Irish actor Jason O’Mara reveals some not very well-known facts he gleaned in his research about embodying the man who went on to become the first president of the United States.
Many stories about the birthing of the United States of America feature a group of stuffy men in the Continental Congress squabbling over the wording of the document that would become the Declaration of Independence — and there is no denying its importance in the history of the U.S. But in addition to these representatives, there was a group of young rebels working behind the scenes to thwart the British rule of the colonies by any means possible.
HISTORY’s three-night miniseries, Sons of Liberty, takes viewers out into the streets with these men of action — Sam Adams (Ben Barnes), John Adams (Henry Thomas), Paul Revere (Michael Raymond-James), John Hancock (Rafe Spall) and Dr. Joseph Warren (Ryan Eggold) — who come together in a secret organization known as the Sons of Liberty. Their purpose? To mix it up with the British in a fight for equality that would eventually win the colonies their freedom.
Premiering January 25th, 26th and 27th, Sons of Liberty is an action-packed story of the devious deeds perpetrated by this group of radicals, and the lengths they went to avoid the unfair taxation by the British. Of course, no tale about that time would be complete without the inclusion of George Washington, the general who led the rebel troops to victory.
In Sons of Liberty, Jason O’Mara takes on the role of Washington, and in this interview, the Dublin-born actor reveals some not very well-known facts he gleaned in his research about the man who went on to become the first president of the United States.
Were you surprised when your agent called and said HISTORY wanted you to play George Washington?
I couldn’t quite believe the words I was hearing because I wouldn’t have necessarily thought myself an obvious George Washington. I thought, ‘This could be a real stretch for me. I’d really get to play a very iconic, famous character in history, and what a challenge that would be.’ So I signed on, and then was faced with the reality of, ‘Oh my, God. I’m this 6-foot tall Irishman, and now I need to play probably the most famous American of all time, who is at least 4 inches taller than me.’
Was he actually that tall? Or did he just seem tall because the other colonists were so much shorter?
His height is actually controversial. We accept that he was this 6-foot 4-inch gargantuan man of his time, and compared to other men of his time, he was tall, but perhaps not that tall. Ron Chernow, author of the biography Washington: A Life, actually makes a case based on Washington’s coffin size, and also the measurements that he would send to London to his tailor — he would have all his clothes hand made in London, and shipped to him. Those measurements definitely showed a man who was not as tall as we thought, but at the same time, he would always complain about his pants being too short, and too tight. There’s always this question mark around it. He’s almost mythological, so there’s always going to be someone kicking back.
What research did you do into Washington?
I read Ron Chernow’s biography and I re-read David McCullough’s 1776. Chernow’s book is extremely thorough, and what was really important for me was he actually tries to get to the human in Washington.
You know, we’ve become quite immune to his image. He’s on every dollar bill. Like wallpaper, you stop noticing it after a while. I really wanted to get deeper into the most recent research on Washington. From Chernow’s book, and from some other accounts, he was definitely a flawed man. He wasn’t this perfect icon as he’s depicted on the ceiling of the Senate building, where he’s almost a deity.
He was a flawed man. He learned through failure. He learned how to achieve victory from defeat, time and time again. He has lots of other insecurities and foibles that he was able to overcome. I think that’s what really makes him interesting. He is, in essence, an American story.
How close to history do you think the portrayal of the Sons of Liberty is?
I can’t really answer that, because I wasn’t there for all of it. Obviously, I read the scripts, but George Washington doesn’t really become present until the second episode, and a lot of my stuff was filmed apart from the rest of the cast, out fighting their guerilla war. But I think it’s fair to say that there is plenty of conjecture that goes along with the history. Certainly, any gray areas or blank areas have been filled in by the writers in order to make the story more exciting.
They also spared no expense on detail for the world that they’ve created. It was just incredible, even down to the extras. They looked amazing. So it’s certainly going to look very authentic.
Was there something you learned about Washington that really surprised you?
There’s lots of stuff. The first thing was I had to find a voice for him, so I found out that he had had pleurisy as a child, so he probably had quite a wispy, reedy voice. Reedy, like thin. Obviously, that doesn’t help you as an actor when you know you have to deliver the Declaration of Independence as if it’s a motivational speech for your troops, and it doesn’t help if you have to stand up in Congress and make your case. So I had to take some liberty with that and try to find a grounded, strong voice that reflected the sense of self-belief, self-confidence, and self-discipline that he undeniably had.
I think one of the most interesting things about him was he was self-conscious about his lack of education. He was well-educated, but he wasn’t as fluent in French, for example, as he felt he could have been. That led to a great mistake when he signed a surrender document presented by the French, and he didn’t fully understand it. He ended up admitting by signing it, that he was involved in the murder of a Native American chief. That, they say, helped perpetuate the French-Indian War for several years.
So he was aspirational, he was ambitious, and there’s a lot of people that say he married Martha Custis for her money. But on the other hand, they seemed very happy together, and he was very close to his stepchildren. So behind every character flaw is something stronger, you know? Like any human being, he’s a complicated man, and he’s a contradiction, and that is the thing that I found most interesting about him.
You also have a new USA Network series coming on this year called Complications?
Actually, it was kind of funny, because of the height issue with Washington, I always felt rather short. But I wanted to be imposing, so I had put on some weight. I put on about 20 pounds to play Washington, and that was really enjoyable. That’s probably the most fun I’ve had preparing for a role. There were only two weeks between Sons of Liberty wrapping and Complications starting, so I had, basically, two weeks to drop 20 pounds, and that was the opposite of fun.
What else is coming up for you?
I’m reading a book called Gallipoli by Peter Hart. I’m fascinated by World War I, in particular, the Gallipoli campaign, and I’ve just written a short film about the Irish involvement in it. The Irish fought as part of the British army in World War I, and, obviously, that also happened around the same time as the Irish Rebellion, the Easter Rising. So it’s a very complicated moment in history, and I’m just fascinated by all of that. The British didn’t win there, and so they can’t really wave their flags about it. The Irish, as I said, have mixed feelings about it, because we were fighting for the British. So I think it’s ripe for drama. I think it’s a time in history that really should be dramatized more, and there are way more stories there that have been untapped.
The three-part miniseries Sons of Liberty airs January 25th, 26th and 27th at 9 p.m. on HISTORY.