Jamie Bell admits he wasn’t much of a student, so the British actor knew little of the American Revolution when he took on the role of Abe Woodhull, leader of a spy ring based in Setauket in the 1770s, whose adventures are chronicled in the AMC series “Turn: Washington’s Spies.”
The series’ third season, which premiered April 25, finds Woodhull — a humble cabbage farmer code-named Samuel Culper by Washington (Ian Kahn) — desperately trying to protect his wife (Meegan Warner) and family and avoid being unmasked as head of the notorious Culper Ring, a ragtag group of friends who spied on British troops then occupying Long Island and New York City.
Bell, 30, leapt to prominence playing the title role in the 2000 hit film “Billy Elliot,” which followed a plotline similar to his own life as a working-class boy who bucked peer pressure and learned to dance. He’s since appeared in 19 films, including “The Adventures of Tintin” and “Snowpiercer.” He married actress Evan Rachel Wood and the couple (who split in 2014) have a 3-year-old son. Bell, now dating actress Kate Mara, spoke with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio.
When it comes to teaching the American Revolution, I guess we’re the bad guys in your British history books.
Actually, they don’t teach it. [He chuckles.] It’s like, “Well, we get to 1776 . . . and then let’s jump to 1800-and-something. A bit happened in between that’s not particularly interesting, so let’s not worry about it.” It’s just bizarre. I love history. I’ve seen “Hamilton” three times — the spirit of that show really captures modern America. I told our producers, “Guys, season 3, rap musical.” [He laughs.] They told me they didn’t want me rapping.
History is crucial. And magical. We lived a certain way, now we don’t. It’s like looking at an alien planet. But our show is tough. The characters a lot of us play are unknown . . . still. We’re trying to give them some kind of legacy.
You shoot in Richmond. Have you ever been to Long Island to see where your character lived?
I’ve seen pictures, never been there. Someone sent me a picture of Abe Woodhull’s grave site.
I love history and grew up minutes from Setauket, where much of your series takes place, but I’d never heard of these spies.
I think that has a lot to do with spying. Woodhull disappeared into anonymity. History has forgotten him. Tragic. But that’s the life of a spy. There’s something about espionage that’s quite shameful. It’s hard to celebrate spies because . . . they’re deceitful.
Yet people love James Bond.
Ohhh, I hate James . . . [He stops himself.] I mean, I understand he’s a great literary figure. But I identify more with Jason Bourne. . . . He’s more a tragic character. Tormented, constantly on the run, people don’t believe him, they’re trying to shoot him. Bond . . . is a fantastical version of that . . . and more about wish fulfillment for men, apparently.
What research have you done for the role?
When I read the pilot script I had to have a dictionary next to me. I had to teach myself about important moments that are common knowledge here. Paul Revere’s Ride, what’s he shouting? Boston Tea Party? Taxation without representation? What are these things? My education didn’t go beyond a simple high school scenario. My first film was when I was a child, so education took a back seat. But . . . reading Alexander Rose’s book [on which the series is based], David McCullough’s books . . . they’re great.
It’s been years since you starred in “Billy Elliot.” Dance much anymore?
All the time. I don’t take classes. But on set, the sound guy is like, “What’s that noise?” Usually it’s me . . . tap dancing outside. Those period boots and hardwood floors make quite a racket. It’s kind of a cathartic thinking tool, I suppose. My girlfriend calls me Mumbles, after the tap-dancing penguin in the film “Happy Feet.” That’s me, I do it without thinking.
Speaking of your girlfriend, Kate Mara, my dad is a huge Giants fan. HUUUUGE. I’m sure he’s hoping you take every advantage of the fact that her father’s family just happens to own the Giants and grab box seats at Giants stadium whenever you can.
Yeah. It’s been incredible getting to know that family.
Were you an American football fan? It’s not big in Britain.
Literally, I’d never watched a game. Not a game at all. I had to watch reruns of old games to figure out how it worked. So I did that — now I’m a massive fan. I love it.
I assume it goes without saying what team you have to root for.
Sure, sure. [He chuckles.] Yeah, my heart is very much blue.