AMC’s espionage period piece TURN returns Monday night with a two-hour special and one door-busting entrance from revolutionary villain Benedict Arnold. Stepping into the shoes (or wig, as it were) of America’s most hated traitor is The Mentalist’s Owain Yeoman, in a far different role to that of loyal Rigsby. But Yeoman—the son of a history teacher who joked “I would be in big trouble if I wasn’t doing plenty of research”—was actually feeling pretty open-minded about his new character when The TV Junkies caught up with him earlier this year.
“Certainly as an actor, I never come to a character and go ‘Is this character a good guy or is he a bad guy?’ because I think you’re then judging them,” he explained. “If you can get under their skin and understand their thought processes then we can say, look, this is what it is. The facts are what they are, and history is what it is. But maybe now we can begin to understand why someone might have done that.”
What that just happens to be (if, like us, you’re an uncultured Canuck who’s not up-to-speed on the American Revolution) is Arnold’s defection from the Americans—where he was Washington’s top general—to the then-thriving British forces. It’s a move that made the historical figure infamous in the United States, although he reputedly didn’t make too many friends afterwards in Britain or Canada, either.
But Yeoman adds the creators of TURN didn’t just want to just show Arnold’s betrayal, but establish the war hero that he was before his treachery began—and chart the forces at work that eventually led to his fateful decision.
“I think it’s important to see a character at their best so they can almost understand a fall from grace kind of story,” Yeoman said about Arnold’s entrance. “I literally blow the doors off and I come in and rail against Congress, and I rail against all this money that I’m having to spend. I think he’s a man which, if history had gone slightly differently, could have ended up being one of America’s most celebrated figures and not most hated traitors.”
And at least in the first few episodes that’s how the Americans see him, including Culper Ring-leader Ben Talmadge (Seth Numrich) who looks to Arnold for a mentor. But as Yeoman puts it, TURN‘s Arnold is—ironically enough—concerned with glory, honour and victory in battle instead of Ben’s spy work. Very quickly those reasons prove to be compelling for a frustrated Ben, who’s discovering there’s very little of that in espionage — although how that might change once Arnold switches sides remains to be seen.
It’s the kind of dilemma that’s facing Yeoman as he dives further into Arnold’s character, which comes as no surprise considering he’s a Brit making his home stateside now.
“That’s a tough one,” he finally said when asked which side he would choose. “That’s a really tough one. Goodness, you see I lose both ways, in real life and in the show. I think what I love about playing this guy is he is, in so many respects, emblematic of all the things about my life situation in the sense that I know what it’s like to be an ex-pat in a different country. Can I secretly root for both? Is that possible? I think I’m going to take the coward’s way out and say I hope both win, and just let them duke it out.”
Eleni Armenakis became a TV Junkie early on by watching Discovery obsessively as a child. A year away from home got her hooked on all things Canadian television (Republic of Doyle, oh yeah!) to go with her not-so-secret love of the historical and supernatural. In her non-TV time, she can be found writing music reviews, watching movies or hanging out on Twitter: @eleniarmenakis.