Seth Numrich, who plays Ben Tallmadge on TURN: Washington’s Spies, talks about the Ben Tallmadge-George Washington bromance hitting a new low, trying to break Ian Kahn out of character, and what quality of Ben’s he wishes he had.
Q: Prior to his defection, Ben had looked up to Benedict Arnold. What would you say is Ben’s opinion of him now that he’s turned to the British, and using knowledge from their prior relationship to destroy the Culper Ring?
A: There was almost a brotherly/older-brotherly relationship there with Arnold. I think there was a huge amount of respect and aspiration — this guy was the real deal… And then, of course, the events that all fell out at the end of last season, for everybody on our side at least, it was so shocking and devastating. I think Ben probably took on for himself a huge level of feeling responsible for what had happened. It’s his job to anticipate things like this and be one step ahead of the game, and here he was one step — or even just a half step — behind, right there at the end. So coming into this season, there’s this feeling of betrayal, both outwardly, from this person we all respected and admired, who turned his back in such a dramatic and awful way — and then inwardly, I think, Ben feels that he’s betrayed himself or the Culper Ring and put things really at risk.
Q: What would you say his relationship is with Washington in those first few episodes, when Washington suspects him of being the next to defect?
A: Ian [Kahn] and I, throughout most of the series really, we had such a lovely rapport together as friends and actors, and we were joking about as if it were a romantic relationship [between Ben and Washington] where we kind of go through these spats and then one person doesn’t trust the other person, and then you come out through to the other side with a newfound trust. So it’s the continuing saga of the Ben and Washington bromance, and this is definitely a new low — not necessarily because of something either of us did, but with this event around Arnold, it sort of pulls the rug out from under them, and any sense of trust and being on firm ground with each other goes away… In the past, there have been moments where Ben and Washington disagree, but there always seems to be some way in which they could look to resolve that, but in this situation, because this stress and paranoia is based on the actions of others, it’s one of those things where I’m not sure Ben can see a way forward from where they’re sitting now. He’s at a little bit of a loss, but at this point he’s not letting that get in the way of continuing to try.
Q: The execution of the mutinous officers in Episode 4 is a difficult moment for everyone in the camp. Do you think Ben has doubts about Washington’s leadership in that moment?
A: As Ben takes on more responsibility in his roles, I think he understands the complexity and the pressure of the role Washington is in, and his sense of understanding grows over time. I think he’s come to a certain level of maturity to recognize that he really doesn’t know the full extent of what’s going on, or if he does, he realizes that often these situations are a lose-lose situation, or that you’re just stuck between a rock and a hard place… I think in this particular case, he strongly disagrees with how Washington deals with the particulars of it, but he’s become wise enough to realize that he probably couldn’t deal with it any better. It’s one of those things where it’s almost impossible to know what to do.
Q: You’ve obviously shared a lot of scenes with Ian Kahn the last few seasons. What’s it like working with him? Is it disarming to act across from someone who looks just like George Washington?
A: [Laughs] That’s funny. Ian is disarming, but in a completely different way. I’ve so, so enjoyed the relationship that we’ve built over the last few years, and I have such an enormous respect for him and he takes his work very seriously, and he’s very committed and dedicated to portraying the character in a way that’s respectful. I’m in awe in many ways of his preparation and the work that he puts in. Oftentimes, when we’re on set together, I almost make it my mission to break through that work. I often enjoy having fun and being silly between takes and George Washington is not necessarily a fun and silly kind of guy. [Laughs] We have fun because I try to get him to laugh or do silly things between takes. But of course, when the cameras are rolling and when we’re actually in the work, it’s very exciting, because we work different in some ways, but we also work similarly in other ways, and we both care about the story that’s being told… He and I really had a good time getting to explore these characters and their relationships together. I’m really gonna miss him.
Q: Do you think Ben feels any responsibility for how the hostage situation turned out in Episode 3, or do you think he regards it as another fallout of war that you need to accept?
A: I do think that Ben feels somewhat responsible. It was his responsibility to try to get that situation resolved and I think that he felt confident going into it. I think what ends up happening was just impossible for him to foresee or predict. I think given the circumstances, they were lucky to get out with any of them alive, but losing Richard was just such a huge blow and to feel that vicariously through Abe, and to know what that means to him, and to know how much he’s already lost and sacrificed in this effort.
