Hypable discussed history, family, and the price of war in a conference call with Jamie Bell, the star of AMC’s historical espionage series, Turn.
Jamie Bell stars as the shadowy Revolutionary War figure Abraham Woodhull in Turn, a new drama which premiered Sunday on AMC.
Hypable spoke with with Bell about his experiences learning about and playing the character, an integral member of the Culper spy ring. Though not widely remembered by American history, Woodhull and his compatriots are credited with turning the tide of the American Revolution and inventing the craft of modern espionage.
In spite of Woodhull’s relative anonymity (“There is no monument to him” in Washington, the actor notes) Bell admits that he felt the “huge responsibility” of bringing Woodhull to life. With the help of Alexander Rose, author of Washington’s Spies, Bell pieced together the complicated and conflicted character.
“He was stickler when it came to being reimbursed by [George] Washington,” Bell notes wryly, also recounting a story of Woodhull’s intense paranoia during the Revolutionary War period. Abe was “on edge the entire time,” Bell says. As a spy, “you were bound to slip up, bound to be found out.”
Yet it is Woodhull and the Culper Ring’s unprecedented success as spies which makes the story so fascinating. Bell was eager to emphasize Woodhull’s unremarkable origins as the series began. “He’s an ordinary guy in an extraordinary situation,” he says. “He’s a farmer!” And it is another seemingly ordinary element – the powerful friendship between members of the spy ring – to which Bell strongly credits their strength.
“They were kids,” he says. “Best friends, trying to get out of a bad situation.”
Turn also looks deeply into the complex politics and forgotten details of that dark time. Especially as a native of England, Bell says he was surprised to learn “how close Washington was to losing the war, more than once.” In 1776, the Continental Army was truly in retreat; the success Americans now take for granted was far from assured.
Bell was also intrigued by the layers of conflict within the war. The situation wasn’t “so black and white” as a rebellion against an occupying force. Rather, the war was in many ways an internal rebellion. It was “families turning on themselves,” he says. “Fathers and sons, as it is in our show, husband and wife.”
All of the characters in Turn, Bell observes, “want to be on the winning side of history and have no idea what that is.”
The relationships destroyed and built in that turbulent time are another focal point of Turn – especially those between Abe Woodhull, his wife Mary (Meegan Warner), and his childhood love, Anna Strong (Heather Lind.)
“The woman [Abe is] with is much more loyalist-leaning,” Bell says, “Whereas his true love… has very strong patriot leanings. So he’s kind of always split… and those worlds do collide in the show.
“Personally, his relationships with those two women definitely do have their highs and lows,” Bell observes, noting the pendulumn-like arc of Abe’s emotional journey with the two women. His relationship with Mary is cold and fraught as the show begins, but may thaw as time passes. “And also between Anna and Abe – the journey that we go on is very rich, and very strong.”
Bell also says that Turn will shed more light on the role that women and minorities played in the Revolutionary War. “I wanted it to be incorporated into the show,” he says. “It happens early on.” As a spy in her own right, Anna Strong “risked just as much,” as the male members of the Culper ring, “And we really see that on the show. Also the issue of slavery is truthful to the time, but we focus on those characters specifically.”
Several slave characters “will have their own story arcs,” Bell promises. They were “just as important to winning the war” as any member of the Continental Army.
If AMC renews Turn for future seasons, Bell says he hopes to see other historical characters incorporated into the story. Benedict Arnold is a favorite choice for future story lines, as is a go-between from New York named Robert Townsend.
There is “lots in this tapestry that is yet untapped,” he says.
Turn airs on Sunday nights at 9:00 p.m. on AMC.