Becoming America’s First Spy: An Interview with Jamie Bell

Poster - TURN _ Season 1 _ Keyart - Photo Credit: Courtesy of AMC

Pawn Stars. Swamp People. Down East Dickering.

It seems that the History Channel isn’t really focusing its primetime programming on history these days, which is a real shame for the true lovers of history. Luckily, we don’t have to rely on this network to produce great historical television anymore. Fortunately, AMC has created a new series for history lovers to obsess over. The network has turned its attention away from zombies, ad men and meth dealers to focus on bringing great, historical drama back to television. The must-see network is hoping to accomplish this with their new Revolutionary War drama, TURN.

TURN follows the story of Abe Woodhull (Jamie Bell), a down-on-his-luck New York farmer who becomes involved in Americas first spy ring. Abraham joins a group of childhood friends to form The Culper Ring, as they try to turn the tide of the war for American independence. The first footage for TURN helped raise some initial interest, but we weren’t sold on this series till we realized who the star was.

Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC
Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

Despite his young age, the 27-year-old Bell has been a constantly excellent supporting actor for the past 14 years. He first captured our hearts in the unlikely 2000 hit, Billy Elliott, starring as the titular young dancer. He would go on turn in great performances in Peter Jackson’s King Kong and the WWII drama Defiance. For this writer, one of his best performances was the voice of the title character in Steven Spielberg’s criminally-underrated animated film, The Adventures of Tintin. Recently, Bell made headlines when he was chosen to play Ben Grimm a.k.a The Thing in Josh Trank’s reboot of The Fantastic Four. With such a busy and flourishing film career, it was very surprising to learn that he was going to star in an ongoing, episodic television series. Bell considers the shows unique premise and AMC’s track record of great programming as what brought him aboard.

“I love the kind of high stakes that the show has, the compelling drama that is created between the characters and the fact it’s a historical story and it has all of this other stuff – espionage, intrigue, high stakes and love triangles,” he said about the shows premise. “Also AMC is a fantastic network that does give us programming and does it at a really good level and of great quality and I knew that a show like this would fit right from the look of the show to the portrayal of the…I knew that it would be important to be at a good network.” So it was a combination of the material and the network that it just seemed like a really great opportunity and a really great piece of television for people to tune into for an hour at the weekend. I would want to watch it.”

Over the years, the quality of television programming has reached unprecedented levels, with sharp writing and stellar direction creating a truly golden age in television. This small screen renaissance has brought some of the biggest films stars to television. Although he wasn’t particularly searching for his first television role, Bell found the role of Abe Woodhull fascinating and that he too was impressed on how good TV has become over the years.

“I was never really looking for TV but then I think this one just came along and it was just so rich and complex and the character was so great and then couple that with AMC, it was just intriguing.” He also compared the way British television was advertised compared to American television. “I came from England where like we never advertise TV on billboards on Sunset Boulevard, that’s crazy, that’s reserved for movies,” he said. “The landscape was just automatically different from England anyway like TV is a big business here, but then also in the five – last five to ten years, it’s gotten really good. In fact, in some ways, it’s surpass films in terms of the way people invest in this shows and invest in these characters and give up so much of their time to follow these people’s stories. So in that regard, you know, the landscape is definitely changed and I wanted to be a part of it.”

Well Bell is now most certainly apart of it, and he is surrounded by a talented cast, which include two love interests. Newcomer Meegan Warner plays Abe’s wife Mary. Mary is the mother of Abe’s child, and is also a loyalist. The other woman in Abe’s life is Anna Strong (Heather Lind). Anna is Abe’s dream girl who just so happens to side with the colonists. Bell remarked that his relationships with the two female leads have massive an influence on Abe’s decisions.

Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC
Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

“For Abe he has a conflict because the woman he’s with is much more of a loyalist, leaning, much more kind of like just do what they say. You know, maybe it’ll work out for the best,” he remarked about Mary. “Whereas his true love, his real dream girl, the girl that he’s supposed to be with, because it was his destiny has a very strong patriot leaning,” speaking about Anna. “So he’s kind of totally split that the mother of his child thinks one thing, the woman who he loves and really should be with thinks another thing.”

Besides that war setting and love triangle, another interesting aspect of the show is watching Bell essentially play two different sides of Abe. One moment his is the loyalist farmer and family man, the next he is a spy who is risking his life for the sake of the colonist’s freedom. Bell mentions that it can be tricky playing two sides of a character sometimes, but ultimately Abe is a natural liar.

“I remember doing things with Heather Lind who plays Anna Strong, especially towards the end of the season, where I just actually got to play the truth, for once, you know, it’s such a relief because Abe is always hiding something. I think also Abe is naturally good at lying. I think in some ways, he kind of prefers lying than telling the truth. It’s just easier and I think he’s been lying to himself for a long time and he’s just gotten really good at it.”

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Although it contains a great cast with an interesting concept, TURN will have it’s work cut out for it trying to find its audience. The show airs on one of the busiest nights of television going to head to head against HBO’s Game of Thrones, which is unmistakably one of TV’s most popular programs. Thankfully with advances in technology such as DVR and On Demand, we are not limited to watching one program a night anymore. TURN is unlike any show and Bell believes that this untold story is intriguing and compelling.

“It’s a spy thriller. It’s a spy thriller about the untold story of America’s first spy ring and the origins of espionage in this country. It’s high stakes compelling drama. These are kids, you know. These are young people who took something upon that was so crazy and so out with their element and literally turned against their own people, their families and their friends and they managed to endure and they managed to win and get it done. It’s a story about how this country came to be.”

TURN airs every Sunday night at 9pm on AMC.

Al Mannarino is the associate editor and photographer for Pop Break. He is also host of the News Over Brews Podcast, Loot Care Unboxed, Backstage Break, and the producer of Behind the Brews. He graduated Rowan University with a degree in Radio/TV/Film & History. When he isn’t writing he is either trying to build his own TARDIS or taking a nap. Follow him on Twitter: @almannarino. His photo website is: http://alfredmannarino.com