Turn: Meet Alexander Hamilton
It took 29 episodes of Turn: Washington’s Spies, but Alexander Hamilton is finally in the room (in the room where it happens). The ill-fated and often overlooked Founding Father has risen to new heights in the culture, thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash Tony-winning musical, but Turn seemed to be intentionally avoiding him as season 3 steamed toward the climax of Benedict Arnold’s treachery at West Point, where the infamous Revolutionary War traitor plotted to hand the crucial American fort over to dashing British spymaster John André.
In the season’s penultimate episode, “Blade on the Feather,” which airs Monday night on AMC, Sean Haggerty’s Hamilton is introduced, quite literally, as George Washington’s brilliant aide-de-camp when the General’s entourage visits Arnold on their way to meet their new French allies in Connecticut. Since Turn is the story of Arnold’s infamous betrayal and the American spy ring that kept Washington one step ahead of the British, Hamilton’s first few scenes are definitely of the “talk less, smile more” variety. He doesn’t dominate the action as Hamilton actually was prone to do, but in the exclusive clip above, you can see how he can be charming when he wants to be.
Haggerty certainly looks the part, and his resemblance to Hamilton helped him land the job. For the show’s first two seasons, the 33-year-old Virginia native had been a Turn stand-in, learning as much as he could as a background player on the show’s colonial sets. “I got a lot of help from Jamie Bell actually, because without even talking to him about it, one day on set he just said, ‘You look like the guy on the $10 bill,'” says Haggerty, who got his start playing an extra on The Wire and then had a small role in the HBO miniseries, John Adams. “I just went with it and kept kind of promoting that. Honestly, I did sort of lobby and delicately campaign to both [executive producer] Barry Josephson and [showrunner] Craig Silverstein early on that I wanted to play Hamilton.”
But what the producers didn’t know yet was that Haggerty already had some experience playing Hamilton. He starred as the Revolutionary War hero in a 17-minute biography that was produced by the National Park Service in 2013. “That was when I really learned about Hamilton for the first time,” he says. “I got a hold of Ron Chernow’s book. That changed everything for me. From the moment that I sort of stepped into the shoes and started understanding who he was, I realized, this is an important story for America. He’s an unsung hero.”
But it’s unusual for TV shows to promote extras to major character roles, no matter how much they might resemble the historical figure. Haggerty, fortunately, found an ally in Marvin Rush, Turn‘s director of photography best known for lensing several of the Star Trek TV shows. Rush reviewed Haggerty’s audition reel and suggested that his compilation of mostly-background clips needed something that better showcased his ability as a leading man. “He said, ‘Get a good actor to play off of and write a scene, and I’ll shoot it for you,'” says Haggerty. “I picked my jaw up off the floor and said thank you.”
Haggerty recruited Seth Numrich, who plays Culper spymaster Benjamin Tallmadge, and the two collaborated on a scene that Rush ultimately filmed during the end of season 2. “[Seth] helped mold that scene and made it great,” says Haggerty. “It was a scene in Washington’s tent, where Ben comes in expecting to see Washington and there’s Hamilton there, working. And there’s this great little exchange, where Hamilton is sort of toying with Benjamin by giving him all these clues of all these [secret] things that he knows. It’s this great start to their relationship, because there’s immediately a sort of friendly rivalry that I think would’ve really existed between these guys because they were each trying to be the best son to George Washington.”
The standalone scene won Silverstein and the show’s writers over, and though they ultimately opted for a different introduction to the character, Haggerty got the job. “We knew Hamilton was there down the line at West Point and for a lot of the action that happens in terms of Benedict Arnold’s defection,” Silverstein told the Richmond Times-Dispatch earlier this year. “But we are such a large cast and we were tightening our belt budget-wise this season, so we thought there was no way we’d add Hamilton. But here’s somebody local who turned in an amazing audition. And that’s how Sean became Hamilton in the show.”
It remains to be seen how large a role Haggerty’s Hamilton will play in the future, assuming AMC picks up a fourth season of Turn. The show has stubbornly shied away from letting prominent historical figures overwhelm the drama they’ve been building around the Setauket-based spy ring. Washington was an inevitable addition who’s become one of the show’s key characters — thanks to actor Ian Kahn — but Lafayette’s entrance in season 2 was brief and obligatory. His upcoming scenes at West Point with Hamilton are the first time he’s appeared since.
It’s no surprise that Haggerty would like to see Hamilton play a more essential role, one that reflects the history of how Hamilton helped win the war and create a nation. “To really show Washington, you need to show him with his inner circle,” says Haggerty. “I know that Ian was very pleased with having Hamilton being brought into the story. On those days that we were shooting on set, it just seemed to make so much sense. I mean, he’s there. It’s almost impossible to separate Hamilton from this story at this particular point. At the same time, I absolutely respect the writers room, because at the end of the day, they have a bigger vision that they have to play out. So I‘m waiting for the call. The moment they call me, the answer is yes.”
In other words, Haggerty has no intention of throwing away his shot.
Turn: Washington’s Spies airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on AMC.
Turn: Washington's Spies