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.
And was that the thing that you like the most about the character probably?
I always see him as kind of like the luckiest guy in the world who can't believe his best friend is someone like Leonardo Da Vinci. [Laughs.] You just wouldn't put the two together. He's like the luckiest guy in the world. He gets in these mad situations. But ironically he also becomes the voice of reason in some of the situations that da Vinci gets himself into. He's that guy that keeps him grounded. They always say it's only your best friend who can tell you to shut up and, "You're being an idiot." And you'll take it because you respect them and trust their opinion and know that they're not angling for anything, you know. It's genuine.
There's a moment where Zoroaster asks him why he wants him to do something. He says, "Because you reek of dishonesty." Zoroaster seems kind of proud of that.
Yeah. Yeah. [Laughs.] It's the highest compliment you could pay him. I mean, Zoroaster's thoroughly aware of how cheeky, how deeky, how naughty he is. By Leo confirming that, he can't help but sort of smile. It's like, "Yep, that's me, baby." You know? It's that kind of thing.
How does he feel about getting swept up in the political trouble of Leo's? There's a point where it seems like he's a little tired of it, but then other times he seems to revel in it.
Because he's not that smart [laughs]--I mean, no one's that smart if you put them up against Leo--but I think the only times he really does get concerned is when the threat from various people of status comes into play. It's not his world.
And there is something that, whilst he is completely free and a jokester, when stuff does get kind of too close to home he thinks it's unnecessary and can't relate or understand why Leo enters into these things. I think that's the only time that he really thinks, "Well, why can't we just have some fun?" You know, "Let's not get too serious."
But I think as the episodes progress, I think he kind of raises his game in that respect. He kind of gives into the fact that this is going to happen and he devotes himself to Leo and anything that he might need help with. There's a little journey there. It's fun. It's cool.
Both Zoroaster and Leo make comments that suggest they've enjoyed dalliances with men as well as women. I like they're not defined as gay or bi, but just sort of free-wheeling.
Yeah, he's just freewheeling. He's open to everything. He has no boundaries. Yeah, he doesn't see things one way or the other, everything's a possibility. And da Vinci can't be confined, so the show embraces his many complexities and stuff.
So have he and Leo and Zoroaster been together do you think? Were you working under any assumption?
No. We're working under no assumption. [Laughs.]
So let's talk a little bit about the challenges of the role. Was it hard to walk around wearing your shirt open all day every day?
[Laughs.] That was easy. That was the easy part. The only thing was, we got these belts with our swords on them. I think Zoroaster's quite cool; I'm not particularly that cool, which I say because there are going to be bloopers of me tripping up on my sword when I stand up and stuff.
That was a bit difficult, but I think I really lucked out with my costume. It's like a kind of Batmobile. That's what it feels like. When I put on the big Zoroaster sort of shoulder pads and gear I find that it just helps me get into the role.
I have to say I'm doing something in the UK at the moment and I didn't really appreciate just how much freedom I have in "Da Vinci," how much freedom I was given by David and by all the writers and the directors to really sort of play around and improvise and just play. That's all an actor really wants to do. I started this job and it's very, very specific and very, sort of, confined to what I can and can't say. That's what one of the joys of playing Zoroaster.
What kind of sword training did you do, or did you already know all that?
Yeah, I did some sword fighting training. I did some horse riding. Yeah, I mean, it was great. It's that kind of job where you think, "Oh, maybe I could learn to horse ride." And like, "Wow, I feel like an actor today, like I'm actually working." I love it. I absolutely love it.
Is he based on a real person named Zoroaster?
There may be. Obviously we're in a historical fantasy, so some characters are loosely based on actual figures and some aren't. I'm not too sure either way. I haven't been deliberately told. But who knows? Everything's so wide open I don't know who they are.
How do you feel about shows that fictionalize historical people? Some people kind of feel that it should be strictly historical and not with the fictional stuff in there. How do you feel about it?
I'm open to anything. I think you always have to look at what type of show something is. Obviously if something labels itself as being absolutely to the fact then that's absolutely what I would expect. If something's openly coming out and saying that it's an adventurous, historical fantasy then I just embrace it. You have to embrace things like that. And that's what I love about "Da Vinci." I just think it's so fun and so open and, you know, the possibilities are endless. As an actor I really enjoy these really precise depictions of real-life characters. But I'm also completely open and I have far more much fun watching these shows that just sort of take an idea and run with it and things are influenced by things that happen. And then it swells up in another direction and adds another dimension. I think I'm game to all of it.
And hopefully people will embrace you and just love it. And there's not a better guy to really take the reins and do that than David Goyer. I would absolutely sit down, shut up and watch it because I think I'd be in for a ride.
I remember disliking you a lot as Owen in "Being Human."
Oh, yeah. [Laughs.]
I think that might be the most--in the U.S. here--the most people will probably recognize you from that one maybe. What was that esperience like?
It was great. I mean I was quite young really when that came my way. And it was just another new show, but on one really knew it would take off. I mean it's got a massive sort of cult following over here. I think they just finished their fifth series. We were all in kind of new territory and I had no idea that Owen was going to have this amazing kind of journey. I was told that I killed Annie by the creator, but I wasn't allowed to tell any of the other actors that I'd actually done it. And it was great, really; they sort of wrote it as we went along and it was a great, nasty little part to play. So that was great fun actually.
Everybody tells me that playing villains is the most fun, but it seems like the Zoroaster might be just as fun as a villian.
Yeah, because he's kind of the hero and the villain, depending on what situation it is. I'm kind of playing both, which is great. Villains are fun, but it's also fun to be kind of likeable as well and have the audience hopefully on your side. Then when you do bad things maybe they're rooting for you or they can at least kind of appreciate and understand where you might be coming from. I think they all have their pros and cons.
Tell me something that no one in the States probably knows about you that you want them to know.
Uh-oh. That's a terrifying question. I don't know. I don't know if I want them to know this but if they don't know it I did the voice of Ron Weesley for the first four ["Harry Potter"] videogames, the Playstation, Xbox, the whole shebang. I did the voice of Ron Weesley because he was obviously busy doing the films and getting tutored when he wasn't working. And when I was a bit younger our voices seemed to kind of be very, very similar so it was, "Blimey, Harry" for about four years.
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