Judge of Character: Interview with Turn's Kevin McNally

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AMC

Kevin McNally as Judge Richard Woodhull in Turn

"Reach for the stars" is an expression that one can apply to a variety of pursuits, personal as well as professional. Born in Bristol, England and having grown up in Birmingham, veteran stage, feature film and television actor Kevin McNally looked to the heavens for inspiration when it came to what career he one day wanted to pursue. At one point, though, his proverbial reach veered off in a very different but equally star-studded direction and one about which the actor has no regrets.

“Up to the age of ten I wanted to be an actor because I was always doing school plays and similar types of productions,” recalls McNally. “However, when I got to my teens and began secondary school, I got it into my head that I was going to be an astrophysicist. Fortunately, I found out in good time that my abilities as an astrophysicist were slightly more restricted than my abilities as an actor,” he says with a chuckle, “so I gave that up as a potential career aspiration, although it has become a wonderful hobby for me in my adult years. I figure it’s probably better to be an actor and a wannabe astrophysicist as opposed to an astrophysicist who secretly wants to act. I think I’m far more satisfied this way.”

The actor certainly made the right career choice. Having worked in the business for almost 40 years, the talented and affable McNally has appeared in numerous TV series and movies, including the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. He can currently be seen in the hit AMC historical TV drama Turn, which tells the story of the Culper Ring, a small but determined group of Patriots who were recruited as spies for General George Washington and eventually helped turn the tide against the British during the American Revolutionary War. McNally plays Judge Richard Woodhull, a businessman and the local magistrate living in Setauket, New York, who becomes caught up in King George III’s wish to retain control over the original Thirteen Colonies. The role was one that the actor was immediately drawn to.

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“I received a call from my agent, who told me that there was this very interesting TV pilot coming up for a TV show called Turn,” says McNally. “It was set in America over 200 years ago and involved this whole issue of whether the colonists were American or English, so it was very transitional, I think, in terms of what peoples’ identities were back then. I put myself on tape reading one of the scenes, and they [the show’s producers] seemed to like what I did. The next thing I knew, I was in Richmond, Virginia pretending to be in Long Island in 1776 and helping tell this fabulous story about the Revolutionary War, which was very interesting to me. I’m a big history buff on your Civil War, but I didn’t know much about the Revolutionary War. Of course, it instantly became apparent to me that it was, in fact, really America’s first civil war, because it was really American fighting American, or the Loyalists versus the Patriots, and not so much American fighting British. So it was a fantastic creative and educational process for me.

“I actually remember my first day of work on the Turn pilot quite well. The wardrobe people had put together a really nice costume for me. We decided that Richard’s family was probably Puritans originally, so I had on a set of rather austere dark clothes and was standing by this beautiful river in Virginia and next to this beautiful colonial house. My job sometimes feels like time-traveling work, and I became very excited that we were trying to recreate such an important time as well as tell such an important story. As filming of the pilot went on, I began to desperately hope that AMC would like what we did, because I genuinely wanted to come back and do the rest of the season. I felt there were so many stories to tell, and even by the time we get to the end of season one, there are still so many more stories to tell about the Revolutionary War.

“So it was a great joy for me, getting the opportunity to work on a show like this,” continues the actor. “As for my character, Richard Woodhull is a very conservative man and loyal to the crown. He really doesn’t see the way that the wind is changing in America and feels that the way forward for the Patriots and independence is a way forward for anarchy. Richard thinks that America should remain a colony and be loyal to the king. In a way he sort of has a point, I guess, and a lot of people felt that way. For me, I know what it is to be British and you know what it is to be American, and I found what I had to try to do as an actor was get into the mindset of living in this vast, beautiful country that your ancestors were discovering and yet still regard yourself as British.

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“It’s a very, very strange thing to get your head around nowadays and I couldn’t really think of any equivalent anywhere in the world. So I tried to read some contemporary material about what people regarded their identity to be. In doing that, I realized that Richard isn’t even that convinced of it. I think he’s convinced of safety and order, but even for him there’s a growing feeling that they can’t be governed by a king who is 3,000 miles away. As the season goes on, I feel that even Richard’s commitment to the crown starts to waver slightly.”

