Historian James Kirby Martin separates fact from fiction in this Q&A on Benedict Arnold.
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We sit down with Owain Yeoman who stars as Benedict Arnold in AMC's hit drama TURN: Washington's Spies to see what is is like to play America's notorious traitor.
I was born in Wales and studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. I landed in a part in the movie Troy on my very first audition, which brought me here to the California sunshine. I stayed out here and appeared on a few TV shows. I’m best known for my work on the TV show The Mentalist, on which I played the role of Wayne Rixby for six years. Last year, I was in the movie American Sniper with Bradley Cooper. All of these roads have led me to Benedict Arnold, and I am enjoying every minute of it.
I think I have far fewer preconceptions of Arnold and his “baggage” than Americans do. I relish the challenge of approaching him as someone who is not entirely good or bad, and I want people to look at him with a less judgmental frame when they think about what is motivating him after what he has experienced in his life. As season two begins, he is a hero and should be lauded as a hero, even though history remembers him as a traitor. I try to portray him as a “gray area,” rather than just black and white. I see him as a man of pride, with ambition, greed, and avarice who finds himself in the wrong time and in the wrong situations. He felt unsupported, and he was overlooked, and then he fell into a fateful love affair. He’s a really complicated and delicious character to play.
I wanted to understand the historical facts, so I started with Alexander Rose’s book, which is the basis for the series. It was a great way to understand where and what America was at this point in time. The part is based on factual research, but we have to remember that the story is 200 to 300 years old, and we know what is going to happen. But somewhere along the way, we can surprise people and show a different version of a person they think they know. Arnold falls into a fateful love triangle, and that’s a surprising side for most people. He is a champion on the battlefield, but he is not so sure of himself when he falls in love. When you have this mix of contradictions there is great potential for conflict and drama.
People remember him for his fateful breach, but no one looks beyond that. But before or after that betrayal, he is far more complex. He came from great means but lost it all at a young age and died penniless. His social standing and ego were bruised, and that takes its toll on him. He is desperate to get into the war effort. He is a perfectionist, defiant, bold, and he doesn’t suffer fools. And he finds an ally in Washington. If Washington was a diplomat, Arnold is a sledgehammer.
I understood him only through hearsay and folklore. But I have found a great touchstone and ally in Ian Kahn (who plays George Washington). Having Ian as a scene partner has been a revelation, because it has helped me to really understand the fraternal bond that Washington had with Arnold. It was not just a national, patriotic betrayal. It was deeply personal. Benedict Arnold was Washington’s chief general… his quarterback. When it looked like Arnold was defecting, Washington lamented that “All is lost.” It was a great, important loss with a lasting impact on history, for good and for bad.
Within the confines of the show, we want people to recognize that there is a bigger picture. People like to write off characters or pigeonhole them. We want to open peoples’ minds so that they can see why he became a hero. That’s what I am interested in doing. He suffered a career-ending wound. He was passed over for promotions. His pride was wounded. He had a series of disappointments and seemingly insurmountable problems. And we have to remember that the tide was turning against America at the time of Arnold’s betrayal. He felt he was choosing the stronger side. It’s hard to hate on him for simply trying to survive in this period.
In the first scene in the first episode of season 2, we get a great sense of their relationship. Arnold busts into a dinner scene with an audacity that shows the familiarity and respect that the two men share. There is great mutual respect and a closeness that we don’t see between Washington and any other character. But when Arnold doesn’t get the recognition he craves, it leads to his downfall. Had he kept his personal pride and vendettas aside, it would have been a very different story.
As the season progresses, we see Arnold’s military disappointments, but we also see a willingness to take matters into his own hands. After Saratoga, he is injured, and his festering wound is much like his festering discontent. He’s a man of action, and he needs to move. He is promoted in title only. He doesn’t get paid. He has to subsidize his own war effort. It makes him ripe for the turning. Major Andre sees that vanity and pride early on. Slide a devious woman into the mix that looks as good as Peggy Shippen and you have a recipe for disaster.
We see Peggy as the “it girl” of her day. She was Philadelphia’s Paris Hilton. She had a love of cunning political strategy and a love of John Andre. She wants to be part of Andre’s plan to strike at the heart of the colonial cause. By using Peggy, Andre strikes against Arnold’s emotional life. He was married and lost his wife, leaving him to care for three kids who had lost their mother. This prospect of being loved by a popular socialite is too much for his pride to bear.
We need to remember that traitorous acts are the result of a traitorous impetus. We want people to understand that in the run up to historical events, there are always a series of events. For most of his life, Arnold was an asset to the American cause. He suffered physical and financial ruin as a result of his war efforts on the part of America. Arnold could have been a hero if history had turned out differently.
I hope so. It’s always a challenge when you are doing a historical show, but you are also trying to keep dramatic interest. The spoilers are 200 to 300 years old. We all know where this is going, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have great storytelling. This was a time with some fascinating individuals who lend to excellent stories.
I haven’t, but if the show gets picked up for a third season, you bet your bottom dollar I will.