Nick Westrate, who plays Robert Townsend on TURN: Washington’s Spies, shares insight on the pivotal scene with Rivington in Episode 8, the power of the press during the Revolutionary War, and what it’s like to film in historical Virginia.
Q: Pulling a one-eighty from his usual cautious nature, Townsend takes a lot of risks this season for the spy ring. What do you think has caused that shift in him?
A: It’s not until he was completely shut off, which we don’t really get to see until that one moment where I burn everything in the room [in the Season 4 Premiere]. After that, he’s so cut off and so deprived, he realizes he has to do something in order to save his life, in order to save his family’s life. Doing nothing is just not an option.
Q: In Episode 8, Rivington realizes Townsend is a spy. What did you think of that moment when you first read it in the script?
A: It’s such a beautifully written scene. When I first read it in the script I was so excited, because I love acting with John Carroll Lynch, and I think that scene is so precise — they don’t mince words, and especially Townsend doesn’t mince words. He uses his tactics against Rivington to save his own hide and to save the ring. And the most beautiful part about it is Rivington lets him continue, that there’s a bit of the old idealist left in Rivington, and he’s moved by how fully [Townsend is] willing to sacrifice [himself] for the ring in that moment, that he lets [him] complete it.
Q: What was it like filming that tense, character-defining scene with John Carroll Lynch?
A: It was a very emotional scene to shoot, since it was John Carroll Lynch’s last day on set, so it was our last day with John. We’d become good friends over the last few years, and he’s someone I look up to and admire greatly. It was an emotional day to shoot that. Also, it was very smoky! Because I had burned some of the old copies of the paper in the fireplace, we got a lot of smoke in our eyes, which was covering some of the crying as well.
Q: In that scene, Townsend says even though it would have been more pious to be neutral, that “those who sit on a picket fence get impaled by it.” Do you think he’s rebelling against his faith, or finding a different way to access it?
A: Some can argue that the entire revolution was started by a Quaker, Thomas Payne, and his book Common Sense. I think that in war-torn countries, every choice you make is political. I think [Townsend] has made the choice to spy, little by little by little, and he kind of creeped toward action and eventually realizes, around Episode 4, that he does indeed need to act, that there is a moral imperative to picking a side and staying there and acting — or else he’s going to turn into a Rivington, or even Simcoe or Benedict Arnold. He knows he can’t do that. He’s risked his entire fortune, his name, his family’s name on this, and I think it’s about survival at a certain point. He will be impaled by it if he stays in the middle, and he’s got to pick a side. Anyone who’s known civil conflict in their country would probably come to this same conclusion.
Q: A few big notes in Townsend’s arc this season seem to be commenting on the power of the press in a way that seems very contemporaneously relatable, as opinions regarding the press are often contentious. Was that a conscious decision to provide that parallel?
A: I think that the writers are definitely taking our moment in history very seriously and Townsend does become the voice of reason, or tries to be the voice of reason, in this sensationalist press that he works above. He has always been a moral compass on the show as a Quaker — there are certain things that he won’t do, even for the spy ring. It’s interesting to see that be challenged this season. He plots to kill Hewlett, he helps plot to kidnap Arnold; these are all things that go against his faith, and it’s incredibly complicated. He definitely has a view of what the truth is, and what the truth is not, and tries to keep to that and hold Rivington to that standard. There’s another great scene with Rivington where he tells Townsend about his past as a newspaper man, and Townsend realizes that Rivington used to have a conscience. You see how people who used to be people of conscience can devolve into cynicism and greed, given enough time and given the right blows in this life. And, I think we’re seeing that a lot in society today: reporters and politicians who we used to see as straight-shooters just now doing anything they can to grab the biggest headline.
Q: What was it like shooting in actual historical Virginia?
A: It’s fun! The street outside, when you walk into Rivington’s basement, where Jamie [Bell] and I see each other in Episode 6 by those oxen, that’s in historic Petersburg on one of those streets. It’s fun because the fans and other folks can walk by and see filming, and we go up to them and answer questions… The old boarding house from Season 2, is the same set when we’re down in the basement talking to Champe. Our brilliant production design team adapted the boarding house into what is now Rivington’s basement. Jamie and I had a blast on the set, going from one room of the set that looked like the old boarding house into the basement… And then in Season 3, I got to go to Colonial Williamsburg and learn how to use the real, old printing presses. I got to feel how heavy it was, how difficult it was to move. It’s not actually that heavy on our set; we have to act like they’re heavy [Laughs].
Click here to read a Q&A with Ksenia Solo, who plays Peggy Arnold.
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TURN: Washington’s Spies airs Saturdays at 9/8c.
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