Leonardo da Vinci (Tom Riley), Lucrezia Donati (Laura Haddock) in "Da Vinci's Demons"

History celebrates a grey and long-bearded Leonardo da Vinci more as a famous painter of priceless works like the Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, The Vitruvian Man and Lady with an Ermine. But he was so much more and creator-producer David S Goyer explores a youthful, rebellious, fearless, imaginative and sexually curious Da Vinci in his renaissance drama TV series, Da Vinci’s Demons, on Fox. Debashine Thangevelo attended the press junket in Florence Italy, and got the lowdown on Goyer’s ambitious decision to tell this particular story, while chatting with Tom Riley about inhabiting this anarchic historical icon who, in being a bastard, shares more in common with his arch-rival Count Girolamo Riario (played by Blake Ritson)…

DAVID S GOYER – Creator/Producer

ART HISTORIANS – and Italians, to some extent – will find fault in Goyer’s renaissance drama, Da Vinci’s Demons. The Hollywood creator, noted for his work on Blade, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, Man of Steel and The Invisible Man, isn’t afraid of any backlash.

“It’s hard to say – maybe 70 percent is real,” he shares.

“Look, I’m not anti-catholic. I’m not trying to criticise the Vatican. You have to understand that the people governing the states of Renaissance Italy were not the same organisation that it is today.

“There were many disreputable figures who were popes in that era, not the least of which were the Borgias. Pope Sixtus IV, I’m not sure was the nicest guy. During his reign he fathered many illegitimate children. He is said to have turned a nunnery into a brothel,” Goyle informs me.

What is most admirable about the writer and producer is his passion for his work. He is also unapologetic and quite candid about his creative liberties.

And what the affable and lean Goyle lacks in height, he certainly makes up for with his wit and unadulterated charm. And he is pretty artful when responding to controversial questions from the media.

Given his affliction for superheroes, Goyle was asked what drew him to Da Vinci’s life story.

He says: “I think there have been so many myths and exaggerations that have sprung up about Leonardo that I think he isn’t dissimilar from these characters (Batman and Superman)… they’re all Messianic in a way.

“My experience on FlashFoward and The Dark Knight certainly helped me with video games. But I’m not sure the video games helped me with Da Vinci’s Demons.

“I think my experience with comic books helped me, certainly my experience adapting Batman and Superman. With them, there was a large body of work, stories and knowledge. You can get lost in all the details. You have to decide which elements to talk about and focus on,” he says.

In trying to soak up as much as he could about Da Vinci, Goyle says he was fortunate enough to land an invite from the British Museum.

He shares: “I like history and research. In the course of researching this show, I was invited by the British Museum to go into their research room and go through their rare documents and handle some of Leonardo’s manuscripts. It’s a nice perk of what I get to do.”

Why Tom Riley for the lead role?

“He was the best actor,” he says matter-of-factly.

“He just came in and nailed it. I know he isn’t Mediterranean- looking. I thought he embodied all of the conflicting aspects of Leonardo the most. I mean, Leonardo is known for being very witty and funny and he also had a lot of darkness in him. Tom seemed to have it all.”

Commenting on Da Vinci’s strained relationship with his father, he reveals: “What’s most fascinating was he had this very complex relationship with his father. I did not have a good relationship with my father.

“They didn’t get along very well. He wrote a letter to his father, on the birth of his father’s legitimate son, and it is a vicious letter. I mean, just vicious.

“Originally, in the first draft of the first episode, I used the words from that letter verbatim in the scene, where his father is having this meeting. And the studio thought it was too extreme. They had me tone it down.”

Goyer admits he approached the story from the angle of this rejection. He admits: “You could argue one of the reasons he is trying to do everything he is doing is to get the acceptance of his father. In a way, the show is about two bastards – Leonardo and Count Riario.”

And there is also Da Vinci’s quest for the Book of Leaves that becomes the backdrop to the series.

TOM RILEY

Leonardo da Vinci

A DEMANDING role, this certainly is. But Riley welcomes the challenge.

The British actor is known for his stage work and a few TV and film credits. But Da Vinci’s Demons is his breakthrough role.

Looking fresh in blue denim jeans and a shirt, Riley is nothing like his character and the spiralling darkness that consumes him.

A comment about him being a sex symbol gets me a smile.

“I wouldn’t say I’m a sex symbol in Britain,” he laughs. “I started acting quite late. I got into drama school and by the time I started I was about 25 or 26. I have done predominantly film, TV and stage and a few things in America. But nothing quite like this.”

This series introduces viewers to a conflicted 25-year-old Da Vinci. At the same time, he is filled with theories and invents things beyond his time. He defies authority. In fact, he abhors it. While he has a tendency to be withdrawn, he can also be charming. And he manages to wheedle his way into the The House of Medici.

