At a January press conference, British actor Jamie Bell was asked what he learned about the American Revolution as a schoolboy — years before he signed on to play Culper Ring spy Abraham Woodhull in AMC’s new, fact-based drama TURN.
Bell offered a wry smile and a brief response.
“They taught us that we lost,” he said.
Later, discussing the series in an airy Pasadena restaurant, Bell admits he finds the relevance of most period dramas questionable, but TURN — based on historian Alexander Rose’s 2006 book Washington’s Spies about a little-known group of childhood friends who risked everything to help George Washington secure America’s independence — quickly won him over with its moral and emotional complexities. So he got out his dictionary and got to know Woodhull and his remarkable band of brothers.
“I honestly did read the pilot with a dictionary, because there were a lot of words that I didn’t understand — Tory, Loyalist, Continental Army,” Bell smiles. “All these very simple premises, which I obviously understand now and feel completely ridiculous that I didn’t know what they meant.”
If you’re in the same boat, not necessarily inclined to revisit your own childhood history lessons via a weekly drama series, the engrossing and beautifully crafted TURN, from Bones producers Barry Josephson and Craig Silverstein, might change your mind, too.
The tale begins in Setauket, Long Island, in 1778, years after the Boston Tea Party and the signing of the Declaration of Independence, but long before America’s autonomy was settled. The town is occupied by arrogant British troops, amplifying conflicting Patriot and Loyalist allegiances that already pit family member against family member and neighbor against neighbor as the colonists wrestle with the wisdom of breaking completely from king and country.
“America, as an idea, wasn’t really even established yet,” Bell says. “This show delves into that really well — that it’s not so much ‘the invaders’ and ‘the occupied.’ You really get a sense that these people are essentially all from the same place, and they’re really fighting over that sense of separation.”
In addition to the British stronghold, Woodhull is also under the watchful eye of his magistrate father, an outspoken and opportunistic Loyalist who intended for his son to become a lawyer on the side of King George III, too. Forsaking his considerable education and his father’s aspirations, the younger Woodhull instead farms cabbage and raises a son with his Loyalist wife after his betrothal to childhood sweetheart Anna Strong, a Patriot, is undone by their sparring families. His apprehension about the conflict is evident in his stricken expression when his wife observes him teaching their baby to walk and reminds him, “The faster he learns to walk, the sooner he learns to march.”
“The one passion that he has — and doesn’t mind expressing — is his love for his son,” says Bell, himself the father of a baby boy with his wife, actress Evan Rachel Wood. “He’s conflicted because he wants his son to grow up in the best possible way and in the best possible conditions — possibly as a free man. He wants the best for his family. But to get the best for his family, he has to risk his family. That’s a complicated thing, and we’re really going to get into how he really has to balance this out. Is it worth doing what you believe and what you believe to be right and potentially risking your family and your life? Or staying behind and having your kid grow up in a world where he doesn’t have a say in his own life?”
Meanwhile, in New York, Benjamin Tallmadge — a Yale classmate of Nathan Hale (he of famous last words “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country”) has barely survived his regiment’s massacre at the hands of Robert Rogers’ Queen’s Rangers. Realizing that the Redcoats can predict the Continental Army’s every move and frustrated by Washington’s penny-pinching stance on sussing out enemy agents, Tallmadge takes matters into his own hands, recruiting his childhood friend Caleb Brewster into service as a spy and plotting to bring Woodhull and Strong aboard, too.
In short order, the band of friends — who christened themselves the Culper Ring — develop what executive producer Silverstein calls the birth of modern tradecraft. “Aliases, cover stories, dead drops, the idea of a black budget, a lot of cryptography — these things were invented by the Culper Ring, but out of necessity, not because they came in as experts and knew what they were doing,” he explains.
Which, Bell says, makes their unlikely success and unbreakable bond — and TURN, in turn — all the more compelling.
“Spies and spy stories are just such a part of our tapestry now,” he says, “and they are such great stories because there is such personal risk. But I would love to see what James Bond would do with a quill, some ink and a piece of paper under those same kinds of situations. And it’s such the way of the world now. Espionage comes into all aspects of life — warfare, politics, media, even entertainment to a certain degree. And our personal lives — Facebook — we’re all secretly spying on each other all the time! This is the beginning of how that works. This is what won a country’s freedom. And these guys are literally doing it with a quill, a piece of paper and a belief.”
TURN premieres Sunday, April 6 at 9/8CT on AMC.