In just a few weeks actor Elliot Levey’s profession has propelled him through genres ridiculous, sublime and downright bizarre. The extremes of his work go from the cabalistic sub-plots of the new multi-million dollar American TV series, Da Vinci’s Demons — whose chest-baring alpha-male hero (played by Tom Riley) is embroiled in Jewish mysticism — to an episode of Silent Witness, where Levey portrays a London Jew who has a whispered conversation with a Mossad agent. “You know, like all North London Jews do on a regular basis,” says Levey, a few hours before he films the scene.
It’s a long way from the role of Francesco Pazzi, the 15th century power-broker Levey plays in Demons, a swashbuckling fantasy categorised as historical drama, which is a bit like calling Star Trek educational.
Created and written by David S Goyer — the man behind the later and better Batman movies — Demons has just started here on the Fox Channel.
“He’s just one of these vain, glorious pompous fops,” says Levey of his character, the enemy of the Medicis. “He’s a brilliant, deliciously awful character. Everything hateful in humanity is within this dreadful man.”
Levey could almost be talking about Robespierre, who he played in the 2010 National Theatre production of Danton’s Death. Not that the austere Robespierre was a fop. But as with Pazzi, he is the kind of character audiences love to hate. Other roles of the Leeds-born, Clifton College and Oxford-educated actor include The Author in Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art with the late Richard Griffiths. But more often than not Levey is the go-to man for directors seeking a dose of dastardliness.
In Da Vinci’s Demons — and, Levey says, in real life also — Pazzi waged a war against the Medicis, the powerful patrons behind Florentine renaissance art. According to Levey, in series one Goyer’s plot thickens with a quest for something called the Book of Leaves.
“It’s a mythical text that many people think is what the Kabbalah was connected to. All those people who devoted their lives to the secrets within the Mishnah were infused by this cultish religion which predated Moses leading the children of Israel out of Egypt.” So that clears that up, then. Or if not, apparently Goyer’s Jewish storyline forms what Levey terms “the dark heart” of the first series and involves a Jewish character Da Vinci is convinced is a member of a sect called the Jewish Sons of Mithras.
The 38-year-old actor is about to start working on series two. When he got the job a year ago, he had visions of going to Florence. But filming is not in Florence. It’s on a specially built soundstage in, erm, Swansea. Cast and crew are about to return to the city of measles.
Yet despite the sheer size and budget of Da Vinci’s Demons, the recent work that has had the biggest impact on Levey is easily the most modest. Radio 4 recently broadcast a documentary about the Warsaw Ghetto poet Wldyslaw Szlengel. The programme, What I Read to the Dead, marked the 70th anniversary of the 1943 uprising and was presented by the writer, Eva Hoffman. Levey was the voice of the poet shot by the Nazis during the uprising.
“Having spent my life reading this sort of Holocaust literature, I think there is a challenge to anybody who is broadcasting or making programmes about this moment in history to come up with something undiscovered,” he says. “When we were recording Szlengel’s poetry, for the the first time in my life I just wept and wept in the studio.
“Szlengel called himself the chronicler of the drowning man,” Levey adds. “Some of the poetry is written from the relative safety of 1939. As each month goes by, his poems take on this harshness and immediacy.
“We think the poem called Counter Attack was written possibly hours before his death, during the uprising. And the legend is he was writing it on scraps of paper.
“And through the tunnels, messages were being carried to the fighters who were his friends and family and at one point the rhythm of the poem follows the beat of the machine guns being fired on them by the Germans. It’s an astonishing thing to read.”
Born and raised in Leeds, Levey attended a “very, very Orthodox cheder” and says he was the most observant Jew of his generation at Clifton. The Hebrew he will use in the Silent Witness scene will be of the liturgical kind he was taught as a child [“I expect the Israeli actor I have to whisper it to will fall off his chair when he hears it”].
Yet the impulse to pass Judaism on to his two sons (his wife is documentary maker Emma Loach, daughter of director Ken) was never particularly strong. But with his eldest son approaching barmitzvah age that has begun to change. And Szlengel is partly responsible.