EXCLUSIVE: The Good Doctor star Freddie Highmore will executive produce and join the cast of Frank Spotnitz and Steve Thompson’s Leonardo, a drama series that takes a fresh look at the life and legacy of the iconic artist Leonardo da Vinci, positing that he was a gay outsider who used his work as a way of hiding his true self. Each episode will examine one of da Vinci’s artworks for hidden clues about a tortured artist struggling for perfection.
Highmore will play Stefano Giraldi, a fictional police detective who frames the narrative, investigating da Vinci as the suspect in a murder case and digging into his past. Highmore’s Sony-aligned production company, Alfresco Pictures, will join Italy’s Luxe Vide and Spotnitz’s Big Light Productions to produce the show, with Alfresco’s Head of Development Claire Londy serving as co-EP. Backing the project is The Alliance, a new co-production group formed by pubcasters RAI in Italy, France Televisions and ZDF in Germany.
Spotnitz is best known for creating The Man in the High Castle, and for his work on The X-Files. Thompson created the British series Jericho for ITV Studios, and wrote on Sherlock. Previously announced, Aidan Turner (Poldark) will play da Vinci, and Daniel Percival (The Man in the High Castle) will direct.
“Capturing the character of Leonardo has been one of the most fascinating and exciting challenges of my career,” Spotnitz has said. “It’s hard to fathom that a man this extraordinary could even have existed, let alone the human impulses that drove him to achieve such extraordinary things.”
The project is the latest venture for Alfresco, which was formed in August 2018 with a two-year pact with Sony Television, to develop scripted series for broadcast, cable, streaming services and international co-productions. Hourlong dramas Love, Dad and Adversaries are set up at ABC, which also airs The Good Doctor, while TBS has Homesick, a half-hour dark comedy written by Highmore and James Mitchell. Highmore is repped by ARG, UTA, and Fred Tozcek.
A little over a year in, Highmore speaks below for the first time about the goals behind the formation of Alfresco Pictures, and he explains why Leonardo is the ideal project for the company to back.
DEADLINE: What’s the philosophy behind what you’re looking for at Alfresco Pictures?
FREDDIE HIGHMORE: In wanting to set up Alfresco, it came from a natural desire to be involved in a wider way in the industry that I think I first got into when I was writing and directing on Bates Motel, and then in writing and directing on The Good Doctor. I always had that natural curiosity to do other things. And that, I guess, shifted into not only wanting to develop my own ideas and projects that I was writing or directing or acting in, but also becoming a producer in a wider sense and helping other people tell their stories.
Claire Londy is the wonderful Head of Development at the company, and we are always looking for projects that have a broader point or message behind them, that try and spark conversations that aren’t being had or give a microphone to voices and experiences that haven’t been heard from before. And in particular, looking at more specifically a kind of masculinity and promoting shows that speak to or offer up different versions of masculinity. So, unpacking the prevailing, still reasonably narrowly defined, often quite toxic understanding of masculinity. But doing so from both male and female perspectives.
I think that came from me looking at what I had been drawn to as an actor in my characters. It was interesting, because it wasn’t something I has looked at self-critically before. What had drawn me to these projects? They were never the stereotypical, alpha male leads. Whether that was mental health being looked at with Bates Motel, and this very interesting relationship with a mother and a son. Or on The Good Doctor, obviously, Shaun not being your usual broadcast lead. And I think that’s not just what attracted me to them, but why people enjoyed and continue to enjoy those shows.
I hope “Alfresco”, aside from being a play on my real name, Alfred, speaks more widely to a sense of refreshing, communal openness that is reflective of the stories we gravitate towards at the company.
DEADLINE: Is any part of it a reaction to material you’ve been sent that you haven’t done? Do you feel there’s a dearth of projects rising above a certain level that are telling these narratives?
HIGHMORE: Possibly, and while I’m always wary of referencing the #MeToo movement, because I don’t want it to be just this catch-all term that just seems like the correct, woke thing to say without actually exploring it on a deeper level, I do think that these conversations have been more prevalent since then. I think, while we look to bring forward more female-driven, female-led projects on every level, there’s also a need to try and examine how society allowed certain men to think that they could behave in certain ways. What is it about the way that masculinity has come to be defined that contributed to people feeling that it was acceptable to behave in an atrocious way? And looking at the repercussions of that.
That’s what Homesick is about, looking at a societal stifling of male vulnerability and mental health. It’s this dysfunctional relationship between a mother and a son, but he has an eating disorder. And there are 10 million men in America who suffer from an eating disorder, but it isn’t ever really spoken about and isn’t a condition that’s attributed to being male.
In every aspect of gender politics, it’s about trying to dismantle the kind of clichés that surround it, and just defying the normal expectations of gender.
DEADLINE: Outside of your own writing, has it been challenging to find those voices?
HIGHMORE: Claire has done an amazing job. It’s less a challenge in finding those stories, because I think for so long people have wanted to tell these stories but haven’t necessarily been given the opportunity to do so.
I think the other interesting thing about being involved in development has been having conversations that are nuanced and that are sometimes uncomfortable, but that need to be had. If you’re looking at it purely from an acting perspective, I would have received a project and it would have been all finished. You read the script and that’s the only thing that you’d really have as a reference point. And it’s fascinating to get to have wonderful conversations with people and try and make interesting shows that speak to those interesting dynamics.
And of course, the show has to be entertaining and the show has to be accessible. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t also simultaneously try and do something that has a wider meaning. The Good Doctor is a medical procedural with something much more important to say than just, what’s the latest surgery Shaun has to perform? It’s something deeper than it just being a life or death, case-of-the-week element.
