Ian Kahn, who plays General George Washington on TURN: Washington’s Spies, talks about the end of the series, the impact the show has had on his life and across America, and gives a heartfelt message to the show’s fans.
Q: You’ve said before that you would constantly ask yourself “What would Washington do?” both on set and in your everyday life. Can you give me an example of how that has shaped some of your decisions?
A: Well, I’ve learned to be a little less reactive in my own personal life. The stakes were always so high for General Washington that he understood that quick actions tended to produce less than desirable results. So even though sometimes we see him on the show having those kinds of reactions, like that scene with Ben in Episode 8, where he fires him and tells him to leave, you see right after that moment that he catches himself rather quickly. And, in the next moment when he tells him to turn over the intelligence to Colonel Hamilton, he’s already recouped a large sense of himself because that’s something he fought so hard to do, to control his temper — because he did have a powerful one. That’s something that’s bled into my life as well. And to be grateful, really, that my life isn’t as challenging as George Washington’s [Laughs]. I don’t have nearly the struggles or the troubles that he had. He had a whole army, a whole nation on his shoulders, and on the decisions that he makes. My life is simpler and I’ve sort of learned to be a bit more relaxed in the world because of that and a little more grateful.
Q: You recently helped lobby for granting historical status to the Washington Spy Trail in Long Island. Can you talk more about that?
A: Representative Tom Suozzi, he’s out in the Huntington area of Long Island, and he’s been putting forth bills in the Congress to make the Washington Spy Trail a historical monument, and he asked me to come out and join the effort to make this happen. It was a great thing to be a part of and it’s something that I really hope comes to fruition. And it’s something that is well earned. We can see — with this show — that without the Culper Spy Ring, that perhaps we wouldn’t have a United States of America. And because they were spies, people didn’t know who they were for hundreds of years. People didn’t know their sacrifices; they didn’t know what they had done. So one of the great things about TURN: Washington’s Spies is it brings out the spies in our shows, and our show is popular enough that hopefully this Spy Trail comes to pass.
Q: As a Long Island native, has working on the show affected how you think of your hometown?
A: What’s sort of sad for me is I didn’t know as much about the Revolutionary War before I started the show as I did about other parts of American history. I’d always been interested in American history, but really more from the Civil War until today — that’s the period I seemed to be more passionate about and understood the most. I didn’t really understand what an amazing victory this was, and how lucky we were to win this war. We were the little engine that could, a band of brothers and sisters, who sort of were fighting against this giant power, and were fighting to create this country which is now in some ways the most powerful country in the world…. New York is the hub of it all. It’s where it all happened. New York, Long Island — this is the place where the country was born. And now, everywhere I go, I can see it. Every town I drive through there’s a Washington Street or a Washington Avenue, or a Lafayette Street. These all have different meanings to me now… Even in Los Angeles there’s a Tallmadge Road, which just tickled me pink. And then when I was driving through Huntington going to Rep. Suozzi’s event, I saw a Woodhull Road! I was like, “Look at all this, the whole cast gets a street!” It’s great. Except Benedict Arnold, because he doesn’t deserve one. He gets a leg for a monument and that’s all he deserves. Sorry, Owain.
Q: In a recent Q&A, Seth Numrich said that he sort of framed Ben and Washington’s relationship as a kind of “bromance,” with spats and breakups and reconciliations. How would you say their relationship has grown through the series?
A: It’s got kind of everything: It’s got a father-son relationship, it’s got a bromance, and it’s got a younger brother-older brother relationship. But mostly I think it’s a father and son sort of relationship, because Washington was sort of the father to all of his officers. He never had children, and I think he thought of his officers as his children. And in our show, Tallmadge sort of encompasses many people. I always think that he’s Benjamin Tallmadge, but he has parts of Alexander Hamilton, and their relationship throughout history. He’s Washington’s connection with the men and with his spy ring. He’s so very important to Washington. And I’ve loved working with Seth so much. He’s a wonderful man and a wonderful actor. It’s been a pleasure to work with him these four years, and I couldn’t be more grateful to work with him this whole time. Especially during the scene in Episode 8, where Tallmadge finally gives it back to Washington, and righteously so. I remember on set that day, looking at the boy — because on our first day of work, I referred to him on set as “the boy” — and when I looked at him years later, and he said, “You know on the first day, you called me a boy.” I said, “I may have called you a boy then, but you’re certainly a man now.” Tallmadge is his closest ally on our show, and the person who deserves so much credit. Without Benjamin Tallmadge, in the world of our show, there would be no country.
Q: When Washington finally meets Abe in the Series Finale, as viewers we can sort of imagine how awe-inspiring that must be for Abe, the every man. But what do you think that moment is like for Washington?
