Major Impact: Interview with Turn's Burn Gorman

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AMC

Burn Gorman as Turn's Major Hewlett

There are two certainties in life: death and taxes. It was the latter, or to be more precise, the refusal by Americans to pay what they felt were unlawful taxes to the British parliament that eventually sparked off the Revolutionary War. Of course, King George III was not at all pleased with the patriots’ behavior and sent his military to deal with the situation. Set in 1776, the new AMC TV series Turn tells the story of the Culper Ring, an unlikely group of spies who assisted General George Washington in defeating the Redcoats. Among the British officers deployed to the colonies to carry out King George’s instructions is Major Hewlett, played by actor Burn Gorman. As a member of the king’s army, he has a duty to perform, but his task is not an easy or popular one, as Gorman explains.

“What I wanted to do with Hewlett was present someone who is prideful and believes in the superiority of his social position amongst the colonists, but is trying to do the right thing,” says the actor. “My character is essentially a middle manager and wants only to do a good job. Hewlett is also a man with a flawed vision; he believes that anyone who doesn’t believe everything that the king says is right is a traitor, and he’s fearful of the sense of chaos that’s brewing around him. So he’s a bit paranoid, actually, that things are going to go wrong, and, again, he wants to do the right thing, whatever it takes, which is something I responded to as an actor. Hewlett has a strong sense of values, which is nice to latch onto and then develop in order to find out more about the character you’re playing.

“It’s always more challenging to play flawed characters, and this guy is flawed. Hewlett cannot see what is going on underneath his nose and in close proximity, but he does feel a sense of being under attack. As Turn continues to unfold, I think my character becomes much more paranoid and ready for a fight, be that a physical or mental fight. The stakes really rise as the episodes go on, until we finally see him actually come to the front and use his battle skills. However, it’s that feeling of being surrounded by people who don’t want you around that rises and rises, and along with the intrigue and twisted loyalties, the story just becomes a very exciting rollercoaster ride. At least it was for me, anyway, and I hope that’s also true of those watching.”

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A self-proclaimed history buff, Gorman has roots in the States as well as the UK and was immediately drawn to Turn when he first found out about it. “I was actually born and raised in Los Angeles and went back to London with my family when I was six or seven,” he notes. “I was in Los Angeles during pilot season and my reps set me up for Turn. I received the pilot script and it was one of the best scripts I had ever read. From start to finish, it was a complete, intense and interesting story which just leapt off the page, so I was very keen to become involved. I met with [series creator/executive producer/writer] Craig Silverstein as well as [executive producer] Barry Josephson and Rupert Wyatt [director of the Turn pilot], and things pretty much went from there. I felt an immediate kinship with the part and I thought I could do something interesting with it, so I’m really pleased that everything worked out in the end.

“I’m a history nerd and I especially love this period around 1776 and onwards. The whole founding of essentially a new utopia and the casting off of the old shackles of the monarchy is, I think, a very honorable thing. I enjoyed doing research into basically this group of individuals who all knew each other as childhood friends. They were an incredibly efficient spy ring, which is why this story is only now being told. It wasn’t until the 1930s that we discovered correspondence between General Washington and one of the spies, and the story of the Culper Ring came to the forefront. The bottom line is I love reading about heroes. These guys were heroes working under immense pressure with very few resources, and I think that’s why I’m so glad that this previously untold story of America’s first spy ring is finally being told.”

Major Hewlett commands the British garrison stationed in Setauket, Long Island, New York, and when we first see him in the Turn pilot he is dealing with a disciplinary issue involving one of his officers. Although the story took place a very long time ago, Gorman felt right at home and in the moment beginning with his first day on the job.

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“Well, thank goodness they hired people at the top of their game,” he enthuses. “My first introduction to all this was meeting Donna Zakowska, the costume designer. She worked on [the 2008 TV miniseries] John Adams and was so steeped in the period and its details. For an actor, being with someone like that who knows exactly what all this should look like immediately gives you a sense of security. A costume helps you find your posture and how you carry yourself as your character. I was then bewigged or had a wig-fitting, which is a strange ‘beast’ that kind of takes you back in time to how it would have been.

