought it was far more interesting to show why someone becomes a humanist.
It’s the Oppenheimer guilt thing for him I suppose?
TR: Yeah, exactly. There are so many, like for Einstein, and for people who create nuclear weapons, the problem with the pursuit of knowledge and the pursuit of the greater good is that it invariably leads to things you weren’t expecting, so for Da Vinci that’s very much the case in this series.
And the non-metaphorical demons? Are we getting actual monsters? Werewolves?
TR: I wouldn’t say that there are necessarily any real monsters. There’s certainly a fantastical, potentially supernatural bent to the show. We play with time in a way that’s unusual, there are temporal things that don’t seem quite right.
LH: You never quite know when he’s hallucinating something or whether he’s genuinely experiencing it.
TR: The Turk, a character you meet in episode one, he’s kind of Obi-Wan. David’s done a lot of Star Wars metaphors, he’s got his Darth Vader in Count Riario and his Emperor Palpatine, he’s not telling us who it is but it might pop up in season two.
Any Ewoks to speak of?
TR: Oh, we’ve got some Ewoks. They’re the things we cook and eat (under his breath) for ruining the third Star Wars film. Controversial.
Not on our site.
TR: Is that accepted?
Oh, that’s an absolute given.
TR: It’s a given, good!There’s a very science-fiction-y, fantasy element to the show, because it’s about a man who’s so convinced that fate doesn’t exist, he’s so convinced that there is a mathematical pattern to the universe, what could throw him off? And David said, something that’s inexplicable, so that’s what the non-metaphorical demons are.
Tell us about the look of the thing, which is quite an unusual mix isn’t it? Tom, with your skinny jeans and tousled hair for instance, you look like you’re fresh from an NME photo shoot…
TR: Annie Symons, who’s our incredible costume designer and who won the Emmy last year while we were shooting, she very much wanted to say, look, we’re dealing with a man out of time, a man incredibly forward-thinking, so we want to make the entire show intentionally have a modern style with regards to the production design, the costumes, the make-up. Genuinely her thing wasn’t to appeal to the masses, her thinking was how can I take Renaissance and just switch it up and create someone who looks like a rock star of the time because he was worshipped as one by those biographers. Certainly, the same for the girls, with Clarice and her high-waisted trousers, Laura in her beautiful red dress…
That red carnival dress? It’s Lady Gaga-ish isn’t it?
LH: Eighteen hundred chicken feathers all hand-stitched.
They’re native to South Wales, red chickens?
TR: Not any more, we killed them all for that dress!
LH: And cooked and ate them again!
TR: To represent what we’re trying to do with history, the whole style of the show is purposefully… anarchic.
A bit like this chat then. Tom Riley and Laura Haddock, 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 Lara Pulver and Blake Ritson, here.
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