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Aidan Turner on playing Leonardo da Vinci, billowy shirts and the importance of intimacy coordinators

Kelly-Anne Taylor talks to the former Poldark star ahead of new drama, Leonardo.

Aidan Turner (GETTY)

Leonardo da Vinci is the second artist that Aidan Turner has portrayed on screen after his turn as Dante Gabriel Rossetti in BBC2’s Desperate Romantics 12 years ago. But the actor has a confession. “I can’t draw,” he winces sheepishly.

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Artistic skill aside, Turner’s role in Amazon Prime’s Leonardo is an easy sell for fans of his previous eponymous lead role in Poldark. Yes, after a two-year absence from our screens, the 37-year-old is back, and in (and sometimes out of) a well-fitting period costume. As that well-known Leonardo equation goes: “Billowy shirt + gripping plot + Aidan Turner as lead = successful period drama”.

The eight-part series charts the Italian polymath’s life from his early 20s to his late 40s. It begins in the Milan of 1506 with the arrest of Leonardo, accused of poisoning his muse Caterina da Cremona (The Undoing’s Matilda de Angelis). Framed by the interrogation by detective Stefano Giraldi (The Good Doctor’s Freddie Highmore), the story maps Leonardo and Caterina’s relationship, unravelling the artist’s life, work and personal struggles.

“It really gets to the essence of the man as opposed to the artist,” says Turner. “He had a very unconventional upbringing. He wasn’t raised by his parents or traditionally schooled. There seemed to be a lot of torment. His childhood affected his work and art.” Work and art that Turner got up close and personal with during a private tour of the Leonardo da Vinci retrospective at the Louvre in Paris. He beams excitedly: “I was with his paintings on my own, which was just extraordinary.”

Leonardo - Aidan Turner and Freddie Highmore
Leonardo – Aidan Turner and Freddie Highmore
Amazon Prime Video

Irrespective of his latest role, Turner has always been passionate about art and, pre-pandemic, frequented London exhibitions regularly; he favours the White Cube, the Tates and those galleries dotted around Mayfair “that you can dip in and out of”.

As someone who keeps “a foot in the contemporary art world”, his on-set hesitancy in shooting painting scenes is understandable. “All the work on Leonardo was painted by artists. They’d be trembling, watching us, going, ‘Don’t mess it up!’ I was always really delicate because you’re working on somebody’s work.” He was so enamoured by the replicas that, post-production, he was gifted a collection of them. “When we were shooting the Mona Lisa scenes, somebody noticed I was looking at some sketches of her hands that I really liked. They were framed and sent to me, which was pretty cool.”

The series is a marrying of historical accuracy and dramatic licence – differing from traditional Leonardo narratives in its exploration of sexual identity. “Personally, I hadn’t seen any depictions of him as homosexual,” notes Turner. “That’s something we didn’t shy away from. It was nice that it wasn’t questioned. I don’t think many shows have showed him in that light. It was much needed.”

It’s an important nod towards the shift in on-screen representation at a time when the TV shows disrupting convention are accruing rip-roaring success – as anyone who’s seen Netflix’s Bridgerton or Channel 4’s It’s A Sin can attest.

“I think we all feel it when we see a show, right? When they’re trying to put a veil over something as if to say, ‘Don’t look over here! We don’t want to approach this subject, it’s too tricky!’ I think that time is passing now.”

It’s not the only shift that’s occurred during Turner’s career. Post MeToo, intimacy coordinators have become a staple on set, responsible for safeguarding actors performing sex scenes or nude. Given his five-year stint as Ross Poldark, he’s well acquainted with scenes of an intimate nature. The series captured the emotional – and physical – evolution of Poldark’s relationship with his kitchen maid-turned-wife, Demelza, with both often in states of undress.

“I’ve yet to work with an intimacy coach,” says Turner, “but it’s definitely the right move as it takes the pressure away from everybody.” He adds that, although there are bedroom scenes in Leonardo, they weren’t sufficiently detailed to warrant an advisor on set.