“So that was my first day of work on Turn and I very much enjoyed the costume process. My second day was filming indoors with a number of horses. I’d never done that before, and the thing is, the British troops would take over these small towns and they sometimes stabled their horses inside churches and various other buildings. So that was a learning experience for me as far as finding out more about these beautiful creatures, and Hewlett actually gets quite close to his steed. You could say he’s a bit of a lonely man,” jokes the actor, “so it was great working with animals on my second day.”

When the British seized control of a town, the officers as well as their men would seek out the best accommodations, including private homes, and move right in. Major Hewett chose the residence of local magistrate and businessman Judge Richard Woodhull (Kevin McNally) and made himself right at home. Despite the war being fought around them on American soil, it seemed to be an ideal arrangement for both parties.

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“I like to think of it as a bit of an Odd Couple-type of situation,” says Gorman. “Major Hewlett has taken over Richard Woodhull’s house; he’s living there, drinking his wine, eating his food, as members of the British army did back then. They stationed themselves in the best quarters, and so Hewlett is a bit of a cuckoo in the nest, but I think he sees Richard as a kindred spirit. Here’s a man living in this backwater place who knows a great deal about literature, art and nature, and my character is glad for the opportunity to quote Shakespeare and Homer to him.

“Over the weeks, you see that relationship become more fraught as the major asks Richard to do a number of troublemaking things. In one of the episodes, Hewlett asks Richard do to something that could turn the whole village against him. So that relationship becomes more and more strained, but my character sort of sees Richard as an ally. Hewlett knows that he’s loyal and can be relied on. It helps, too, that Kevin and I are firm friends as well. He’s such a great guy to work with, and I feel that helped our characters’ friendship to further deepen.”

While Richard Woodhull is useful to Hewlett in certain instances, there are other matters of war that require a more cunning and far less refined hand. For those situations, he turns to someone like Captain John Graves Simcoe (Samuel Roukin), a recently promoted officer in His Majesty’s Army who serves under the major. Intensely loyal to his uniform, Simco has no tolerance for those working against the British, and Hewlett uses this to his advantage.

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“As an officer and major in the British Army at that time, most cases of insubordination or other types of disciplinary action would require a firm and harsh response from Hewlett,” says Gorman. “That’s when he turns to someone like Captain Simcoe, and that relationship becomes one of dependency for the major because he needs Simcoe as his attack dog. Hewlett uses Simcoe to find out what’s going on in town, including any conspiracies, because he knows that something is not right. So they develop a type of codependency, and while Hewlett completely distrusts Simcoe and doesn’t particularly like him, he needs him to gather information and, to be honest, also to do his dirty work. By the end of this season, their relationship comes to a head, and Hewlett often has to put Simcoe back in his place, because he’s a sociopath. I think my character knows that, but, again, Simcoe is someone who he’s forced to rely on.”

Gorman remarked earlier that the pilot script for Turn is what instantly attracted him to this project. From there, he was equally impressed by other elements such as attention to detail and high production values. As the weeks passed and the cameras continued to roll, he became all the more enthusiastic about helping tell a story such as this.

“As the episodes go on, the intrigue and the daring is actually ratcheted up, and we see some pretty major set pieces take place away from Setauket,” reveals the actor. “The work that’s been done is just incredible and the scope of the storytelling is amazing, but the scenes I actually enjoy most are where we’re sitting around the dinner table in Setauket and there are all these terrible secrets between Richard and his son Abe [Jamie Bell), Abe’s wife Mary [Meegan Warner] and Anna [Heather Lind]. It’s a very tense situation with multiple layers of intrigue and family against family and friend against friend.

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“So it’s like a pressure cooker waiting to explode and things get more and more interesting as time goes on. The writing on Turn is complex and there are some incredible stories that are woven into the overall plot. For instance, the issue of slaves is something that would have been easy to gloss over or not deal with it at all, but we deal with it fairly extensively. Again, back then, the loyalties of who’s on what side and who’s against who wasn’t clear-cut. Quite literally, you didn’t know for sure about anyone; families were split up and friends became mortal enemies at the snap of your fingers. It was a tense and terrifying time, and I thoroughly enjoyed filming it.”

