When “Turn: Washington’s Spies” premiered last year, English actor Jamie Bell brought to life little known farmer-turned-spy Abraham Woodhull, whom Bell considers nearly as important to America as George Washington.
“There isn’t a monument erected in his name. Washington, he’s [honored] in marble, you know?” Bell told me last year. “I think [Abe is] that important to this country’s beginnings and as we understand this country today.”
Woodhull was a member of the Culper Ring, America’s first spy ring that consisted of a group of childhood friends who became Gen. Washington’s secret weapon against the British during the Revolutionary War. “Turn,” whose first season is currently streaming on Netflix before season 2 debuts at 8 p.m. April 13 on AMC, tells the story of Abe and the Culper Ring, who helped the Colonial Army change the course of the war and the rest, well, the rest is history.
Except it’s history that wasn’t explored until the 1930s, when members of the Culper Ring were identified for the first time after more than 150 years of anonymity because they always had used code names and didn’t reveal themselves even after the war. The series is based on Alexander Rose’s 2006 book “Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring,” in which he uncovers new revelations about the Ring and its members.
Bell said he felt a great responsibility playing Abe because of the courageous work he did and sacrifices he made for his young country. And because Abe and his friends did it anonymously, without hopes for recognition or glory or even becoming the characters in an AMC series nearly 250 years later.
“The responsibility is huge because we’ve literally never seen him before. We’ve never heard of him before and now, all of a sudden, we’re all up-close and personal with him,” Bell said. “What we do know really comes from the correspondence between him and George Washington. That kind of only gives us a limited account of what this man was like, what his experiences were like.”
In the series’ first season, Abe was a farmer and family man reluctant to join his childhood friends Benjamin Tallmadge (Seth Numrich), Anna Strong (Heather Lind) and Caleb Brewster (Daniel Henshaw) in the spy trade. Abe, like many people of the day, believed that spying was dishonorable and cowardly.
“Spies were hated,” Bell said. “To be honorable was to wear a uniform and to fight on the battlefield and engage in the rules of warfare, but to be a spy was actually a cowardly thing to do. You were less than a man if you were a spy.”
Because so little was known about Abe and his friends, Bell and series creator Craig Silverstein had to fill in “a lot of shadowy gaps left in their story,” as Silverstein told me last year. Silverstein looked even beyond Rose’s book during his research, finding interesting tidbits to further the storytelling.
“There’s so much detail I’ll never have enough time to get in,” he said. “It’s just amazing the level of kind of character stuff that we’ve discovered about these people.”
Still, Silverstein found he had to create “certain connections that can’t be proved or disproved.”
He and Bell wanted to show Abe as an everyman, a father and husband and son who wanted to protect his family and farm and not get involved in politics or the growing tensions between Britain and its American colonists. He had a lot at stake, yet he couldn’t look away from the injustices he saw all around him.
“He was a blue-collar kid who suddenly had this incredible calling and incredible responsibility put on his shoulders,” Bell said.
As season 2 opens, Abe is all in with his friends. Ben continues to fight on the battlefield and to organize his spies, Abe, Anna and Caleb risk their lives behind enemy lines. Abe concocts a plan to pretend to work as a spy for British Major Hewlett (Burn Gorman), who is garrisoned in Abe’s father’s home and has taken a liking to Anna. Their covert activities bring them close to being discovered at every turn.
The dangers the friends face also bring them closer together, Bell suggested, even if they don’t seem to get along during their covert meetings.
“If we know who [famous turncoat] Nathan Hale is because he got caught, there’s a reason why we don’t know Abe—because he didn’t get caught,” Bell said. “The Culper Ring was an incredibly successful spy network because they were all kind of best friends.
“They wouldn’t betray each other’s friendships and I think that’s why it worked.”