Ben Barnes Talks Sons of Liberty and Samuel Adams

Ben Barnes is one of the most diverse and charismatic actors in Hollywood, he also happens to be one of the nicest guys. Best known for his role as Prince Caspian in the Chronicles of Narnia franchise, he'll be heating up the small screen as Samuel Adams on the History Channel's miniseries Sons of Liberty. Earlier this week Ben popped in for a conference call to talk a bit about the series.

I watched all three nights of the miniseries and enjoyed it all. You're really quite wonderful in it.

Well, that's three more than me. I haven't seen a second of it. I was waiting for it to be on the telly.

What was it about the premise of this miniseries, and about your character in particular that turned you on and made you want to be apart of it?

Well I think I wasn't that aware of this particular era of history. I knew somewhat about the importance of Benjamin Franklin and John Adams from the HBO series. But I didn't know anything really Sam Adams. And I didn't realize that all of these figures, all of these famous characters had all been kind of part of the same fight, the same era, the same revolution and so I sat down and read all three episodes. It took me about five hours or something.

You start with Sam Adams kind of being the protagonist and taking the journey from a guy that we meet at the beginning drowning his sorrows in a pint glass but kind of this Robin Hood-esque figure who was defaulting the taxes on behalf of his community and then six hours later we see him in the Philadelphia Congress giving a speech about the nature of freedom, and these kind of very hearty themes so I thought what a great transition. He wasn't a man I knew very much about so obviously I could do some research about him but I kind of had a little bit of liberties to present him how I imagined him in the reading of this very exciting story about this very integral time in the founding of the country. And I then I spoke to the director, Kari Skogland , and she was very keen that it was a very war-torn, gritty time. It was fun at this period which kind of put me on board. We've seen adaptations, there's a lot of storytelling around this era, the era following it, with the war, but never quite in an action packed, fun way like this.

There's a lot more to these guys than the powered wigs, and a lot more to your character than just being a face on the beer bottle.

Yes, exactly. It's not even him on the beer bottle. Apparently that's Paul Revere on the beer bottle.
(This is a common and popular rumor, but I'm told that it is actually Samuel Adams.)

You filmed this in Romania. What are your thoughts about making a uniquely American story in Romania?

Well I think obviously it would have been very hard to film in modern day Boston. 1765 Boston, nothing looks the same and so you need a bit of a blank canvas. I think Romania is known for great crude set builders and certainly when I arrived in Romania and there were great wooden structures that looked like wooden scaffolding. I thought these will never by the time we need them, to film on this Boston Square set in six weeks. This is never going to be ready and then we went and shot on some locations, we actually shot in the field that Vlad the Impaler impaled his victims and we hung out in Bucharest and shot some of the war scenes there. By the we got back to the studio on the back lot we had this big 360 degree set where you could walk down alley ways, and you could walk into a stable with horses in it or turn around and actually see ships floating in water. They really, really did it all and I think it was just a question of money and really really great set builders that was the reason they decided to shoot there with a bit of a blank canvas.

You read the scripts, but you also did research, what did you find out in research that wasn't in the script? Was there any particular aspect of the character that you really latched onto?

I think that there were things that I discovered about him reading biographies of him, in terms of, well the times lines are slightly stretched or condensed in various ways. All the events obviously happened, and its as factually accurate as they could generally make them based on what we know. But the time lines have been sometimes tweaked in order to tell the story in the most exciting way. And I think the tax collector aspect of Sam Adams career was slightly earlier than it seems when you watch it even though its the first thing you see. But you know, he was in a big dilemma growing up to enter the priesthood or to follow a more political role, to follow his heart into politics essentially. I discovered that he had lost a wife and several children, and siblings to various diseases and that was something that wasn't in the script and I wanted to sow in, and they let me add in the part of losing his wife for a bit of personal back story, gently sown in there which was fantastic. I wanted to honor the personal story of Sam Adams as well as what he achieved. But its very funny, I listened to some books on tape about he period,while we were filming, and you get into a scene about one of John Hancock's ships being seized by the British and think oh, we've got a scene where we're going to film that. Exactly as I imagined it, I don't think that's how we did the scene in the end, but you know its an exciting thing when you're doing something that actually took place.

