"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.
The first season he started out as a cocky, rakish guy who didn’t think about the consequences...
That was always the plan. Actually it's funny because I knew right at the beginning when we were shooting it I felt like this is a tough way to go with him, because people have that version in their heads where he's frozen in stasis as a wise old man, and here I am playing a quite contemporary-styled version of him, both the hair and the attitude. It will probably jar people for the first few episodes. And then when they eventually get into it and see him grow and learn, then hopefully it will be worth the investment. And I think even by the end of the first season when he made the decision to go back for Lorenzo, which he wouldn't have done necessarily when we saw him at the beginning.
We also saw him changing and almost adopting a political stance when he realized making weapons will result in enemies meeting that challenge and it becomes a cycle.
Yeah, exactly. The unfortunate thing about—I say the unfortunate thing about history—as far as history goes he did that for a long time. Despite the fact that he struggled, he kept doing it. Well into his 30s and 40s he was a war engineer because it was literally the only way he could survive financially. So there is that constant paradox of being a humanist and a pacifist, but also having a temper and pushing his creativity into directions fueled by violence. So it's kind of a weird dichotomy at the center of him.
What do you think he's striving for or hoping for, searching for?
Well, that's the thing. For me, that's what it's all about it is he's always got to have a mission. He's got to have a puzzle he has to unpick. The Book of Leaves is the perfect version of that puzzle because in theory it's about knowledge and it's something that he believes and he wants to know everything. So he believes that that book will have the answer to everything and therefore he can solve it. But also it's so ridiculous a notion that this mystical Book of Leaves may exist in a country on the other side of the world that may or may not exist and he's been told by a man who may or may not exist that it's there. It's the most perfect puzzle. It’s one thing he can't sort out. Everything else—trigonometry—to him is a triviality, but this is something that is actually difficult. The chance to keep fighting until he can prove the rationale and the science behind it is what's driving him.
Do you think that even his search for knowledge is driven by a search for something else?
I think that's exactly it. The search for knowledge is simply a search. It's to keep driving, to keep pushing, to keep exploring and understanding and he just doesn't want anything to beat him. He doesn't want to be beaten by a puzzle or have to go, "You know what, I can't explain this." And that's the biggest version of that. He's blaming his mother.
Finding his mom?
It's the same deal. Yes, it would give him legitimacy that his father never gave him. Yes, it will answer a lot of questions he has about his past and his feelings of abandonment and all that stuff. But ultimately she is another impossible puzzle. He can't remember her face. Everything else he can remember; her he can't, so what could that possibly mean?
What do you think annoys him the most?
Everyone else being so slow. Just having to slow down his mind for the people around him.
It probably is such a burden to be the smartest guy in the room all the time?
Except this season, where suddenly he may not be the smartest man in the room anymore because he's in a culture that doesn't necessarily even understand what he's saying. So it all goes for nothing.
So how was traveling the world?
It's great. I mean the show opens up its horizons massively. And it was always hinted at right in that second episode of the first season where you see the South American map on the wall of his workshop. ... And always that hint was there. It was there and as David [Goyer] said, "There's only so long you can wait. We tell people we're going to South America, so let's go."
And does he end up in Syria this season, too?
I couldn't possibly tell you.
OK, I'll take that as a yes. I love the first episode we see Da Vinci and Riario together. Tell me about that relationship.
Well, that's interesting because they're both on a very similar mission. They both want the same thing, it's just they have different plans with what they're going to do with it once they've got it. And they're kind of the reverse side of the same coin. They're both intelligent. They're both bastards. They're both incredibly driven. They both care far more deeply about their mission than anything else around them. And yet they kind of understand each other while not respecting one another. But certainly in the first season Riario had respect for Da Vinci and it wasn't the other way around. I think this season Da Vinci begins to learn more about Riario and begins to respect him and who he is and why he is who he is a lot more.
Do you think they both feel like they have something to prove?
Oh yes, absolutely. And that illegitimacy must have been such a huge thing at that time anyway. You're in Florence and you're unable to achieve anything and inherit wealth. You're unable to have land. You're unable to be part of any guild. So they're both definitely trying to prove themselves.
In the second episode Leo tells his father to take care of Vanessa and you pat him on the shoulder and say hopefully you'll do a better job with her child. Do you think that his father can still hurt him with cruelty?
Oh yes, I think he really can. I think it just picks at him all the time. It's the one thing that bugs him all the time is that his father will not just allow him space to be who he wants to be and he will not accept him for who he is. But I love doing the scenes with David [Schofield]. Those scenes are great and we have some more good stuff this season.
What's your favorite invention so far?
Well, the ones that I can tell you about, in the beginning—another submarine. I mean it's great. We had various versions of it: ones for outside, ones that we can cut in half to film half-in, half-out. I love it for the fact that it existed and he made it and it was potentially sea worthy. I also like how our set designers made it, how our production designers built it.
The way he figured out how to make it by seeing the eel is cool. Do you like that kind of stuff?
It blows my mind, always, because that kind of connection between nature and science that he believed. For me that's kind of the key to it and the key to Leonardo has always been that he's intensely scientific and intensely logical, but actually he can't resist his passion for things that are caught up in nature and beauty.
It's like anatomy. You go thorugh all his different notebooks, he had pictures of the womb and pictures of internal organs and they're all in black-and-white. And then he comes to one picture where he's done a picture of the fetus in the womb, his version of it, and he couldn't resist sort of painting the fetus red for life. There's no other red in any of those pictures and then there's that moment. And I just think that's kind of who he is. He's kind of turned on by the fact that nature is connected to science in this way.
Tell me about the Turk, I know we see him, but he is he ever real?
What do you think?
I know he's in Leo’s imagination much of the time, but is he going to actually run into flesh and blood the Turk again?
Ummm, hmmm. I would say so. I would say Leonardo might and other people might, too.
Would you hope that he does?
Yeah. I think there are a lot of stories to be told about the Turk in the future and I think that's certainly a plan ahead is to find out who and what he is and why and where he's come from and why this all matters to him so much.
You have a lot of fun new characters this season.
Yeah, we’ve got loads of fun new characters. And some great actors. We got Lee Boardman who plays Amerigo Vespucci, Kierab Bew who's Alfonso the ambidextrous swordsmen, who's a match for a Leonardo finally. And Ima, the high priestess—Carolina Guerra, Colombian actress.
Give me your pitch for the new season.
Oh man. My pitch is generally if you liked the first season you're going to go out absolutely crazy for the second season. And if you didn't like the first season you going to love it anyway because I think we finally found our tone. We found out what the show is, how it works best. I think we got there halfway through the first season. You kind of edge your way in slowly. I hope to think we got that. And it's just like nothing else on TV.
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