Ian Kahn, who plays General George Washington on AMC’s TURN: Washington’s Spies, compares his character to a superhero and praises the Culper Ring for helping to form the modern-day United States.
Q: In Episode 9, Washington faces the revelation that Benedict Arnold is a traitor. What was like for you to play that moment in time?
A: It’s heartbreaking because we know there’s a traitor in the mix – Ben Tallmadge and Washington discover that at the end of Episode 8 – but the traitor is his closest general. General Washington was a man of great honor. Whether Arnold had reasons behind his choices, he was a traitor to the country and to the cause – and he lost. That’s why his name is nowhere in the country’s history in a positive way and Washington is on the dollar bill. It’s very palpable because I can imagine what it was like for my character. It’s also a challenging thing because Owain Yeoman is a good friend of mine. When we got to the point where he turns, it’s hard not to take it a little bit personally because it’s like, “Wow, this whole time you were just going to stab me in the back.” [Laughs]
Q: Owain mentioned the fraternal relationship between Arnold and Washington. What do you make of that dynamic?
A: Arnold was incredibly important in the success of the war. His victory at Saratoga was very key in getting France to join the Americans. If you’re up against the wall and you have someone who comes along and saves you, that person is very dear to you. Washington loves Arnold, cares for him and wants to see him succeed. He sees that congress is not treating Arnold fairly – certainly with the economic situation – but Washington says, “It’s always about what’s best for the country.” He has to look out for everybody and not just one of his favorites. Owain and I enjoy working together very much. We enjoy the fact that we’re these two large men who were leading an army together and now we find out that he’s actually joining the other side. I often think of it as a great football player, like Tom Brady, joining a different team. How would Bill Belichick feel about it? So, now not only do you not have me [on your team], but now you have to fight me, and you know how good I am. The odds against the Continental Army at the time were astronomical. It was a British Empire versus a ragtag bunch of men who were fighting for liberty.
Q: Since you play one of our most significant historical figures, do you ever experience any interesting fan reactions because of your role?
A: I don’t really look like him when I don’t have the wig and the costume on, so it takes people a minute. Fans of the show know me, but aren’t sure from where. When they find out, it can be quite dramatic because they feel as if they’re speaking to George Washington. They can be quite reverent towards the character, but I’m just Ian. I have a wife and two sons at home and that can keep you pretty grounded. As my wife says, “We still have ants in the house. So, go clean up the kitchen, George Washington!”
Q: Sounds like something Martha would say to George!
A: Wasn’t that a fantastic relationship? Lilli Birdsell brought such elegance and class to Martha. I want to see more. Another interesting thing about Season 3 is I get to work with women for the first time on the show. In the past, it was always just guys standing around a tent and figuring out how we could blow up other guys. To all of a sudden be able to work with Heather Lind, Ksenia Solo and Lilli Birdsell was just amazing. You get to see a completely different side to this man. He’s actually quite charismatic, unlike the portrait we’ve grown up looking at our whole lives of this bitter and cranky old man. He was a superhero. People loved him, women wanted to dance with him and guys wanted to be like him. He understood that there were greater things other than his own interests. His ego traps happened when he was young, and he learned from them. That’s a hard thing for a human being to learn. Look at what King George III said when he found out that Washington gave up power not once but twice. How do you beat a man that’s willing to give up power? At the end of the war, he could have been King George.
Q: Any behind-the-scenes highlights from set? What’s been your favorite thing about working on the show so far?
A: I’m going to say dancing with Ksenia Solo was one highlight, and we worked really hard on that ball. The writers are also playing at an incredibly high level this season. The series doesn’t just show the Americans as the good guys and the British as the bad guys. John André was an amazing man and beloved on both sides, and we see that. I think audiences like Major Hewlett, and he was a Redcoat. We get to see humans interacting in this incredibly rich and fertile time.
Q: America is going through an interesting time in politics. What’s it like for you to play one of the Founding Fathers while watching today’s political frenzy?
I wrote an article for The Huffington Post about what George Washington might think of the current political process. He was looking out for everybody and what was right for the country. I always think of him as a great-great-grandfather who left his descendants a great inheritance, and I hope and pray that we give it its due. I didn’t fully understand how important this war was. I always thought, “We fought against them and we won, so we get the country!” [Laughs] It was a lot harder than that. Without people like the Culper Ring, there would be no country. This country was earned by people like Abe, Townsend, Anna, Caleb and Ben, and we need to be grateful for this land.
Read an interview with Owain Yeoman, who plays Benedict Arnold.
TURN: Washington’s Spies airs Mondays 10/9c. Receive show exclusives by signing up for the Insiders Club.Read More