“Turn” introduces an American legend in Season 1, episode 5, “Epiphany”: George Washington. Ian Kahn portrays the iconic patriot from the Revolutionary War, and he admits it was a lot of pressure to bring Washington to life.
This Zap2it-exclusive image reveals what Kahn’s version of Washington looks like. Zap2it spoke with Kahn about the Washington who viewers will meet in “Turn” on May 4, and he teases that this is a very different man than the president who history books idolize.
Zap2it: What pressure was there to live up to the expectation of the introduction of George Washington?
Ian Kahn: I’m incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to play General Washington; incredibly grateful to have the challenge, because it’s one of the greatest challenges I’ve ever faced in my acting career. To play someone we all know so much about, a man who’s so deeply admired for so many different reasons and across so many different spectrums of communities, so largely loved as a great man, it was incredibly challenging, incredibly humbling and really I became almost obsessed with trying to fulfill people’s expectations of the man.
I was lucky enough to have a friend who had a friend named Daniel Shippey. He runs an organization called the Breeds Hill Institute, which is literally about George Washington and keeping his reputation alive. I was connected with Dan and spent three to five hours every single day from the moment I got the job till I was done shooting, talking to him as much as I could to learn as much as I could about the man so I could do my best to fill the shoes of this great icon of our country.
I read that one way you humanized Washington was by trying to show your teeth as little as possible when you talk, because he was really embarrassed by his teeth. Were there any other ways you tried to make him more of a human instead of a legend?
The more research that I did, the more interviews that I read of great historians, what I learned was he really was a man. He wasn’t just this mythical person, he was a human being who actually was self-conscious about a lot of things, not just his teeth. He was very conscious about how he was seen by the rest of the country. He had deep insecurities that actually lived within him. People understood that about him as well, and he understood that about himself.
We all have those insecurities in life. I know I have them. We all do as we walk through the world. Do people like us? Are we doing a good enough job in our family lives? I think to just bring him down to that base level of a human being really opens up a lot of those avenues towards understanding him as less of an icon or statue and more of just a man that he was. He was deeply afraid. He had far more on his shoulders even than I do as playing him in the role.
As we see on the show when there was talk of Washington being captured, that was the end of the war for the rebels. He held everything in his hands, and he understood that so keenly. I think that just by understanding his insecurities, I really hope that will come true in the characterization and who the audience gets to meet and to hopefully love.
If we had met Washington before this episode, where would he be at emotionally?
New York is an island, and New York is — as it is today, with Philadelphia — sort of the capital of the colonies. It was the centerpiece, it was the trade hub. He fought so desperately to hold New York, but New York is an island, so New York can be attacked from all different sides. But in losing New York, in that moment where he lost New York, what he did was he lost the city and then he burned it, which is the military act that you do if you lose a city.
But when he lost that, the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, people were talking about him losing his job. There was some talk of that in the last episode with General Lee. There was genuine talk of that. Washington was scared and embarrassed and was looking towards his legacy often of what kind of a job was he going to do? I can only imagine that he was feeling like we feel when we’ve lost something that we were working so hard towards.
How important is Abraham Woodhull to General Washington?
As we’re just getting started here, he’s just finding out who Woodhull is. And this new direction for Washington is something that he gets incredibly excited about, because one of the things that we think of when we think of George Washington is “I’ll never tell a lie.” But, like in “The Usual Suspects,” Keyser Soze’s line, “The greatest lie that was ever told about the devil was that he doesn’t exist,” Washington was great at telling lies because he was a spy master. It was one of the things that he enjoyed so much in doing.
Woodhull brings to the table a whole new way to the win the war because, just speaking from a military perspective, there’s no way that Washington is going to be able to stand up against the English and win a war because they have all the ships, they have all the men. It’s not going to happen. The only way they can win is sort of like Vietnam in the ’60s against us: You have to keep the war going and get the English to say, “You know what, this is far too much trouble.” You’ve got to be able to stay on the run, and that was what Washington was so masterful at.
He was fighting political battles every day. There was that moment in episode 4 where you see Washington’s desk, and you see all the notes from all the letters from all the different places that he had to handle. It’s really true. I think for him, these little spy things were sort of the fun of it all for him, and the enjoyment. And here is Woodhull and this Culper spy ring ends up being incredibly key in being able to keep the war going and eventually help win the war.
You aren’t in every episode this season, but what can you tease of Washington’s presence through the finale?
I think the goal was to sort of move the story forward. He’s there to help move the story forward of the Culper ring, and we really do get a taste of who the man is. You really will know who General Washington is in this story based on what you get to see in the next few episodes. I certainly hope so. I certainly hope that that’s the case. You do get to sit with General Washington. In the next [episode], the audience will really get a taste for his spirit, what kind of a man he is.
Other than the fact that this is portraying the Revolutionary War, what do you think it is about “Turn” that has viewers so engaged?
I think that the actors — Jamie Bell, Seth Numrich, Samuel Roukin, Angus Macfayden, Burn Gorman — everybody’s doing fantastic work on that screen. The writing is excellent, and what we get to see underneath is we get to look into the story of these human beings who helped shape our country, because these people, the courageous choices that they made during these times has freed us to become this great country that we are. Whatever arguments we may have with the country at different times or at different eras, it’s still possibly the greatest country on Earth.
We’re blessed that these revolutionaries fought this war and won us these rights and this safety. To see that from the inside I think is incredibly exciting. It’s thrilling in so many different ways, I feel incredibly fortunate to have joined such a great team. … The reason that I love playing this part is it asks for me to be better than the best part of myself, because General Washington always made a conscious choice. He lived within consciousness because he had so much on his plate, he had so much on his shoulders that he developed incredibly wide shoulders and sort of helped bridge and build a country.
“Turn” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on AMC.