Turn: Washington Spies: JJ Feild is winning the battle for American hearts and minds
The star of AMC’s Revolutionary War drama, Turn: Washington’s Spies, is Jamie Bell, who plays a Long Island farmer turned reluctant patriot named Abraham Woodhull who becomes one of the major players in a New York spy ring that helped the Americans turn the tide of the war. In season 2, he shared the stage with the austere General George Washington (Ian Kahn) and the splashy introduction of soon-to-be-notorious American hero, Benedict Arnold (Owain Yeoman). It’s ironic, perhaps, then, that the show’s most compelling character is the Americans’ most formidable adversary, British Major John Andre.
In season 2, which arrives on DVD on March 22, Andre (JJ Feild) has settled into occupied Philadelphia — living in Ben Franklin’s abandoned mansion, no less — awaiting the inevitable crushing of the colonial rebellion. He combines work and pleasure to pursue Peggy Shippen (Ksenia Solo), a wealthy and beautiful socialite who once flirted with America’s boldest and most respected field general, Benedict Arnold. Even while he’s falling for Peggy, he’s setting the trap to tempt Arnold to betray the revolutionary cause and hand the Brits victory.
Andre is a charming fellow, a tribute to the man himself and the actor who brings him to life. The 37-year-old Feild is an American-born Brit, and there are episodes in season 2 where you can’t help but root for him, damn the history books. Not only is he more clever than any of his peers, always three steps ahead of superiors and the amateur American spymasters, but he is noble and well-intentioned — the best and the brightest of his generation. History may not be on his side, but as his romantic triangle with Shippen and Arnold tilts away from him, he suddenly has become the character many viewers care most about. In this exclusive featurette from the season 2 DVD, the personal and professional landscapes are established that explain how the desires of three people will decide the fates of two nations.
When season 3 of Turn returns on April 25, Andre is feeling intense pressure: to crack the Culper ring, to win back Peggy, and to turn a crucial rebel so as to end the war. He’s the rare breed who would try to accomplish all three in one fell swoop.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Your John Andre has become one of the great secret weapons of the show. I suspect that the juicy pitch that sold AMC was the story behind Benedict Arnold’s treachery. But for viewers and students of history, I feel like the looming tragedy of John Andre is becoming the heart of the story. How was the character initially pitched to you?
JJ FEILD: I was actually in Sundance with Austenland of all things, and AMC approached me there. They sent me the script, and in the pilot, Andre didn’t have much so I was sort of confused [about] what I would do. Then, I simply started the world of research and discovered this incredible man who seemed to be the right man on the wrong side of history. And that’s sort of how [showrunner] Craig Silverstein pitched it to me. We talked about the man who turned Benedict Arnold and the man who ultimately paid the price for someone else’s treachery.
That’s very well put: the right man on the wrong side of history. Because Andre’s background was not wealthy or noble or elite; he had a very modest background.
Yeah, he was a self-made man. His father was a merchant. I suppose you would say middle class. He had this incredible story where he was sort of shunned at the altar by a woman who was of higher status than he was. She backed out of an engagement and very soon after, he signed up [for the army]. He proved himself in the Canadian campaign before moving down to America. In fact, he was a prisoner of war for 18 months — this is before the show starts, as it were. In those days, if you were an officer, that meant basically that you were a house guest of someone. So he spent 18 months staying at different [American] officers’ houses and entertaining them and their wives down the east coast of America, so he was already very well known to the Americas before the Benedict Arnold story. And what I was always interested in that he had a great love of America. I think he fell in love with the place, and really thought that he was going to try and make this work. But sadly, all went wrong.
He’s quite the seducer.
Yes, he has a way with the ladies. After he died, there were all the houses that he stayed in when he was a prisoner of war that seemed to have a locket of his hair and a drawing of the husband’s wife. That’s not just a polite house guest. I think he ingratiated himself with just about everyone he could find. Quite a well-known womanizer. I read somewhere, whether it’s true or not, that Ian Fleming originally based James Bond on John Andre, as the first gentleman spy.
And not necessarily just women, right? There’s some presumed intimacy in season 2 with his senior officer, with hints of sexual attraction.
There’s a lot of propaganda, that Andre and Clinton were lovers — a lot of American propaganda. It was always seen as complete propaganda. But what we had fun with was going, “Well, what could be the truth behind the rumors?” There’s a ballroom scene where Clinton sort of eyes up some of the younger, prettier male officers, and I think it’s a very clever way to hint at a rumor that may or may not be true. But the writers have this huge love story that they had to follow through, which is with Peggy Shippen.
At the end of season 2, things aren’t going well for Andre. Monmouth Courthouse backfires and Peggy is in the arms of Benedict Arnold. Where will we find Andre in season 3?
What’s wonderful about where we’ve ended up with Andre at the end of 2 and then into the beginning of 3 and through 3 is this is a man who’s always in control and plans every minuscule detail. For the first time, he’s out of control and he’s out of his depth. He’s not expecting to, (A) fall in love, and, (B) make decisions of the heart instead of decisions of his mind. So his judgment is impaired and he makes wild, rash dangerous decisions which start to backfire. And that downward spiral of his judgments and decision making is what ultimately is the demise of him. I’m not saying anything which isn’t in history so I don’t think I’ll get in trouble, but Andre was captured for the most ludicrous things. They were just bad judgment calls. He was captured behind enemy lined in civilian clothing, carrying documents in his boot. It’s just a series of terribly, terrible bad luck and bad judgment calls rather than buffoonery and stupidity.
Andre and Robert Rogers are two of my favorite characters. At the end of last season, it feels like these two are now on a collision course. Can I look forward to them as potential adversaries?
Yes, absolutely. It takes awhile. They go off on their separate journeys, but they are interwoven and Rogers is hellbent to seek vengeance on Andre.
Craig has talked about extending the show past the revolution and into the baby steps of independence, but obviously your days are numbered. How close are we to getting to [West Point] in the autumn of 1780. Is that part of season 3 or is that still seasons away?
Well, what am I allowed to say? The end of the war wouldn’t be [season] 3. The end of the war would be 5. Season 3 is really the Benedict Arnold story. The pinnacle of season 3, the crescendo is West Point and Arnold, and how Andre is obviously the mastermind of it. I can’t say any more than that, but I think you can figure that out.
No. [Laughs] What is that?
On Mondays after the show, there are lots of fans of John Andre and of yourself who post the most handsome picture from that Sunday’s episode.
Wow. I’m scared to join Twitter and Facebook because I think the adding of any more narcissism for an actor would cause an actor’s brain to explode. I don’t get social media. It’s completely bizarre. But I’m going to be a complete hypocrite and dive into #MajorAndreMonday.
Turn: Washington's Spies