He’s not trying to make you think of Benedict Arnold as a hero, but The Mentalist alum Owain Yeoman does hope his portrayal of Arnold in Season 2 of AMC’s Revolutionary War spy drama Turn: Washington’s Spies will make you do a deeper dive on just what drove the man synonymous with backstabbery to turn his back on his country.
“This was a guy who, by all accounts, was Washington’s right-hand man and a general that most of the Patriot army would’ve followed to their deaths,” Yeoman says of Arnold, who makes a grand entrance into the action of Season 2. “The betrayal comes at the end of a series of misgivings and personal misfortunes… the Patriot cause left him saddled with a lot of bills for his own war efforts. Congress was constantly overlooking him for promotion. I think by the time it came to that fateful moment where he does turn, an awful lot has motivated that… and he was offered the equivalent of, like, 20 million dollars and a very beautiful woman saying, ‘Come on over to the British side.’”
Watch an exclusive Turn sneak peek featuring Yeoman:
Yeoman, who will also play the villainous Vartox in CBS’s Supergirl pilot, talks to Yahoo TV about trying to add more layers to the image of Benedict Arnold, the fun of trading his Mentalist suits for Revolutionary War garb, and how he has hopes that his Supergirl and Turn characters might become action figures.
Were you at all apprehensive about taking on the role of one of the most notorious Americans in history?
I think there always comes a level of apprehension and intimidation when you sign on, first of all, for a show that’s already up and running. I’ve come off a show where… I couldn’t be playing a more different character; Rigsby in The Mentalist and Benedict Arnold, that’s about as about-face as you can get really, isn’t it? I relish the challenge, creatively… because, as you say, the character comes with quite a lot of associative historical baggage, and we’re really trying to challenge that.
He didn’t just one day decide to turn his back on his country, and he didn’t do it just for money. How much will you delve into his backstory?
Absolutely, and the seeds of that are really, really solidly sown. What we’re trying to do, certainly in Season 2, is begin to sow the seeds for the things that we know so well. We know about his betrayal. We know about his fateful marriage to Peggy Shippen and how she becomes, for want of a better word, a bit of a Lady Macbeth-like figure for him, coaxing him over to a side where she says, “Look, if you haven’t found appreciation or love for what you’re doing in the Patriot cause, here’s a side that will appreciate you.” We don’t get as far as the betrayal this season, but… she comes in, and she was the It Girl of her day. She turned a lot of heads, quite literally, and becomes a very interesting tool for [John Andre] to slowly, and very conspiratorially, pry Benedict Arnold over to the Loyalist cause.
He was mentioned in Season 1, but how are we actually introduced to him in Season 2?
It’s a great entrance… I literally blow the doors off. I jump in in the middle of a private dinner that Washington’s having. I think that’s indicative of the level of respect [Arnold] commands; there’s very few people who could barge through the doors of a private dinner of George Washington’s and say, “I’m here! Here are all the things that are wrong with Congress, and here are all the things that are wrong with the military right now.” He’s a guy who’s not afraid to speak his mind, and I think in the right context, that earns him an awful lot of respect.
It sounds like you had a lot of fun playing Arnold. Did it feel like you were immersed in history?
Oh, my god, it was such a blast. It was so liberating to come out of something where I was basically, the only thing that would change for me with Rigsby would be the color of my suit, in terms of costumes. In [Turn], you put on seven layers of pantaloons, vests, waistcoats, and jackets. It takes two people to dress you, and it takes about an hour. Nothing got done in a hurry, I realize, in those days. If you needed a bathroom break, you had to plan 20 or 30 minutes ahead of the game. That, for me, is a wonderful physical gateway into a character, and he has so many physical anchors that were really enjoyable for me to play. Very early on, we see this terrible leg injury that he sustains in the Battle of Saratoga, and for a number of episodes in Season 2, I’m laid up in a hospital bed. As my leg is getting worse, so is that festering discontent. Towards the end of the season, we’re really going to see it bubble up and boil over to a point where he says, “You know what, I don’t want to take this anymore.” Like, how many times can a good man be kicked in the nuts, basically.
I feel like his physical injury becomes a metaphor for a far more unsolvable and uncurable ill within him, which is a festering discontent… he’s a guy, like any idealist, any perfectionist, who sees the wrongs of the government and wants to change them, but realizes he’s not a big enough cog in the wheel.
Was American history a big part of your education in Wales?
My mom’s a history teacher, so woe to this boy if he doesn’t go home and do his history homework. We do get a bit short-changed on American history, especially the Revolution and Civil War, so it was a really nice process for me to prepare. I’m a voracious reader, and I love to throw myself into it. Especially when you’re playing a real-life character, I think there’s a responsibility to own that, serve that, and to know exactly who this guy is. He had such a complicated backstory that I couldn’t wait to get into that and understand how he fits into history, beyond that initial eyebrow raise or sharp intake of breath that people have when they go, “Oh, you’re playing Benedict Arnold.” I really want to, I know we all on the show want to, challenge that notion, because in a way, it’s nice that I come to it maybe as a slight outsider. I don’t have any of that baggage that people who are brought up [where] “Benedict Arnold” is a byword for traitor.
In another role very different from The Mentalist, you’ll be playing the villain Vartox in the pilot for CBS’s Supergirl series. Is there potential for Vartox to be recurring?
At the moment, it’s something I can’t really talk about an awful lot. I’ve just signed on for the pilot. I guess there’s always the potential that a character could come back. I’m contractually signed on with Turn, so obviously that’s my home right now. I will say the scope of the Supergirl pilot was incredible. I’ve personally never been involved in something with such a huge production value and scope. Glen [Winter], the director, is doing incredible things with it, and I really feel like people who are fans of not just the Supergirl world, but the whole Superman franchise, will be really, really thrilled with this. It genuinely felt like we were shooting a movie.
Was it fun to go from the Revolutionary War costumes to a comic book character costume?
Yeah, for sure. Being typecast is the enemy of any actor, so if you can try to do something that flips on the head peoples’ ideas of who you are or what you can do, that’s my biggest aim. I worked very hard for Supergirl to put on a lot of physical size, bulked-up an awful lot. That was a real challenge for me, just to be able to go through a physical transformation. What’s really interesting about all of these characters is that I think, if you play any character with any sense of him being evil, then you’re starting from a really, really, redundant place. You have to understand their motivation, whether it’s in a police procedural, a historical piece, or a modern-day superhero piece. I think those characters will inevitably become much more interesting then.
The idea of becoming an action figure has to be pretty cool, too.
Listen, if the day comes where I can have my own action figur… I defy any actor to say that’s not a good day. We had to get some body scans done first, some CGI work and stuff, and they said, “Yeah, we make action figures.” I’m not going to lie to you, my ears did prick up a little bit. [Laughs.] “This is where they make action figures… oh, OK, alright.” A Vartox action doll would be amazing. A Benedict Arnold action doll… that would be something as well.
Turn Season 2 premieres April 13 at 9 p.m. on AMC.