One of my favorite scenes to do from the whole series is in the pilot episode of the show: I have this great long scene with Jamie [Bell] in a jail cell where I’m trying to convince him to join the cause, to put everything on the line to make this happen. I think in moments like this, Ben also goes back to that moment with Abe, his best friend whom he cares about, and who he has put in this situation of risking everything and ultimately sacrificing so many things. I think for Ben, in the moment, he is trained well enough and skilled enough as a soldier to put off his feelings and emotions and deal with the situation at hand and try to survive. And then you get to the aftermath and all of that setting in, and the gravity of what’s happened finally setting in and hitting everyone, it’s a challenge. I think it’s one he knows is not going to be easy for Abe to come back from, which I think ultimately puts everyone else at risk as well.
Q: In Episode 4, Richard’s been killed, Abe wants out of the ring, Caleb‘s been tortured and Robert Townsend‘s gone ghost. And, with Simcoe knowing the truth about Abe, the whole ring is compromised. What is it like for him to sort of be at rock bottom at this moment?
A: It seems like that question could apply to so many moments. [Laughs] There have been so many moments where it looks like things are going to fall apart, or where things actually do fall apart and we manage to put it all back together again. This one certainly feels definite in a way, and I think there’s a moment where even Ben gives in and says something like, “I don’t think this is gonna come back together.” But I think, also, these people have gotten better and better at working together and trusting each other when they’re tested. Ultimately, even at its weakest point, which arguably that could have been one of them, there’s still a strength because of the underlying trust and love and support and respect that exists between them — which has always been the real strength of the ring, because they all care about each other and that’s kind of what’s unique about this story.
Q: Is there something in particular about Ben that you admire?
A: What amazes me about Ben, and if there’s anything about him as a character that I wish I had as a person, it’s like he has this other part of his brain that’s always in motion that is looking for the pieces of the puzzle that are going to come together to allow for a way forward. So the forefront of his brain can be present in the situation and in reality, but there’s this other part of his brain that never gives up, that’s always looking to answer, “How can I use this? What’s going to be useful?” He kind of creates this catalog, this Rolodex that’s always spinning and always looking for solutions. It feels like there are these moments where suddenly in that process, something clicks into place, and he can recognize it and act on it immediately. No matter what the circumstances are that might feel so desperate and unchangeable, suddenly there’s this kind of key that can unlock it. I might be kind of grandiose about it [Laughs] and it’s not even always Ben who does it. There’s been a lot of these beautiful moments on the show where Ben thinks he’s doing that, but it’s actually Anna who really has the answer. And I think also over time, Ben has learned that his ego can get in the way, so he knows he needs to hand over the reins or back down if someone else has a better idea.
Q: The show has spanned a few years of time, and so many things have happened since Ben started the Culper Ring — how do you think he’s grown as a leader since Season 1?
A: I think that even at the beginning of the series, that he wouldn’t come anywhere close to being comfortable with that term as applied to himself. We don’t see any of this in the series, but what was interesting about researching Tallmadge and finding out about his life, he was kind of thrown into situations or found himself way in over his head pretty quickly. He wasn’t trained in the military way, he didn’t grow up in a family that had those connections or aspirations; he just felt a sense of duty and committed to it, and pretty quickly became very responsible for big things. And then, ultimately, he took on this role that never existed before, so he was just constantly needing to catch up to his own duties and responsibilities within the army and within the war effort. I think that at the beginning, I don’t know that he would have thought of himself as a leader. I think that he has a strong sense for himself what is right and what is wrong, and that’s the thing that guides him… But even his belief in that has changed. He thought of things as cut and dry, black and white, but now he understands that everything is in a gray area and you can never really know, but that also can’t stop you from committing yourself to continuing to try to move forward. I think the people in my life that I’ve looked up to as leaders are somehow able to embody some version of that, and I think that’s something that Ben has learned about over the course of his experience and that serves him well, because he’s thoughtful about it… But now that I think about it, I still don’t think that Ben would necessarily refer to himself as a leader. I think that he does what he feels needs to be done and he tries to take care of himself and the people he cares about along the way.
Click here to read a Q&A with Kevin R. McNally, who plays Richard Woodhull.
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