Owain Yeoman, who plays Benedict Arnold in TURN: Washington’s Spies, likens the infamous general to Anakin Skywalker and Kanye West, and discusses Peggy Shippen’s role in Arnold’s “going to the dark side.”
Q: You’ve mentioned that your mom is a history teacher. Do you think that gave you an edge when preparing for the role?
A: Absolutely not. [Laughs] In the U.K., there’s just no schooling about the American Revolution. It was funny because we did this panel in New York, and this guy said they don’t teach us about it because we lost. If the British had won, it would have become a very important part of [our] history. I came to it pretty association-free and, in many respects, that’s probably a good idea given the nature of this character, because he comes with so much historical baggage and is perceived so negatively. I was really determined to find a human being in there who was a full picture rather than just a traitor. I would have loved to have historical preparation, but sadly I didn’t. [Laughs] I’ve tried to make up for it since.
Q: What did you think about the events of Episode 7 in which Arnold defends himself from the court-martial but still can’t get his money?
A: It just never ceases to end. It’s one of those moments where even when he’s winning, he’s losing. [Laughs] He really can’t catch a break. In that respect, when that final realization comes with the end of the court-martial, the victory is really in name alone. We’ve come to establish Benedict as a character who holds the material things very dear and he won’t be the guy that he wants to be in Philadelphia. I think that sits heavy with him and perhaps on the American side, he’ll never achieve what he wants.
There’s a line in one of the episodes where Peggy Shippen says, “If your friends won’t appreciate you, Benedict, maybe his [John André’s] will.” I’m not a huge Star Wars fan, but apparently that was like something that was said to Anakin Skywalker before he became Darth Vader. It’s almost like Benedict is going to the dark side. I was like, “Oh my god. Am I Darth Vader?” [Laughs] The guys who are perceived as being the bad guys are also fun. I’ve played many nice guys who always seem to end up not getting ahead, so it’s far more interesting to play a guy who’s pretty ruthless in his agenda. That’s what makes him brilliant on the battlefield, but it makes him clumsy on a personal, social and romantic level because what he makes happen on the battlefield doesn’t really translate when you’re trying to be a lover or a friend. He’s so abrupt and direct.
Q: Speaking of which, let’s talk about Peggy. Benedict finally marries her in Episode 8: How do you view their relationship?
A: I’ve always likened Benedict Arnold to someone who’s always got his eyes set on a prize, whether it’s winning a battle, defeating Congress or getting the money he believes he’s owed. In that respect, Peggy becomes another prize. I’ve talked about her in another interview as a kind of Kardashian. I don’t know if that makes me Kanye West… I’m Darth Vader and Kanye West! Kim Kardashian is so present in our modern-day lifestyle, and that’s what Peggy Shippen was then. She was talked about, read about, painted, celebrated; she’s a token on his arm that Benedict gets for being the most powerful man in Philadelphia. Last season, when they were first making love, Craig [Silverstein] had written a stage direction that said Benedict Arnold makes love as if he’s storming the battlefield. That’s a beautiful analogy for how he is. He doesn’t know the romantic traits, the softness. I think he does grow a genuine affection and, ironically, trust for this woman. She becomes, for all intents and purposes, slightly like a Lady Macbeth character who’s there to catalyze those fears that are already brewing in him.
Q: Peggy plays a huge role in Benedict’s about-face. Do you think he would have still sided with the British in TURN without her influence?
A: There’s a new book that just came out by Nathaniel Philbrick, who most famously wrote In the Heart of the Sea, about George Washington and Arnold — it touches a little bit on John André and Peggy Shippen as well. It’s fascinating because on our show, André is the very sympathetic and romantic figure, and Arnold is the bear who is poked and prodded and eventually seems to be the corrupt one. Apparently, according to Philbrick, that’s not particularly true from what they could tell from the documents. John André was a master spy and manipulator in getting his way. We’ve established on the show that Arnold and Washington almost have a fraternal relationship. Arnold is the only character allowed to call him “George” and he’s the only character you see touching him, putting a hand on his shoulder or embracing him. We tried very hard to set up this fraternal relationship, so when the decision to jump ship takes place, it is both a personal and a politically-motivated decision. The tragedy for him happens not only when his country lets him down, but his friend lets him down. George Washington was the one who told him to take it to court-martial. That didn’t resolve in the way it was promised, and it’s disappointing on many levels. I think we might have credited Peggy Shippen with more influence than she might have had, but I think it makes for great storytelling. Who really knows what happened behind those closed doors? Most married couples will tell you that a certain degree of influence comes from their partner, so I’m quite sure she was instrumental – and her ex-lover was a rival general.
Q: Have you discovered anything surprising about your character over the years?
A: What I find most compelling about him is that he was painted as a sympathetic and helpful person. Apparently, when he was younger, he saved two kids from drowning in a well. This was the nature of the beast. He was a man who was always there to be the champion of the underdog. I think we look back at him and say he’s proud or arrogant, but the truth of the matter is he was trying to fight a battle in a dilapidated army with a spirit of a man who is benevolent and trying to do the right thing. He was a guy who people were happy to lay down their lives for. I hope we can serve as a revelation on the show and see a more sympathetic side to him.
TURN: Washington’s Spies airs Mondays 10/9c. Receive show exclusives by signing up for the Insiders Club.Read More