Tom Riley interview: Da Vinci’s Demons season 2

To mark its UK premiere tonight, we chatted to the star of Da Vinci’s Demons, Tom Riley, about where Leonardo is headed in season 2…

In a catering tent in Swansea last September, an international group of us had the chance to quiz a very tanned, hair extension-ed Da Vinci’s Demons‘ Tom Riley about his character’s adventures and relationships in season two of the Starz historical romp. 

He told us about Leonardo’s character growth, his travels to South America this season, and why he thinks the UK should tune in to tonight’s season premiere…

Could you talk about the journey that Da Vinci goes through in season two and how it continues on from the first season?

It literally continues on where we left off, so we don’t leave people hanging. In the first season we started out with a very cocky, arrogant, cocksure, pleased-with-himself Leonardo, who began to learn, as the season progressed, the effect of what he was doing on the people around him. Certainly in season two he’s going to realise it’s not only this all-consuming quest for knowledge to share the ideas he discovers, creates and invents, it’s also going to take a toll on himself as well as the people around him. Season two for Leonardo is an examination of just how negative the effects of his pursuit can be on his own personality as well as on his friends.

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Can you tell us about any great moments he has this season, anything to rival the ‘rising from the bath’ moment in season one?

There are a few actually, there are some good moments though nothing quite as Apocalypse Now as that! Some yet to film are so good in early drafts I read it and thought ‘I don’t know if we’re even going to pull that off’ so yes, fingers crossed.

How about stunts?

I’m about to go hang off a wire any second now. This season is more Indiana Jones-y than last season, in fact, our director Peter knocked together a little fake poster that he made on his laptop that said Leonardo Da Vinci and the Book of Leaves in the Indiana Jones font, which I think is called Fedora. So there’s a lot more action adventure stunts, things blowing up in foreign climes.

Leonardo’s quite a smartarse, a trait shared by the Doctor and Sherlock and so on. What have you done to make the character your own?

The Leonardo everyone knew and speaks of is so philosophical and deep, and I certainly believe that is where I want to head with him eventually. I read so many self-promotional letters he wrote where he came across appallingly arrogant and so full of himself. That sort of arrogance is inherently ingrained in having such hyper intelligence and being surrounded by people who don’t, and it’s an unfortunate side effect. That’s not going anywhere fast, the cockiness, but this season, we really wanted to examine that maybe his belief he can achieve anything and anything can be solved, well what if it can’t? What if the greatest man in history suddenly realises that everything’s too big for him? That’s the way I’ve tried to make it my own this season, is to more see the emotional effects of that kind of living that fast and hard and leaving the people around you in the dust.

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Do you think your performance is going to change from year to year?

That’s always been mine and David [Goyer]’s plan is to see the man grow into the man we know, there’s nothing interesting about a guy in his twenties being wiser than everyone else, it doesn’t make for the most exciting hour of television. I hope to begin with a man who’s constantly putting his hand in the fire and not getting burnt and saying ‘See?’ and then as the series progresses, he gets to the point where he realises that fire’s not a good idea.

Does there have to be a maturing process for him at some point? At some point he has to change his way of looking at the people around him?

Absolutely, and he does, slowly but surely. With his father, that’s far too ingrained, that’s a history that a few months isn’t necessarily going to change forever. The Lucrezia thing fascinates me solely because why are they drawn together? They’re both coming at things from a a very similar angle, from a very basic level she is very dangerous and for someone who’s constantly got his finger on the self-destruct button, that’s quite appealing. Secondly, they are both pursuing things that they believe are greater than their own needs, they are both have different all-consuming quests that they feel are more important, that are leaving collateral damage in its wake, so they have quite a lot in common and are drawn together inexorably even if it’s not something that makes particular sense to either of them at the time. Their relationship will change, and he will view her and himself differently as a result in season two.

Tell us about his sexual relationship with Jacopo, the young man who testified against him in court.

I believe wholeheartedly that what Leonardo understood about love he felt for Jacopo in that time, and he was as attracted to that man physically and mentally as he has been to Lucrezia. Unfortunately when he testified against him, Leonardo understood why it had to happen, but also therefore why they couldn’t ever be together.

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How about his relationship with his Lorenzo de Medici?

We get into it really quickly in season two. It’s a tight spot they’re in but David has engineered something quite brilliant in the first episode to get them out of this situation, both physically and as far as their relationship is concerned. Something occurs in the very first episode that manages to make things a bit easier.

Tell us about Leonardo’s relationship with his mother?

There’s a real danger in any series making a man in his twenties go ‘Oh what about my mother who I haven’t seen for…’ I mean, come on. What’s been the real hook for him as well as this emotional angle, because she was potentially the person that would have given him what his father was incapable of doing. I find with Leonardo, he’s more interested in things that are impossible to solve, so he’ll seem to focus on the trivialities and all the time be working something that’s  completely impossible to deal with and it doesn’t get much more impossible than the vanishing mother whose face you can’t remember who disappeared when you were six months old. He’s as hung up on solving the quest of what that could be and why as he is on getting emotional closure.

