Samuel Roukin, who plays John Graves Simcoe on AMC’s TURN: Washington’s Spies, talks about the worst punishment for Simcoe, why he’s even more brutal this season and how he loves that everyone wants his character dead.
Q: No one thinks they’re the bad guy. How do you think Simcoe justifies his reign of terror against Setauket?
A: When Simcoe’s given a mission, failure isn’t an option. He’s on the hunt for Culper and he thinks he’s solved the mystery. He’s so determined to get to the finish line that he is willing to knock down any obstacle – whether it’s there or whether he thinks it’s there. In his mind, he’s not terrorizing Setauket. He’s just trying to get closer to the jackpot. Now the problem for everybody in Setauket is that Simcoe’s moral code is in a vastly different place than most human beings. [Laughs] While a normal person would say “Look, we really need to get to the bottom of this. Let’s talk about it,” he’s like, “If you don’t tell me what you know, I will kill you and destroy this entire town!” The clock is ticking in his head.
Q: How did you and the writers form a different version of the real John Graves Simcoe?
A: Obviously it seems like he can’t have possibly been this bad, but how do we know? History is written by the winners and memoirs are written by the biggest fans, i.e., yourself. [Laughs] None of it is to be trusted 100%. When I was reading Simcoe’s memoirs and he says [something like] “We arrived in this town and stayed in this house,” you’re like “What? Did you book a room?” [Laughs] No, you went in and took the house and who knows what you did in the process. That’s just blurred over in the telling. Things like that seem innocuous, but I read into that as an actor. So, we haven’t veered beyond reality, we just filled in some gray areas. Our job isn’t to put a history book on TV. Our job is to take what we know about history and make great drama. You have to let yourself off the hook a bit. There’s a lot of room to play.
Q: Simcoe doesn’t get as many scenes this season to display his “softer side,” such as his scenes with Anna Strong in Season 1 and 2. Do you miss that? Do you think that has anything to do with Simcoe going full-throttle on the brutal side of his personality?
A: Absolutely. The lack of that distraction is a problem for everybody because he hasn’t got an outlet or a higher purpose. He’s just a professional soldier right now, and I don’t think he’s getting any from anywhere. He’s a stressed out dude – or a strung out dude, to be precise! [Laughs] Simcoe is definitely missing something, and I think it unquestionably leads him to be more agitated and quicker to be aggressive. He’s out there in the wilderness, it’s cold, it’s dirty, he’s on a wild goose chase… all these people are stretched. You’re seeing the real impact that the years of this war are taking on these people. Everybody on the show has lost something and you’re watching them go through a metamorphosis.
Q: Speaking of metamorphoses, a lot of characters this season have tried to kill Simcoe: Abe, Caleb, Hewlett, Robert Rogers. What did you think when Mary Woodhull was the one who got the closest to taking Simcoe out?
A: [Laughs] From a dramatic point of view, I think it’s brilliant, and I think it’s great that the audience shares that secret with her as well. I’m in a movie coming out in July called Equity, which is the first female-led Wall Street movie and it stars [Breaking Bad’s] Anna Gunn. It deals with equality in the workplace, impositions of power, and it’s really interesting to see the origins of that here during the Revolution. In this time, Anna loses all credibility as soon as she went to Washington’s camp, and Mary isn’t considered a powerful woman, despite them both actually taking bigger risks than most people. Some of the biggest risks in this spy ring and war are being taken by women, but they have none of the power.
Q: Simcoe is never one to shy away from getting his hands dirty, but it seems like this season, you were particularly covered in blood and grime. How do you prepare for the more physically challenging days on set?
A: I take a big, deep breath and hope for the best. I did take a chunk out of my finger when I got exploded backwards during the Robert Rogers fight [in Episode 3]. I took the weight of the guy in front of me, and he landed on my thumb and bent it in a weird way. When I got my ear shot off [in Episode 7], I fell down, missed the mat and just landed on the floor. It’s stupid stuff like that, but you rehearse it, then you just go for it and hope for the best. There’s no amount of preparation that will make you ready to roll around on the floor with Angus Macfadyen, though.
A: He’s empty and trapped because he can’t express what he’s feeling. He wants to kill at least three people in that one moment – his superior, the judge and Abe. And none of it can happen. What’s more, he gets evicted and humiliated in the same moment. You’re putting a very dangerous animal in a very volatile state of mind.
Q: Last season, you mentioned that desk work is the worst punishment for Simcoe. How do you think he could be punished now after the events of the Season Finale?
A: I don’t think there’s anything much worse than taking away his ability to be a solider, but the worst punishment is coming: the failed mission. We all know how this ends. He’s a man who likes success and he believes success is possible in this war. Otherwise, he wouldn’t care so much.
Q: Simcoe is a character people love to hate and hate to love. Have you had any interesting experiences with fans because of your role?
A: Every show needs an antagonist, and I’m happy to do it. I love how invested people are in hating Simcoe. I can’t tell you how many messages I get from people like, “No offense, but I wish you were dead.” Never has that been more of a compliment.
Read an interview with Ian Kahn, who plays General George Washington.
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