Richard Madden is no stranger to playing a leader. The Game of Thrones star, 30, went from King of the North to Lord of Florence, playing a young Cosimo de’ Medici in Renaissance Italy in his new show, historical drama Medici: Masters of Florence.
Dustin Hoffman plays his father, Giovanni de’ Medici, in the drama from Frank Spotnitz and Nicholas Meyer. Medici is a fictionalized interpretation of the family that helped form modern banking, created the middle class, placed popes in power and built the city of Florence through its patronage of arts, science and architecture of everyone from Donatello to Fra Angelico to Michelangelo.
The first episode premiered Friday night at Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. Italy’s prime minister Matteo Renzi was one of the many prominent guests present. “This is the future,” Renzi said of the show to THR. “This is a special moment for Italian television and cinema and Medici is an incredible example of this.”
A show by Lux Vide, Big Light Productions and Wild Bunch TV, Medici: Masters of Florence was produced by Lux Vide’s Matilde and Luca Bernabei and Spotnitz with the participation of RAI Fiction. The series premieres Tuesday on RAI, with U.S. and U.K. distribution to be announced imminently.
Madden flew in straight from South Africa after a 14-hour shooting day on his new show Oasis. A big fan of shooting in Italy, the young actor says he wouldn’t have missed the Medici premiere for anything.
THR spoke to Madden about filling the shoes of another powerful leader in Medici, about Oasis and if there’s any truth to a major Game of Thrones theory currently circulating among fans of the HBO hit show.
The series opens with the Medicis putting a new pope in power and thus becoming the bank of the Vatican. How can we expect this to play out?
My father sets up this relationship with the pope, and then that’s what really becomes an exciting dynamic later on. Because Cosimo’s first loyalty obviously is to religion, and to the church and to the pope, but when we enter the series and Cosimo’s older age there are three different popes all vying for the seat, and something really interesting happens, which is this idea of what to do for the greater good and that is a big theme.
Cosimo is a very religious man and he’s very loyal to the church, but he also sees the bigger picture. It’s not about now or the next 100 years. It’s about 300 years, 400 years from now. And especially when we are so into our mobile phones, and I can find out what’s happening right now in New York, for these guys to have the foresight to think about 400 years ahead, that’s what becomes interesting. That’s really what comes out later, this man is planning for the next 500 years for the next three generations of his family. And in order to do that, sometimes you have to do some bad things, in order for the good.
And also then, what becomes interesting is that this pope relies on a man who very well may be a sinner and a serious sinner in order for the pope to remain pope, so, you know, God is who we all answer to, but within that we have to rely on each other, and that’s what becomes a really kind of exciting dynamic.
Why do you think political thrillers are so popular today?
Game of Thrones is also a massive political drama. Back in this time, politics meant life or death. I love House of Cards, it’s that really on-the-mark political drama, but this, the politics of this was life or death. We’d go to war or not based on the decisions that Cosimo and men like him made and I think that’s what is fascinating, seeing what human beings, what they do in extreme situations. And that came from famine and plague, that politics dictated how to deal with those problems. And with the financial markets and what’s happening now, that’s why watching something that’s set in the 1400s is like watching something today.
Are there parallels between your Game of Thrones character Robb Stark and Cosimo de’ Medici, a man who acted as a king without a crown?
In a way there are parallels. Robb Stark was a young man when this was thrust upon him, as was Cosimo, his father thrust this upon him. The difference is we see Cosimo much later in life. Robb Stark reacts, has to react to the situations around him, whereas Cosimo molds it, he’s the one that acts out, he’s the one that is creating it, and rather than kind of reacting to these situations he’s the one that’s making other people react and moving the story forward that way.
He’s more of a puppeteer?
Yeah, much more. He’s sculpting this world, kind of literally. There are artists sculpting on his behalf, but he’s also sculpting this idea. He was the first generation of new money I suppose, which is that you don’t have to come from a noble family in order to bring your children up, providing more for them. I think the country was stuck in a place, which was dictated by “us and them.” And I think that Cosimo and those families coming out of that generation were like, look, it can be different. And they bring a different set of morals that don’t rely on fear and intimidation.
How was it to play someone who shaped the city of Florence as we know it?
Cosimo was something brand new in relation to the arts compared to his father, Cosimo wanted to be an artist but was forced to be a banker. And his father, in a way they did the same thing, but they just saw it very differently. His father thought that banking provided art, whereas Cosimo saw it in a different way, that art provided inspiration, which provided people to be the best they could and human beings to really evolve.
And I think the Renaissance really brought that out whether you were a commoner or a wealthy man you could all be in touch with and appreciate something around you.
Are you an art collector?
I have bits and bobs, but I’ve not really started. But I’ve got a couple of things that I really like. I have a couple of David Lynch photographs on print that he made, that are really beautiful because you can’t quite tell what they are, and every time I look at them they are something different. And I think that’s what the best art tends to be, something that you look at and you notice something different, and the art’s not changed but it’s brought out something in you, and you have a different eye. I bought those pieces after I did this show.
How was working with Dustin Hoffman?
He’s a living legend, and a gentleman of a man. Maybe there are parallels of this young man learning from his father and me learning from Dustin, which I did all day every day. You can’t help but learn from him. He was excellent on set and would give me great notes and suggestions for how to play scenes, and he’s so creative and so present. You think these massive stars, they must have so much going on in their lives, so many other things, and with Dustin it was like this was the only thing in the world, being on set with you.
