Every actor dons their roles in a unique way, and it’s fascinating to hear them speak on that transformative process.
Ian Kahn has taken on the role of a well documented man of history, one every child in the American school system learns about to some extent: George Washington. Approaching such a well known character in the AMC series TURN: Washington’s Spies, has left a mark on his life. We got the chance to chop it up about how that role came into fruition.
*the questions are in bold*
I wonder if our fans are thatfamiliar with your work, would you mind giving us a little insight into your career?
Of course. I started acting, doing theater when I was young. In high school I really focused on theater acting, went to college and continued that as my major. I was a theater major and sociology minor. When I graduated, I started in the industry and started primarily in the theater. My thought process was that if I could become accomplished as an actor in front of an audience, eight shows a week, it would help be be the best actor I could be as I grew older. So many of the actors I watched growing up had started in the theater and so that was the road that I was to take. Now I was lucky enough to get some variety in television early on. Then I volleyed between theater and television for a number of years and I was on Sex in the City, I was Carrie’s boyfriend on that show. I did a series called Bull on TNT which was the very first cable series. It was before cable was really doing series, it was back in the day where it was CBS, NBC, MSNBC, and Fox. Bull was about the stock market. Then I was on Dawson’s Creek for a year. Afterwards I went back to the theater which was always my home base and where I wanted to be, and then went to do some guest stars on television shows when I moved my family out to Los Angeles. I also did a series called the Unusuals when I was still in New York. When I got to LA, that’s when Turn showed up and it ended up being pretty successful. I’ve also appeared in Master of None as a director for a TV commercial.
So I’m curious, do you feel more comfortable with TV acting or theater acting?
Well, they’re really two different jobs. It would be like writing fiction and non fiction in your world. It uses completely different muscles and skills and the theater is where I’ve always been most comfortable. I’ve been doing a lot of TV work over the last few years and I enjoy that as well.
Going forward, do you want that kind of balance of doing both theater and TV work?
Yeah, I do. That would be an ideal situation.
So with Washington’s Spies, I’ve been told you turned into quite the history buff. Do you think there was any attraction to that period of history before the role?
Actually, there really wasn’t. I really did not have much interest in the revolutionary era. I was much more interested in The Civil War Era, how we got over slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, those were the things that would always draw my eye in terms of history. I was interested in how the country would change and shift, but now what I realize is that it’s been changing and shifting the whole time. It’s just different oppressors really. So I’ve become a bit of a Revolutionary War buff over the course of TURN.
And with a role like George Washington, that’s something that’s been done before, given so many interpretations, how do you approach that kind of role? How do you give that your own mark?
There has been a number of interpretations of that role, but I just sort of thought of it as: gaining as much information about the man as I could so that I could personally connect with him and understand how I would feel in those circumstances. So I went and spent time with Daniel Shippey who is a George Washington expert. He was one of my main sources for learning about the man, and the more I learned about the man, the more my imagination could be stoked. So I could understand what he was feeling during the time.
I think we all learn a little bit about George Washington growing up, its inevitable. However, in your more in depth research, was there something that shocked you? Was there anything that changed the way you looked at the man?
Yeah. I always looked at him as the grouchy old man on the dollar bill right? That’s kind of how everybody thinks of him, or at least I do. But what I learned was that he was kind of awesome in his way of dealing with the world. Here’s this guy who…was a little bit like Han Solo actually. He was the guy that every guy wanted to be like and every woman wanted to sleep with. He really was that guy. He was an incredibly charismatic leader, a great warrior, and also got the respect of everybody. We’re talking about someone who was elected unanimously to be both the general of the army and then twice to be the president of the united states. You don’t get those kinds of positions if you are not respected. He was immensely respected and with good reason, not because he was the tall guy in the middle, he was a charismatic man, the best athlete of his time, the best dancer of his time. But he was also the kind of person that if you were in the room with you respected because you felt that he was someone who was giving thought to life.
With all this research you’ve gone through, and the respect you’ve amassed for George Washington, do you think you’ll remain interested in this portion of history after the role ends?
Well, one of the cool things about being an actor is that you work on something or someone and if you can, you take a little bit of them with you. You take a little bit and drop it in your toolbox. On Dawson’s Creek I played a chef, and over the course of studying to play that role, I met with a chef who taught me some things. So now, when I cook, I have just a little bit more of a flair than I did before. Now for Washington, one of the things I respect most about him, is his sense of quiet inside, perspective, and calm. That wasn’t something he was born with because he like everyone else struggled in their 20s. I know I did, you’re a bit of a wild horse running through the world and you need to learn how to calm yourself and tame yourself. That was definitely something I needed to do in my life and something I hope will stay with me as I continue after this role.
With saying that you take a little bit and are influenced by each role you do, would you say George Washington has been the most influential role you’ve done?
That’s a good question, yeah I have to say it would be Washington. I’ve been doing it for a while now. I like him, he’s not perfect by any means. He’s a person. I think that’s one thing people don’t understand about him, that I think if they did understand they would like him more, is that he learned from his mistakes. I tell this to my kids every day. He was very much a man of his time and he made mistakes, did things that were wrong, but he did always try to be looking out for the country and not himself.
The show returns for its 3rd season April 25.