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Da Vinci Comes To Life

Tom Riley talks about playing the ultimate Renaissance man in Da Vinci’s Demons and his own great invention

Leonardo Da Vinci – the painter, sculptor, inventor and poster genius for Renaissance innovation – has been dead for nearly 500 years, however he’s never stopped being popular. From museum exhibitions to T-shirts and dorm-room posters, Da Vinci’s artwork and ideas are as visible today as they were during his lifetime.

Beginning April 12, the everlasting obsession with Da Vinci will manifest in its latest incarnation: Da Vinci’s Demons, a smart, stylish new series on the Starz network. The show follows Da Vinci (played by Tom Riley) as he makes his way through Florence, a town that seems chock full of political and romantic drama. Whether he’s tangling with the malevolent Medici clan, fending off his fiendish father or falling into bed with a noble woman, life for Riley’s Da Vinci is never short on excitement.

We checked in with Riley himself to find out pushing boundaries, his own amazing inventions and what it’s like to play one of the world’s most revered characters.

This is an ambitious show, with a huge cast and sprawling sets. How long have you been working on it?
I took the job in December 2011. I was doing another job at the time, but all the way through 2012 I was prepping for this, doing the training machine, doing the research and going to exhibitions. We started shooting properly in March and April.

What kind of training were you doing?
Because Leonardo was a vegetarian, I was supposed to be quite lean and wiry. So I was dropping weight and getting to the gym and trying to have this very physically active body of someone who lived off the land.

So, besides the intense workout regimen, what made you want to play Da Vinci?
Everything. With this, everything was on the page with the character—and then everything else was in history, in books, in galleries, and so there was the chance to portray someone who existed and yet was being reimagined. There was nothing that didn’t appeal, really.

With so much Da Vinci out there in books and galleries, what was the most helpful thing you came across?
I went to an anatomy exhibition in Queens Gallery in Buckingham Palace and it was all Da Vinci’s anatomy work that hadn’t been published and been given to the royal family and put in into their private archives. If it had been published at the time, he would have been the most important anatomist that ever lived. I was walking around this thing thinking all this incredible stuff was just a footnote to everything else we knew about him.

What is it about Da Vinci has captivated people over the years? He’s a reliable marketing tool
He’s the most recognizable name in the world after Christ, I think. The real thing that resonated with [series creator] David S. Goyer when he was bringing the story to life was the struggle between art and commerce. He got completely fascinated by the idea of information being suppressed at this turning point in history, when artists were suddenly flooding out of Florence and all being supported by Lorenzo de’ Medici at the same time the Vatican was struggling to suppress that knowledge. We started filming around the WikiLeaks time and were fascinated by the idea that information is still exactly the same thing.

Have you yourself ever invented anything?
I remember at school thinking I could invent weapons. There was a little house alongside the schoolyard—that one house that has a woman that lives in it that everyone says is a witch—and I remember devising some sort of catapult with a camcorder wrapped in a pillow that we were going to fire into her garden so we film her doing witchy things. That might be the only thing I’ve ever invented in my life. Although I didn’t invent a way to get the camcorder back, so it wasn’t too smart.