We all think we know what it's like to be a spy since Ian Fleming introduced us to the master of all spies James Bond, but back in the 1770s, with no gadgets to make the job easy, there was a group of childhood friends who formed The Culper Ring, an unlikely group of spies who helped George Washington turn the tide in Revolutionary War. That real-life story, based on the book Washington Spies by Alexander Rose, has been made into the series "TURN," starring Jamie Bell as Abe Woodhull, a Long Island farmer, who was a member of the ring.
"Every step along the way was dangerous," Bell said on a call to promote the critically acclaimed series. "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 5 seconds -- a push of a key and it's sent along the Internet and literally millions of people have it within a second. But 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."
In his chat, Bell also discusses the duality of his role, the two women in Abe's life, what other historical figures will be added if "TURN" goes to a second season, and more. Check it out.
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?
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. What is known about this character is pretty much next to nothing. What we do now really comes from the correspondence between him and George Washington, and that only gives us a limited account of what this man was like, what his experiences were like.
There isn't a monument erected in his name. Washington, he's in marble. I feel like to this country's beginnings, Abe is important as we understand this country today. So the responsibility is huge, because we've literally never seen him before. We've 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 man. 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 calling and incredible responsibility put in his shoulders.
Is it because spies at that time were considered dishonorable and un gentlemanly that we don't know much about him?
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 was to wear a uniform and fight in the battlefield and engage in the rules of warfare, but to be a spy was actually a cowardly thing to do. You were less than a man if you were a spy. We know who Nathan Hale was because he got caught, there's a reason why we don't know Abe, because he didn't get caught. The Culper Ring was an incredibly successful spy network because they were all best friends. They wouldn't betray each others' friendships and, I think, that's why it worked.
What was it initially about the premise of this show and about your character in particular made you want to be part of it?
I think it was the sense that, "TURN" is a spy thriller and that genre really fascinates me in general. I love the 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, intrigue, high stakes and love triangles.
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 a really good idea for a television show. Also, AMC is a fantastic network that gives us programming at a really good level and of great quality, and I knew that a show like this would be [well done] from the look of the show, to the portrayal of the characters, to the acting, and especially the level of historical detail that we've managed to attain in the show.
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.
Obviously, the women in Abe's life are very influential in his decision. So are we going to see more of these relationships developed during the show?
Absolutely. The complexity of what the situation was of having a war going on around you, the complexity of what that delivers to you is as to 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 married to is much more of a Loyalist. Whereas his true love, his real dream girl, the girl that he's supposed to be with because it was his destiny, has a very strong Patriot leaning, so he's totally split that the mother of his child thinks one thing, and the woman who he loves and really should be with thinks another thing.
Those worlds do collide 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 his 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. Where Abe and Mary [Meegan Warner] start -- Mary is Abe's wife -- in the beginning of the show, in the pilot, is incredibly different to where the season finale finishes, and also between Anna Strong [Heather Lind] and Abe. The journey that we go is very rich and has a very strong arc to it.
So lots of stuff happens between those three characters, 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 [Seth Numrich] is, as Abe Woodhull is. She is a crucial element in that network.
Being English, do you think either American or English people possess a skewed version of the Revolutionary War and do you think "TURN" will help to fix this?
I think people are smart. They have the general sense of what happened. But I think what makes this show different, and what makes this a great piece of TV, is that, for people who don't even love spy stories, this a story about these young people, these kids, and what it took for these kids essentially to defy their own families, in some cases their wives and best friends.
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. "TURN" is steeped in the rich complexity of the Revolutionary War. We're literally bringing larger-than-life heroes to life.
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 remember learning about the Boston Tea Party, but we didn't go into the war, the politics, taxation and representation, or even look at the prominent figures, the founding fathers, like who Jefferson, Washington, John Adams or any of those guys were, who were trying to fight for something and change something.
Whereas, 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 a war. I think that's what Alexander Rose was interested in and I think that's exactly what [writer] Craig Silverstein is interested in.
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 towards the end of the season where I just actually got to play the truth, for once. It was 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, 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 real truth, what's really going on inside of him. It was such a weight off. I was like, "Oh, wow, why am I enjoying this scene so much? Oh, right, because you're not having to lie and pretend and fake. You're actually just getting to be real and genuine and explaining to someone how you feel."
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.
Is there is a historical figure of the time who hasn't been featured on the show yet, who you're interested in seeing?
There are a couple. Most prominently is Benedict Arnold, the famed turncoat of the Continental Army and Benjamin Tallmadge, who was actually friends with him in real life. Benjamin Tallmadge is also friends with Nathan Hale; he went to Yale with him. So if we are making a second season of the show, Benedict Arnold and that whole story line will be something that is heavily focused on.
There was this other guy called Robert Townsend who was a go- between. He was Abe Woodhull's man in New York. He's a great character. Alexander Rose writes about him at length in his book and, hopefully, he will come in for Season 2 as well. He makes it easier for Abe to get information back and forward.
There's lot in this tapestry that is yet untapped and I know Silverstein has very bold and ambitious stories that he still wants to tell to in Season 2. I'm pretty sure all of those characters will be featured.
"TURN" airs Sunday nights at 9 p.m. ET/PT on AMC.