Owain Yeoman, who plays Benedict Arnold on AMC’s TURN: Washington’s Spies, talks about how it’s the “same sh*t, different coat” now that his character has defected to the British, and why the start of the season is very much themed “Benedict Arnold strikes back.”
Q: What are you excited for people to learn about Benedict Arnold after the events of his defection that they might not have known before?
A: I think it’s been a continued revelation for me to play this character. We don’t get a lot of information about the American Revolution in the UK. Ian Kahn jokes with me that it’s because we lost — if we’d won, we’d probably cover it extensively. And now we’re into a whole chapter of history where people don’t know a lot about Benedict Arnold. People remember his most infamous moment. But what’s been interesting about this story, going into it with Craig [Silverstein, Executive Producer], he said he wanted the first part of the season to be very much “Benedict Arnold strikes back.” I guess it’s The Empire Strikes Back this season, to continue with the Darth Vader references I made last season. [Laughs] I think this is an opportunity to pair a little bit of historical fact with entertainment. For one, I think the pairing of Benedict Arnold and Simcoe as spyhunters for the British makes for a tantalizing combination of villains — and one that did actually happen. So that journey has been very interesting, seeing those kinds of forces pair up. And also seeing the way that different villains have different moral codes. I think even Benedict Arnold this year manages to go a step further than perhaps even Simcoe would, and I think we’ve established Simcoe as a pretty ruthless and scrupulous villain. So it’s interesting to see the honor among thieves, and watch how those relationships don’t tie up as neatly as you would have expected them.
Q: Benedict seemed like he thought most of his problems would be solved by joining the British, but clearly that’s not the case. What is that like for him, to have risked so much for it to not pan out like he thought?
A: Going into this season, in my mind, I had the slogan, “Same sh*t, different coat.” There’s this promise on the Redcoat side that everything will be fine and he’ll suddenly be appreciated. And then of course he doesn’t get his money — they hold out on the money — so there’s a continuation of that. Above status and power, there’s only one thing Benedict is more interested in and that’s money. He believes that that will solve all of his problems, and as he begins to realize on the British side, that’s not going to be forthcoming either. And now he’s got the awkward position of already being branded a traitor, so he’s kind of a citizen of nowhere. He’s not welcome on the American side, and he’s not welcome on the British side because there’s great mistrust.
Q: What is Arnold and Peggy’s relationship like now that he’s settled into his new role on the British side?
A: I think their relationship going forward is under bigger strain than ever. She’s been through a lot too. Besides the fact that he hasn’t delivered any of the things he promised by defecting, to her, but there’s also this growing suspicion that she is one of the enemy party to him. He’s so paranoid, but perhaps not with bad reason when it comes to her. I think we’ve already established her as a Lady Macbeth figure last season, and we really begin to see her stranglehold over him dissolve a little, and I think that creates a whole new dynamic between them now where Benedict is newly wholly isolated and Peggy is finding it hard to control him, and that’s very dangerous for everyone.
Q: If last season Benedict’s arc was about the choice to become full traitor, how would you summarize his character arc this season?
A: There’s a couple of things I think are very important to Arnold’s character this year, and I think that’s the quest for reputation restored and a simple quest for revenge, on both a national and personal level. I think there’s a feeling that his country has betrayed him and that his friend has betrayed him. For the first part of the season, it’s a heavyweight battle between Washington and Arnold, and the stakes for that battle are extremely high. And I think the idea of not being able to establish who he wanted to be on the Continental side, now he has an opportunity to turn around and in a very childish way say, “So there. Told you so. Here’s the guy I could be.” His attempt to establish his own army is his last shot at redemption — and I think revenge and redemption are very central to his character this season. I think Season 4 Benedict Arnold is very anxious that he’s about to become the person we know him to be. And I think for the first time that might be the closest to introspection as we’ve seen his character come. This is a man who, as he’s getting older in years, is suddenly concerning himself with what his legacy might be; even the most arrogant and short-sighted person can see it’s not looking good for him. There’s a desperation there in Season 4 to try to turn it around and make it into something decent.
Q: In the Season Premiere, when Benedict Arnold writes a letter to Ben Tallmadge asking him to change sides, do you think that was born out of his desire to poach Ben’s knowledge to win the war, or more because he cares about and wants to work with Ben again?
A: I think there was a mixture of both. I enjoyed the dynamic Seth [Numrich] and I had. I thought it was an interesting one, because there was kind of this established sense that Benedict saw a younger version of himself in Ben. I think there’s always been this sense that Arnold regards Tallmadge as this valuable asset and admirable soldier. I think he just likes him, and we haven’t seen Arnold actually like many characters. I think when he reaches out to him, it’s from a genuine, kind of, point of view — but also a military point of view, because Ben is a very useful soldier, and what a great blow to have against Washington if he can bring over one of his key men. Whether or not it actually works, it gets Washington doing exactly what Arnold wants him to, which is questioning Tallmadge. It’s sowing the seeds of doubt, so I think Arnold knows what he’s doing in that respect. He’s putting a cat among the pigeons and seeing how many feathers he can ruffle.
Q: Considering Benedict’s past opinions on spies, it’s interesting we open on Season 4 with him as the new “Spyhunter General.” Can you talk about why he’s so hell-bent on capturing spies this season?
A: It’s an opportunity for him. As he’s said, spying is a non-face-to-face, cowards version of the war. For him, he’s a man who likes to be on the field, face to face with the enemy, and he likes to fight his battles in a very upfront way. But this is an opportunity to root out the underbelly, the dark side of it, or the cowardly side of it, as it were, and that’s something that’s relish to him. And the truth of the matter is he’s somewhat slightly incapacitated. He’s not the young, uninjured soldier that he was. I think he’s so desperate to be in the fight, and I think he’s realized from the intel that Washington received that this war will be — and was indeed won — on intel.
This gives him the chance to get one over on Washington, to be in as much of the fight that he can be, and also to leverage that power that perhaps he doesn’t understand. This is a side of war he isn’t very familiar with, and I think that the more he digs into it, the more he sees an opportunity for power, and with that power, reputation. He has so much to prove and time is running out, and as the war comes to a close, there’s this horrible feeling that he’s not going to be all the things he said he would be. When you’ve gone around and told everyone you were going to be the greatest general ever, the pressure to fulfill that must be paralyzing as the war is going on. [Laughs] And I think that’s what he’s realizing — that his days are numbered.
TURN: Washington’s Spies airs Saturdays at 9/8c.
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