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Jamie Bell on Playing Spy Games in AMC's Turn

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Code number 722.
by Roth CornetApril 11, 2014Submit Tweet Share +1 Share AMC's new Revolutionary War-set spy drama Turn premiered last week and the story of the Culper Ring, credited as America’s first spy ring, continues this Sunday on AMC. Jamie Bell (Tintin, the upcoming Fantastic Four reboot) stars as Abraham Woodhull, the son of a Loyalist with ties to the British military who is recruited to spy on the Red Coats.
Earlier this year, we were able to speak with Bell about tackling the real life tale of this deadly game of espionage.
IGN TV: When I was watching the first episode, it struck me that, in some ways, we never think about the Revolutionary War as one that could have been lost. In some ways, we act as if it were foregone conclusion that the United States would be formed, but it was not. It very easily could have been lost.
Jamie Bell: More than anything just the sense of occupation for these people that lived there and, through their situation, the divide between families and between local townsfolk. So that, and obviously the spy stuff, which is really the focal point of the show, and just the origins of that and what it took to be able to do something like that as an organized army, an organized people, to try and figure out how you could do that. It's so primitive, and I think it's something that today is so accepted within our culture that people are spying on us, we're being spied on all the time.
Turn - Trailer IGN: It's heavily debated, but yeah, that is the prevalent issue of our day.
Bell: Yeah, I mean it's such a forefront of western modern living that espionage is an essential part of any kind of warfare or any kind of politics or any kind of media, sometimes. Now we're going back to the very origin of it with these people who aren't incredibly skilled at it at all. They're kind of having to figure it out. So that stuff to me was intriguing, learning about that stuff through Alex's book and through the scripts; it's been fascinating.
Bell: I'm always aware of it. You know, I think whenever you're on set and you're in your costume and everything, you're always kind of thinking, "Jesus, this guy was really doing this." He was getting into some very tricky waters. If he got caught doing this he would be hanged the next day. The stakes were really high, and when you have a family and you have a son and you have a livelihood, even though you do believe in it, you're kind of oppressed, and you don't want to show that you really believe in it. The fact that he still actually managed to do it and did it is an amazing testament to whoever that man was.
The original Bond?Bell (Cont.): He was a great spy, because he didn't leave very many pointers behind him once he passed away. His code number was 722. His name was Abraham Woodhull. He was a highly paranoid individual who was afraid that he would get caught, and he didn't want his name to be known. That's pretty much all we know about him. So there's a lot of liberty that we're taking for the stories that are coming up with. But what I like about it is that the period calls for heroes. It calls for people who step up to the plate and take incredible risks and do extraordinary things -- and this character doesn't. He retreats. He steps away from that kind of sense of responsibility. He lessens himself. He's in the pilot, and as the show progresses he changes, but what I love about it is that we're kind of going through it with a true a hero. He's a conflicted hero, and he's got a lot of other interests.
IGN: I was going to talk about that transformation, because I'm wondering about your perspective on it. Is it just that one desire of wanting to save this one man that turns the tide, or a number of things that slowly transforms him into a spy? He's so resistant.
Bell: Yeah, I think his true belief is that America should be a free country. Why should we be taxed, and everything? Why should my son's future be determined by a king 3,000 miles away, who has no right to this land? So his political belief is that it should be a free country, that we should have free choice on his own land. But because of certain things that have happened to him -- and we explore that as the season progresses -- a sense of real guilt about an event that's happened that's really going to shut him down and a sense of responsibility to his family, to his occupation being a farmer, like, it's a massive commitment. I don't think that's necessarily a path his father wanted for him. His father wanted him to be a lawyer and do exactly the same thing that he did; be that great, noble son of the town. He just didn't want that. So he's kind of caught between a rock and a hard place of doing what other people want him to do instead of what he wants to do. I think that's the journey of the character; his wife, his livelihood, the war, his father -- through all this stuff, he has to try to swim to the top of that and really express his true beliefs, which is that he wants to be a free man.
A father and son at odds.IGN: It's interesting because Benedict Arnold is obviously such a figure of infamy. We all know that name and have a strong negative association with it. But had history gone the other way, he would have been a hero.
Bell: Yeah, I think we're also exploring the sense that the British themselves had the wrong kind of intelligence organization and that these two sides were competing in this new industry called espionage. So for Abe, there's also the sense of, he doesn't know what the outcome is going to be. You don't really necessarily want to commit your loyalty to either side, because you always want to be on the right side of history. I'm sure there were some people saying, "No, I think the Nazis are kind of right." Then the outcome, you know, "Oh, the Nazis were so wrong!" But I think in those kinds of situations, there's always a hesitancy to give your loyalty to something, because what if you're on the wrong side? I think that's something that the show does quite well; it teaches backwards and forwards between these British as good men, as noble men, as trying to protect the colony, and then people who are trying to rebel against that in a very obvious use of force, bluntness and abuse.
IGN: Is it important to you that that's represented in a balanced fashion in terms of, "Okay, we don't the British to...
Bell: They become like pantomime villains, you know, and that is going to be a problem. I think as the show is going to go on, we're definitely going to see some introductions of people on the other side who have good causes and actually do try to do good things. That's definitely going to happen. There has to be a balance. I think John Adams did that very well, especially in the first couple of episodes, where they portrayed the colonists as an angry f***ing mob, and the British as just kind of doing their job and weren't necessarily to blame for a lot of the stuff. But it's important to strike that balance, otherwise it will become "the guys in red are bad, the guys in blue are good," and I don't think it's as simple as that. It's much more complicated.
Bell: Yeah, it's tricky. I always had kind of a hesitancy about doing a show, because the commitment was quite large. But it's actually quite nice spending a lot of time on one character. I think that's obviously why a lot of people come and do this kind of stuff, because they do get a chance to really portray a fully illustrated character. You just have that time to do that. Of course, it's incredibly fast. What we're doing and what we're trying to achieve is done in, like, eight days, an episode. It's mental, and I know a lot of shows have that same schedule, but coming from a movie background, it does kind of seem like insanity that you would even be able to do that. We're doing six pages of work a day, which in movie time is crazy. We would maybe do half of that a day.
Turn airs Sunday nights at 9/8c on AMC.
Roth Cornet is an Entertainment Editor for IGN. You can follow her on Twitter at @RothCornet and IGN at Roth-IGN.
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