A: I think they both have many conflicting feelings about each other. I think Woodhull loves Washington, and I think Washington drives him a little crazy. And I think for Washington, Woodhull drives him a little crazy, but Washington appreciates him so very much… And that moment of meeting him, it’s funny, because Jamie Bell and I had never worked together on all our years on the show, so in that moment, when we were finally doing the scene together, there’s this feeling of looking at each other and thinking, “We’re here, we did it. We made it. We’re at the end and we’ve won.” That was the characters looking at each other that way, and it was sort of the actors looking at each other in that way like, “We finally made it here. We finally got to the end.” It was one of my most satisfying days on set.
Q: And that was the same day you shot the dinner scene as well. What was it like filming with the rest of the Culper Ring in the Series Finale?
A: Sitting around the table with Caleb, and Anna, and Tallmadge and Abe, I was like “Look at all the cool people I get to sit with. I’m at the cool kids’ table with the cool kids.” Finally, we’ve made it. I very much felt like the dad at the table. Caleb’s pulling his little jokes in the corner and I’m giving him the look, and I’ve got another kid across from me, Abe, who’s complaining and has a bone to pick, and then the sweet daughter Anna and the sweet son, Ben, and we’ve already been through the war together and found our peace. And then Mary, who may have been the best spy of them all, and the most effective spy of them all. She may not have been spying the whole time, but let’s be clear: she’s really good at that job. If we would have had Mary Woodhull spying since day one, this war would have been over two years earlier.
Q: Have there been any scenes or moments throughout the series that were particularly enjoyable for you to portray?
A: I’ll remember that scene around the table, and then the scene with Abe forever. That, and the work that I got to do with Martha Washington, played by Lilli Birdsell, that was a real enriching of the character and of the man, to be able to see behind the cape… What’s great about seeing her on TURN is you sort of see General Washington’s heart. We’ve watched his mind working all these years, but to actually get to the heart of who he was, that takes the love of his wife to bring that out — and she knows how to pull on those heartstrings and change him.
Q: In the scene in which Washington personally fulfills Abe’s debts, do you think in some ways that also wrapped up his arc with Benedict Arnold?
A: I would say that that’s really true. The loss of Benedict Arnold as a soldier but also a comrade, almost as an equal and as a friend, and it was something that hurt Washington very deeply, and something he, in retrospect, took a lot of responsibility for in his own mind, thinking to himself, “What if I’d just given him 10,000 pounds, would he have decided to stay?” Washington was having some financial problems of his own, but there wasn’t a day that he wouldn’t wake up and think about Arnold. He wanted to capture this man more than anything, but there was, in victory and with distance… there is some wisdom that has accumulated as well, where he realizes that had he handled things better, perhaps life wouldn’t have gone down that path and he wouldn’t have lost his friend.
Q: What do you think are lessons from Washington that would benefit the United States to remember and keep to heart today?
A: If every day all of our leaders in Washington and around the country ask themselves the same question that I would ask myself on set, which is, “What would George Washington do in this moment?” we would be far better served. Washington led first with humility and he led first with country ahead of party, country ahead of self, country ahead of ego, country ahead of everything. We have leaders everywhere, in Congress, in the Executive Branch, in the Judicial Branch, everywhere around this country, who make choices, sometimes for what’s best for the country and sometimes what’s best for themselves politically. There’s a change in consciousness needed in this country, where we’re looking out first for the country rather than each political leader unto themselves. Occasionally we see leaders step forward, almost as if they have Washington by their side as they make choices. If every day these leaders ask the same question that I ask myself, we would all be better off: “What would George Washington do in this spot? And what is best for the common good and for all in this country, and for the health and strength and defense of this country?”
Q: As the series comes to a close, what are some of your feelings about the end?
A: Fans are often talking about how sad they are that the show is over. I think for us as the cast, for the crew, especially for the writers, there’s a real sadness about the fact that the show is completed and we don’t all get the chance to get back together and do it again. But there’s another perspective to be had, which is there’s so much to be grateful for. If we were on a different network than AMC, who has believed in our show from the beginning and kept us going at times when other networks might not have chosen to keep us going. For us to get to the end of our story in the way that we did is a great gift… The choice to let us get to the end of our series, so that we have the completion and the fans have the completion, is something I’ll be grateful for for the rest of my life.
Barry Josephson decided to read a book because he was fascinated with the Revolutionary War, so he picked up Alexander Rose’s book Washington’s Spies — and changed people’s lives all across this country, and in some ways around the world. Because Barry Josephson picked up a book and read it, and then was wise to go to Craig Silverstein to ask him to be the one to develop it, and then Craig’s team of writers worked so passionately and so hard to bring such a wonderful story together. This is good fortune for all, and it really starts with Barry being fascinated with Nathan Hale and reading a book… It sort of ties back into the story and the show itself: that huge things happen when everyday people make seemingly small choices.
Q: You mentioned that you wanted to say something directly to the fans of the show.
A: To the fans, just thank you. Thank you for your passion for the show. Thank you for watching us with such enjoyment and living and dying with these characters, and helping us to bring history into the present day. Without you, there is no TURN: Washington’s Spies, and I know speaking for myself, my life has been completely changed by this experience, so from the bottom of my heart, just thank you.
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