A widower whose oldest son Thomas is deceased, Richard’s younger son Abe (Jamie Bell) is married and has a wife and child of his own. Unknown to the elder Woodhull, Abe is a member of the Culper Ring, and Richard’s business deals with British forces occupying American soil is among the issues helping fuel tensions between father and son. Abe is also not exactly pleased with Richard’s current “houseguest,” Major Hewlett (Burn Gorman) of His Majesty’s army. Having based his garrison in Setauket, the officer has his pick of local residences, and chooses Woodhull’s. Having Hewlett living under his roof while also trying to deal with his son’s opposing views on the war leaves Richard caught in the middle.

“Those are both very interesting relationships,” notes McNally. “As an educated man in his town, Richard doesn’t often come across many people with a background similar to his. When Hewlett arrives in Setauket, here’s this erudite, educated officer who is now living in Woodhull’s house with him, and I think Richard finds his company very stimulating. They both love literature and the humanities, and probably spend evenings together talking about Shakespeare, Emerson and other great writers, but that begins to turn sour as it becomes more Hewlett’s house than it does Richard’s.

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“As far as Richard’s son Abe, this was another aspect of my character that was difficult for me to get my head around because I’m fortunate to have good relationships with my own children. Plainly, Richard’s relationship with Abe is a little dysfunctional, and, again, having read up on the period, it seems what Richard did is what many well-to-do men did in those days — they put all of their love and energies into their eldest son. Richard had a great relationship with his older son Thomas, but when he dies and my character is left with his other son Abe, he perhaps doesn’t really know him that well.  Richard thought Abe would just one day go to college and get a job, whereas Thomas would be the one to carry on the legacy of the family name.

“So in a way, Richard is discovering his own son for the first time. I think that leads to a number of the problems between them, and the difference in their politics is absolutely at the root of those problems.”

As much as he might feel that British rule over the American colonies would be best for all concerned, Richard begins to have second thoughts about that as season one of Turn continues to unfold. “There is a sense that my character has been very autonomous in the village as the magistrate bringing the king’s law and order to Setauket,” says McNally. “However, now that there have been some skirmishes with Patriot forces and the Declaration of Independence has happened, the army has moved in, and in a way they’ve moved in on his town and taken a great deal of his authority away. So I think Richard is beginning to see that when push comes to shove, although the British trust him to do their dirty work for them, they will rapidly push him aside and not treat him with the respect that he feels he deserves. That, I believe, in turn starts to fracture Richard’s respect for the crown and its forces.

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“Not to spoil anything for those who might not have seen it yet, but in my favorite episode from this season of Turn ["Eternity How Long"], Major Hewlett asks something of Richard that my character knows will enrage the townspeople and turn them against him. The episode is really about dealing with how Richard can diplomatically satisfy both the townspeople as well as the occupying forces. Abe becomes very involved in this decision-making process because he sees his father in great turmoil.

“The two of them have this wonderful scene together — and I shouldn’t really say that about scenes I’m in, but when I originally read it I thought it was wonderful and hopefully it turned out well — where Abe finds Richard drunk and tries to help his father make a decision. For the first time, they talk about Abe’s dead brother, and what’s interesting is that Richard sort of misinterprets Abe’s advice. So towards the end of the episode, as you see Abe and Richard come together, what actually happens is that the wedge between them becomes even stronger and it makes it more difficult for them to cooperate as a family. So it’s a terrific self-contained episode and one that really pushes the season along, I think.”

Long before he became a familiar face to TV and movie audiences, McNally began honing his craft onstage. “I originally broke into the business by getting a job at my local theatre in the days when every town in England had a big repertory theatre company, like summer stock in America,” says the actor. “I then went to drama school, and then I began doing English television in the '70s, working on well-crafted TV series like Poldark and I,Claudius. I really didn’t break into movies in a big way, though, until I came to America to do Pirates of the Caribbean some 12 years ago.

