Defining Da Vinci: Tom Riley Previews This Week’s Revealing Episode

How do you define a man who fights being defined, especially when it comes to his sexuality? As evident from the comments regularly left on TheBacklot’s coverage of the Starz series Da Vinci’s Demons, it’s a question many of you definitively want answered. Like, now.

If there’s an episode in the series’ first season that approaches this subject more than any other, it’s this week’s “The Tower.” The episode revolves around Da Vinci’s imprisonment on sodomy charges and the infamous trial that urges him to defend himself for his accused acts or else lose the one thing he relishes more than anything – freedom. (In case you missed it, we posted an Exclusive Clip from the trial yesterday.)

But, for those who have been hankering for that answer to the sexuality question, will there be satisfaction after this episode or more frustration?

Tom Riley, who plays Da Vinci, took time out from his first week of shooting Season 2 of the series to tell us how he played Leonardo differently in this episode as well as his thoughts of how Da Vinci’s sexuality has been portrayed on the show thus far and the online comments that the actor is well aware of.  (To keep from spoiling much of the episode, the second part of the interview with Riley as well as series creator David S. Goyer will post Monday on The Backlot.)

The Backlot: Your performance of a very unhinged Da Vinci in this episode is fantastic. How was playing him in this episode different from others?

Tom Riley: Thank you! It was a blast to finally let go. For the first four episodes I’d been very gently seeding the slightly more out-there elements of his personality, in the knowledge that a borderline insane lead character would get old very quickly – whether that madness was a divine gift or otherwise – whilst at the same time not wanting to neglect the notion that a man of his extraordinary intellect is probably only putting on the act of being on a similar plane to the rest of us.

At moments of boredom, or frustration, or self-absorption in those episodes, I tried to let the occasional spark of madness peek through, whilst still endeavoring not to alienate the audience too much. The eye and speech tics, the sudden bursts of anger, the pomposity, the misplaced glee and lack of social grace that have always bubbled under any pretense of charm suddenly rise completely and unapologetically to the surface when Leonardo has nothing left to lose, and only his sense of righteous indignation to cling to.

TBL: Is he truly mad at this point or is this just part of his overall plan?

TR: Bear in mind that he has been in jail for a few weeks. And this is a man who wished ‘to fly, be free of this world,’ who had an almost obsession with repeatedly releasing birds from their cages, to allow them their liberty. I decided that he wasn’t necessarily any more mad than he’d always been, but any misguided attempt to deprive him of freedom would exacerbate any of those latent tendencies. Should that manifestation appear wildly unhinged to others, and therefore perversely aid his overall plan, then that benefit would certainly not be lost on a man as bright as Leonardo.

TBL: We finally get to the sodomy trial. Will we get answers to our questions in regards to your character’s sexuality?

TR: I hope so. This is an incredibly important issue to me, and the online vitriol regarding ‘straight-washing’ has been very tough to read. Personally, I think it’s a little reductive to insist on labeling or claiming someone who spent his entire life trying to overthrow anything that was perceived as limiting – trying to defy constraint, both scientifically, mathematically and artistically – and I truly believe that would have extended to every other aspect of his life as well.

Indeed, a great deal has been made of an almost asexual quote he made at the end of his life, describing the act of intercourse as disgusting. Personally, I’ve dismissed a lot of things at 30 that I reveled in at 20. Who knows what I’ll think of that 20 year old’s behavior when I’m 60? Perhaps the most interesting thing is to consider what kind of hurtful events may have occurred in between to lead someone to make a statement such as that, which some could interpret as painfully damaged – regardless of which gender it’s aimed at.

This is a potential goldmine in our exploration of the youthful version of Leo. Hopefully we address any concerns about Da Vinci’s Demons’ depiction of this Leonardo’s sexuality in a way that is satisfactory and respectful to any historical speculation, although I am more than aware, from the level of anger I’ve witnessed online, that it’s a fire which will be hard to dampen, as I’m sure the comments thread below this interview will prove… [Note: Riley left a note earlier today in regards to the comments left on this piece in order to clarify what he said during the interview. See end of this article.]

TBL: Da Vinci’s father ends up defending him during the trial. How does that go with dear old Dad?

