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Jamie Bell goes back in history to a Revolutionary War spy ring in 'Turn'

Jamie Bell
Jamie Bell

The TV series “Turn” is a layered, character-driven spy thriller about the untold story of America’s first spy ring, whose members turn against king and family to create a new nation. It takes us behind the battlefront of the Revolutionary War, to a shadow war fought by everyday heroes — smugglers, trappers, and farmers — who vowed to keep their heroics a secret. Based on remarkable new research in the book “Washington's Spies” by Alexander Rose, “Turn” tells the tale of Abe Woodhull (played by Jamie Bell), a farmer living behind enemy lines in British-occupied Long Island, who bands together with a group of childhood friends to form the Culper Ring, an unlikely team of secret agents who would help George Washington turn the tide of the war in favor of the Rebels. Their daring efforts also revolutionized the art of espionage, giving birth to modern tradecraft as we know it today, along with all of the moral complexity that entails. Here is what Bell said about “Turn” during a recent telephone-conference call interview with reporters.

Jamie Bell at the Washington, D.C. premiere of "Turn"
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In “Turn,” you’re playing a real-life character. Do you feel a particular obligation playing someone who really lived and whose story maybe hasn’t been told before to the public?

I think there is a responsibility in portraying someone who existed and who did something quite incredible in terms of the history of this country. There wasn’t much that is known about this character is pretty next to nothing. What we do now is really comes from the correspondence between him and George Washington. That kind of only gives us a limited account of what this man was like, what his experiences were like.

I said this the other day: There isn't a monument erected in his name. In Washington, he's in marble I feel like just because of that level I think to this country he's that important to this country's beginnings and as we understand this country today. So the responsibility is huge because we've literally never seen him before. We never heard of him before — and now, all of a sudden we're all up-close and personal with him.

So we really want to maintain the sense that was in every men he was a farmer. He was a family man just like a lot of people are today. He was a blue collar kid who suddenly had this incredible and calling and incredible responsibility put in his shoulders.

Do you think we don’t know much about him because spies at that time were considered dishonorable thing and not gentlemanly in everything?

Well, that was definitely a part of it, spies were hated. It was a cowardly game to be a spy, you know. To be honorable, it was to wear a uniform to fight in the battlefield and engage in the rules of warfare but to be a spy was a cowardly thing to do. You were less than a man if you were a spy

What was it initially about the premise of “Turn” and about your character in particular that made you want to be part of it?

I think it was the sense that “Turn” is a spy-thriller genre, and that really fascinates me in general. I love the kind of high stakes that the show has, the compelling drama that is created between the characters and the fact it's a historical story and it has all of this other stuff — espionage and intrigue and high stakes and love triangles and things like that.

So it was all of that stuff. It was just crammed full of stuff and the fact that it was a true story and something that not many people, if any, knew about. I felt it was a really good opportunity and really good idea for television show. Also, AMC is a fantastic network that does give us programming and does it at a really good level and of great quality and I knew that a show like this would be right, from the look of the show to the portrayal of the characters to the acting to the level of historical detail that we've managed to attain in the show.

I knew that it would be important to be at a good network. So it was a combination of the material and the network that it just seemed like a really great opportunity and a really great piece of television for people to tune into for an hour at the weekend. I would want to watch it.

Can you comment on how spying without today’s technology?

Primitive and everything step along the way was dangerous. Understanding the invention of espionage and how it works — the idea that you have to gain information, steal that information and then deliver that information just that simple process which nowadays literally takes a matter of five seconds or a push of a key or recording of a button and it's sent along the Internet and everyone had like literally millions of people had it within a second.

You know, just to get one piece of information about troop movements back to Washington would sometimes take two weeks to get a letter or a message out into the woods where the Continentals were hiding. So the show is really going into all that just how you figure it out, how to become a spy network. It is very much the origins of espionage in this country and I think that this country is fascinated with that stuff. We're both kind of fascinated and I think terrified a bit at the same time. So I think all of that — the primitive nature of all that is really rich and complex which I think is interesting.

Since you grew up in England, you’ve said that you weren't especially familiar with this time of history. As you research the role and as you've been doing in the show, what's been the biggest surprise for you?

I think it's to say it wasn’t so kind of black and white. I think it was that the idea that an evading force comes in and occupies people and then occupied people rebel and that's that and then independence is gained. What the show does and I think what I've learned especially through Alexander Rose's book and through Craig Silverstein's scripts is that a lot of this was families turning on themselves, literally — just the measure of divide between this people was right down in the middle between father and son as it is in our show or husband and wife, brothers.