As you started building the role, was there anything you were surprised to learn about yourself?

About myself? Well, I was a little surprised to find how little I knew about this period. I think maybe that comes from being educated in British schooling system that wants to gloss over anything that has to do with the dissolution of the vast British Empire, that existed before this. I knew a little bit about George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin, but I had no real idea that they were in the same room at the same time working towards the same thing. I mean you see them on dollar bills and you see them and you kind of conjure this history. But I had no idea how united that this band of characters really were. I also found out that the British Red Coat uniforms fit me perfectly. (laughs) There's a scene where we hide in the gun powder silo and we dress up as the British officers, and that was the only costume I didn't need a fitting for. It fit perfectly snug. And I enjoyed strutting around that day on set for the Americans playing the fallen foes going “I don't know about you all, but I think that red is just my color. This fits perfectly.”

Is there ever a different approach for you plotting a historical character versus a fictional one?

I think you have to treat it a little bit as fiction, unless its someone obviously that people know, unless you're doing an impression of someone people know then obviously you have to be a bit more careful since its more of an impressionistic element to it. But I think with this, I wanted to honor the script that had been written, and the story that was trying to be told, but also as I said when you see those little details, the priesthood or his losing a wife early on and children, you want to sow in elements where you can so it feels seamless. It can still get in the way of the story but it can add something to the plight and add to the story telling, so I think you feel that duty. I've played a couple of characters, that are real people, but they aren't living so that's kind of a different thing. I haven't yet come up to the challenge of playing someone that people know well, know what they sound like, how they walk, that would be a very different challenge. Something like what Eddie Redmayne just did in The Theory of Everything, which was obviously astounding. I've never had a challenge like that. It would be an exciting challenge for me, but at the same time I had to pick and choose which part of the real Sam Adams to try to put out.

If you could live during this time period are these guys you would have wanted to be friends with? Is there any one of them that stands out as the guy you could picture yourself going out for a beer with?

I think they're probably guys I would have found quite intimidating. They're all quite sort of headstrong, with really big ideas about how they wanted their futures to pan out, the future of their country and the future of their communities. They were all approaching it in different ways. There was this realist debate about how they would go about achieving it, what they wanted to achieve even though it was the same goals. I don't know if I'm bold enough to compete with that, but I'm certainly would have found a way. You know, I did the History Channel quiz online, you could do it where you answer a bunch of multiple choice questions with pictures. It was quite a fun quiz The first time I did it I wound up with Joseph Warren even though I was trying to answer the questions as Sam Adams. I wanted to get myself, obviously, but at the end of the quiz, I didn't. Probably because Joseph Warren maybe more of a romantic or whatever. I have no idea how I ended up getting that character.

I think Benjamin Franklin would have been the most fun one to have a beer with. He was a bit of a scoundrel, so I think he would have some really good stories.

Can you talk a little bit about the costumes, obviously its a totally different feel when you're in another era and you have all these costumes. How was that like for you as an actor to go into that process?

Donna Zakowska, our costume designer had a lot of experience working in this era and she was very thoughtful. She helped me choose kind of a signature color for the character. In the beginning he's wearing all these ugly greens and browns then he gets this waistcoat as we get to the Boston Tea Party that's this deep burgundy color and then there's this kind of action man/Assassin's Creed style coat, which is his action coat that has this burgundy lining and then by the end there's his signature three-piece burgundy red suit. The burgundy suit that he's wearing if you click Wikipedia or look up a picture of Sam Adams. So it was kind of thought through on that level. But also when you put those costumes on, my first thought was complete panic because it was so hot in Romania in the summer when we were shooting. These coats were two inches thick and I thought all these action sequences were going to be tough, but we ended up shooting a lot of the action sequences at night which was amazing, and more bearable. But the costumes I thought would be just stunning to look at, and you're right they give you a new gait when you walk and certain confidence when you have faith in the costumes. You don't have to worry about, at least the image you're presenting, you can focus on the moments, and the emotions.


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