Ben Barnes has been playing a lot of fantasy characters in the past, but in this mini-series he’s playing someone real – one of America’s founding fathers real. As Sam Adams, the English actor bands together with other radical young men in a string of events that make up what is now America. We talked to him about his character, the series and his other acting choices.
What attracted you to play the role of one of America’s founding fathers?
Well, it was a combination of things. I didn’t know very much about the history of the era before I read the script and they were much longer than what I’m used to. The script looked very intimidating, sitting right in front of me before I read it. But I sat down, had a cup of tea and read the entire thing in one sitting. Sam Adams seems to me like the most exciting, intriguing character arc, coming from a man who was clearly drunk in a pub, who wanted to do the right thing by his community but essentially was a bit useless. By the end he was giving speeches in Philadelphia and winning people over in terms of encouraging the independence of what is now America.
It was a very exciting prospect, an exciting read. I couldn’t stop reading the script when I first got it. That was basically the reason. After doing a little bit of research into the character, I saw a statue of Sam Adams in Boston and on it was inscribed ‘A statesman, incorruptible and fearless’. I thought it was a great jumping off point for a character in terms of somebody who can’t be bribed. There are themes in the mini-series that show that.
The series looks a bit more rock ’n’ roll rather than a history drama, what do you think of that?
I think it was intentional. There have been other films set around the same era as this and they have been quite dry in terms of focusing on the politics. If you read about how this movement towards independence started, it was very shady and dark. There was violence and intimidation and I think that was more of the spirit of revolution that we wanted to get across.
What about people saying that it is historically inaccurate?
The producers from very early on wanted it to feel like a group of spirited young men were involved in the cause for independence. If you look at revolutions happening around the world right now, they always start with these spirited young men and women with ideals about equality and I think that was the kind of spirit that they wanted to bring across. I think there’s a lot in there that is very accurate. I’ve been reading a lot of books in the build up to the series and there would be little details that I would read about, and when we shot the scene I’d be like ‘oh this is exactly how I imagined it’. I think there’s enough in there for people who are looking for an exciting story with an ‘Ocean’s Eleven’-type heist and dynamics, and at the same time also enough to satisfy history buffs.
How long did you have to do research on Sam Adams and what’s the most interesting thing you found out?
Not very long at all is the answer. I always find myself in the position where I get the job three weeks before filming. It was very interesting to me that Sam Adams took on the role of tax collecting as a job because he was sort of a Robin Hood-type of character, he was lax at it and didn’t push for his fellow citizens to pay taxes.
How was it like working with director Kari Skogland?
I’ve had a very interesting year so far where I was only working for female directors, obviously very underrepresented in our industry but they have a bold and sensitive approach to filmmaking. I was working with three female directors in a row and all of them have been unbelievably accomplished and wonderful in their own way. Kari was not directing just one but all three episodes.
You’ve been in a lot of period roles, do you have a favourite so far? Perhaps a character that you feel a personal connection with?
The period thing was not an active choice. Obviously there’s a very special place in my heart for the ‘Narnia’ series, they were books that I read when I was young and to be able to play the king in those films was very surreal. It felt like a real privilege at the time as it does now. Being Sam Adams in ‘Sons of Liberty’ is also one of my proudest moments, it was a story that I was able to get lost in while watching it.
What other projects do you have in store?
The only other project that I have in the pipeline at the moment in terms of ready to come out is ‘Jackie & Ryan’, which is a story of a train-hopping street busker from the south of America and his love story with a single mum. That’s a film I made last year which I’m very proud of.
Watch ‘Sons of Liberty’ from May 25 to 27, 9pm on History.