By Lynn Price, Assistant Editor
February 10, 2017
Samuel Roukin is used to strangers coming up to him and saying, “I hate you.” And he loves it. Roukin has portrayed the villainous John Graves Simcoe on the AMC television series Turn: Washington’s Spies for three seasons, and the British officer is a character fans love to hate. “My job is to humanize,” says Roukin. “That means it’s working.”
Roukin studied history in his native England before moving to the United States a year prior to joining the cast of Turn. Unsurprisingly, the American Revolution was not a part of his curriculum. “In England, as a kid, you don’t get taught about the Revolution,” he says. “It didn’t have the same impact.” So, upon earning the role of Captain Simcoe, the actor sought to gain a deeper understanding of the era. As events appeared in the script, Roukin would delve into them using secondary and primary sources. He examined documents about the war and asked questions about everyday life of the era. “The Washington Papers was a source where I could pull out directly relevant documents,” he notes. In December 2016, he visited The Washington Papers offices for further insights into the documents. But on Turn, his job is to make the past come alive again, and research is only one part of making that connection. Once the cameras began rolling, the history books were set aside, and Roukin began creating a real person for the audience.
The natural inclination for an American television show on the Revolutionary War is to focus on the battle of good versus evil—with the Continental Army, led by George Washington, as a shining example of honor and virtue. Roukin’s Simcoe, leader of the Queen’s Rangers, is much more nuanced. “I didn’t want to be a heavy-handed brute,” Roukin says. “What if, in tone, he [Simcoe] is the nicest person you’ve ever met? What if he has a soft touch? Is really gentle? What would it be like if his natural speaking voice was higher-pitched than my own? I wanted to cut against the more violent and brutal aspects of his character.” Roukin’s Simcoe perplexes viewers with his vicious actions and soft demeanor, but while the real Simcoe was not the brutally violent man of Turn, he wasn’t any less complex. “I would encourage you to look at his papers and ask yourself, ‘What sort of person writes 400 pages about himself in the third person?’” Roukin says. “He was also a poet. Nobody is always one thing at a time.”
Roukin is forthright that the job of Turn is to entertain rather than to educate. It is not a documentary. Nevertheless, his work on the show has revealed to him how important the era remains in American culture: “The Revolution still means a lot in the hearts of Americans,” Roukin notes. “It is an awesome thing.” His experience illustrates how Turn can impact viewers—and actors—in a profound way. For example, a scene that Roukin found personally affecting transformed for him the previously abstract historical concept of manumission (legally freeing a slave) into an emotional insight. The scene, lasting less than one minute, depicts Simcoe unemotionally presenting Akinbode, an enslaved member of the Queen’s Rangers, his freedom papers. “It had an impact on me that I wasn’t expecting,” Roukin reveals. “We were both flush with emotions.”
Roukin believes these portrayals of human connections and emotional bonds give television shows their power. While his research has provided the tools to understand these profound moments in American history, his experiences on set have allowed him to empathize with the individuals who lived through those events and to share that empathy with the audience. “They—the Woodhulls, Benjamin Tallmadge, Caleb Brewster—were just like us,” Roukin says. “Normal people doing really extraordinary things with exactly the same wants and needs of ourselves in 2017. If you love history, this is potentially a tool to the next level, which is empathizing with these people. We do it for the fans.” Although empathy may not be the strongest emotion Simcoe evokes in fans of the show, the willingness of strangers to inform Samuel Roukin that they hate him suggests he has succeeded in his goal.
Turn: Washington’s Spies will air its fourth and final season on AMC later in 2017.
To read the interview with Ian Kahn, George Washington on Turn, click here.
Photos courtesy of Samuel Roukin.