Kevin R. McNally, who plays Judge Richard Woodhull on TURN: Washington’s Spies, discusses Richard’s new reconciliation with Abe, his character finally getting into the espionage action, and the game-changing events of Episode 3. Warning: Spoilers below.
Q: So far this season, Abe and Richard are on the best terms they’ve ever been. Can you describe how they’ve healed since the high-intensity events of last season?
A: I think after the emotion of the end of Season 3 when he actually saves Abe’s life, I think he realizes that whatever his intellectual or political differences are with him, Abe is his son. It coincides with the fact that the ghost of Abe’s brother has finally disappeared, and Richard realizes he probably hasn’t been as good a father to him as he could have been, and this coincides with him understanding that Abe is on the right side of history. It’s this wonderful amalgamation of the historical and political when they finally come together, and it reminds us of what the show is really about: that this wasn’t just a war between the British and the Americans, it was a civil war between Americans, which divided families.
Q: Were you happy to see Richard get in on the espionage action this season — and discover that he’s actually quite good at it?
A: Yes, he is very good at it! [Laughs] It was sort of a surprise. I think it shocks Abe a bit how good he is at it. I always hoped he would get into it, because as the war went on, I couldn’t imagine that he wouldn’t eventually see the right side of it. And, of course, he brings a great intellect to the art of spying and he’s very clever. I liked how in the first two episodes of the season, he has better ways of doing it than they do. Although he’s gone alongside with them, I don’t think he has much respect for their abilities as spies. I think he thinks their methods are crude and he has much more clever ways of achieving what he wants — just in the way he did with Simcoe [in the Season 3 Finale]. That was a very clever and long-term plan to discredit the man and get rid of him.
Q: Richard does seem better able to openly manipulate both sides than many of the other characters.
A: Well, he’s a judge. He’s a man of the law. He’s learned how to read people and he’s learned to know which people are sincere and which people aren’t, and I think that’s a great help to him when dealing with his friends and his enemies.
Q: What drives him to secretly orchestrate the attack on the British supplies in the Season 4 Premiere?
A: He knows, I think, as they say, “an army marches on its stomach.” He knows that the best way to disrupt the army is to attack its supplies. Also, being the magistrate and the tax collector, he’s really good at knowing where those supplies are coming from and how to manipulate them — their volume and their expense. He’s perfectly placed and has the perfect skill set to attack in a strategic way, rather than a tactical way. I think that’s why he chooses the option that he does.
Q: In the first three seasons, Richard was a pretty hardline Loyalist. After planning the attack on the British supplies, how does he see his place in the war now?
A: It’s actually the other side of the same reason of why he was a Loyalist: he’s a rational man and he’s a man of law. He was following the law, the law of the land, which was the British colony is loyal to the crown. Somebody who’s like that, it takes a great deal for them to say, “Well, the law is wrong.” And he moves from a sort of a Loyalist law to a moral law, and once he realizes that the law of the land is corrupt, he then has to start acting in a moral way rather than a purely legalistic way. And, I think that’s why it’s very clever of the writers for it to have taken him that long [to change sides] because if he’d changed that easily, I wouldn’t have the respect for him that I do, actually, because he stuck with the law for as long as he possibly could until he realized it was no longer tenable or just.
Q: While Abe and Richard are waiting in the barn in Episode 3, Richard agrees that Captain Wakefield had to die, despite how hard it was to let it happen. How do you think that changes him?
A: It’s obviously a big change for him. I think in the first three episodes, we go from actually getting involved in the whole kidnapping plan — he goes through the death of Wakefield, he goes from being, on the inside, from an intellectual to a warrior. Of course, Episode 3 shows us that as a warrior he’s quite ill-equipped and that’s his downfall.
Q: Do you think coming to that understanding changes how he sees his son, knowing Abe has made similar choices?
A: Yes, I think he intellectually understands Abe at the beginning of the [season], but by Episode 3, he understands all the choices that he’s made, and he even begins to understand from back in Season 1, when Abe killed [Ensign Baker] and burned the house down. I think he realizes that you can’t fight a war without shooting the opposite participants… That’s almost the last thing Richard gets before forfeiting his own life, I think.
Q: Do you think coming to that understanding was why it was important for him to die at this particular point in the story?
A: I think it is. He’s an older man, he isn’t a warrior, he’s a thinker. He has nothing really more to contribute to the cause besides giving his own life for it, which is an honorable way to go. I think all of the other characters, who’ve perhaps had very different feelings about the Judge… they’ve all gained respect for the Judge because he’s made the ultimate sacrifice, for the right side, finally.
Q: What was it like on set for the filming of your chaotic and sad death scene?
A: There’s two things: as loving a character for four years, it was very sad. But in terms of being an actor and doing a scene like that, I was determined for it to be as shocking as possible, that it would be as well done as possible. We had a great team in terms of our stunt coordinator and our director, and our back-up team who made that work.
Q: As a self-proclaimed history buff, have there been any plot points and events on the show that you’ve enjoyed seeing come to life the most?
A: I have to say I was very pleased when the story expanded from Season 1 from just the espionage to the broader movements of the war, because obviously I knew more about that than I did about the espionage. To be able to get a sense of the way the war is moving as a result of the work the spies were doing really opened up the show and made me enjoy it even more, particularly seeing the great figures like Washington and Benedict Arnold.
Click here to read a Q&A with Owain Yeoman, who plays Benedict Arnold.
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TURN: Washington’s Spies airs Saturdays at 9/8c.
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