Irish actor Aidan Turner brings da Vinci’s character to life in the new biographical web series, Leonardo
The actor opens up about the pressure and challenges that come with portraying the polymath
In 2016, Aidan Turner became an instant tabloid heartthrob in the UK. The scything scene in the British historical drama Poldark, in which he appeared shirtless, sent the audience’s pulse-rate racing, and it is also believed that this made him one of the top favourites to play the next Bond. Five years later, The Hobbit actor is back in the news, this time for a web series that released just ahead of the Renaissance painter Leonardo da Vinci’s birthday on April 15, that is celebrated globally as World Art Day. Aidan plays the title role of the genius painter in Leonardo, an eight-part series that’s streaming on Sony LIV in India.
Unlike his sexy avatar as the rugged Captain Ross Vennor Poldark, or the lovable dwarf Kili in the Peter Jackson fantasy series, the actor plays a dimensionally different and intense role as the master artist. The series features Giancarlo Giannini as da Vinci’s mentor the renowned painter Verrocchio, and Matilda De Angelis (of The Undoing fame) is cast as Caterina de Cremona, the painter’s muse and best friend. Shot in Italy before and during the pandemic in 2020, the series recreates the 15th century era with its aesthetically designed sets, and stunning visuals of some of the historical buildings in the country. The narrative explores the lesser-known side of the master painter — his relationships, his conflicts and his naivety.
Aidan delivers this poignant role with his nuanced acting, and attempts to give the audience an insight into what Leonardo da Vinci would have been like. On a Zoom call from Canada, the actor tells us more about the objective behind the making of Leonardo, the preparation for his role, and why there can never be anyone like Leonardo da Vinci.
We know a lot about Leonardo da Vinci, the artist but very little is known about him as a person. During your research for the role, what did you learn about him?
We don’t know much about the emotional core of this person. But we have his great artworks and notebooks. We know him as an engineer, philosopher, inventor, painter, botanist and anatomist, we know what drove him creatively. But emotionally, how did he figure out his life, it’s hard to know, there’s very little documentation on this. Some people spoke about him, and it’s quite brief. I guess in this sense a lot of it is imagined. I read the biographies, and I discovered more about his unconventional childhood. He was raised by his grandparents, and not parents and he had quite a fraught relationship with his father. He wasn’t schooled conventionally, either. He was admitted to (Andrea del) Verrocchio’s (Italian painter and sculptor) workshop quite early, he did have this talent (of drawing and painting) and he was talked about quite a lot. He wasn’t in those kinds of circles, so he must have been very talented (to be talked about). He got famous and wealthy quite young — these were things I didn’t know. So putting all these pieces together, I imagined what this character would have been like. The show highlights many aspects about his personality... We look at how confident he was as a young artist, and show his work as a teenager. We also look at his vulnerabilities, and his sexuality. All these things have come together to form the character that I eventually play. It’s a huge mountain when you think of playing this genius, it’s almost impossible. We tried to find the emotional core of this genius and that’s what we’ve set out to achieve.
People believe he lived his best life. But according to the series, this isn’t entirely true. What do you think was the most tragic aspect of his life?
In our story we figure that he didn’t have a very happy upbringing. Trust is one of the themes we focus on because maybe he found it hard to trust people. When he couldn’t trust his family, why would he trust anyone else in his early life either. So, that must have been hard for him. As an artist too he was vulnerable. He was quite young when he started showing his work to people, it must have been quite hard. I think he found all these things quite difficult.
What were the most challenging aspects of this role?
There are difficult moments, always. It’s easy to focus on the character and approach them as a real person. But when you think of all the noise around him, when people keep saying, ‘Leonardo da Vinci, the genius of all time’ — this can become intimidating. You can’t really play a genius, and particularly not a genius of this calibre. I am playing him as a person and what we really do is to unravel this person emotionally, and understand what motivates him, drives him, and how do other people perceive him. There were different challenges, like for example he was left handed. It sounds trivial but if you are playing one of the great painters, you want it to be authentic. I am a right-handed person, so that was the first thing I worked on. It may not be a big deal for many, but I wanted to be as real as possible. So, anything I wrote down, I did it with my left hand, and I wanted to adapt to using it. This happened quite quickly, all the painting I did on the show was with my left hand. I was trying to be proficient at something that I am not proficient at, but I kept training during workshops. Focusing on the person and not the genius felt like the right thing to start with.
People say da Vinci was ahead of his time. What do you think made him so special?
A lot of things make him interesting even to this day. It’s not just his paintings, he was an engineer, an anatomist, a botanist, and he was an incredible sculptor and philosopher. I guess his relationship with beauty and nature, and his belief that beauty is in the truth and truth is in nature — that’s what he wanted to capture. Michelangelo, another artistic genius, saw beauty very differently — his subjects would strike certain old Greek and Roman poses. These things famously irritated Leonardo da Vinci and he didn’t find that truthful, hence he didn’t find it beautiful. Leonardo being the amazing observer that he was, went to nature a lot to inspire himself, he was obsessed with detail, and the greatest details were in the life he saw around and not in things that one imagined. He was a relentless observer.
Do you think you are similar to Leonardo’s character?
He was very interested in everything around him. Just imagine him standing in a stream and observing how water moved around his feet for hours together. I don’t know if I can do that, maybe I will read about it in a couple of paragraphs. This is just one of the many differences between him and me. And of course, his work as a painter, I got to see his paintings up close, they are extraordinary, they are like some high definition photographs and more beautiful. He is one of the most extraordinary people to have ever lived and that’s why he was so different.
We heard you paint as well. How did that start?
I had a chance to paint over the last one year, and I have been painting a lot these days. Painting is one of the things I really like to do. There was something about being in costume for The Hobbit. That’s when I started painting. I was in heavy armour all day, running around fighting, there was something liberating about painting over the weekend, reclaiming your own time and space, which was very different from the work day, so this encouraged me to paint.
Do you feel you did your character justice?
As an actor you always feel you can do more. We have eight hours of the show, I could have done 20. If the scripts were there, I could keep going. He seems like a character who just keeps giving you more and more. At some stage you have to stop and say ‘the work here is done.’ I think I did justice but it’s hard to know. People around you seem happy but I think I will always be underwhelmed by me. You want to do more all the time. I watch the show and I always see more opportunity for interesting approaches that I didn’t think of on that day of shooting, so that’s disappointing sometimes. I have to believe that I did the best I could do on that day.