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First Look: Benedict Arnold joins the fight in 'Turn'

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Benedict Arnold 1
Antony Platt/AMC

If the title of AMC’s Revolutionary War drama didn’t initially seem to encompass the events that unfolded in season one, it will be extremely self-evident in season two when Benedict Arnold, the most infamous traitor in American history, enters the fray. After whispers of Arnold’s battlefield heroics popped up last season, British actor Owain Yeoman (The Mentalist) joins the cast as the notorious turncoat who conspired to betray the patriot cause and hand over the American stronghold at West Point in 1780.

Combined with last year’s mid-season debut of General George Washington (Ian Kahn), Arnold’s introduction is oozing with dramatic possibility. One of Turn‘s most compelling characters is Major John André (J.J. Feild), the elegant British intelligence chief—and all-around bon vivant—who’s just beginning to appreciate the nascent Culper spy ring being organized by Washington, his loyal officer, Benjamin Tallmadge (Seth Numrich), and their secret source in British-occupied New York, cabbage farmer Abraham Woodhull (Jamie Bell).

André is a master of the dark arts of espionage, and last season, he attempted to turn the captured American general, Charles Lee, in order to end the rebellion and restore a more cordial relationship with the colonies. Even amateur historians know that it’s just a matter of time before André and Benedict Arnold cross paths and break bread over a similar conversation.

Of course, it’s easy to condemn Arnold, whose very name conjures up every sort of vile betrayal in the American consciousness. Yeoman, on the other hand, has a very different take on the patriot-turned-spy, and season two of Turn promises to dig deeper into the increasingly complex drama of passion and loyalties that precipitated and were then exploited in a war that pitted neighbor against neighbor.

EW: The name Benedict Arnold strikes a nerve in the American soul. It’s synonymous for someone who backstabs a friend. Did you know what you were getting into with this role?

OWAIN YEOMAN: When I first signed on, [executive producer Barry Josephson] said to me, “Congratulations, you’re about to play one of America’s most hated traitors.” [Laughs]

He’s infamous in America, practically an epithet for someone who commits treason. But I’m guessing he’s hardly a footnote in Britain. Did you know who he was when you were growing up?

It’s interesting. I remember an interview that Jamie Bell had done, saying just how poorly the Brits were educated on American history. My mum was a history teacher, so woe to this child who wasn’t good at his history homework, but it’s true, the Brits are sort of less informed about the American Civil War and American Revolutionary history. But it was quite liberating in the sense that I didn’t have any of that kind of preexisting or preconceived notion of who he should be. I think it’s very important as an actor that when you come to play a character, you don’t kind of make any judgements on “This guy’s a good character” or “This guy’s a bad character.” And we’ve certainly made a very conscious effort to try and create Benedict Arnold as being very misunderstood, almost like a fall-from-grace story; as a guy who, really, had history sort of gone slightly different, he could’ve been American’s greatest general. He was just passed over so many times, and I think there were only so many slights that he could take before, ultimately, when the opportunity came to defect, he made what seemed like a personally and strategically expeditious move.

Part of the reason he’s so infamous here is because of his heroic stature at the time. He was so revered by important people, and we got a whiff of that in season one, in the few times that Ben Tallmadge spoke glowingly of his heroics at the Battle of Saratoga. How does he make his introduction on the show?

I literally sort of blow the doors down, and it’s very much a kind of “I’m here!” kind of entrance. [Showrunner Craig Silverstein] and Barry and myself, we wanted to make sure that we caught this guy in the finest hour of his glory. I don’t think I’ve ever been given a greater way to enter a series. I have to thank Craig for that. It was an amazing scene to film, where I come in and rail against Congress and I rail against all the military incompetency that I’ve been struggling with on the battlefield. He’s a very explosive, a very virile character, and it’s a very exciting direction for the show to be taken. The Benedict Arnold that we certainly wanted to establish is all these things: a great leader, a great champion, someone who’s going to be a powerful general.

In one of the photos, Arnold is charging on horseback through the smoke of the cannons with his saber raised. Is that Saratoga or some other battle? 

