Defining Da Vinci: Tom Riley Previews This Week’s Revealing Episode

Tom RIley DaVInci's Demons

How do you define a man who fights being defined, especially when it comes to his sexuality? As evident from the comments regularly left on TheBacklot’s coverage of the Starz series Da Vinci’s Demons, it’s a question many of you definitively want answered. Like, now.

If there’s an episode in the series’ first season that approaches this subject more than any other, it’s this week’s “The Tower.” The episode revolves around Da Vinci’s imprisonment on sodomy charges and the infamous trial that urges him to defend himself for his accused acts or else lose the one thing he relishes more than anything – freedom. (In case you missed it, we posted an Exclusive Clip from the trial yesterday.)

But, for those who have been hankering for that answer to the sexuality question, will there be satisfaction after this episode or more frustration?

Tom Riley, who plays Da Vinci, took time out from his first week of shooting Season 2 of the series to tell us how he played Leonardo differently in this episode as well as his thoughts of how Da Vinci’s sexuality has been portrayed on the show thus far and the online comments that the actor is well aware of.  (To keep from spoiling much of the episode, the second part of the interview with Riley as well as series creator David S. Goyer will post Monday on The Backlot.)

The Backlot: Your performance of a very unhinged Da Vinci in this episode is fantastic. How was playing him in this episode different from others?

Tom Riley: Thank you! It was a blast to finally let go. For the first four episodes I’d been very gently seeding the slightly more out-there elements of his personality, in the knowledge that a borderline insane lead character would get old very quickly – whether that madness was a divine gift or otherwise – whilst at the same time not wanting to neglect the notion that a man of his extraordinary intellect is probably only putting on the act of being on a similar plane to the rest of us.

At moments of boredom, or frustration, or self-absorption in those episodes, I tried to let the occasional spark of madness peek through, whilst still endeavoring not to alienate the audience too much. The eye and speech tics, the sudden bursts of anger, the pomposity, the misplaced glee and lack of social grace that have always bubbled under any pretense of charm suddenly rise completely and unapologetically to the surface when Leonardo has nothing left to lose, and only his sense of righteous indignation to cling to.

TBL: Is he truly mad at this point or is this just part of his overall plan?

TR: Bear in mind that he has been in jail for a few weeks. And this is a man who wished ‘to fly, be free of this world,’ who had an almost obsession with repeatedly releasing birds from their cages, to allow them their liberty. I decided that he wasn’t necessarily any more mad than he’d always been, but any misguided attempt to deprive him of freedom would exacerbate any of those latent tendencies. Should that manifestation appear wildly unhinged to others, and therefore perversely aid his overall plan, then that benefit would certainly not be lost on a man as bright as Leonardo.

TBL: We finally get to the sodomy trial. Will we get answers to our questions in regards to your character’s sexuality?

TR: I hope so. This is an incredibly important issue to me, and the online vitriol regarding ‘straight-washing’ has been very tough to read. Personally, I think it’s a little reductive to insist on labeling or claiming someone who spent his entire life trying to overthrow anything that was perceived as limiting – trying to defy constraint, both scientifically, mathematically and artistically – and I truly believe that would have extended to every other aspect of his life as well.

Indeed, a great deal has been made of an almost asexual quote he made at the end of his life, describing the act of intercourse as disgusting. Personally, I’ve dismissed a lot of things at 30 that I reveled in at 20. Who knows what I’ll think of that 20 year old’s behavior when I’m 60? Perhaps the most interesting thing is to consider what kind of hurtful events may have occurred in between to lead someone to make a statement such as that, which some could interpret as painfully damaged – regardless of which gender it’s aimed at.

This is a potential goldmine in our exploration of the youthful version of Leo. Hopefully we address any concerns about Da Vinci’s Demons’ depiction of this Leonardo’s sexuality in a way that is satisfactory and respectful to any historical speculation, although I am more than aware, from the level of anger I’ve witnessed online, that it’s a fire which will be hard to dampen, as I’m sure the comments thread below this interview will prove… [Note: Riley left a note earlier today in regards to the comments left on this piece in order to clarify what he said during the interview. See end of this article.]

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