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Ian Kahn: LI native turned founding father in AMC's 'Turn: Washington's Spies'

Actor Ian Kahn attends the

Actor Ian Kahn attends the "Still Life" opening night party at the Telsey + Company Studios on October 5, 2009 in New York City. Ian Kahn stars as General George Washington in the AMC series "TURN: Washington's Spies." Credit: Getty Images / Jason Kempin

Yes, he's the father of our country, but at home Ian Kahn is just dad. Or so he tries to explain to his 5-year-old son, who's been proudly chirping, "WASH-ington-Daddy's George WASH-ington." Kahn tries to explain, "No, daddy pretends he's George Washington."

The distinction is lost on the boy, but for Kahn, who plays the charismatic general in AMC's series, "Turn: Washington's Spies," the role could be a game-changer -- if this show follows in the footsteps of other AMC series ("Mad Men," "Breaking Bad") and becomes the next big thing. The series recounts the struggles of a Long Island spy ring based in Setauket, which was under British control at the start of the Revolutionary War. Season 2 premieres April 13.

A Long Beach native, Kahn, 42, has worked on stage and screen, mostly in supporting roles ("Dawson's Creek") and short-lived series ("Bull," "The Unusuals"). Married, with two sons, he spoke to Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio days before moving to a new home in the Bronx.


A former Long Islander in a series set on LI -- what are the odds?

I know. And interviewed by Newsday. I used to be a newsboy for Newsday -- had a paper route starting around age 11. I'd put together the different sections thinking, "Hey, maybe one day I'll be in those."


Happy to oblige. That was in Long Beach?

Yeah. My parents grew up there -- next-door neighbors. Their mothers set them up on a date. They ended up marrying, having three sons, and moving into my mother's old house. It was a great place to grow up, on the beach, playing baseball. I definitely have Long Beach sand in my shoes.


I hear in "Turn" season 2, there's more Washington.

Yes -- we really get into the man, his challenges. It's funny . . . so much of what we think about Washington isn't true. He didn't have wooden teeth. Or cut down a cherry tree. And he told a lot of lies. He was a politician, after all -- and ran a spy ring. He dealt in deception constantly. When I auditioned, the character description read, "This is not the man we think we see on the dollar bill."


Was there a moment when you felt you connected with him?

Right before shooting this season in Richmond, I went to Mount Vernon, Washington's Virginia home, and the head of Mount Vernon asked if I'd like to sleep there. I went, "For real?" He had a little cottage, and I had the grounds to myself. I woke up at 4:30 in the morning, sat behind the house and watched the sun rise over the Potomac, the way General Washington used to do. I tried to . . . commune with him. Sounds a little odd, but it's the question you asked.


Sounds great, actually.

I asked permission to . . . show all sides of him. To ask him to join me in the ride. I dunno what he said. [He chuckles.] But . . . it was a very humbling experience. I'm not blind to his failures -- he's not perfect. I know he did things he regrets.


Such as?

Well, his relationship to slavery. There's a fantastic character coming this season named Billy Lee, played by Gentry White. He was Washington's personal valet -- a slave . . . and a star. At the time, the most famous African American man in the country. Washington held slaves. But he was the only one of the slaveholding founding fathers who released his slaves upon his and his wife's passing. I think he had a sense slavery was wrong. But as president he needed to keep this union together.


It really was a miracle -- that so many superlative figures were gathered in one place at one time.

That's what we're doing with "Turn" -- showing that moment, building a great nation, and how tenuous it was. This season, Benedict Arnold comes into our lives. We'll see the moment when the "turn" happens, when Arnold becomes the turncoat and -- I mean -- is this a spoiler? It's in the history books. Arnold was valuable. He won battles. It's like -- on a smaller scale, obviously -- Derek Jeter leaving the Yankees for the Boston Red Sox. It was heartbreak for Washington. The show is building in intensity and intrigue. And for Long Islanders, to know so much took place on our little island.


It's amazing, the history right under our feet.

Little sidebar, here, but I just bought a house in the Bronx, on Lookout Point, and when the guy handed over the keys he said, "This is where Washington stood to watch the soldiers drill in Van Cortlandt Park." I was like, are you KIDDING? Is this an April Fools' joke? He said, "No, no, it's true." I mean . . . the serendipity of that, the synchronicity . . . it's crazy.

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