In its four seasons, Turn: Washington’s Spies has blurred the line between hero and villain, without regard to the color of the Revolutionary War uniform. John André (JJ Feild) was the dashing British spymaster determined to snuff out the rebellion, but fans mourned him when he was captured by patriots and hanged at the end of season 3. Prominent Tory Judge Woodhull (Kevin McNally) constantly threatened to disown and expose his son, Abraham (Jamie Bell), the lynchpin of George Washington’s Culper spy ring, and yet when forced to choose between family and Crown, he chose his blood. Edmund Hewlett (Burn Gorman) represents colonial law and order, but his dedication to reason and science (and Anna Strong) also makes him a sympathetic figure.
And then there is John Simcoe.
God bless Simcoe. The towering British soldier is a sadistic menace to the American cause, and there is nothing quite so unnerving as his high-pitched, sing-song voice and his tight smile that sometimes feels like a death sentence. He’s stabbed victims in the neck at the dinner table, impaled suspects on fireplace grates, shot them, hanged them, poisoned a horse, and branded Caleb Brewster (Daniel Henshall) during a soul-crushing torture session. He’s smart. He’s ruthless. And he’s completely dedicated to his King and his own moral compass.
John Simcoe is a real-life historical figure, both villain and hero, it turns out (depending on which history book you study). The real Simcoe survived the war, but Turn has toyed with history before. In fact, Turn‘s creator Craig Silverstein seriously considered killing Simcoe off in the pilot. Thank goodness he didn’t. Simcoe, played by Samuel Roukin, has evolved into one of the most fascinating characters on the series, the jagged rock into which the show’s American heroes frequently crash.
In advance of Saturday night’s series finale (9 p.m. ET on AMC), Roukin discusses the chances that Simcoe survives the show’s last episode, the challenge (and joy) of playing such a relentless villain, and why he’ll always remember the day Simcoe sliced off another man’s tongue. It’s not okay to root for Simcoe, but you might miss him when he’s gone.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Congrats on creating one of TV’s most delicious villains. Even though he’s the Bad Guy, I’ve come to enjoy and trust Simcoe more than anyone else in Turn. He is completely truthful to his nature and to his priorities, in a way that most of the others are not. What did you like best about playing him?
SAMUEL ROUKIN: What’s most interesting for me as an actor is Simcoe has a very specific moral code, a very firm set of rules that are curiously outside the norms of other people, which makes the character unpredictable and hard to pin down. And that’s been really fun. Also, he’s a complex guy. He’s a man of contradictions. There’s so many layers to him that it’s been really fun to find out how he ticks and why he does the things that he does, as terrible as they are.
Anyone can open a history book to see how the Revolutionary conflict ends. And they can also discover that Simcoe survived the war to become a notable historical figure in Canada. But Craig Silverstein and the Turn writers have really put your character through such abuse this year — dying twice in fantasy sequences and getting shot by Caleb — that part of me is actually worried about your fate in the finale. Do I need to be concerned they’ll take dramatic license to deal with Simcoe?
It’s a total of eight kills for the series — I consider a kill on Simcoe if you think he’s dead. We include his ear being shot off by Mary, or any moments where you go to commercial and think, “Okay, Simcoe’s taken it, that’s it.” I don’t want to reveal whether or not he makes it or doesn’t and whether or not we take license. What I will say is that the arc is complete, and we certainly see the man he could become. We certainly see the roots of the man he could become after the war, and I feel like that was a real important thing for Craig and I. We discussed it at length, actually, about whether we could bring the Canadians back into our loving arms [laughs], primarily because I think there’s some real authenticity to that. I feel like the way that humans are when they’re a soldier in wartime is different to how they are as a civilian afterwards. And certainly, when you’re not the victor, what are you going to do with yourself afterwards? How do you move forward from that? So without giving it away, I will say that we certainly take home that challenge, and I’m really proud of the way we did it.
Craig has told me how he’s bumped into some Canadians over the years who have taken issue with your Simcoe. Have you encountered the same things, whether you’re walking the streets of Toronto or just with some Canadian friends? Do they point out, “Hey, that’s not the Simcoe we know.”
Yeah, it’s not so much venom, but there’s a healthy dose of, “You do know that this guy’s a hero!” and “You are aware that the street’s named after him! We have a lake!” And of course I’m aware, and hopefully, we’re dealing with that. The same can be said for people in general. Generally, the first thing people say to me when they meet me is “I hate you. I hate you.” That’s how it always starts. Then they’re like, “But I love you.” It’s confusing.
As we head into the final stretch, off the top of my head, there are at least three characters in vicious blood feuds with Simcoe — Abe, Hewlett, and Caleb. I could probably add others to that list. Is there a No. 1, No. 2 — are they all equal in priority? — in terms of his hit-list?
I think his oldest feud is with Woodhull. He never finished that job off. That’s his current top kill. But also the Hewlett feud is so deep and heavy at this point. And he kind of let the Hewlett thing go. He’s like, “All right, he’s gone back to England, let sleeping dogs die.” Then the dude comes back and frankly needs dealing with. Caleb, I think he’s already beaten, in his mind. He’s already taken him down, even without killing him.
This has been, I would think, a big part of at least four years of your life: this character and this show, these outfits and costumes, being down in Virginia and just the whole period. Looking back, is there a day or a scene that stands out as emblematic of your experience on this show and as John Simcoe?
One day that stands out massively, it was the scene in season 2 where Simcoe bayonets a guy through the throat in the tent at camp and then stakes his tongue to the desk. It’s a completely memorable day because it was also the day that my second son was born. Our baby was born. What happened was, my wife went into labor literally as we wrapped on the morning’s work. I made it to the hospital with like 30 minutes to go to my son being born. And then a few hours later, I kinda looked at the clock and looked at my wife, who was kind of dozing off, and I thought, “They may or may not want me back at work…” So anyway, I went back on set. The crew gave me a round of applause as I came back. We wrapped at about 11:30 that night, around midnight, and then I went back to the hospital and spent some time with the baby and my wife. So a baby was born, and Simcoe dispatched a soldier at the same time. That was a really kind of perfect day, and I’ll never forget that.
But there’s been so many memorable scenes, and in fact, there’s a scene in episode 9 with Hewlett [in the hospital tent], which is really the completion of that story line. I don’t know why, but it became emblematic for me of the show finishing. That story line has been going from episode 1 [of season 1], and so for it to reach its conclusion, for Burn Gorman and myself as well as just the two characters, that was a scene that I’ll never forget. And it was written incredibly by LaToya Morgan, just a beautifully crafted scene. And I know that we both kind of finished our scene and went, “Oh… that’s it, isn’t it?” Even though we had another episode to shoot, we were like, “We’re never going to do that again.”
What’s been the impact of Simcoe on your other work? Do you go into auditions or meetings now and find people are surprised that your actual voice is lower than Simcoe’s or do they assume that you only play bad guys now?
I don’t ever feel boxed in by it, and I don’t feel like I have been anyway. It’s been a really positive experience, going into meetings with people now because [Turn is] a reference point now. And yes, people, when they think of me, they think, “Oh yeah, he does a villain.” But frankly, they’re the most complex and interesting characters to play, and I’m not someone who’s going to turn around say, “But I don’t want to do villains anymore.” That would be like saying, “I don’t want to play complex characters.” When you are lucky enough to take on characters that have a lot of layers and a lot of complexities, I think people in our business understand that that means you’re capable of really tackling anything.