The ‘George Washington’ battle plan for career success after 40

Playing General George Washington in a public forum is no easy task these days; the advent of the outrageously popular musical “Hamilton” not only gave the Founding Father a newly high profile, but it also raised the bar for what everyone expects to see from Washington. Ian Kahn has portrayed America’s first President for the past four years on AMC’s Revolutionary War spy series, Turn, which has its final season premiering in mid-June.

Kahn has been a working actor now for twenty years, yet is now most known for his role as Washington, navigating his way from the scrappy battles of the Revolutionary War to the Presidency. Similar to Washington’s slow climb, Kahn has had to work his way up to where he is now.   I spoke with Ian recently about what he learned about leadership and camaraderie from Washington, and why the later years in life can be the best in your career. 

Ladders: The fourth and final season of “Turn” premieres in mid-June.  Can you share any insights into the final season of the show and what fans can look forward to?

Ian Kahn: Yeah, totally. The fourth season we are really fortunate because we are getting the opportunity to go through the whole experience of the show and finish it on our own terms. With that, we are getting to the end of the Revolutionary War.

I just watched the premiere episode last night and it really just starts off with a bang. It catches them exactly where they left off — where Benedict Arnold has left General Washington and is now fighting the British. We are now seeing the unraveling of old alliances and building of new alliances, and things are over the course of the season going to come to a head and we will have a resolution. This has been such a satisfying season to do and I know the fans are going to love watching it.  

Ladders: George Washington is, of course, a big part of our history. What has playing him taught you about loyalty, delegating, strategy and leadership?

Wow, that’s a good question! Playing George Washington has taught me a lot of things. One of them was that I didn’t really know who the guy was; I didn’t understand him. I always thought of him as a bigger-than-life human being, you know, that face on Mount Rushmore or the face on the one-dollar bill. The more I’ve had the opportunity to study him and understand the human side of him, it then becomes more remarkable because he is anything but perfect. 

There are certainly twists that he made during this time that were wrong, but, without his ability to be the steady hand, there would be no United States of America. That starts during The Revolution and continues into his presidency as well, but what I didn’t know there was little to no winning this war at all. I don’t know if you are a sports fan, Ryan…

I certainly am.

What’s your sport?

Well my last name is Shea, so I have to be a Mets fan even though I’m not thrilled with them lately.

Got it. So, we were essentially down 8-2 in the Revolutionary War in the third inning, until we sort of came back to tie the score in the very tail end. Washington’s steady hand and humility really helped us get there. I was asked recently if playing George Washington changed me, and the answer is “yes.”  To play a man who had so much riding on everything for four years, where everything had to be played to perfection for this country to survive, is giving me a little bit more care for my life. It has definitely taught me a lot about myself in a big way.  

Do you think George Washington would be a good work colleague in today’s environment?

(Laughter). That’s funny, man. Well, first of all, he would probably be the boss or the owner. And yeah, I would work for George Washington because we get tastes of [his leadership] on the show, as you can see. There are moments where [head spy Benjamin] Tallmadge and Washington come together and Washington expresses his appreciation to him, which is some awesome stuff.  

At the essence of [Washington] is a sense of humility, because he wasn’t always the smartest man in the room. This year we are down 8-1, we just lost our best player in Benedict Arnold, and everything is falling apart. And [Washington] is pissed off; he doesn’t trust anybody at this point. There is this great scene in the 2nd episode with Martha Washington where you really start to see George listening to wiser words from someone about himself. He’s kind of fallen into a bit of a funk, and he has to pull himself out of it and find his way, with Martha telling him that he can do better. So that humility that he has is something that would definitely make me want to work for him or with him.

Outside of Turn, you have worked on a ton of high-profile TV series. What is your best advice when it comes to developing camaraderie with your coworkers as it helps make the show that much better and run smoother?

Well, a lot of those other shows I was just a guest and you are just part of their world for a couple of days.  It’s kind of like you are on a moving train and you are just figuring out a way to stay on, because the train is moving.  

On “Turn,” every single day I spent mostly with Seth Numrich, who plays Ben Tallmadge on the show.  There’s a rhythm to it and there is a trust that builds from day one, and we looked at each other on the last day of filming and just gave each other a hug and said, “I love you man, and I appreciate you so much.”  

And that, for actors to have that ability to trust each other and to understand where the other one is coming from, is very helpful.  It really does make a difference.  Even in season two and three, with the great Owain Yeoman who plays Benedict Arnold, we really had an opportunity to do some beautiful work together and build trust.  What my grandfather always taught me with my brothers is to give the other one the edge, help them out.  As actors we do as well.  Things like “how do you need this to go?” or “what can I do for you to help pick up this spot?”  If you are working in that sort of an environment in anything, [that support] is a very valuable thing to have.  

We all have naysayers in our life, coming from a good or bad place.  How do you deal with those people in both cases?

Interestingly, the most important naysayer in my life has been myself.  So, talking myself through the experience in life and being able to trust yourself. I was very fortunate from an early age to kind of make it quick as an actor, not super famous but to be able to get in the game right after college.  I had very approving parents— they said, “yeah, you’re an actor, you’ll do good. We will be behind you.” 

I’ve never really had to deal with naysayers in my life, I’m sure they are there. However, they are there to really you give some counsel. I had a director early in my career who once who was like “yeah, I’m not digging what you are doing in the scene,” and we got to discussing and I ended up getting so much out of it.  I learned so much because I took a slightly different tack that I am now doing in my own acting work and everywhere I go. 

Any time I run up against somebody who says, “you aren’t doing that quite right,” I like to listen to what they have to say.  If there is some wisdom in what they are saying, then great.  

What is the best advice you can give to anyone regarding longevity and prosperity in their careers?

That’s a great question. No one has ever asked me this and I would really like to answer! I will tell you the decision I made when I was young. When I was 22 years old, the best actors out there were guys like Robert Duvall and Al Pacino, fantastic actors. The common theme was, for all of them, they started in the theater. They didn’t go for the quick hit, they went for the long haul. So when I was 22, my ultimate goal was to be the best possible actor that I can be. 

How am I going to go about doing that? Is it being immensely successful at a young age, trading off whatever looks I have? Or, developing my craft as an actor so I could get better? I am pretty lucky now because when I was that age I wasn’t trying to do television or movies, I was doing theater. Because you are in front of an audience, and if you are off, they will let you know. There are no cuts. It’s hard, it’s like running a marathon every single night. So then for years, I just focused all my energy on the theater because I wanted to focus on honing on in my craft and my skills. 

Then I had this foresight where the great roles for men will come in your 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. So, I need to prep for that time. If I didn’t do that work in my 20s, and I wasn’t partying or going out during that time, I was working, I wanted to be the best actor I could be. So in my 20s, I focused all my attention on that. 

The work that I did in my 20s set me up for everything I am doing right now. It taught me how to have this depth to get the job like George Washington and then to thrive in roles. For me, in terms of long-term benefits, it is very much about the choices that you make when you first get out of school. Not just for going the shiny experience, but look towards the future as well and keep in mind what’s in front of you. My goal was never to be super famous, just to be a working actor. And I think I did that.