"Da Vinci's Demons" premieres on Friday, April 12 at 10 p.m. on Starz after the climactic "Spartacus" finale, leaping forward more than a thousand years from the bloodstained sands of the Roman Republic to the flourishing streets of Florence, to discover a historical figure who is even more iconic, and even more shrouded in mystery.
Many of us know Leonardo da Vinci as an inventor, an artist and a figure who earned Dan Brown a lot of money, but popular culture tends to view him as a wizened old man, thanks to a supposed self-portrait that may not even be his. David Goyer (writer of Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight" trilogy and the upcoming Superman reboot "Man of Steel") aims to dispel that image with his "revisionist" take on the untold life and times of da Vinci, blending extensive research with "historical fantasy" to present a version of the icon that has never been seen before.
"If you believe the biographies, he wasn’t just a genius; he was really good looking; he was known to be a joke-teller and he could do magic tricks; he apparently had a big mouth; manic-depressive; he was thrown in jail a couple of times; he was known to be a very flamboyant dresser," Goyer pointed out during a phone interview with The Huffington Post. "He and Michelangelo -- arguably the two most famous painters in the world -- they hated each other; they physically got into blows with each other on multiple occasions."
In order to portray a man of such contradictions, Goyer needed "somebody that was brilliant and dashing, and he was known to be a good swordsman and known to be a good horse rider. [The actor] had to have all of those things but also be a little manic and crazy, and [da Vinci] could be kind of an asshole sometimes." In British actor Tom Riley, Goyer said, he found all that and more. "We saw a lot of people before Tom walked through the door and when he did, there was just no question that we had found the right guy. Tom is going to become a major star."
Riley -- a 32-year-old LAMDA graduate best known for scene-stealing supporting roles in British series such as "Monroe" and "Lost in Austen" -- told The Huffington Post that what primarily attracted him to the role was "the chance to play a character that everyone has an idea about, but who actually has a whole period of his life that they know nothing about."
The most intimidating aspect, Riley said, was the "fierce nature of our historians, who [base] a lot of their ideas, quite rightly, on the very sober painting of da Vinci that exists -- speculative biographies that have painted him as a serious, celibate man ... I don't think we do a disservice to that element, but we also show a man who ... must have had a mind that was dangerous and out there; to be a humanist in a world run by the Catholic Church; to be a vegetarian where everyone ate meat; to fly in the face of every rule and regulation that you’d expect ... He probably had to have been a bit of a rock star and then people wouldn’t have liked him ... So it’s funny, the idea that we have re-imagined him, and it’s wrong. David’s research has been so exhaustive."
"I’m not saying if you watch this show you will be getting PhD in history," Goyer said with a laugh. "I love doing research and I think it’s important when we deviate from history to know what we’re deviating from, but I feel like myself and the artists have a pretty good handle on what really did happen. A lot of the show is real and virtually all the characters in the show are real, and the basic relationships are real. A lot of the inventions are real ... But one of the first lines in the first episode is, 'History is a lie,' and that’s sort of me winking at the audience and saying, 'We’re going to mess with you a little bit.'"
Goyer also pointed out that "history is interpretive and it’s often written by the winners or the survivors ... And in the case of da Vinci, there’s a lot of legitimate debate about things regarding him anyway: No one knows who his mother was to this day. His sexuality is still in question and there’s a lot discrepancy about where he was or what he was doing between the ages of 27 and 32 -- there are these missing years. So I feel that those gaps also allow a creator a certain amount of latitude, and give them freedom to create."
Since the promotional trailers have shown da Vinci in bed with a woman, some have speculated that, much like the controversial 2004 movie interpretation of Alexander the Great's life, the producers might be attempting to downplay speculation about da Vinci's sexual orientation.
"The fact of the matter is that he was put on trial for sodomy twice, and given that was such a big event in his life and was documented, I think we would be doing the character and the show a disservice if we didn’t delve into it," Goyer insisted.
"It’s kind of funny because we showed the first trailer and the reaction was, “Oh my God. He’s having sex with a woman!" Clearly, that’s it," Riley laughed. "It’s a flash of something and trust me, there are flashes of other things. They’re just not in the trailer."
Still, da Vinci was also rumored to have his share of female lovers as well. "He certainly knew Lucrezia Donati. Nobody knows if they were ever together, and supposedly one his lovers was the Duchess of Milan, and various other people. And the woman -- whose name escapes me right now -- who was possibly the identity of the Mona Lisa," Goyer observed.
"There’s no mention of any lovers particularly, male or female, in his entire diary," Riley pointed out. "I find that fascinating -- that either there’s no mention because he was some kind of renaissance Morrissey or because something about that was so painful he got rid of it all, which is far more dramatically interesting to us anyway."
In preparation for the role, Riley said, "I did immerse myself in the stuff that existed -- the designs and the exhibitions and the paintings and the art and the anatomy and dissections, and what kind of feverish mind can create those?"
Because da Vinci was also reportedly ambidextrous, Riley trained with nunchucks to strengthen his left hand, enabling him to fight, paint and handle a sword as da Vinci would've. "I thought, 'he’s a guy who lives completely passionately from his head to his toes so I may as well do as much as I can with the [physical] stuff," he said, admitting he was inspired by a friend who uses his hands to express himself in ways that words can't always encapsulate when conceiving some of da Vinci's restless movements.
The series is particularly timely given that the Catholic Church has just instated a new Pope -- since the church, and specifically Pope Sixtus, will play "a major role" in the series, according to Goyer. "The church, at least in the first season, is kind of the primary antagonist of the show. People have to understand is the church that existed then is not the same church that exists now, and [the] papal state was effectively a country ... And they really did go to war with Florence and they went as far as excommunicate every citizen of Florence about a year after our show first started," he said. "Pope Sixtus was a very controversial figure. He fathered a lot illegitimate children and there were rumors that he was a homosexual himself, and he started the secret archives. There were some very good Popes and actually Sixtus did some interesting things, but he was also very avaricious, in my opinion."
Ultimately, Goyer said, he finds himself drawn to writing about "mythic" figures, whether fictional like Batman or Superman, or historical but shrouded in mystery like da Vinci. "I like writing those kind of characters but I seem to have fallen into something where I also like writing about missing years or the missing moments or the gaps in those characters' narratives," he said. "Obviously this budget on our show is not as big as 'Man of Steel' ... that having been said, I think our scope on the show is quite big and I think most people are surprised by how big it feels."
As a self-proclaimed comic fan, Goyer has admitted that he sees da Vinci as an early precursor to some of the genius superheroes and adventurers he's spent much of his career writing about, and recalled, "my first memory of da Vinci -- before I even knew that he had painted the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper -- I remember reading somewhere that Bob Kane, the creator of Batman, had based Batman’s cape on da Vinci’s glider. I remember thinking, ‘who is this da Vinci guy?’ So I came to da Vinci first as an 8-year-old, that he was this crazy inventor that Batman stole something from, and then learned that he was the world’s greatest artist, so that was kind of fascinating."
Regardless of the time period, "Da Vinci's Demons" proves that Goyer is still drawn to heroes with stories worth telling, and continues to tell them unlike anyone else.
"Da Vinci's Demons" premieres Friday, April 12 at 10 p.m. ET, before moving to its regular timeslot on April 19 at 9 p.m. ET on Starz.