Ben Barnes Interview: ‘Sons of Liberty’ and Playing Sam Adams

Ben Barnes Interview on Sons of Liberty
Paul Revere (Michael Raymond-James), Sam Adams (Ben Barnes) and John Hancock (Rafe Spall) in ‘Sons of Liberty’ (Photo by Ollie Upton / HISTORY
Copyright 2015)

Ben Barnes leads the cast of History’s Sons of Liberty, a six-part miniseries that focuses on America’s Founding Fathers and specifically on Sam Adams (played by Barnes). History’s airing the dramatic action-filled miniseries on three consecutive nights starting on Sunday, January 25, 2015 at 9pm ET/PT, and in support of its premiere, Barnes took part in a conference call to discuss Sons of Liberty and how he prepared to play Sam Adams.

The Plot: “Sons of Liberty follows a defiant and radical group of young men – Sam Adams, John Adams, Paul Revere, John Hancock and Joseph Warren – as they band together in secrecy to change the course of history and make America a nation.Calling themselves the Sons of Liberty, they light the spark that ignited a revolution. Though their names have become American legend, this group of young rebels didn’t start off as noble patriots in powdered wigs. They were a new American generation of young men from varied backgrounds, struggling to find purpose in their lives. They were looking for equality, but they found something greater: Independence.”

Interview with Ben Barnes:

What was it about the premise of the mini-series and about your character in particular that made you want to be a part of it?

Ben Barnes: “Well, I think I wasn’t really that aware of this particular era of history. You know, I knew somewhat a little about George Washington and Ben Franklin, and John Adams from the HBO series. But I didn’t know anything really about Sam Adams and I didn’t realize that all of these figures, all of these famous characters, had all been part of the same fight and the same era, and the same kind of revolution. So I sat down and read all three episodes; it took me about five hours or something. [It was written] with Sam Adams kind of being the protagonist and taking this 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’s outspoken on taxes on behalf of his community – and then six hours later we see him in the Philadelphia Congress giving a speech on the nature of freedom and all of these kind of hearty themes. And so I felt what a great kind of transition.

He wasn’t a man that I knew very much about so I could do some research on him. I had a little bit of liberty to present him who I imagined him being from the reading of this very exciting story about this very integral time in the founding of the country. And then I spoke with the director and she was very keen that it was a gritty, kind of fun look at this period, which put me on board because we’ve seen a lot of adaptations…there’s been a lot of storytelling about this era and the era following it with the War of Independence, but never quite as sort of action-packed and as fun way as this.”

What are you thoughts on shooting an American story like this in Romania?

Ben Barnes: “Well I think obviously [it’s] very difficult to film in a modern day Boston a 1765 Boston by virtue of nothing looks the same. You need a bit of a blank canvas and I think Romania is known for great crews and set builders. And certainly when I arrived in Romania there were these wooden structures that looked like wooden scaffolding and I thought, ‘By the time we need to film on this Boston Square set, this is never going to be ready.’ And then we went and shot on some locations – we actually shot on some fields where Vlad the Impaler impaled his victims in Bucharest. We shot some of the war scenes there. But by the time we got back to the studio on the backlot, we had this 360 degree sets where you could walk down alleyways and you could walk into a stable with horses in it, or turn around and see a ship actually floating in water.

They really, really did it all and I think it was just a question of money and great set builders. That was the reason they decided to shoot there with a bit of a blank canvas, I think.”

You said you read the scripts and that you also did research. What did you find out from the research that wasn’t in the scripts and was there any particular aspect of Sam Adams you really latched onto?

Ben Barnes: “I think that there were things that I discovered about him in reading biographies of him. The timelines are sometimes slightly stretched or condensed in various ways. I mean, all of the events obviously happened as factually accurately as the History Channel could make them, based on what we know. But the timelines have sometimes been tweaked in order to tell the story in the most exciting way.

You know, the tax collector aspect of Sam Adams career was slightly earlier than it seems when you watch it, even though it is the first thing that you see. But also, he was in a big dilemma growing up whether to enter the priesthood or to kind of follow his heart into politics, essentially. I discovered that he’d lost a wife and several children and siblings to various diseases, and that was something that wasn’t particularly in the script and I wanted to sew in. They let me add in the part about losing his wife, just for a bit of personal backstory just gently sewn in there which was fantastic. I wanted to honor the personal story of Sam Adams as well as what he achieved.