How realistic is it that he could remember stuff from the age of six months?

My first memory is from when I was about three and trying to flush my sister down the toilet so anything before that I can’t speak of, but then I don’t have history’s greatest mind. If anyone can claim those memories, it’s Leonardo.

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Do his travels to South America take him out of his comfort zone, or is everything his comfort zone?

It very much takes him out of his comfort zone and he will be shown things that are so far outside the realm of scientific probability that everything he uses as a barometer of explanation for the stuff around him is lost. When this tapestry being spun around him seems so far out of his reach he has to accept that maybe things aren’t quite what he believed them to be, which gives the cockiness a bit of a kick in the face.

It’s only episode 7 when Leonardo went into the pope’s secret archive that the fantastical elements were really established.

The David Goyer Easter Egg special. The Kryptonite, the Man Of Steel promotional bit!

Does that continue in South America?

There are certainly things that happen in South America that completely defy logical explanation as much as the sword in episode seven did. Whether or not he’ll leave this one behind is to be seen. There are things that defy immediate logical explanation, but that doesn’t mean that they couldn’t be explained with modern understanding or with his mind, but he can’t get his finger on it while he’s there.

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Can you talk about Nicco, Vanessa, Leonardo’s supporting cast…

His Scooby Gang!

His Scooby Gang. I find it wonderfully ironic that Da Vinci thinks he can do all these things by himself but time after time he’s got to hand that list off to these people he wholly depends on to carry out his actions. Does he realise how important these people are to him?

This year, Greg who plays Zoroaster and I had a long conversation about why he follows Leonardo and we spoke to David about their backstory which is fascinating, David’s idea as to what happened in the past and why they hang together for no money. There are other people in his life who are paid and in this series we meet Amerigo Vespucci who’s in it for the money and will do what is needed as long as he’s paid. They just follow him because they’re inspired by him, they’re drawn to the chance of a different life, a better life. This season, Vanessa is drawn to escape that he can provide, Zoroaster is a bit more complicated and we’ve tried to work that in to season two, there are some nice moments that hint at what their real relationship is. Nicco may not be getting everything he thought he would get from Leonardo, so there are other people in season two who suddenly appeal to his sensibilities a bit more, so Leonardo’s in danger of losing these people because of taking them for granted.

In the first series, you had this fantastic shopping list of heroes Da Vinci was, Indiana Jones, Batman, Tony Stark. Is there a new one to add for season two – you say you’re more introspective, is it Morrissey?

It’s very Morrissey this season! Trust me, we don’t deviate too much from those people who are still very strong influences but it’s Tony Stark during his alcoholism phase rather than during his running wild phase. I’ve just tried to make him Leonardo this season, yes there are elements of Sherlock but he’s very much a slave to his emotions, which is not something you see so much in Sherlock, likewise Tony Stark’s very fast-talking and leaves the people around him in the dust, which Leonardo does, but at the same  time, he’s very flash with it and comfortable with himself and playing the player which Leonardo doesn’t do. We’ve tried to push the elements of him that the others don’t do more, whilst still retaining the bits that make for a compelling lead.

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What do you want to try to accomplish this season that you haven’t been able to until now?

Something I felt very strongly about in the first season was that sometimes it was too easy for Leonardo to get things done and achieve things. Things shouldn’t go as well for him. I think that was something everyone felt, generally. The second season doesn’t allow that, both I’m trying and the scripts are trying not to let that happen and what elements and nuances that brings out in the character is certainly something I’m more proud of this season.

Is there anything about this show that you would like people to know that you don’t think is getting out there?

I would like people to watch it in the UK. I don’t know if I can say this, but I’ll just say it, whatever. I think it’s fair to say that – I loved the first season – but I don’t necessarily think the first season… by episode five we got it, we knew what we were and we ran with it and it became more tonally consistent and I think the people who got that far saw it and went with it. Funnily enough, we shot it out of order, so we’d shot the last episodes well before we shot episodes five or six, it was all back to front. As the writers wrote, they realised this is what it is, this is what we’ve got, and in the second season we start with that tonal consistency and just keep going.

I’ve seen the first four episodes of season two and I honestly believe they’re better than anything we did in the first season, which is incredibly exciting. I was incredibly proud of the first season but I watched those first four episodes and thought what are we, what are we? And around episode six, it was like we’d nailed our feelings to the mast about what we were going to be and we went with it and this season just picks that up and shades the grey into the black and white of what we achieved at the end of that season.

I would like people to know it’s definitely worth sticking past the first four, because it will pay you back, I promise.

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Tom Riley, thank you very much!

Da Vinci’s Demons premieres tonight, Friday the 4th of April, at 10pm on FOX.

Catch up with Da Vinci’s Demons Series 1 on DVD and Blu-ray now

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