Interview: Tom Riley Talks Leonardo’s Sexuality & Daddy Issues In “Da Vinci’s Demons”

English actor Tom Riley headlines
Da Vinci’s Demons as Leonardo Da Vinci himself.

We’ve been hearing about the new Starz series Da Vinci’s Demons for awhile now, but at last the Friday April 12th premiere date is nearly upon us.

Earlier this year, series creator David S. Goyer talked candidly about how he will approach the sexuality of Leonardo Da Vinci since it has been speculated about in more than one historical account that the artist was homosexual. Goyer told us he wouldn’t be shying away from anything in terms of who Da Vinci may be attracted to or sleeping with. However, whether that happens sooner or later in the series remains to be seen.

But what does the man playing Leonardo make of all the fuss? We sat down with English actor Tom Riley recently to break down all things Da Vinci, from his sexuality to his Daddy issues, both of which he says we’ll see as a part of the show.

AfterElton: Were you surprised that the issue of Da Vinci’s sexuality has become such a big talking point with the show?
Tom Riley:
No, because when I did my research I saw a part of it, and when David was writing and we were discussing it and when we were choosing certain episodes, we were determined to be utterly unflinching on a network where we can be. So we may as well pay as much respect to that speculation.

AE: There’s glimpse of this in the first episode when Da Vinci references the male hustler that comes by and wants to pose for him.
I wanted that in very badly.

AE: Is it something that becomes a part of the show as the episodes roll out?
TR: The problem is that I desperately want to tell you. But it’s such a key plot point. And the spoiler for something that happens later in the series that reveals too much about it, it’s a real spoiler. Because for me, the thing about Da Vinci is there’s a huge amount of speculation about his life anyway. But I think it was Dan Brown who originally wrote in The Da Vinci Code that he was a flamboyant homosexual. which is a bizarre thing to write, whatever that means, whatever that entails. Speculation exists about him and people are saying that because he’s mainly had male apprentices [he was gay]. But, of course, you couldn’t have a female apprentices anyway. There’s no writing in any of his journals about lovers…but because that speculation exists, it’s certainly something that we want to honor.

I think the first trailer came out and people saw a flash of a sex scene [with a woman] and went, ‘Oh, obviously this is what happens.” But you know in the opening credits of Mad Men, you see a guy leaping out of a skyscraper. And you don’t think ‘well that’s the only way this guy ever leaves a building.’ So sometimes Da Vinci will take the elevator and sometimes he’ll choose the stairs. He had a passion for the human body and a passion for the people’s minds and whatever sexuality they are. And why we would want to eradicate something that makes the character more complex. It will come into play in a way that, yeah, I’m proud of.

Da Vinci’s nemesis on the show is Count Girolamo Riario, played by Blake Ritson.

AE: In your research, what did you find out about sexuality back in Da Vinci’s time?
It was a completely different culture. And because of that it’s almost hard to pin sexuality on anyone…people slept with boys and slept with particularly high-ranking officials. It was seen as something special for them.

AE: Like the Pope, who we see portrayed in the first episode. The Pope wants what he wants.
The Pope wants what he wants. If the Pope wants it, the Pope gets it. But that said, you know it’s something that I strongly believe now is that whatever sex people choose to sleep with, I’m sure Da Vinci would’ve wanted to have been defined by what he did rather than who he did. In what he achieved rather than who he chafed.

AE: Well let’s talk about the relationship with Lucrezia Donati (Laura Haddock). It looks like maybe it starts out as lustful because he sees her and she’s gorgeous. Does love develop between them?
TR: There’s certainly a connection between them. They’re both incredibly quick thinkers. What it is though, and again it’s another thing, it’s lustful because he’s attracted to the human body, but actually what fascinates him about Lucrezia is the fact he can’t get a handle on what she’s about. There’s something else and obviously as we see at the end of episode one, there are certain things about her that remain unknown. She has a lot of secrets. So because she’s a puzzle he can’t solve that makes her fascinating. Everything else is so simple and obvious to him, and she is something that can’t quite be worked out when he wants it, you know under his skin.

Da Vinci finds solace in the arms of many, including Vanessa (Hera Hilmer).

AE: Sex scenes. What do you love about them? What do you loathe about them?
What do I love about them? [laughs] I mean it’s this thing you must hear so many times, but there is nothing…we had a fantastic Hungarian cameraman on this show, but he’s a very heavy breather. So Laura and I would be doing a sex scene and then you hear this [Riley makes heavy breathing noise] from behind you, and there’s nothing less sexy so in the moment you just kind of think ‘well this is ridiculous isn’t it?’ We got through it by giggling. I mean, because it’s ridiculous and as long as you’re friends then you can laugh and go, ‘there’s your willie okay,’ and you just carry on.

AE: The mystery with Da Vinci’s mother. Is that something that comes into play more in the first season?
TR: It’s something that comes into play. The mythology of the show is really strong actually. That’s what surprised me when I watched the first couple of episodes, and it continues. There are a few perpetual mysteries and they won’t necessarily be solved by the end of the season.

AE: The daddy issues are big, of course, and we definitely see that played out.
Daddy issues are generally big. I mean in all the Da Vinci research, he really did not get on with his dad. There are a couple of moments that land and actually, in later episodes, you’ll see that he does crave the guy’s love and affection. He just wants reassurance that what he’s doing is okay. Despite the fact that he’s arrogant enough to think he obviously is. He just needs someone fatherly and paternal to go, ‘Yeah you’re right.’

AE: He also seems really fearless. Is that something you’re consciously bringing to the role?
Yeah, I think because it’s an interesting thing. I feel that he never finished any commissions. He would start and then get rid of things. He would flip from thing to thing. He was borderline autistic in ways he dealt with people, socially inept. I just think he saw things in such a different way. He was on the top floor of a house while everyone was still trying to work out how to get up the stairs. And as a result he tends to just sort of dismiss other people, dismiss other people’s ideas. And so that lends an element of, ‘Well what’s the worst than can happen? I can get out of this. My brain will get me out of this. I will always be able to find the way out.’ And that surety will also get him in a lot of trouble. He’s got a big mouth. He thinks he can have things that he can’t. I think that fearlessness just comes from being socially inept, both at the level of not really being able to understand how things will work, and finally he thinks if things do go wrong, I can think my way out of it.

AE: Since there are more than a few sex scenes in the show, is fitness a big part of your life?
It’s a big part of my life for this. I read a fantastic biography about him but it’s the only book that exists by a guy who knows him, saying how aesthetically pleasing he was and how he had a body that wasn’t written about enough. And how he could bend steel bars with his bare hands. But also I knew he was vegetarian. I knew he couldn’t sit still. He was constantly moving so I just decided to get incredibly lean and athletic, as much as I could be. To see what that kind of diet and that kind of fast movement would lead to. So yeah, that was a character decision I regretted [laughs]. It was hard work, but I think it paid off.

Da Vinci’s Demons premieres April 12th at 10pm after the series finale of Spartacus: War Of The Damned on Starz.

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