You know, just how it divided people from the inside. That, to me, is fascinating, the thing the show really looks at that a lot. I don’t know that it was really a younger sibling trying to separate from an older brother like it, that the colonials kind of felt like they were British already because they were. They'd all kind of come over here many years before. You know, the people who were kind of fighting back probably maybe second- or third-generation.

They were separating from themselves almost. It was a sibling spat and I like that. I didn’t really fully understand those kinds of politics and those kinds of issues and I think between Alex's book and the scripts, that brought that into sharper focus for me. I think just what life was like in those days, just kind of how aggressive the British were at times and then also just actually how close Washington was losing the war a lot of the time.

I think that's something that we have been focusing on it now for a season just how it took George Washington a second to become a great spy master. He wasn’t amazing at everything to begin with either. So the Continental army is very much portrayed as an army that is in retreat and is losing badly. I didn’t really know any much of that stuff either. So it's been a real lesson for me but luckily, the show doesn’t feel like a lesson — so much other complexity stuff that's going on between the people and families that I think is interesting.

Learning all of this about the show and about that time in history, are you ever tempted to think, “This to be a great time to live,” or is it one of those situations where you think, "Hey, this is really great but I don’t think I want to be living back in those days”?

No. In the midst of a war, having an occupied force, stripping my natural rights having occupied forces living in my house with me, it's not a good time to be around and life is just difficult then. If your crop goes bad, that's it. You might be done forever. There's no coming back from that.

Obviously, the women in Abe's life are very influential in his decision. Are we going to see more of these relationships developed during the show?

Absolutely. You know, like I just said, the complexity of what the situation of having a war going on around you, what the complexity of what delivers to you is which side you take and then literally, it just split down the middle for a lot of people at this time in history. For Abe, he has a conflict because the woman he's with is much more of a kind of loyalist, leaning, much more kind of like just do what they say.

Maybe it'll work out for the best whereas his true love, his real dream girl the girl that he's supposed to be with because it was his destiny is has a very strong patriot leaning and so he's kind of totally split that the mother of his child thinks one thing, the woman who he loves and really should be with things another thing. And those worlds do collide in the show and neither one is right. Both is just a political perspective and I think even tilts backwards and forwards constantly like a pendulum throughout the show, throughout the season in the show.

He's constantly going backwards and forwards. He's not sure if he's making the right decision. He doesn’t want to risk his family but he has to follow with heart. He has to follow his passions and his beliefs. So it's that pendulum swing that happens constantly.

And personally, his relationships with those two women in the show definitely do have their highs and lows. Mary is Abe's wife. When [Abe] and Mary start in the beginning of the show, it is incredibly different to where the season finale finishes and also between Anna and Abe. The journey that we go is very rich and has a very strong arc to it.

So lots of stuff happens between of those three characters which all including the fact that Anna Strong is also a spy in her own right. She is a member of the Culper Ring. She is just as crucial to this network succeeding as Ben Talmadge is, as Abe Woodhull is. She is a crucial element in that network.

Do you hope your son will watch “Turn” one day when he eventually learns about the Revolutionary War in school?

Yes, I do. It's a bit gory at times. It's a big violent at times. So maybe when he's a bit older, older, older. But yes, why not? It's a good tool. It's certainly a good tool in terms of having an understand of what just normal life was like, what people looked like, what people sounded like so what has happened in this country's history to get to this point, understanding where we come from is a good way of understanding who we are.

So, yes, history is important. I think the show is a good tool. It's a good device. It’s telling a story that isn't written in text books so he'd be learning something extra there. So absolutely. I would love for this to become a part of the American curriculum to understand how this war was won and where we come from and that would be great.

Do you think either American or English people possess kind of a skewed version of the Revolutionary War? And do you think “Turn” will help to fix that skewed version?

I think I think people are smart. They kind of have the general sense of what happened … I think what makes this show different and what makes a great piece of TV is that maybe for people who don’t even love spy stories, that is much a story about these young people, these kids, what it took for these kids essentially to defy their own families, in some cases their wives and best friends in some other cases.

And they risked everything to go fight in this war. I think that there's also the history buff who has an insane attention to detail and will notice things that we might have gotten wrong, but I don’t think we have got a lot wrong. But I'm sure people who are very steep in the rich complexity of Revolutionary War which will be atonement for them because we're literally bringing these larger-than-life heroes to life and they're getting to see that happen.

So I think with respect I didn’t learn about the Revolutionary War in school at all. I don’t think many English people at least that I've spoken to did learn about the revolutionary war. I think I remember learning about the Boston Tea Party, in the harbor … I think that's much different over here. I think, in America, you do learn about the Founding Fathers and all that stuff but maybe not the complexity that it actually was, the nitty-gritty, the bits and pieces in the middle that win you a war. And I think that's what Alexander Rose was interested in, and I think that's exactly what Craig Silverstein is interested in.