Unlike many others in his profession, Gorman never had any dreams as a child to pursue an acting career. “I never even thought about acting until I was around 20 years old,” he recalls. “At the time, I was working in the luxury hotel trade and knew that I needed to go back to college to get some additional qualifications for the hotel industry. My mom and dad had moved up from London to near Stratford-upon-Avon, which was where I was going to college. Somebody introduced me to the Royal Shakespeare Company and from that moment on I was hooked. It [acting] wasn’t something I’d ever thought about, though. No one in my family had ever done anything like that, so it was a real surprise to me as much as anyone else,” says Gorman with a chuckle,” and the fact that I continue to work is wonderful. I count myself very lucky and try to enjoy every day and every job.”

It was in 1998 that Gorman made his professional debut when he was hired for a four-episode arc in an iconic British TV series. “I played this kind of weird cult leader [Ben Andrews] on the UK’s longest running soap opera, Coronation Street, and I was terrible,” he says. “I knew nothing at all about the camera, where to stand, how to speak, etc. It was another learning experience for me. Thankfully, I didn’t get fired, and the people there were so kind to me and very generous about my inexperience. Looking back now, you’re always learning on the job and it’s not always perfect, but this was a great show to be on as well as start my career on.”

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Along with a variety of made-for-TV movies and miniseries, Gorman's other TV credits include Casualty, The Inspector Lynley Mysteries, Dalziel and Pascoe, EastEnders, Agatha Christie’s Marple, Bonekickers, Lark Rise to Candleford, The Hour, Game of Thrones, Revenge andIt’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. On the big screen, he has appeared in such feature films as Love is Not Enough, Layer Cake, Pacific Rim, Walking with the Enemy and the upcoming Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. No stranger to performing in period drama, the actor played Mr. Guppy in a 2005 TV adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, while sci-fi fans remember him as Torchwood’s Owen Harper.

Bleak House was a dream come true,” says Gorman. “My dad threw out our telly when I was eight years old and he brought us up on the classics and used to read us Dickens, so when Bleak House came along it felt like a perfect fit. It just came so naturally to me and I thoroughly loved it. With a face like mine you have to work with what you’ve got,” jokes the actor, “so period dramas are something I often get approached about, so I was very honored to be a part of Bleak House. It helped open a number of doors for me, as did Torchwood.

“As a sci-fi fan and someone who knew a great deal about Doctor Who, it was an opportunity that I couldn’t turn down. It was a strange time, because Torchwood sort of got left alone down in the wilds of Wales [where the series was filmed] and we were able to do storylines and talk about subject matter that hadn’t been done that much before on a sci-fi show. I definitely don’t think it would be commissioned today, but some of the episodes were mind-blowing and it was a terrific feeling of creative freedom. We had such great writers and, to be honest, it was a real scream, too. We laughed from start to finish every day, especially with John Barrowman [Captain Jack Harkness] leading the company. He’s bottled lightning and such a wonderful guy to work with.

“With regard to my character of Owen, I always thought he was a total ass. He was a character you liked to hate, but, again, the characters that I like to play are ones who you don’t necessarily always like. It’s not my job, though, to make them likeable. It’s to play them truthfully. As human beings, we’re not black and white. We are difficult, sticky, and hide lots of things. That was Owen, and I think he had a fitting sendoff. I’m not sure how much longer it would have worked with zombie-Owen as a part of Torchwood. I loved doing the series and still miss it to this day. My son was born in Wales and we loved living there, so it was a wonderful job.”

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At the time of this interview (mid-April), the actor was preparing to start filming a new project. “I’m actually flying out tomorrow to work with [producer/director/writer] Guillermo del Toro again,” he says. “I worked with him on Pacific Rim and now he’s doing a gothic horror movie called Crimson Peak, with Jessica Chastain and Tom Hiddleston. Guillermo is such a visionary and a genius, not to mention a bundle of fun and a nice guy, so I feel very honored as well as privileged to be asked back to work with him.”

No matter how long an actor has been working in the business, there is no guarantee when or if the next job will come along. Gorman is well aware of this and makes a point of never taking anything for granted. “It’s like I was talking about before; I try to remain grateful because there are so many actors who are out of work,” he says. “I feel like it’s a privilege being on set and doing a job that many people would give their right arm to do. I realize it’s not going down a mine or anything like that, but it’s extremely satisfying to be able to do something that you love. I’m not too bothered about the size of the part or whatever. I just want to work and collaborate with interesting and creative individuals. I’ve been very lucky in that sense, and now with Turn it’s something I’ve really loved doing. It’s a history-based costume drama with fantastic scripts, so I’m absolutely in my element.”

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

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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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