As a bonus feature, Katherine Fowler returns to the blog with a very special guest…

Interview with a Maestro: Tom Riley on playing Leonardo da Vinci on the autistic spectrum

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After my guest post on Autistic Spectrum Disorders, I was bowled over by the positive responses from readers, and even more staggered when Tom Riley, who plays Leonardo da Vinci on Da Vinci’s Demons, saw the post and confirmed our speculations about Leonardo being on the spectrum.

Tom generously agreed to answer a few questions about portraying a character on the autistic spectrum. Not only did he agree, readily and enthusiastically, but he has provided some incredibly thoughtful and insightful comments. So thank you, Tom, and I hope you all find the following Q&A as fascinating as I did…

Where did the inspiration for writing/playing Leonardo on the spectrum come from?

As I was researching his life before we kicked off the first season – reading both speculative biographies, and deconstructions of his work – there seemed to be a widely held assumption that his mind didn’t work in a ‘normal’ way. Not only was his struggle for perfection absolutely overwhelming, he saw the world through a different prism than most of us. Lots of different modern psychiatric evaluations were ascribed to him in these various writings – be it Attention Deficit Disorder, OCD or hyperactivity. His own letters and journals were single-minded, obsessive, and seemingly lacking in social grace or understanding. Alongside this, his genius was undeniable.

In modern parlance, someone of that incredible scope of mind, who at the same time was incapable or completely uninterested in interacting with society in a way that is deemed acceptable wouldn’t necessarily be ascribed the label ‘genius’. More likely they’d be recognised as a savant. However, we have no real way of knowing for sure to what level Leonardo’s autism expressed itself, and Vasari’s biography of him (the one written closest to Leonardo’s life, with first-hand accounts) is in absolute awe of his charm and charisma, so it was likely that if he needed to ‘turn on’ a social persona he was capable, but it just didn’t seem to be something that particularly interested him, nor was it his natural state.

His journals are a curious mix of the utterly obsessive and arrogant, yet later in life many inspirational and humanistic quotes are ascribed to him. That in itself was a paradox insofar as where to pitch his personality/level of autism in the first few episodes, both for myself, the producers and the editors. How much can we deliver a quirky impenetrable genius, and how much do we want to present a primetime lead? His life seemed to potentially allow both.

Was having Leonardo on the spectrum something that had been decided on Day One, or was it something that evolved as you went along?

I was very clear that it was an element I wanted to include from before I started. Indeed, I remember doing a version in the audition that was so far in that direction it was clear that there was no way that character could sustain as a lead. I’d argue that that is much of the problem with the character in the first few episodes of the first season. Obviously it’s a glossy US drama so the urge was to dress him sexily, with the body on show and the haircut and stubble. Unfortunately this doesn’t necessarily fit with how people (sometimes wrongly) tend to perceive the autistic – despite that actually being relatively close to Vasari’s physical description of him. As a result, his behaviour comes across as a bit of a douche-bag. Someone who looks like that, and has that massive intellect, behaving in such a manner is just inherently unlikeable as it doesn’t look like a syndrome, it looks like an attitude.

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However, as the story progresses and the physical element of Leonardo begins to become more of a fact and less of a statement (particularly around episode 5 of the first season, where the tics and social awkwardness come right to the fore when he is imprisoned, whilst simultaneously the hair is messed up and face disguised with the beard) people began to recognise that it may be a personality disorder rather than a too-cool-for-school approach to life. I stuck to my guns, but that’s not to say there weren’t days I wanted to abandon it in favour of something more conventional.

As far as evolution was concerned, I’ve been trying to do something very slow-burn that began in the first season and continues throughout the second. As with many Asperger’s patients, Leonardo is prone to explosions of rage and passion. His mind is chaotic and his emotion tends to release itself primarily when related to his work or his quest or perceived sleights against him. As he progresses (and this is partially inspired by those empathetic quotes from later in his life) that same emotion will also begin to be piqued by more human moments as well, as he comes to a gradual understanding of his need or desire, or indeed understanding and love, for the people around him. That may deviate from the limitations an autistic mind can place on its owners’ emotional maturity – but it’s the trade necessary to help a character grow throughout a piece of entertainment whilst also coming from a worthy place as far as research into the actual man’s legacy is concerned.

You mentioned you spent time with Asperger’s patients in preparation for playing Leonardo. Could you say a little more about what you did/what you learnt?

