Nearly two years after the much-adored historical series Poldark came to an end, Aidan Turner is finally back on our screens. And the Irishman, 37, admits he did question whether he should take on Leonardo – another period drama – as his next project. “I do hear what you’re saying: maybe I need to wear a pair of jeans and shave my head for the next role. Note taken,” quips the charismatic actor, chuckling.
But a mysterious and passionate retelling of the life of one of history’s greatest artists – set against the backdrop of Renaissance Italy – was a project he just couldn’t turn down. “In a way, if it wasn’t Leonardo da Vinci, I probably wouldn’t [have taken the role],” continues The Hobbit star, on a Zoom call in March. “As actors, sometimes we feel – certainly I do – ‘If I pass on this, will I watch this in a year’s time with some other actor playing it, and wish I had done it?’ And I kept feeling that.”
An eight-part series launching on Amazon Prime Video, Leonardo explores what made the Renaissance painter, architect, and inventor famous. Showing the secrets and drama behind his unparalleled genius, each episode focuses on a different Da Vinci painting, and reveals the story behind it (some of these works are rooted in collective memory, others are less known to the general public).
Turner says he found the idea of playing the artist “initially quite terrifying”. “What eased me into the idea of playing him was Frank’s scripts. It focused, almost immediately, on ‘Let’s try to uncover who this person was’. We already know who the artist is, we know his great works, we know his works as a philosopher and as an engineer, anatomist, botanist – it goes on. But who was he behind all that? Who was he at the core? What motivated him as an artist, as a person? What were his vulnerabilities?”
The story focuses a lot on Da Vinci’s very unorthodox upbringing with his grandparents, and how that may have influenced him. Interestingly, the drama also explores the pioneer’s sexual orientation, portraying his relationships with men.
When it came to research for the role, Turner had an experience “that just felt really special. It felt like, ‘This shouldn’t have happened’.” It was the chance to visit the Louvre Museum in Paris, and have a private viewing of Da Vinci’s work, which includes the iconic Mona Lisa. “I got to spend a couple of hours with his paintings on my own and it was extraordinary. I mean, there are so many things that strike you. One is just the physicality of it; we’re so used to seeing his paintings on the screen, on an iPad, in an encyclopaedia, in a magazine, newspaper, television. You see them up close, its scale… Some of them are huge!
“Then you get close and you think, ‘How kind has 400, 500 years been to these paintings?’ And it seems incredibly so. The detail… They’re like high-definition photographs. You get as close as you can safely get to the painting, which is close enough, and it’s just perfect. They’re perfectly preserved, they’re perfectly executed.”
He read biographies as part of his preparation, too (he recommends one by Charles Nicholl, which focuses on his early life, in particular). Plus, there were workshops on set, which saw the star witness real-life painters replicating Da Vinci’s work – and then he would have to try to do it himself. So, just how good is Turner with a paintbrush? “I don’t know if ‘good’ is the right thing; I’m brave,” he says, laughing. “Leonardo worked very slow, because his work was very precise work, obviously. So, as an actor on set, you can’t make any huge mistakes, when you’re working a very fine brush – you can almost count the bristles on it – and you’re applying a small amount of paint.”
He has actually played a painter before; Dante Gabriel Rossetti in the 2009 BBC series Desperate Romantics. But while on that production, he would use a varnish over the paint, to allow for mistakes, it was different for Leonardo. “We didn’t have that luxury. We were quite authentic; we would use pigments and apply the paint. So, yeah – no room for error!”
One of the interesting ideas about Da Vinci is how obsessed he was with attaining perfection. Nowadays, with social media a part of our everyday lives, there’s an argument to be had that there is even more pressure on us as humans to be perfect. Turner, however, seems to have trouble with the suggestion that Leonardo was a perfectionist. “I think he was an incredible observer, and it was important for him to observe nature and the way he saw it and try to replicate that on a canvas, or a sculpture, or whatever it might be,” he notes. “And he always talked about in his writing how difficult that was – the fingerprint of God and how impossible it is to emulate something like this. So, he always knew he wouldn’t even get close, but his idea was to get as close as he possibly could.”
As for the topic of social media, the actor says: “There’s only so many people who can get into a gallery to see a piece of work, or to have it with them. And these days, there’s Instagram for an artist, and your work is judged on a global level immediately. It’s difficult.”
“I personally don’t do social media,” he adds matter-of-factly. “Being judged by people I don’t know isn’t something I’m very interested in.”
Leonardo launches on Amazon Prime Video on Friday, April 16