Jamie Bell, who plays Abraham Woodhull on AMC’s TURN: Washington’s Spies, discusses learning about the American Revolution and talking to members of the CIA about the series.
Q: You were born in England. How much did you already know about the American Revolution? What kinds of things were you taught about the Revolutionary War in school?
A: I hope my teachers don’t slay me for saying this — and I might be wrong — but I learned literally nothing about that time in history. Even when I was reading the pilot script, I was like, “What are we talking about here?” We learned about all the other wars, but for some reason, the Revolutionary War just wasn’t something that was in textbooks. I was just amazed from reading the scripts by how little I knew about it.
Q: Have you read the book on which the series is based, Alexander Rose’s Washington’s Spies?
A: Yes. I was amazed by how little America as a whole knew about these people who did this incredible thing. People would ask me what I’ve been up to and I’d say, “A show about the Culper Ring,” assuming that it was definitely a part of American curriculum. Everyone would be like, “Culper what?” I was blown away — it’s so unknown. I think what Alexander’s book has done, and hopefully what we’ll do with the show, is shed some light and show people that beyond just Washington as this great leader and commander were incredibly hard-working people underneath him who took all these risks to pave the way for the future of the country.
Q: What kind of research did you do on the life of the real Abraham Woodhull? Did you learn anything about him that directly influenced your portrayal? Was there anything you learned about him that surprised you?
A: I emailed back and forth a lot with Alexander Rose and he emailed me a link to some of the letters that Abe Woodhull sent to Washington and Ben Tallmadge. His handwriting was incredibly difficult to read, and I think I know why. In filming the show, I often have to jot down a lot of information and I realized why you can’t read any of Abe’s writing –- it’s because he had to write incredibly quickly because he was always worried someone was going to catch him. One thing that stood out was just how paranoid he was about his own life. If you were caught, you’d be hung the next day. There’s not a lot known about Abe Woodhull. There’s much more written about the other characters, like Ben Tallmadge, who’s incredibly well-documented. If you know about a spy, that’s often because they weren’t very good. The fact that we know next to nothing about Abe says it all.
Q: Abe is a farmer-turned-spy. What do you think it took for him to go down such a completely different path?
A: I talked to some guys at the CIA about this. When we screened the pilot in D.C., they knew I was going to be the spy the moment they saw my cabbage field infested with maggots, because of money. It all starts from not having any money and you’re desperate. I was like, “Wow! You guys are really good.” Back then, crops were currency, especially for a farmer. There was also oppression, but more importantly, I think he understands the future of where he lives, and that’s enough of a push over the edge.
Q: Could you imagine yourself as a spy during those times?
A: No, and that’s why Abe Woodhull as a character is so vulnerable. He’s not ready for this. He’s not James Bond. He’s really afraid. To really walk that line and endanger my family -– I don’t think I could handle those pressures.
Q: Did you watch any other series or movies set during the Revolution to prepare for your role?
A: I watched John Adams almost every day. That show really focuses on the politics of the time. There are some great speeches in there and some great moments to remember what it is these people are fighting for.
Q: You previously appeared in the film Flags of Our Fathers, which is set during World War II. What do you enjoy most about acting in period pieces?
A: I always find myself in some part of history. It’s like time traveling to the most realistic versions of those times as we can come close to. It’s a thrill to be able to do that and call it work.
Q: Do you think there are any similarities between you and Abe?
A: Well, he’s also a father and he thinks a lot about his son’s future. He has very broad ideas about politics and life and right and wrong. I think, in some ways, he’s a dreamer.
Read an interview with Alexander Rose, author of Washington’s Spies, the book on which TURN: Washington’s Spies is based.Read More