That was a flashback to Saratoga. That’s where we see, I guess what you could call, the career-ending leg injury. When the character is introduced, he already has a slight limp because he’s been hit in the leg already. But the Saratoga injury is quite spectacular. I’d love to be able to accept all the glory for it, but my stuntman was fantastic. He gets shot in the leg, falls from the horse, and it’s all being remembered in a way that very nicely works into a monologue by John André. André is talking about how this character could be ripe for the picking in terms of someone who might be able to defect, someone who’s in the heart of Washington’s camp. This poor guy was injured in the same leg three times, so he’s sitting, very disgruntled, very disappointed, in a medical tent, in a leg brace. I think it’s nice gestation period where we can see, understand, and sympathize with all the gripes that are beginning to grow in Benedict Arnold. He’s someone who wants to be out there; he wants to be active, he wants to be recognized for the good things he’s doing. And none of those things are happening. So I think we’re sowing the seeds for that kind of festering discontent, this kind of linchpin moment, where as he sits in inactivity and those kinds of bad thoughts begin to brood. They’re the things the British want to prey on.

Craig Silverstein told me some of the action in season two shifts to Philadelphia, which is where Arnold fatefully meets Peggy Shippen, the beautiful young lady who would play a role in his betrayal of the patriot cause. 

I’m still yet to meet Ksenia Solo, who plays Peggy Shippen, so all of the beginnings of that are still yet to happen. They’ve been kind of establishing the relationship between Peggy and Major André. So at the moment, all of my romantic warmup work has been done by J.J. [Feild], and then I’ll pick up the baton later. Peggy becomes a catalyst for [his defection], but she also becomes a bit of sweetness, someone who can say, “Listen, it’s all good.” When Arnold’s with women, he’s a little more vulnerable, a little more romantic. But in many respects, she will become his Lady MacBeth. And I think it’s very interesting: there’s two very interlinking and very separate stories—Benedict Arnold’s A-plot and B-plot, as it were, the romantic and the military. And the two of them haven’t yet run together. We’re establishing him right now as this great general, this guy who’s been overlooked repeatedly by Congress. Hopefully, the plan is to allow this story a bit of a longer burn. And it also becomes a very interesting counterpoint to the Culper Ring.

So then who have you been sharing most of your scenes with so far?

I’ve been doing a lot of stuff with Ian Kahn, who plays George Washingon, and with Seth Numrich, who plays Ben Tallmadge. Really, there’s some interesting dynamics there. It’s almost like a fraternal and paternal thing happening there in many respects. They’re trying to establish Benedict Arnold as as close to George Washington’s righthand man as you can get, and Ian plays Washington so beautifully and so stoically. He’s a very statuesque character who is not very emotionally invested in anyone, but he really has a personal investment in Benedict Arnold and feels very personally slightly when Benedict Arnold doesn’t get the recognition from Congress that he deserves. Whereas, with Ben Tallmadge, there’s this kind of feeling, certainly from my part, that Tallmadge embodies a lot of what Benedict Arnold sees in a younger version of himself. We’ve already been sowing the seeds for making Tallmadge sort of Benedict Arnold’s righthand man and trying to teach him how to recognize all the things to watch out for for Washington in a camp that he says is filled with Judases and Machiavellis.

From Saratoga to West Point, where Arnold is exposed as a traitor, is about three years. Should we expect to get all the way there in season 2?

Well, I signed on for three seasons, so the hope is that the storytelling arc might be a little bigger than that.

It must be amazing to walk onto this set, dressed in Revolutionary-era costume, surrounded by Revolutionary armies, and walking through Revolutionary Philadelphia or what have you. How did it feel that first day?

It’s the first step in the creative process for an actor. That transformation begins when you put on the seven layers of your pantaloons and your vest and your stockings. I was talking the other day to Seth, saying that it’s almost like doing theater but on TV. You really don’t get that opportunity in a lot of shows to feel like your delving into a character with this amount of depth, and just the production design and the writing—everything really puts you in that period, in that mindset. You have to not have a pulse to not be moved by this. It is quite stirring, quite intimidating.

When you tell your American friends who you’re playing, have you noticed anything unusual about their reaction?

There’s always a sharp intake of air. A kind of “Fffffff… Oh, you’re playing him. I see.” But I love that because it almost throws down a bit of a gauntlet and sets a preconception that I want to challenge. Because I believe that someone like Benedict Arnold has such a bad reputation in history, but maybe we haven’t considered all of the things that made him famous before he was infamous. And if we can celebrate his good side, then seeing his demise is that much more powerful. And as I’ve played him, I’ve found so much to like about him, which might sound controversial. But I think behind every great misunderstood man, there is a motivation and a desire for something. His desire to lead and to win and to be powerful is so great, that it’s infectious to play. Certainly, that’s what were trying to work on right now: a very complicated multifaceted character who is slightly misunderstood by history, and hopefully we can sympathize with and empathize with and say, “Okay, I might not like what he did, but I certainly understand it.”

Season two of Turn is scheduled for spring 2015.