When Aaron Sorkin began writing The West Wing, the president was supposed to be a background character, a palpable presence that hovered over the plot but rarely made an actual appearance. Then, in the series’ opening episodes, Martin Sheen ambled on screen, charmed the audience with his intellectual idealism and leading-man aura, and everything changed.
It will be interesting to see if something similar occurs when George Washington makes his first appearance on Turn, AMC’s new Revolutionary War drama. Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot) stars as Abraham Woodhull, a Long Island farmer who risks his life and family to gather intelligence on the British in his hometown and nearby New York City. Thus far, Washington has been mentioned only in passing, mostly in derogatory fashion after his troops were swept out of New York in 1776 and the Continental Congress contemplated relieving him of command. But last Sunday, Abe’s tips about Hessian troops in Trenton were smuggled into an intelligence packet that found its way to Washington’s office, a bustling nerve center of activity.
On Sunday, May 4, General Washington makes his Turn debut. New York-bred actor Ian Kahn, who’s recently guested on shows like Shameless, Bones, and Parenthood, gets the honor — and burden — of portraying the Founding Father. The 42-year-old spoke to EW about his humbling experience.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Playing Washington isn’t like playing Jefferson, or Franklin, or even Lincoln. There’s something very imposing about him — very distant — something that historians have struggled with over the years, and certainly filmmakers and actors as well. Where do you even start?
IAN KAHN: I’m truly humbled to step into the shoes of General Washington, because how do you play that man? How do you do that man full justice? People love him. Everyone thinks of Washington as sort of that portrait that was taken of him as an older man — the man from the dollar bill. But his time as a younger man was what I dug into first. He always wanted to be an officer in the British Army, and he really rose in the ranks quickly and powerfully, but he was a little reckless. He actually was a little bit like a wild stallion. The man that we get to know later is a man who has sort of contained himself, because he learned from his mistakes. It was actually a good way for me to dive into the role, because I can relate to that. I think most of us can relate to that — the idea that when we’re younger, we’re wild and sort of reach out in into the world and we touch the fire, we touch the hot stove. And then we learn that we don’t really want to do things that way.
Americans think of Washington as practically immortal, but Washington in the fall of 1776 was extremely fallible and vulnerable. Who is the Washington we’ll first meet in Turn?
He’s scared. [Laughs] Things aren’t particularly going very well. He had lost New York, which was impossible to keep, and the Continental Congress was considering replacing him. When we come into the episode this week, we’re seeing how he successfully leads the army across the Delaware, so you’re seeing him after his first victory in awhile.
On a basic level, Washington always stood out from his peers because he was tall, he was meticulous about his appearance, and — though it sounds odd to say now — he looked great on a horse, which really meant something in this era. Is there a big introduction to your character that showcases those attributes?
Yeah. All of that. You’ll see that in the beginning of the next episode. When Washington arrives amongst his men, he is on a horse and you see him dismount. It’s very clearly that. Physically, he was about 6’2″, but at the time, men were about 5’8″ — so 6’2″ was like 6’6″ or 6’7″. And he was rugged, and he had a thick build. He was a big, strong man.
On the set, wearing the uniform and being called General Washington, did it feel different than other characters you’ve played? Did people treat you differently?
The director of the first episode was like, “The General is on set! The General is on set!” So there was a little bit of that. But once we get into the arena of doing the scenes — you learn on stage that you can’t play the king, that it’s everyone around who makes you the king. I was lucky enough to work with Stephen Root and Seth Numrich and Michael Gaston. Those guys are not only great actors, but they’re pros. But yeah, it’s a little different when everyone’s walking around calling you Your Excellency.
You get to be George Washington… as he crosses the Delaware. And I presume there are other iconic moments as well that must’ve felt quite surreal to be filming.
Every second feels iconic, but what we’re working towards and generally hoping for is the opportunity to just make him a man. There’s a warmth to Washington that people don’t really know, and I know that we’re very much trying to find. Because he was a man who was going through these experiences, who screwed up and he made mistakes. He wasn’t perfect and he had weaknesses. One of his greatest assets was that he never felt that he was the smartest guy in the room — because he wasn’t. [Laughs] But he may have been the wisest man in the room.
There’s obviously no record of Washington’s voice. What did you decide was the voice of George Washington, and how did you find it?
Craig [Silverstein] wrote in the character description that he’s somewhere between an English accent and an American accent. And there’s a Virginia accent as well. However, Washington spent so much time with the British officers [as a younger man] so he learned from these men, trying to talk like them. So the voice is American, with a strong flavor of English and sort of the deep bass of a 6’2″, 235-pound man. I wanted him to have power and presence. And I’ll tell you a little trick: Washington was not proud of his teeth. It was one of the great Achilles heels of his life, and one of the choices that I made was that he spoke without revealing too much of his mouth because he was so self-conscious. He was a guy, and he wanted to be loved and respected, and he thought that the teeth showed him to be a lower-class man.
Thus far in Turn, we’ve only heard of Washington. How large a role will he play starting this week?
There are so many amazing characters on the show. They really didn’t want Washington to overtake everything, so that’s why they held him off, I think. My contract this year was only for three episodes, and there’s an episode coming up soon that you get to spend a lot of time with Washington. You’ll know where we’re going with it. We get a little taste of Washington this year, and then next season, from what I’m told, there will be more.