I listened to some books on tape about the period while we were filming and you get to a scene about one of John Hancock’s ships being seized by the British and you think, ‘Oh, we’ve got a scene where going to film that exactly as I imagined it!’ [Laughing] I don’t think that scene is actually in the series in the end, but it’s an exciting thing when you realize that you’re trying to depict something that actually took place.”

Ben Barnes Interview on Sons of Liberty
Ben Barnes in ‘Sons of Liberty’ (Photo by Ollie Upton / HISTORY
Copyright 2015)

As you delved into the role, is there anything that you were surprised to learn about yourself?

Ben Barnes: “I was surprised to learn how very little I knew about this period. I think maybe that comes from being educated in a 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. But, you know I knew a little bit about George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, but I had no real idea that they’d all been in the same room at the same time working toward the same things. I think you see them on dollar bills and you see them on beer bottles and you kind of conjure this history for yourself, but I didn’t realize how united this band of characters was.

I also found out that the British Redcoat uniforms fit me perfectly. There’s a scene where we heist the gun powder and we dress up as the Redcoats. That was the only costume I didn’t need a fitting for; it was just perfectly snug. I enjoyed strutting around that day on set with the Americans playing the Founding Fathers going, ‘I don’t know about you guys but I think red is my color.’ It just fit perfectly.”

Do you take a different approach when you’re playing an actual historic figure than when you’re playing a fictional character?

Ben Barnes: “I think you have to treat it a little bit as fiction unless it’s somebody obviously that people know. If you’re doing an impression of someone that there’s footage of and that people know, then you obviously have to be a bit more careful. There’s more of an impressionistic element to it. But I think with this I wanted to honor the scripts that had been written and the story that was trying to be told by the History Channel. But also then, as I said, when you see those little details about the priesthood or losing a wife early on and children, you want to sew in elements of that where you can, where it feels seamless and it can not get in the way of the story but actually add something to the character’s plight and add to the storytelling. I think you feel that sort of duty.

I’ve played a couple of characters that are real people – they’re living so that’s kind of a different thing. But I haven’t yet come across the challenge of playing someone who people know well and know what they sound like and how they walk. I think that would be a different challenge. Something like Eddie Redmayne’s just done in The Theory of Everything which is astounding. I’ve never had a challenge like that. But this was an exciting challenge for me because I could pick and choose which parts of the real Sam Adams to try and bring out.”

After working on Sons of Liberty, is there a historical figure portrayed in the miniseries who you could have pictured yourself hanging out with?

Ben Barnes: “I think they’re probably guys who I would have found quite intimidating because they’re all headstrong with strong and vivid ideas of how they wanted their futures to pan out, and the future of their country and the future of their communities. They all were approaching it in different ways and there was a lot of vehement debate about how they would go about achieving what they wanted to achieve, even though it was the same goals. I don’t know if I’m bold enough that I could compete with that, but I certainly would have found them fascinating.

The History Channel actually had a quiz online where you could answer a bunch of multiple choice questions with pictures. It’s quite a fun quiz. I did the quiz and the first time I did it I ended up as Joseph Warren even though I was trying to answer the questions as Sam Adams. I wanted to get myself, obviously, at the end of the quiz but I didn’t. Probably because Joseph Warren may be more of a romantic or whatever…I have no idea how I ended up getting that character. But I think Benjamin Franklin would be the most fun one to have the beer with because he was a bit of a scoundrel. I think he would probably have some good stories.”

The costumes were necessarily to help recreate the era, so how was it wearing the costumes in Sons of Liberty?

Ben Barnes: “Our costume designer has a lot of experience working in this era and she was very, very thoughtful. She actually kind of helped me choose a signature color for the character where you meet him at the beginning and he’s wearing all these earthy greens and browns. And then he gets this waistcoat as we get to the Boston Tea Party that’s this deep burgundy color, and then he has this action-man like Assassin’s Creed-style coat which is kind of this action coat that has a burgundy lining. Then by the end he’s in this famous three piece burgundy red suit that Sam Adams is wearing if you look on Wikipedia and click on the picture of Sam Adams. It was thought through on that level but also once you put those costumes on… Actually, my first thought was complete panic. It was so hot in Romania in the summer when we were shooting and these coats were two inches thick of wool. I thought the action sequences were going to be tough. But, actually, then we ended up shooting a lot of the action at night which made it more bearable. But the costumes I thought were absolutely stunning to look at. […]They give you a certain gait when you walk. There’s a certain confidence when you have faith in the costumes, you don’t have to worry about the image that you’re presenting. You can focus on the moments and emotions of the scene.”

-By Rebecca Murray

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