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“As I’ve reached my middle age, I’ve suddenly found this whole new career in America, which has been amazing and very fortunate for me. Again, when I began acting in the 70’s, England made the best television in the world, but as you know, over the last 10 years, there has been a revolution in American television. Although there is still a great deal of dross, which there always has been and is everywhere, you have the new model of television making with big story arcs over 10 hours by the cable companies. This is where the great stories are being told at the moment, so for me to have an opportunity to be a part of that is of great personal pleasure for me.

Cry Freedom, Johnny English, The Phantom of the Opera, Irish Jam, Scoop, Valkyrie, Bounty Killer and the upcoming 500 Miles North are among the actor’s other film credits. Besides Turn, McNally has appeared in a variety of miniseries as well as made-for-TV movies and such series as The Duchess of Duke Street, Survivors, Doctor Who, Underworld, MI-5, Law & Order: UK, New Tricks, Agatha Christie’s Marple, Midsomer Murders, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Supernatural, Room at the Top and Burn Notice. Fans of PBS in the States will fondly remember him from his early roles as Castor and Drake Carne, respectively, in the aforementioned I, Claudius and Poldark, and more recently as Horace Bryant in Downton Abbey.

“It’s funny, someone recently posted on Twitter a really old photograph of me in Poldark and it brought the memories flooding back,” he says. “With both I, Claudius and Poldark this was, of course, the era that I was talking about earlier. I left drama school when I was 19, and suddenly I found myself on-set with Derek Jacobi, Sian Phillips, Brian Blessed, John Hurt and all these other talented actors. I remember — and I often tell this to younger actors now — that I never asked what my call time was, because I couldn’t think of anything better I could do with my days then to get up in the morning, go to that studio, sit with all these actors and watch them work and rehearse,. I learnt so much, and then from there I did Poldark, which was, in fact, my first taste of America. The show was very popular on PBS, and I came to New York in, I think, 1977, hoping to make a name for myself. Well, that didn’t happen for another 20 years or so, but I enjoyed myself so much on that show. I spent my 21st birthday down in Cornwall where Poldark was filmed and it was just an idyllic and marvelous time in my life.

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“Fast forward now to Downton Abbey, and as you may know, my wife, Phyllis Logan, plays Mrs. Hughes on the show. I came home one day and told her, ‘I’ve just been offered a job on this show that I think you know.’ Phyllis said, ‘Oh, really, what is that,’ and I told her, ‘It’s Downtown Abbey.’ She said to me, ‘Ah, you’re joking, right?’ and I said, ‘No, really, and I have lots of scenes with you.’ Phyllis and I did, in fact, have all these lovely scenes together, and everything worked out really well. It was a great joy for us, and for me to share time on set with her. Of course, I already knew the cast, and on my first day of work I remember fluffing my lines while doing a scene sitting around the table. I said, ‘I’m very sorry everyone, but it’s just such a thrill to actually turn up on your own favorite television show. So I had an absolute ball on that job.”

Having worked in a variety of genres and played a range of different characters, there is one rule that McNally tries to follow when looking ahead to his next project. “With any job, you have to make enough money to put bread on the table to feed your family,” he says. “Obviously that’s important, but if, as an actor, you’re then lucky enough to get a few offers and make choices, the one thing you want to have is that when people see your name on something, they think, ‘Oh, that’ll be good,’ or that it’s going to be classy material or classy work. Try not to do projects you don’t respect, which I advise young actors on, too. If you don’t respect the material, then an audience won’t respect it, either. So it’s important to read a script very carefully and become involved with things that you would like to watch yourself, and that goes for theatre, movies or television.”

Turn airs Sunday nights @ 9:00 p.m. EST on AMC. Please note, all Turn photos above copyright of AMC.

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A native of Massachusetts, Steve Eramo has been a Sci-Fi fan since childhood, having been brought up on such TV shows as Star Trek and Space: 1999. He is also an Anglophile and lover of British TV. A writer for 35 years – 17 of those as a fulltime freelancer – Steve has had over 2,500 feature-length…

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