Leonardo da Vinci (Tom Riley) travels to South America in Season 2 of Starz'… (David Appleby / Tonto Films…)
Ask Tom Riley what he enjoys most about playing a young Leonardo da Vinci in "Da Vinci's Demons" and he doesn't say the sword-fighting or the inventions or the romance—but his answer includes all those things.
"Oh man, the unexpected, the not knowing what's next. I would say reading the script for the next episode and thinking, 'Holy shit, we're doing that?'" the British actor said during a recent phone interview, adding this about the 15th century inventor/artist/free thinker: "I just kind of love his unpredictability."
The surprises keep coming in the new season, which kicks off at 8 p.m. March 22 on Starz with a flash-forward that takes Leo and his chief nemesis, Count Girolamo Riario (Blake Ritson), across a couple of oceans to South America, where they face being beheaded by members of the Incan Empire.
Yes, the historical fantasy flits even further afield this season, but creator-executive producer David S. Goyer keeps the far-fetched fun grounded with references to the Renaissance man's real inventions, paintings, anatomical sketches and other strokes of genius. Riley says Leonardo will grow closer to the wise man with whom we're familiar when the "cocky, arrogant, difficult troublemaker" realizes that his actions can cause tremendous harm to both his friends and himself. It's just another joy of playing this complicated hero, he said.
"At some point he's going to turn into that man," he said of the older Leonardo. "I've really enjoyed making the various facets of him that seemed like completely different, split parts of a personality at the beginning of the first season gradually coalesce into a whole by the second."
Playing Leonardo also allows Riley to see his inventions go from sketches to working contraptions. Early in the new season, Leonardo creates a submarine that the inventor sketched, but probably never built. The "De Vinci's Demons" production crew did.
"It was just so cool," he said. "It rode. It worked. We were in there for days just messing about."
Riley talked more about playing the smartest guy in the room, how rivals Leonardo and Riario actually are quite alike and how he's not quite ready to mimic Leo's open-shirt look.
Have you adopted Leo's sartorial style by wearing open shirts all the time?
I'm sitting here right now and my belly button's so cold. [Laughs.] No, I haven't. I haven't. That's not a practical look, particularly when you live in England.
One thing I like that you do with your character is the thing with the hand when he's tackling a problem. How did you come up with that?
There's a lot of speculation in some of the biographies that he is somewhere in the autism scale, somewhere on the spectrum. And I have a family member who is autistic. When he was younger he used to try and work out mathematical problems with an invisible abacus. It was weird because an abacus wasn't something that he particularly used, but he would move them in front of him. And then as he got older that became just a twitch that he did when he was working something out.
So it was kind of a nod to that element of people's speculation about [Da Vinci] that he may have been somewhere on the spectrum. That was something I had recognized with autism and tried to bring it, hopefully very subtly. Unfortunately the thing is with something like that, when you do it and the camera catches it, it tends to drift to it and then the editor just starts putting it in more than you hope it to be in. But it's just a little nod to that really.
We have our sort of historical version of the older Leo. Does knowing what he becomes factor into what you do as younger Leo? Is that always in your head or do you feel like you can go where you want with him?
No, where he ended his life is always in my head because it's the idea where you're going to take the character. It's quite nice knowing—I hesitate to say the facts—but there were a lot of biographies and speculative histories about him that say he was this cocky, arrogant, difficult troublemaker with ADD and autism and very awkward and difficult to be around.
There's also the huge body of work he left behind and the philosophical, sage advice he dealt out when he was in his later years. ... So it's quite nice to be able to know that you're going to be able to mete out that journey very slowly, but somewhere along the line that arrogance and cockiness is going to be punctured in such a way that he is going to start to learn about himself.
Are we beginning to see that this season?
I think this season you're going to begin to see him fall. He's always not cared particularly about how his behavior affects the people around him, and this year there's going to be a lot more of that, but it's going to hit him a lot harder and it's going to start affecting him as well. And I think he's going to have to start re-appropriating the way he treats other people and himself.