Viewers have likely seen a lot of promotion for the hero
of AMC’s new Revolutionary War spy drama “Turn,”
but what about its villain? Samuel Roukin plays British officer John Graves Simcoe in the series, who almost immediately becomes an antagonist in the lives of Abraham Woodhull (Jamie Bell) and Anna Strong (Heather Lind).
In anticipation of Sunday’s (April 6) premiere of “Turn,” Zap2it
spoke with Roukin about his character’s motivations and whether fans will ever come to like him. He also reveals a surprisingly romantic side to the real-life British soldier.
Zap2it: Simcoe is a character viewers are supposed to dislike from the beginning, so how did you go about still making him a character we’re intrigued by?
I think people are going to have a very strong opinion about Simcoe, and I think that’s right. The people that have seen [the premiere] tend to come up to me and tell me how much they hate me, and I’m OK with that because it means it’s working. The reason why this show’s exciting is because the characters aren’t two-dimensional. They’re opinionated people.
For me, when I read Simcoe and when I researched the man, what’s important is this is a guy that believes in the empire, and believes in the pursuit of the colonies. What makes Simcoe specific within that is he is a man who has a very clear rule book. It’s just that no one else A) knows what that rule book is, and B) it’s not a rule book that many people would subscribe to. That’s what makes him basically a sociopath.
I’m intrigued by this “rule book.” What are these rules he subscribes to?
] I couldn’t possibly tell you that. It’s not like there is an official rule book. There’s consequences to people’s behavior, and the consequences that Simcoe dishes out are very severe — but he’s a decisive, black-and-white kind of guy. You’ll see as the season goes on that he makes very quick, decisive decisions that sometimes don’t benefit him. … He’s a man with very specific ideas about how things should go.
I think, in his eyes, if only the rebels within America could be eliminated and the people could be tamed to be more like the British, then everything will be all right. What makes it work is if you have a guy who really believes that’s true. Otherwise he’s just an idea of malevolence, and that doesn’t work. That’s not interesting. All of these people, they’re affected by their environment. Part of that environment is the people within it. He’s still a human being, and there’s a woman in his sights …
Or lucky Anna. [laughs] When emotions get involved with someone who’s ruthless like that, then bad things happen.
Are we going to end up seeing more of a humanization of Simcoe throughout the season?
I certainly, along with [EPs] Barry [Josephson] and Craig [Silverstein] and the directors we’ve had along the way, have worked really hard to make sure that he remains a human being. The British obviously are the enemy in this show, and they are the occupying force, and already they’re colored as a negative presence. That’s there from the beginning. … I’m not looking forward to a time when people go, “Oh Simcoe. He’s such a great guy, isn’t he?” I don’t think that’s going to happen. Hopefully, if we get it right he won’t just be a baddie. Do you know what I mean? He’ll be a really malevolent presence that’s believable because he’s a fully rounded human being.
If there’s a level of empathy, we’re winning, really. But I don’t think we’ll necessarily grow to love him. He’s a complex character, and we love watching complex characters. We don’t know what he’s going to do next. And equally, when I get the episodes, I don’t know what he’s going to do next either. [laughs] That’s the exciting thing about doing television. You don’t know what the writers are going to throw your way. If there’s a level of empathy and hatred and a little sprinkling of love, I think we’ve really hit gold. [laughs]
Simcoe ends up spending a lot of time with some of the American soldiers. Do you think he could ever end up respecting them?
The correct officer’s behavior is something that any soldier respects. If we look at the Culper Ring, for example, two of the main players of the Culper Ring are Caleb Brewster and Ben Tallmadge. Caleb Brewster is what we understand of that kind of ragtag rebel soldier, and Ben Tallmadge is a continental tribune with the bright blue uniform and the shiny helmet. Simcoe sees people like Caleb Brewster as the problem, and people like Ben Tallmadge — whilst they’re the enemy — as the potential solution. If there were more Ben Tallmadges of the world, then probably the British Empire would be embraced.
You seem like you’re having a lot of fun with this character. What sort of research did you do going in, since Simcoe was a real person?
It’s a very new history, which is what’s exciting about the show — bringing a new perspective on something that people feel like they already know a lot about. But there is information on these guys. John Graves Simcoe, there’s actually quite a lot of information about him, and there’s clues as to what makes him who he is. He wrote the first recorded Valentine’s poem. I swear to you, it’s glorious. He wrote the first Valentine’s poem that’s recorded in American history. It was to a local woman in Long Island, so there’s like this romanticism there.
Wait, Valentine’s Day poem? Please tell me this is going to be a plot point on the show.
I would love it if it was. We are all aware of it, the writers are aware of it. I don’t know how it will appear or whether it will be too on-the-nose. He wrote a lot of poems. Simcoe and John Andre were actually friends in real life. J.J. Fields, who plays John Andre so amazingly, he said they actually ran a theater together for a little while, which I just think is amazing. I really hope we get to see some of that. It wasn’t all war. … That’s little clues for actors. We go, OK, if this is a guy that wrote love poetry in the midst of this dirty, cold, unpredictable war, then that says something about a guy, and so he has to have a sense of humor. Then you just immerse yourself. Unsurprisingly, English people don’t get taught the American Revolution [laughs]. I didn’t really know much about it at all.
Teachers gloss over that part of history.
Yeah, right? I did some general reading on what happened from the American perspective. There’s an amazing book, “1776,” by David McCulloch. That’s a fantastic book about this particular year that really galvanized the patriotic spirit. Then I really focused way harder on the English perspective and what that mindset was. I think that’s crucial for us, who are playing the British side. If we’re really going to tell a believable story and really represent this incredible piece of history, you have to go full throttle. What were these guys doing there, and how could they live with themselves being an occupying force? And the way they lived with themselves being an occupying force is that they believed in what they were doing, and they thought they were doing something right.
What drew you to the series originally?
When I read the pilot, it was actually one of the first scripts that I read in pilot season last year, and it was the best TV script I have ever read. I love historical fiction anyway. I read a lot of it just for my own pleasure, and I’m attracted to true stories. I’ve done a few on TV in England. I just respond to it, and so I get excited. I’m just so excited to be doing such great writing in America. I’ve always wanted to work here. I live here now, it’s my home, and I love it. We’ve been lucky. We’ve got a great writing team, and an amazing cast. We’ve got great, great people, and we just hit a groove. We’ve been having a load of fun.
“Turn” premieres at 9 p.m. ET/PT Sunday on AMC.