Turn, AMC’s new Revolutionary War drama that airs prior to Mad Men on Sunday nights, is based on the true story of Abraham Woodhull, a young farmer who became the lynchpin of America’s first spy ring. It’s an ambitious series, striving for historical accuracy while trying to locate the elusive sexiness in 1776. Luckily, they have Jamie Bell. The 28-year-old lead actor got his start tap-dancing in the streets in Billy Elliot and was last seen whipping Charlotte Gainsbourg in Nymphomaniac.
As Abe Woodhull, Bell makes the compelling choice to play against the hero archetype; his character doesn’t magically transform into a super spy when called upon, and is reluctant to even choose sides in the Revolution. But it’s clear that a transformation will happen. “We have to establish a war, which side people are on — there's a lot to lay down,” Bell says of the slow-burning drama. “But I think the quality in this show is in the gray areas, the fact that the spies were kids together and they turned against their families and their occupiers. I think that’s where the show succeeds. We just need a bit of time to get there.” Vulture spoke to Bell about the challenges of historical accuracy, the influence of Leonardo DiCaprio on his character, and — spoiler alert! — an iconic moment we can expect to see before the season is out.
You hear “spy drama” and you think James Bond, gadgets, disguises. But Turn takes the genre in a different direction.
The show very much is dealing with the origins of espionage. As we understand it today, espionage is seemingly so important to a country's infrastructure, to a country's security, that we’ve come to accept it as part of our lives. And it's done by professionals and they're stealthy and you don't see them, and there are drones, mobile-operated machines that go out and do dirty work — non-traceable entities, you know? But back in 1776, the idea of intelligence-gathering to try and win you a war was a brand-new concept. So who do you get to do that, you know? And this one guy, Benjamin Tallmadge, he went to the people he trusted the most: his best friends.
Your character, Abraham Woodhull, starts out very much not wanting to take sides.
I think certain events in his life have forced him to become repressed. He shut himself down, he shut his love down, he's lied to his family; he's strayed from his own story, his own destiny. And the events surrounding this war just keep pushing him further down the wrong path. So the journey of the character is stepping into that role of taking control, trying to fight for a better future for his son, and finding out what he believes in, finding his political voice. I do think it's dangerous when you start out a show with someone who's seemingly so cowardly, so repressed, so passive — it’s a risk. But it gives you so much to play with.
We’re used to seeing antiheroes on AMC, but Abe is a genuinely good guy who lives by a strong moral code. Are we going to see him move into more of a gray area as the show goes on?
Yes, well, the Walter Whites of the world are fascinating to watch; the Tony Sopranos are endlessly fun and entertaining. There is also something to be said of the good person who's forced to do bad things, who's forced to lie to his wife, who's forced to betray his father. And as the show progresses, he does get more entangled and he does do things that he wishes he hadn't, and that he won't ever be able to take back. Moral compasses in war, especially as a spy, are kind of questionable.
Seeing as not much is known about the historic Abraham Woodhull, how did you tap into that character? Was there a breakthrough moment when you figured out how to connect with him?
How he sounded was important. And it is practically impossible to be accurate with accents. We have some general sense that a lot of these [characters] are second and third generation English, some Scots, a mixture of the British Isles, Dutch obviously. So we have some sense of geography and how that geography traveled, but we don’t know genuinely what they sounded like; it's too difficult to say. So in coming up with just the sound of him — I've always just enjoyed the Irish lilt. I've always enjoyed that sound and the music in that voice. For some reason, to me, it screams, I don't know, passion, revolution, underdog, hero. And for some reason, it just felt appropriate to place him there. Also me and Kevin McNally, the guy who plays my father, we wanted to separate ourselves from one another.
Ah, that’s why you and your father have different accents!
I'm not too sure if it's ever actually spoken out loud in the show — but we wanted the idea that I sound more like my mother than him. I spent more time with my mother, I was raised by my mother, and that's why we sound so different. It's almost like we're not even part of the same family. So I listened to a lot of traditional Irish folk music, I read a lot of books, I watched as much on the subject as I could. But then I just also thought about how he must have been terrified. He must have just been paranoid, being a double agent, keeping track of the lies. You know, [showrunner] Craig Silverstein called it “The Departed in the Revolutionary War,” and when I look at what Leo did in that performance, that sense of paranoia — like, "I am actually going insane" — I thought was really good, and I thought appropriate for this character as well.
How far did authenticity go in terms of living on the set in the 18th century? Did you wear long shirts instead of underwear?
Yeah, yeah, they didn't really have underwear, which is difficult, especially when it says he's supposed to run out and he's shirtless. [Laughs.] I mean, we were filming the show during one of the worst winters recorded in the northeast of this country, so it basically started snowing in November and it didn't stop snowing until April. We literally had guys out there with leaf blowers trying to blow the snow out of the way. We were supposed to film — uhh, well it's a bit of a spoiler — but there's a crossing of a certain river that happens in the Revolutionary War, right?
I believe I know the one.
Yeah, we couldn't do that ‘cause the river was frozen.
Wasn't the river actually frozen, though? Didn't Washington’s men cross on Christmas?
They did, but I think it was actually just impossible for us to shoot. It became a matter of, how accurate can we be?
But you had to draw a line somewhere. I'm assuming you bathed.
Oh yeah, no, we all did that. And sometimes the guy who plays my father, Kevin, would come out in his costume wearing a pair of Ray-Bans. And you'd see lots of Redcoats with their iPhones and stuff. So sometimes you’d get taken out of the moment.
Shortly before Turn premiered, you had a featured role in Nymphomaniac, and next up you’ve got The Fantastic Four. Out of curiosity, do you see a connecting thread between those three projects?
Not particularly, no! Maybe there is and someone can draw six degrees of separation on that one. I'd be fascinated to know what it is! In a way, it’s [a question of], is continuity important? Is some sense of who you are as an actor important or is it always more interesting to do varied characters and different projects in different genres and not be nailed down to one thing? I dunno. I think there's something to be said for both of those kinds of strategies. I don't really operate from any kind of strategy at all.
It seems to me actors who have worked steadily from a young age are often less confined by the idea that they should play a certain kind of role. Is there a kind of freedom in that?
To be honest with you, I can't imagine just coming into the business now. I'd be terrified and it would probably scare me off. I wonder if coming in so young and not having those preconceived ideas of being an actor or working in Hollywood or being a celebrity — which obviously are all part of the business, part of the industry — if not having those things as a child just allows you to pursue things without any ... maybe without any forethought! [Laughs.] I've always done things without a second thought; like, if it's something that I want to do, I do it. There isn't a feeling of, “how's this gonna look, what happens if it doesn't work?” And somehow it hasn't steered me wrong yet. I mean, I thank my lucky stars daily that I'm even still working. Because I didn't see that coming.
Oh? What would you be doing now if you weren't an actor?
I have no idea. I think I probably would be a gardener or something. I'd have to be outside. Couldn't be inside.
You got your wish on this project.
[Laughs.] I know, that's what's horrible about it! I'm always like, “Well, I'll never do this again." Next time I read a script that says, Exterior, cold mountain and it’s raining, I'm just going to put the script down. And then again, every time it’s like, I'm in a field again and it's raining. How did that happen? How does it happen? Ridiculous.
Well, I'm looking forward to seeing you outside in the rain in all sorts of battle zones.
Yeah, freezing my ass off every Sunday night at nine!