TR: Piero is Lorenzo’s notary, and Lorenzo himself, as ruler of Florence, can’t be seen as getting involved with anything as inflammatory and embarrassing as a sodomy trial. So Leonardo’s father is tasked with representing him, something that doesn’t sit well with either of them. But whether they like it or not, they are father and son, and connected on a very basic human level, which is something they may come to realize more clearly during the course of the trial.

TBL: Lucrezia is present at the trial. Will we see the trial negatively affect their relationship?

TR: As it stands, their relationship isn’t necessarily the most conventional. He is certainly intrigued by her and drawn to her, and she the same with him. Leonardo is not necessarily a man inclined towards being tied down, and despite the fact they are unequivocally falling for each other, he is yet to entirely decipher her mystery.

As long as he is unable to piece together her puzzle, he can’t fully give himself over to whatever his heart is telling him. In answer to your question, the trial may indirectly have a negative effect on their relationship – but Lucrezia is already guilty of a huge amount of things that could indirectly throw a grenade into the middle of any burgeoning connection they may have.

TBL: This sounds like a very heavy episode. Is there some levity or a dash of humor at all, as the show has balanced quite well thus far.

TR: Always. As well as a subplot involving Giuliano’s attempts to mount a theatrical production in Florence, the show features a lot of the brilliant Gregg Chillin as Zoroaster, who could bring laughs to a suicide scene. Also, if you think that Leonardo has concocted a lot of ridiculous solutions to his predicaments up to this point, then this is perhaps his craziest, most unapologetically outrageous and laugh-out-loud master plan yet. Madness kicks the roof off of his self-defined limits, which were already higher than most.

Tom Riley Greg Chillin
Riley with Greg Chillin as Zoroaster

TBL: Bats play an important part in the episode. Is there a symbolic reason for  that?

TR: Bats have the ability to fly far above the earth, but even then find themselves drawn back to the shadows and darkness. It’s very rare for David [Goyer, Exec Producer] to include something that doesn’t have multiple levels of meaning. Even if he doesn’t let us in on it. It’s also worth mentioning two things. One, is that from the very first moment Leonardo sees a bat in the jail, his plan begins. And secondly, something I didn’t know, but Leonardo does – bat guano contains phosphorous, which in the right conditions can be quite volatile…

TBL: You’re starting to shoot Season 2. As much as you’ve spent in Da Vinci’s skin this past year, is there more for you (and us) to learn.

TR: Absolutely. Hopefully the Leonardo that ends Season One is a slightly different one to the man who began it. But his quest isn’t over yet, and there’s still plenty of room for him to grow from the cocky arrogant character he was claimed to be in his youth, to the wise and philosophical elder statesman so often recognized in the legacy he left behind.

[Here is what Tom Riley left in the comments section of this interview earlier today.]

Hello everyone. Thank you for your heartfelt and honest responses to this interview. Having read through the comment thread, I wanted to take a moment to respond to your concerns directly and personally, as I agree with you – the interview above does come across as a little angry and affronted on the page – and I promise you that certainly wasn’t what I felt when answering. Instead, when I said that it ’was tough to read’ the online criticism, I was referring to how distressing it was to feel that I could potentially be involved in a portrayal that could cause any upset or anxiety to anyone. That is truly the last thing I would ever want. I promise. Although you may have inferred otherwise, I do, of course, completely understand why the notion of ’straight-washing’ a man many believe was gay, bisexual or asexual could be perceived as offensive or misguided, and I would never dream of dismissing it – but please bear in mind that I was answering from a position of knowing what’s coming, and I sincerely hope that you will watch tomorrow night and see how we attempt to tackle an issue that is (sadly) still an incredibly difficult one for mainstream US drama – particularly when it involves the lead, as some of you have already noted. This response is written with the deepest respect, and great admiration for your passionate defence of this issue. It is one that matters hugely to me. I know this claim won’t necessarily alleviate your concerns, but I do want you to know that someone within the production understands and sympathises with them. The second half of this interview, when posted next week, may shed more light on exactly how much. With my very best wishes and support. Tom Riley ]

Da Vinci’s Demons airs Fridays at 10pm on Starz.