Ian Kahn, who plays General George Washington on AMC’s TURN: Washington’s Spies, talks about portraying such an iconic figure in history and what he admires most about Washington.
Q: You’re playing one of the most iconic figures in American history. Talk about some of the unique pressures that come with the role.
A: The pressure is somewhat substantial. I feel a great responsibility to the man himself and the memory of the man, as well as the people who understandably hold him in such high esteem. He really was a true hero for our country, and in some ways, for the world. He was by no means perfect. He was a man, a human being, but he had some of the most wonderful human qualities. As the person who’s fortunate enough to step into his boots, I do feel a great responsibility always to honor his life and his true greatness.
Q: Washington calls himself “respected, feared, hated and worshipped” and says “I’m not who they think I am.” What’s it like to play such a complex character? How do you integrate all of his layers into your performance?
A: One of the great things that our showrunner Craig Silverstein and our writers have done is peek under the curtain of who this man was, as opposed to just a statue of the man. In this show and during the season, we very clearly see his challenges and the things that happen in the heart of a person who is responsible for so many people. He had – and I think he understood this – the weight of a country on his shoulders. If he failed, it wasn’t just “Well, we lost.” It was “Well, you’ll be hung,” and so would all of the people who supported him. His choices were life and death, not simply easy choices that had very little effect. He understood every step of the way that he was responsible for so much. That’s why when he accepted the role, he asked for forgiveness ahead of time for not being worthy of the job at hand.
Q: Much has been written about Washington. Which resources did you find the most helpful when you were crafting your portrayal?
A: There was a lot of research I did. I worked Dan Shippey of the Breed’s Hill Institute, who’s done a tremendous amount of research, and I learned so much about the man and the time. There’s also a book called Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow that I learned a lot from. There were many historians like Mary Thompson, who is the head of the Mount Vernon library — she was a very strong resource. So many people are so keen on seeing General Washington portrayed, and they want to see it done properly. I was aware of the problems within the army that were challenges for General Washington, and the problems he felt inside of his own failures. I was very excited to explore that side of the man.
Q: Last season, you mentioned you wanted to take a trip to Mount Vernon. Have you been able to make it there? What did you learn?
A: I did, happily. At the beginning of the season, Dan Shippey arranged for me to meet with Mary Thompson. Mary introduced me to others there, and I was invited by the head of Mount Vernon to stay the night in one of their cottages. I was able to sleep on the land, and I woke up quite early and sat by the Potomac River. In a way, I asked the General for permission to live in his boots and honor him as much as I could. It was a very intimidating experience. [Laughs] I tried to manifest as much of him as I could.
Q: You’ve called George Washington one of your heroes. What are some of the things you admire most about him?
A: What I think most people are not aware of is how passionate a person he was. I thought of him as the face on the dollar bill, which was an older man in pain. I didn’t know the story of his time in his 20s and 30s, when he was a reckless man. He learned, through trial and error, to control his temper so he could be a man of a higher consciousness. It took failure and disappointment to become the man that we all celebrate. As a human myself with a tremendous amount of flaws, it was very heartening to see a man grow into himself. That’s one of the things I admire. Another thing was his humility: He never acted like he was the smartest person in the room, he was well regarded by his officers, and he didn’t lead from the back, he led from the front.
Q: If you could meet George Washington, what would be your first question for him?
A: I would ask him if he knew that the choices he made all those years ago would have been quite so successful in setting up our country. What General Washington did – when he gave up power at the end of the war – he didn’t have to do that. When he relinquished his presidency after his two terms – those terms were set by him all those years ago. It was his example that we all follow today and try to live up to. I guess I would ask him, “Did you really think you would have done such a good job? Because you really did, sir!”
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