Owain Yeoman, who plays Benedict Arnold on AMC’s TURN: Washington’s Spies, talks about growing up with a history teacher for a mom and what it was like to play one of America’s most hated people.
Q: You’re new to the cast of TURN: Washington’s Spies. What was your first day on set like?
A: It’s always quite intimidating when you come onto a show that’s already up and running. It was a very big character to step into who doesn’t have the best reputation, historically. [Laughs] The cast couldn’t have made me feel more at home. Ian Kahn especially — who so brilliantly plays George Washington — was the first person I had contact with. He and I got along really well, which was nice because the show has tried to establish a bond between the characters of Washington and Arnold.
Q: You grew up in the UK, but are also the son of a history teacher. How much did you know about Benedict Arnold, and the American Revolution in general, before taking on this role?
A: Growing up, I was always the kid who had to get his history homework in on time because my mom was actually my history teacher. We don’t get an awful lot of American history in our schools, so it was a real treat coming into this. It’s actually quite nice to approach the character of Benedict Arnold without any negative associations of how history remembers him. No one’s ever simply just a traitor or a good person. For me, it was finding that gray area, seeing him in his finest hour, and remembering him as a hero. He was a great general and someone who people were willing to die for. That’s going to be a revelation for people watching the series.
Q: Executive Producer Barry Josephson has joked that you’re portraying one of America’s most hated people. Did Arnold’s real-world history give you any qualms about portraying him?
A: I really relished the challenge, to be quite honest. The chance to play a historical character and the opportunity to challenge perceptions and present them in a different light is very exciting. I couldn’t pass it up.
Q: Did playing a historical figure rather than a fictional character alter how you approached the part? Did knowing Arnold’s ultimate fate affect your portrayal of the character in any way?
A: There’s a responsibility with any true life portrayal of a character. That’s what I love about the show in general – we are creative where we can be in order to make for dramatic storytelling, but the actual facts are very true to life. One thing I really wanted to do was an accent. All of these people were settlers in a new country and developing nations. No one really knows how people spoke in those days. I worked with a wonderful accent coach, Catherine Charlton who worked on John Adams, and we came up with the dialect. We were able to say, “This is what we know about Benedict Arnold and this is what we’re bringing to him.” It’s a combination of all those things to make a real character.
Q: You’ve talked about not painting Arnold out to be a bad guy. How much research did you do on him, and what are some of the most interesting things you learned?
A: I wanted to get a bigger picture with someone like this. I learned a lot about his military and historic prowess, but I really wanted to know who he was as a man. The beauty of the show is it deals with huge historical events, but it also shows very domestic things. He grew into a lot of money and grew up with a very privileged upbringing, but overtime found himself in a situation where he was penniless. I think it affected his psyche. He never had life easier, but found he had to struggle in the military, pay for his own battles, and wasn’t given moral support. I tried to understand his shortcomings that informed his life and his betrayal.
Q: Can you relate to your character at all? For example, did you find you were able to sympathize with Arnold in any way?
A: What we’re trying to set up in this world is a man who was consistently at the forefront of the Patriots and was passed over time and time again. It was a historic point that we kept coming back to because how many times can this guy get kicked before he says, “Enough. I’ve suffered too many personal disappointments, lost too much money, and have been passed over for too many promotions.” By the time he gets to West Point, I really understood his dilemma. He wanted to be recognized by his peers and everyone in life wants that. Things can turn ugly and I think that’s the journey he took towards his betrayal.
Q: What are some of the biggest similarities and differences between the two of you?
A: I’m an extremely prideful person – and I don’t mean that in a negative away – but I take pride in the work that I’m doing. I understand that trait in him. He didn’t want to settle for anything less. When he enters into the series, we see George Washington at dinner with his generals who aren’t really getting their hands dirty, whereas Benedict Arnold arrives straight from the front lines still covered in the blood and dirt of his war efforts. I think I’m a bit more loyal than he is, though. [Laughs] Given the opportunity to sell my country, I don’t think that enters into my psyche, but we’re still a long ways away from Arnold, the traitor.
Read an interview with Jamie Bell, who plays Abraham Woodhull.Read More