His sexuality is also explored in the series, as is his affair with Lucrezia Donati (the mistress of Lorenzo Medici).

Of the sex scenes Riley says: “There is nothing comfortable about those scenes. You are naked in a room that is very cold. With, in our case, a camera man – breathing very deeply. So it doesn’t lend itself to the sexiest feelings in the world. But you get on it with it.

“Laura (Haddock) – who bears an uncanny resemblance to Angelina Jolie – and I knew we had to be very physical with each other a lot of the time. Four months before we started shooting, we spent a lot of time together.”

Now he plays a youthful version of the old and bearded historical figure we know.

He continues: “He got to that stage because he had once been a young man. The story is just the other way around. I thought his journey was the most beautiful thing. He has this brain, but he isn’t wise yet.”

Shedding more light on his character, Riley offers: “He can’t sit still. His mind is constantly flitting – an almost Attention Deficit Disorder. There is a borderline autism in that he is socially inept and, at the same time, he can be charming enough to wangle his way through things we know he did.

“His personality was a mass of contradictions. Who he was, what he did… was extraordinary.

“He is quite anarchic. In his case we should probably have respect for what a dangerous line he walked to do what he did. Despite being illegitimate, despite having no formal education, he refused to let it limit him.”

There might be mixed sentiments about Riley in the role, but he is sexy, compelling and entertaining. And the scenes in which his character is besieged by his thoughts and quest for perfection, confirm why he was chosen for this role.

“I love the scene towards the end of the first episode where Leonardo says: ‘Anything that can be dreamt of, can be’.

“We wanted to make an adventure based in this historical world. So a renaissance kind of adventure,” he reveals.

BLAKE RITSON

Count Girolamo Riario

RITSON had everyone eating out of the palm of his hand. Aside from his disarming smile and knack for cracking a joke or two, it was his fluent Italian that bowled them over.

Talk, dark-haired and handsome – he is engaged ladies, sorry – this is the first time he has slipped into such a dark role. Although he is no stranger to period sagas.

Just a quick background of his character. Count Riario is the bastard son of Pope Sixtus IV, but is referred to as his nephew. Faithful to the Holy Roman Church, he leads the rebellion to topple the Medicis.

While his cause comes from a righteous place, his brutal actions are anything but. “He is essentially a ruthless bastard. He is the illegitimate son of the pope.

“I remember chatting to David the day before we kicked off and I hadn’t seen that many of the scripts and just captured him as a villain. He (David) said: ‘No, he is not the villain. He is the nemesis of Leonard and the pioneer antagonist. But he is not the villain because he is driven from such a pure belief of the divine’.

“In quite an amoral universe, he is probably the character with the strongest conviction. He considers himself to be this kind of crusader, a soldier of God who is out to save souls and Florence from itself.

“He is almost like a religiously motivated terrorist and I think that is what is so utterly terrifying about him. He can justify just about anything. He has this incredible fortitude. I mean, can you imagine having the pope as your father – the representative of God on Earth?”

Of his character’s callous actions, he explains: “He takes no joy in cruelty. It isn’t part of his methodology. They are just collateral damage.”

As for Riario’s conflict with Da Vinci, Ritson speculates: “Right from the start, there are real parallels between the two of them. They are quite kindred spirits.

“They are, intelligence-wise, the only two who are a match. They both have horrid fathers. They are both illegitimate. They are both trying to carve their way into the world and searching for the truth. They are just coming from such polar opposite extremes. They constantly clash. You can imagine, a different world and a different context, they would probably get along really well.”

Reflecting on a scene that probably best explains this, he recalls: “One of my favourite episodes is episode two, which is my first meeting with Leonardo. When it begins, I just want an answer. I had written him off as a small pawn and, during the course of the scene, I tried blackmail, I tried bribery, I tried to befriend him and, by the end of it, I realise our fates are inextricably entwined and I absolutely need him. I want him to be my ally. I want to go into partnership with him. The idea of being snubbed sets us on a disastrous road.”

Comparing their relationship to the Chinese game Go, he says: “It is a great metaphor for how Leonardo and I work. You are not thinking one move ahead or two, you are thinking 10 moves ahead.

“In a world where people are acting very spontaneously, combusting and with violent actions, the two of us are looking at a much bigger game within these kind of political mutineers trying to outdo each other.”

Drawn together by their backgrounds, but torn apart by their objectives, Da Vinci’s conflict with Count Riario is but one of many in Da Vinci’s Demons, where the lines between fact and fiction blur at times.

• Da Vinci’s Demons airs on Fox (DStv channel 125 and TopTV channel 180) tonight at 9.45pm.