Tonally, we’ve always been looking for things that lie on the borderlines between comedy and drama. Whether that’s comedy with dramatic elements, or drama with comedic elements, regardless of any other kind of genre. Homesick, obviously, is a half hour comedy. And I’m still writing it, so I hesitate to say it’s going to be very funny. But it hopefully will be funny, and it will also have something to say underneath that.
DEADLINE: Are you focussing exclusively on television?
HIGHMORE: Yes. The deal with Sony is exclusively for television. I think both Claire and I would love to move to features. We’re definitely open for ideas for films moving forward, but the focus in the first year has definitely just been building out our television slate. We’ve got about 10 projects, I’d say, in total that we’ve been developing.
DEADLINE: What does Sony offer that you can’t get elsewhere?
HIGHMORE: One of the nicest things about being at Sony is, because they’re an independent studio, they’re by definition not providing for themselves, and so they’re not trying to push us into developing one form of storytelling over another. If it’s a project that fits best on broadcasting, great, or if it’s cable or if it’s streaming or if it’s a limited series, they’re very open to all of those. And having not had an experience at a different studio, I can only imagine what it would be like. But at Sony there’s definitely not, “You must create a project for this network.”
I know ‘family’ is an overused term, but it feels like a home, being at Sony and being on the lot. And I’ve got to know everyone very well, obviously, through The Good Doctor, from the beginning. I’ve built these wonderful, close relationships with everyone there. Jason Clodfelter was instrumental in putting together this whole deal. And Lauren Stein as well, who I had known from The Good Doctor pilot. The two of them, I’ve known longer than anyone.
But now, I’d say I definitely have great relationships with Jason as well as Jeff Frost and Chris Parnell, the other co-Presidents, and Tony Vinciquerra. There’s a lovely sense of collaboration with all of them on all of these projects, and they’re all very much open and engaged, and keen to listen to ideas whenever they come up. It’s not this kind of weirdly hierarchical structure to work within.
And then the other great thing is that they have such a strong international arm. Leonardo came through Sony’s international team. I was in Europe doing a film last year and had sat down with Wayne Garvie, who runs Sony International from London. And then a person called Brendan Fitzgerald, who was based in Spain. They were looking at this project, Leonardo, and it fitted exactly with the sort of stories that we wanted to tell. And so, we could team up with them to help get Leonardo made in a way that probably a studio that didn’t have that kind of international reach, we wouldn’t have been able to be involved with it at all.
DEADLINE: What was it about Leonardo that fit into Alfresco’s sensibility?
HIGHMORE: It’s about the stripping back of this enigmatic personality to reveal a truth that I don’t think many people are aware of with him, and that has perhaps been purposefully not discussed over the course of the many years that people have been interested in Leonardo. And that’s seeing him as this illegitimate child, as a gay man, very much as an outsider.
What’s great about the way Frank and Steve have written it is it’s not this facile conclusion of, “Oh, he’s just a tortured, artistic soul and we just have to understand him for who he is.” It’s better than that. I think people are a bit bored of the idea of excusing people simply for being tortured souls. And there needs to be much more in order to like a character and to understand them.
I think that harks back to what we were saying earlier about definitions of modern masculinity and how they are constantly and rightfully evolving today. Looking at Leonardo at this time is about examining the repercussions of what happens when society stifles male vulnerability, or pigeonholes the idea of what it is to be a man.
DEADLINE: You’ll act in the series too. Tell me about your role.
HIGHMORE: The structure of the show is framed by this murder investigation where Leonardo has been accused of murder. My character, Stefano Giraldi, he is trying to figure out what happened. He is trying to understand the truth. And at least initially, he doesn’t really have any great appreciation for Leonardo and for his artistry in general.
I’m excited for the mind games between my character and Leonardo. Hopefully, they’ll be these wonderful, tennis match scenes between the two of them as each of them is trying to suss the other one out and figure out what the realities of the other person are. They have preconceptions of what the other person is like but they don’t know them at all on a genuine level. And so, in a funny way, my character arrives with perhaps the same preconceptions or ideas of Leonardo as the audience will. And throughout the course of the show, will try and figure out who that person really is instead of the one that everyone has been saying he is. The myths, positive or negative, that people have perpetuated.
DEADLINE: Were you surprised by what you’ve come to learn about Leonardo’s life?
HIGHMORE: I guess I was oblivious to who this person genuinely was. Usually, we come to feel like we understand him through his paintings. And therefore, we attribute certain things to him that we have seen in his work instead of making more of an attempt to separate the art that he’s making from the person that he was at the time. I think he was able to, in part, remain an enigma in that moment because he could hide a little bit through his work. Hide the things that he wasn’t able to say and be open up about at the time, disguise those truer, deeper thoughts and emotions in his artwork that we can only now be truly seeking to understand and dig away at.
DEADLINE: Where are you in terms of your conversations with Frank and Steve?
HIGHMORE: We’ve discussed a lot the character that I’m going to be playing, because originally in Frank and Steve’s conception he was older than I am. It’s hard speaking about it now, because the scripts are still being written. The last few scripts are being written. There’s still a sense of work in progress that is now coming to an end and ready to shoot. At this stage, things are consolidating and coming together and becoming more definitive.
I’m an Executive Producer on it, and then Claire as well is a co-Executive Producer on it. I think I feel when one isn’t writing on the project, I see my role as a producer is in supporting the vision of Frank and Steve as much as possible. And being there to help them tell the story that they want to tell. You need to be on the same page and subscribe to what the writer’s vision is, and then be able to help them implement it insofar as possible.