Despite his last name, Gregg Chillin isn't a rock star--or a rapper.
"I've been in a couple of British urban films about gangs, and some people thought I was a rapper coming into rap for a bit," the British actor told me during a phone interview. "They think I must be like Emcee Chillin and I'm like, 'No, no, no, no. I'm an actor and it's Gregg Chillin. Nice to meet you.' "
The 25-year-old's character in "Da Vinci's Demons," the new Starz adventure series about the life of 20-something Leonardo da Vinci, kind of looks like a rocker with his open shirts, dark good looks and devilish nature. Zoroaster probably thinks himself a rock star, too. He's da Vinci's best friend and confidante--a thief, hustler and, as Chillin put it, "a master of all underhanded trades" who robs graves to supply his buddy's studies of the human body.
Based on actual Renaissance era scoundrel whose real name was Tommaso Masini, Zoroaster is what show creator David S. Goyer calls "da Vinci's bad influence." Goyer has written in his production blog for the show that Masini and the real da Vinci were close enough friends to travel together, and he is thought to have helped da Vinci work on the "Battle of Anghiari" fresco in 1502.
In the series, which premieres at 9 p.m. CT Friday, Zoroaster and da Vinci (Tom Riley) like to party hard, which gets them and da Vinci's young apprentice, Nico (Eros Vlahos), into a lot of trouble with the powers that be in Florence, Italy, where the show's action takes place.
"I just love his freedom," said Chillin, probably best known in the U.S. for his role as Owen in the British version of "Being Human." "He knows exactly what his position is within Florence. He's got no ambition to rise above his station. But he just lives life absolutely fully, whether it be wine, women, men, sex, food, danger. He just goes along for the ride."
"He's open-minded. He's adventurous. He's a bit off the wall, which is obviously very, very fun to play."
Born in 1988 in Cambridge, England, to parents of Armenian and English descent, Chillin was as adventurous as Zoroaster sometimes. "Show-off" is the term he used, adding that he was "one of those awful little kids that you think, 'Oh, just shut up. Stop being a little monkey.'"
A fan of the film "Crocodile Dundee," he used to slay pretend crocs with a plastic knife. Later, his love of the film "The Bodyguard"--"this really embarrassing," he said--led him to pretend to be a bodyguard around his house.
His first big stage appearance occurred during a holiday trip with his family when he was four years old. Possibly having seen his imitation of opera singer Luciano Pavarotti, the entertainers at the hotel where his family was staying brought him on stage.
"I just said, 'I want to wee-wee,'" Chillin recalled, laughing. "Everyone erupted, so I think my parents knew that maybe I would be looking to go into some sort of entertainment."
His mother saw an ad for the Sylvia Young Theater School, and soon enough the scholarship student was commuting with his dad to London on a daily basis. By age 11 he had completed his first professional job--a commercial for a drink called Robinson's Fruit Chute in which he played the caption of a football (soccer) squad, which pleased his football-loving father.
"As I got older I realized that all I wanted to do was just act, act, act," he said. "So I stopped everything else and just concentrated on the acting."
His feature film debut came at age 18 in Ridley Scott's "A Good Year," in which he played "Hip Hopper No. 1," which leads us back to another question related to his last name. Can he rap?
"Oh, no. Not properly," he said, then reconsidered--"I could probably, yeah"--before answering with finality. "No, the answer is definitely no. I cannot rap."
Read more from Chillin after the first episode below.
What do you think about Zoroaster? Give me your take on the character.
Well, he's sort of the master of all underhanded trades. He's a thief, hustler, grave robber. He's always looking for an angle in any situation that can benefit him. ... He sort of serves as Da Vinci's connection to the underworld. It's a great little part to play. It's very, very fun. He's a bit of a live wire. I have a friend like that who influences my decisions in some things having been in a pub with my crazy friend.
So you're not really basing it on him but you're thinking about the trouble that friend has gotten you into.
Yeah, I've just seen the way he acts when he's had a few bottles of wine. I'm just influenced by real-life experiences also, it's such a fun sort of off-the-wall show. There are no set rules to anything really. I can kind of go wherever I want to with it. It's just that kind of show. It's great.