Did he give you any particular advice?
Not particular to acting, but in the scenes we were doing, we would really play like we were in theater. We would try different ways and throw it around and really spar with each other.
I think one of my favorite scenes in the whole thing is this scene when Cosimo has just been forced to be married, his girlfriend from before was a commoner his dad sent away, and they kind of sit down at the table and you kind of meet this young man who has all the elements that make his father who he is, and his father’s having to turn to him and look at him, and essentially he says “If you don’t do what I tell you, I’ll kill you.”
And that’s Greek history, that real wow, these two forces meeting each other. Cosimo knows, he’s learned from his father how to play this game, and his father dies and that’s when all that stuff from the past resurfaces, but he’s now within a structure and foundation that he’s learned from his father to bring all this art through. And that’s why in lots of ways I think Cosimo was a much more amazing man than Giovanni was.
And that’s another interesting parallel with Robb Stark. He went for the “commoner” girl…
Look what happened. It never works out well, does it?
Have you seen the fan theories that Lord Stoneheart is going to make an appearance on Game of Thrones as a vengeful Robb Stark back from the dead as a zombie?
That would be my mother….
But the theory is that it would be you, Lord Stoneheart, instead of your mother, Lady Stoneheart, who returns in the books.
I’ve not heard anything, of course. I suppose I wouldn’t have the phone call, because they’re very secretive about everything, unless you get some of the cast drunk and they’ll tell you what they are doing. Or you’ll accidentally sit there with someone and say “How is the filming going,” and they’ll say “Great yeah I was on set with so and so the other day,” and you go “Don’t tell me that, because then I know that you know that character again!” So I try to avoid it just so I can watch it and enjoy it now. I kind of forget that I was in it, and just watch it as a TV show now and remember my character as something as separate to me, which is quite odd.
You don’t have any fear of missing out?
God no, I don’t fear missing out. I feel very, very proud to have been a part of that. But Robb Stark had such a great storyline, three seasons where he had this great start, middle and end to his character, and it set up such a great purpose to the show up to that point. Every character really progresses the show along. Now I can just watch it and enjoy it.
So you haven’t gotten a call to come back?
No, I haven’t gotten a call.
Would you like to play a vengeful zombie?
I don’t know, I’d have to read… I stopped reading the books a couple years ago because the show kept changing and I’d much rather just watch it and see what came next.
I guess after Jon Snow’s death, no one will trust anything that’s said about the show?
Yeah, you can’t trust them at all.
What can you tell us about your project now with Amazon where you play a priest in space?
The title is now Oasis, I think it was Strange New Things. It’s based on the book by Michelle Fever called The Book of Strange New Things.
Maybe the title was too similar to Stranger Things?
Yeah (laughs). I think that was a little confusing to people. So we’ve changed it to Oasis, which is the name of the planet that we are setting up a human colony on. Apart from that, I can’t really tell you too much about it, apart from it’s a really great cast with some really excellent writing, and a very different character for me.
But again, the thing that resonates from Medici, to Game of Thrones, to this, is people in extreme situations, and how they react to those situations, and how human beings treat each other, and sometimes they are evil and sometimes they have amazing kindness to them, and I think that’s what still keeps tickling me.
They’re also all very authoritative roles. Is that something you relate to?
I think it’s the opposite of that, that I play those parts. I’m not quite sure, what I’m drawn to, I never realize until I finish the job, why I’m drawn to it. I suppose Cosimo in lots of ways, that idea of thinking much further ahead than the next six months and thinking much bigger than yourself, I think that’s something I was keen to think about and be an explorer. That’s what Cosimo did, to not think about himself but to think about the bigger picture. I learned a lot about that personally just playing Cosimo. I’m not sure what a priest in space will teach me but I’m excited to find out.
So did playing Cosimo inspire you to start thinking about your legacy?
That’s the thing, I don’t plan ahead,
You live in the now?
Yeah, I live in the now, and just try to get the best out of it, just try to give it everything. And that’s the joy of my job doing something like Medici for six months, where you are six days a week filming, where you are completely engulfed, everyone so committed, the best costume designers, lighting, the best music designers, the best people at the top of their game pouring everything into it, see how that is left afterward when you’ve done your absolute best.
What do you want to do after Oasis?
I have no plans at the moment. I’d like to keep on working how to be better on camera. I think I’m just kind of in the middle of this and once I come out of this foreign planet I’m living on, and get out of South Africa, I’m going to Namibia next week. Once I’m out of here, I’ll take a breath and work out what I’m going to do next year.
I just came out of a dust storm on a foreign planet and it wasn’t CGI, we really made a dust storm, it’s amazing how they can do these things, but we were living in that and it was just hellish. Next week I get to drive in the desert in a dune buggy pretending I’m on another planet and that’s going to be fun.
So your career just spans time periods, worlds…
Yeah I just jumped from someplace extremely different, going from playing Cosimo to then a priest in space. Keeps me entertained if nothing else.
Winterfell to Renaissance Florence to outer space…do you ever want to do something simple like a romantic comedy?
It would nice to do something where I’m just like in a bar, on a beach somewhere, that would be nice. But something in me just kind of likes to make it hard on myself, I suppose. I imagine I’ll probably keep on doing that.