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One thing that I picked up on, which is something that I think splits viewers, is the finger movements. One particular patient had a twitch that he had picked up when doing addition as a child, moving an invisible abacus with his hands. As he had got older, the twitch remained whenever he was confused or trying to figure something out. This felt like the perfect thing to appropriate into the character as it also solved another problem – how to portray a restless man, incapable of settling on one project, with a chaotic inner life and inability to focus, on screen without exhausting the audience. By having the hands in motion whilst the rest of the body was still we were killing two birds with one stone. Because it is invariably isolated (camera operators and editors know something potentially iconic when they see it) it’s not as subtle as I’d like, and I toned it down a bit in the second season, but it still stands as an example of something gleaned from someone on the spectrum and added to the palette.

Another thing that I saw a bit in Asperger’s patients, which research has proved can be prevalent amongst the highly functioning, and which few viewers seem to have picked up on, is Leonardo’s vocal tic. It’s a very light stammer that I’ve seeded throughout the series and it only ever comes to the fore when he is in an extremely tight spot, frustrated or excited – and always to do with his quest and anything potentially getting in the way of it. Another similar thing I’ve utilised, and one that is a little more visible, is the violent blink of the eyes when under similar pressure or emotional turmoil.

Is there any particular moment that sticks in your mind where Leonardo is being particularly autistic?

Hopefully there’s something different in every episode, but seeing as we’re at this point in the UK currently, episode 4 of the second season has some good examples. Initially we see Leonardo single-mindedly obsessed with figuring out the stars, completely missing the fact that he is potentially putting everyone in mortal peril, whilst at the same time completely missing the jokes being made around him or levelled at him (this tends to be a habit for him, I try and only let Leonardo appreciate the humour in something that will help his own aims or when he makes the joke himself). He has a burst of temper, and reacts to the news that they may be in trouble with irritation rather than concern.

Later we see him come to life as he ‘teaches’ the slaves his primitive (and as it turns out, wrong) understanding of how the night sky works. This is the stuff that excites him, that seems the most important whilst his friends remain unmoved. Here too, I tried to employ some of that Vasari-approved charm he only ever tends to use when he needs something. Then, in his furious, emotional argument with Zo he boils himself up into a rage over something quest related. Note he’s more angry about the Book of Leaves than he is about Zo’s accusations regarding the slaves. Ultimately, it is only Zo’s dismissal of his artistic abilities that pricks him.

Although its catalyst is another sleight on his true nature, this, for me, is an important moment in the evolution of Leonardo as I was describing earlier – when he begins to feel traces of emotion relating to his human connections – this time with Zo – and not just his potentially inhuman direction. To try and demonstrate this, as he sits, I employed a very slight vocal tic on the line “I understand w-why th-they don’t trust me”… However, when the revelation as to the true nature of the universe occurs, the real source of what drives his passion comes back to the forefront, and he lies on the deck in tears. However, as we see when he gets back to his feet with Zo, elements of that VERY gradually evolving ‘humanity’ still remain.

One of the principle components of the autistic spectrum is the struggle with socialising appropriately. Was this something that was on your mind when playing Leonardo, interacting with other characters?

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Very much so. And hopefully it’s not as frustrating for the other actors as I sometimes worry it might be. The unpredictability of thought and spontaneity can sometimes be a bit annoying to play opposite I’d imagine. Traditionally as an actor I like to give the other characters as much support in scenes as possible, but sometimes Leonardo is going in a completely different direction to everyone else, and therefore I’ll take on other traits – a lack of eye-contact, inappropriate lightness of touch during something sombre or vice-versa, or a very quiet volume of dialogue as Leonardo concentrates on something he believes nobody else in the scene will understand.

Sometimes he will be intensely inappropriate when around authority or in public, and sometimes he will completely misunderstand what another person needs emotionally. But that latter concern is something the struggles he will confront in the future, or has already confronted, may confound, or at the very least, force him to open his mind and heart to. This is artistic licence, or autistic licence, perhaps – but the show has taken far wilder leaps in other areas, and as long as I force myself to stay on a track that at least pays tribute to the character’s arc, as well as my research into any potential social disorders that he may have been afflicted with, then hopefully I can keep him as grounded (and yet still unusual) as possible whilst the world he inhabits gets increasingly fantastical…


Tom Riley Headshot

You can watch Tom in Da Vinci’s Demons on Fox UK on Fridays @ 10pm BST and on Starz TV on Saturdays @ 9pm ET/PT.

Follow him on Twitter – @thisisTomRiley.

1 Comment

  • Anne

    Brilliant interview, brilliant actor who is open-minded enough to have listened to the autistic mind and got it. As an Asperger autistic myself I totally relate to his answers. Thank you for that interview and for conveying intelligent information about autism.

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