Kent-born, English actor Tom Riley spent his early years writing and directing plays before formally studying English literature and drama at the University of Birmingham. After graduating in 2002, Tom embarked on a project setting up a small theatre company (Article 19) before deciding to return to education at the prestigious LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art).
After graduating from his Professional Acting Course in 2005, Tom secured parts in the notable Royal Court theatre in London – playing the character Frank Rice, in Sir David Hare’s The Entertainer (as part of the Court’s Look Back: 50 readings, 50 writers, 50 years series) – which was quickly followed by various roles in TV and Film.
Last year was dedicated to filming the second series of American drama Da Vinci Demons – written and directed by the award winning American, David Goyer – while finding time to film the sort film Air, directed by Emma Maclennan. Tom has undoubtedly had his busiest year yet, but found time to reflect with Glass on his acting journey so far.
Were watching films, series and/or theatre a big part of your childhood growing up, or is this something you found yourself?
My parents took me to the theatre as a child – mainly to see kids’ shows. I remember being absolutely terrified by a touring production of Sooty, Sweep and the Haunted House. Something about that formulative experience of being deeply affected by the play obviously made me want to conquer it, by becoming part of it. I never had a TV in my bedroom, and I don’t remember too many cinema trips – but the ones I do were magical. Disney’s Beauty and the Beast sticks out as a particular one – though I’ve never managed to be in an animation. I did get close to a part in Tangled a few years back.
What credentials do you think every good actor should have?
An awareness that they are a cog in a giant machine, and that their primary job is to do the best work they can, not just for themselves, but for the actors around them and the joint story they’re trying to tell. Too many actors think solely about how they can be memorable, how they can stick out, or what their character needs more than anything else – without realising they’re causing an imbalance, which drags everyone (including themselves) down. Avoid selfishness if you can. The selflessness will make you a stronger performer, raise the quality of your work, and makes you far easier to be around for the cast and crew.
Playing the protagonist, your character Da Vinci is continuously embroiled in drama throughout the series. How does it feel being the ringleader of the series?
That’s the part of the job that you’re not taught at drama school – aside from having to shoulder the central role and carry the story, you are also responsible for the mood on and off set. You become an agony uncle for some of the cast, and a sounding board for others – and then once that is done with you have to head out into the world as the face of the show. While all that is going on you have to subjugate your own needs, because while appearing together and positive, people forget you might need as much reassurance as they do. That’s fine – it’s part of the job and I relish it.
Before Da Vinci’s Demons I worked with James Nesbitt on and ITV series called Monroe (2011), and on the last day I wrote him a card thanking him for teaching me so much. I owe him a great deal. He showed me how to be professional, punctual, kind, know everybody’s name, know all your lines, and to be as generous as possible – onscreen and off. Being number one on the call sheet is a very different beast, and he demonstrated the best possible version of what that role should entail.
Do you like Da Vinci as a character?
I love him. I have to. Far more than any of the characters around him do. He is intensely difficult, self-centred and unpredictable. However I know where it’s all coming from – you must have that understanding of a character to play them. With understanding comes empathy and the minute you’re empathetic to someone, it becomes difficult to dislike them.
Did you keep any tokens, trophies or costumes from the set?
I steal far more than I could ever tell you. I’m aiming for a massive car boot sale when we’re cancelled so I can keep paying my mortgage.
Have you worked on projects in-between series one and two of Da Vinci Demons? If so, how did you find that in terms of re-engaging between different characters?
Between one and two we were contracted to do so much publicity it was hard to find anything that didn’t overlap, although I did manage to squeeze a short film in called Air (2013) with Antonia Thomas. At the moment though – between series two and (a potential) third I’m shooting an indie movie called Kill Your Friends, based on the book of the same name by John Niven, and then will go straight into something else I can’t talk about. It’s weird to abandon a character that you’ve lived with for so long, but exciting to try new things. I’m hoping if we go back for a third series then I’ll easily pick him up again, like getting back on a bike (which Da Vinci, apparently, invented).
What advice would you give young actors just starting out?
To not worry too much about perception and try to avoid micro-managing their image or career. Working is the only way you will become better, and understand your strengths and weaknesses in order to be able to heighten or better them.
I’ve done some dreadful shit (although none I thought would be so when I took the job), but nothing that I haven’t learned something invaluable from. Work begets work, and no matter how good you think you may be, or how deserving – you can always, always, be better. It’s a destination, not a race.
Avoid bitterness or jealousy or bitching. The industry is rife with injustice, and you will achieve nothing by looking over your shoulder and tutting. Keep looking forward, for that has a double benefit. People you want to work with will want to be around you, and you’ll steadily find you don’t mind being around yourself either.
What’s your favourite memory from the last year?
The premiere of season one (Da Vinci Demons) in Florence, surrounded by the fantastic cast, in the city the show is based on. My birthday was three days later, so me, a few of the cast (Laura Haddock, Blake Ritson) and my girlfriend went to Siena for a wine tasting course in a tiny farm on a gorgeous Italian hillside, which was then followed by a four course meal. The show was yet to come out and we were all giddy with the excitement of what we had achieved/what might be ahead. And then we all got incredibly drunk and ordered far too much wine to be sent back to the UK.
The series is filmed in South Wales (UK). Did you have a chance to explore the local town?
I went nearby to the Gower peninsula and to the Mumbles. Laura and I did a bit of craft fair shopping in tiny little Welsh stores on our days off. Occasionally we’d shoot on location in Caerphilly or Castle Coch so we got to see beautiful parts of the landscape – although invariably we were stuck in a giant old Ford factory of the M4 pretending we weren’t cold.
If you weren’t an actor, what do you think you would be doing now?
I’d either be an actor, or ironically – seeing as this is what I’m playing in Kill Your Friends – a music A&R guy. I’m a sucker for hunting down new bands.
Can you see yourself venturing back onto the stage in the future?
Some of the best experiences in my life have been on stage, at the Royal Court – or doing Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia on Broadway last year. I’d love to go back to New York – the theatre community there is unlike anything else, and I was very happy there. Although I’ve found it hard to find a play that tops Arcadia.
What are your ambitions for the year ahead?
To keep pushing to make Da Vinci’s Demons as successful as it can be within the boundaries it has drawn for itself, and then push to make it even better should it be granted an extended future. Separately from the show, I want to continue doing work I’m proud of, or alternative work that I will really enjoy. Ideally those things will come in the same package. And aside from that, I’m desperate for a border terrier. So much so that I’ve invented an imaginary one. Laura [Haddock] will tell you all about him. His name is Don and he’s a rascal.
by Stephanie Clair
Portraits of Tom Riley by Justin van Vliet
The second series of American drama Da Vinci Demons airs on Fox (UK) April 4, 2014.