Now that you’re a father, how does that color your performance as playing a character who is a father and who's trying to protect his family?

Yes. I played into a lot. At the time that we shot the pilot [episode], I was an expectant father, so we haven’t had the baby yet. But when you have a child, you're just immediately changed forever. You put yourself second. Everything you do is with them in mind like everything. So when you relate that to someone who has a lot of high stakes on his shoulders and who is literally taking a path that could mean essentially the end of his life and difficulties for his family.

I think for Abe Woodhull as a character is that it weighs incredibly heavy on his shoulders and I think knowing that I was going to be a father and then becoming a father as we continued shooting the season, it kind of played into a lot. I think the stakes would always be raised so much higher for me as an actor and so much higher for the characters is knowing that whatever trouble he gets into, and he does get into trouble a lot as the show progresses, that's the first think he's thinking about like I might never see my son again.

But it's also a reason to doing it. It's also a reason that he wants his son to grow up in a free country. He wants his son to inherit a county where he can make his own decisions. That's a heavy thing, and it's a great thing to fight for. So it's a difficult decision. Do you endanger them and fight for the right thing or do you keep your mouth shut but then your family grows up in a world where their natural rights are stripped away from them?

Were you ever interested in leaping from film to television?

Not particularly … I was never really looking for TV but then I think this one just came along and it was just so rich and complex and the character was so great. Couple that with AMC, it was just intriguing. But I was aware and have been aware in the last more than like five years, five to 10 years just how much TV is impacting the world.

I remember when I first came to America, I saw like TV [shows] on posters. "What? Why does the television show deserve space on a billboard? I don’t understand." I came from England, where we never advertise TV on billboards on Sunset Boulevard. That's crazy. That's reserved for movies. The landscape was just automatically different from England anyway. TV is a big business here. It's a big thing.

But then also in the last five to 10 years, it's gotten really good. In fact, in some ways, it's surpass films in terms of the way people invest in this shows and invest in these characters and give up so much of their time to follow these people's stories. So in that regard, the landscape is definitely changed, and I wanted to be a part of it.

In “Turn,” Abe leads a double life. What are some of the difficulties of playing essentially two different characters in the same show?

It's a lot of time saying something but meaning something else which is always tricky. I remember doing things with Heather Lind, who plays Anna Strong, especially toward the end of the season where I just actually got to play the truth. For once, it's such a relief because Abe is always hiding something.

He's always trying to gain intelligence. He's always trying to work people to get what he wants. He's always especially with his father or some of the British officers that he encounters. So there's one time with Heather where I actually got to play like real truth like how 's really feeling what's really going inside of him.

It was such a weight off. I was like, "Oh wow, why am I enjoying this scene so much? Oh, that's right, because you're not having to lie and pretend and fake. You're actually just getting to be real and genuine and explaining someone how you feel. There's a lot of subterfuge going on, but I guess you have to be if you're a spy. It's the life of a spy.

I think also Abe is naturally good at lying. I think in some ways, he kind of prefers lying than telling the truth. It's just easier and I think he's been lying to himself for a long time and I think he's just gotten really good at it.

Abe was a real person whose life was documented in Alexander Rose's book. How much did you base the personality of the character on what was written in the book and how much the character was created on your own?

Very little of that is actually documented in terms of the personality. We knew his name. We knew where he came from. We knew his code number, his alias. We knew that he was a bit of a stickler when it came to being reimbursed by George Washington. And we knew he was kind of paranoid.

I remember this account from Alexander's book where [Abe] was writing something down and some kind of intelligence or some kind of information, and I guess someone came in his room. I think he might have been staying in some kind of lodging somewhere and someone just walked in his room. And he panicked because obviously he's running very sensitive information that if someone saw, he would he would get found out. And he threw his papers up and threw the chair back and he just kind of freaked out in this moment because he thought he's been caught.

I'm not sure how this is documented but I remember reading it in Alexander's book. And just from that, I was like, "Wow, this guy's literally on edge.” It turned out to be the maid, by the way. Someone was coming to tardy his room or something. But just the fact that he was so on edge the entire time, as you would be if you're playing a double agent you're living two lives and you're lying to everyone you're bound to slip up somewhere. You're bound to get something wrong. You're bound to get found out.

So the one thing I really like was just how intensely paranoid and terrified that it's going to wrong at any moment and the stakes of that. He has a family. And then there's a love triangle going on and there's battles going on around him. We dug as much as we could to find out who he was, but then you had to kind of embellish him in some way non-traditional yet entertaining kind of character for the show.

For more info: "Turn" website

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