“Discussions don’t always happen. Some directors don’t know what to say. There can be an awkward atmosphere. No one wants to say or do the wrong thing. Sometimes that means things don’t get discussed properly. It gets avoided and then the situation spirals. You want everyone to feel comfortable. If they’re not, sometimes they won’t speak and then things won’t get heard. Those scenes can be tricky. You just question why has it taken so long [to have these experts on set].”

  • Read our Leonardo review: “Aidan Turner is da Vinci in this atypical period drama.”

Why are sex scenes tricky? “It’s dependent on the scene, but some can be more aggressive or unwanted. Everyone has their own experiences with such things and in their own personal lives. You don’t know what someone is coming into the scene with. It’s not always the best approach to assume your own history is the same as everyone else’s. I think having somebody to anchor that situation is brilliant,” Turner concludes. (It’s easy to see why the terms “charming” and “thoughtful” are often peppered throughout interviews with him.)

The youngest son of an accountant mum and electrician dad, he grew up in the suburbs of Dublin. After graduating from drama school in 2004, it took five years to land his breakthrough role in Desperate Romantics. In a mythically themed succession of events, he went from playing a vampire in BBC3’s cult hit Being Human and a dwarf in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy to landing Poldark in 2015, a series that would introduce him into households nationwide.

It’s obvious that Turner shied away from the full force of fame that erupted as Poldark’s popularity peaked. In previous interviews his growing exasperation with references to his topless-scything scene became palpable. “When we were doing Poldark, I think the exposure was quite a lot,” he says. “We were proud of the show and it seemed like anything you’d read about it, there would be a certain photograph or talk about nudity. It began to overshadow the show and that frustrated me. It just got boring.”

It likely influenced his decision to return to theatre in 2018, starring in the black comedy The Lieutenant of Inishmore at London’s Noël Coward Theatre. Would he like to perform on stage more? “I’m dying to get back to see theatre and to play in theatre. Over this last year, the thing I missed the most – which I just took for granted – was going out and seeing shows. There’s something about live theatre that I just yearn for. It’s sad to walk through the West End and see all those theatres closed. It’s eerie. It’s not the London I know and love. It’s sad and grim.”

The pandemic also caused huge disruption to the production of Leonardo, which had begun filming in December 2019. Work was suspended in early March last year and Turner only returned to set in June. At first, he’d been making the most of shooting in Rome, attending cast dinners and going to galleries. “It was difficult after COVID. We lost a lot of locations as we were supposed to travel north to churches, piazzas and all these wonderful places. We couldn’t do that so we had to build replicas in a studio. We were one of the only productions in Europe shooting. Nobody got sick. We were testing a lot. As you walked into the studio, there was a sanitary unit that would spray you and read your temperature. It felt foreign at the time, but we’re all used to these things now.”

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The past year has seen dramatic global change but, for Turner, it afforded him time to be with his family in Dublin and to quietly marry his long-term girlfriend, American actor Caitlin FitzGerald. “It was nice to go home because for the last few years that hasn’t happened so much. That felt really important. It’s something I’ll take out of this year that’s been really positive for me.”

For many people, it’s also been a time of reflection. Two years on from the end of Poldark, how does he feel looking back on the series now? “I’m really proud of the show. Five years doing any TV show is a long time. It felt like it came to a natural end and it was time to finish. I don’t look back with a heavy heart or anything. There’s lots of other things I want to do.”

It’s too hard not to josh – “other things” that still keep you in the remit of billowy shirts? He smiles. “I really wanted to play this character. I don’t think the next thing will be a period drama. It was too hard to turn down. I would’ve regretted not doing it for the sake of wearing another billowy shirt.”

Given Amazon Prime’s worldwide reach, it’s hard not to wonder whether this fame-shy performer is prepared for global recognition. “You have moments as an actor where you’re more popular, depending on the work you do. Other times you’re just chilling. I don’t give it much thought. I just get on with the work.”

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This edition of The Big RT Interview originally appeared in the Radio Times magazine. For the biggest interviews and the best TV listings subscribe to Radio Times now and never miss a copy.