Actor Ian Kahn on Money (and Life) Lessons Learned Playing George Washington


In honor of Independence Day, we’re looking to our nation’s first president for some financial inspiration. While you probably recall a little about George Washington’s political and military dealings from history class, here’s something you probably didn’t know: He died ridiculously rich, with an estimated net worth of half a billion or more in today’s dollars.

Washington married well, but he made much of his money through investing—in real estate, stocks and bonds and in various businesses. He accumulated thousands of acres of land over the course of his life, leveraging his experience as a land surveyor to snap up promising properties. By the time he died, he owned more than 52,000 acres from New York to Virginia, including his Mount Vernon estate. He also had an estimated $35,000 worth of stocks and bonds.

And he ran a successful farm and distillery, diversifying his crops to include wheat, corn and hemp, which were in local demand, according to an account in the Colonial Williamsburg Journal.

You can glean good money advice from that alone: to build wealth, invest regularly over the long term and diversify your investments. Unfortunately, our founding father wasn’t available to elaborate—so we got the next best thing: actor Ian Kahn, 45, who plays him in the AMC series “Turn.” (Its final season premiered on June 17.)

Here, Kahn—who’s also had roles on shows like “Billions,” “Master of None” and “Homeland”—shares what he’s learned about GW’s financial life, plus insider info on what it’s like to work on hit shows and how he keeps it real in Hollywood’s splurge-happy culture. 

What’s your favorite aspect of playing George Washington?

He’s a real person, an icon. He was like the CEO of an enormous corporation, where he had large challenges to navigate every day, and if he failed, the whole thing was going down. Being able to live in his boots all these years has raised my personal understanding of life quite a bit.

Have you found any similarities between your own life and his?

I spent my 20s focused on being a theater actor. I felt that establishing myself on stage would be the best training ground. I also knew I needed to grow up a bit before I became too public. I wasn’t that wise in my early 20s, so it gave me time to incubate.

George Washington had a similar life arc. In his 20s, he was reckless, foolish and ambitious. He used to walk into his superiors’ offices and tell them, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about. You need to listen to what I have to say.’ He thought he was the smartest guy in the room—and he crashed and burned. He essentially started the French and Indian War when he led his men into a battle in Ohio [in 1754].

In his 30s, he went back to Mount Vernon, became a farmer and surveyor and found a sense of peace. When he was called back into service in his 40s, he came with a different perspective and understanding. 

You’ve landed parts on TV shows like “Billions” that were already hits. But you also appeared on “Master of None” before it was popular. How do those experiences differ?

You go onto hit shows knowing they’re well-established projects, where you’ll work with wonderful actors. Being on a new show is kind of like a first date—you don’t know what you’re getting into. Sometimes you catch the proverbial lightning in a bottle.

Two years ago, I read the role for what was then called ‘The Aziz Ansari Show.’ I played an interesting character and had a lot of fun—but I thought no one would ever see it. Then ‘Master of None’ came out and all of a sudden, it became this phenomenon. I didn’t see that coming at all.

Washington had a tendency to splurge on luxuries and found himself in debt at times. As an actor, you work in an industry prone to lifestyle inflation. How do you deal with that pressure?

Working in theater in my 20s, I was paid so little—just enough to pay rent—that when the larger [television] paychecks starting coming in, I was like, ‘Holy smokes! I better save this for when I have to go back to the theater and won’t be making money.’ That said, I admit I got caught up in it to a certain extent and made mistakes, but I was  very driven and my main goal was always to be the best actor I could be.

Now I’m married with two sons. My priority is making a wonderful life for our children. I don’t have to buy a Porsche or Ferrari or prove anything to anyone. My wife and I are just looking to have a happy life where I can do work I enjoy and have the opportunity to say, ‘I don’t want to play that part—and because I have enough money in the bank, I don’t have to play that part.’  

I read that once you get to a certain level of financial freedom, there is a degree of happiness that comes with that, and any more money you get doesn’t make you happier. I take that to heart. Life isn’t about accumulating or purchasing. It’s about finding the connections between those that you care for and love.

Have you made any financial decisions you regret?

In my 20s, I invested with a financial advisor who told me to put all my money into one company. It went kaplow. I got a call two months later saying that the company went bankrupt and there was no money left. From that, I learned to try to make wiser choices about who I share my financial world with.

What was your best financial decision?

Buying our little house on a hill in Riverdale, N.Y. We got a remarkable deal because we bought it from a couple who needed to move and kept dropping the price. We live right across the street from a school that would love to have it and is offering us quite a bit of money for it, so there is financial security in that.

When I first got the keys to our house, I was standing on the front corner of the property. The [real estate agent] said, ‘I forgot to mention that the historical society says you can’t do anything with that spot. George Washington stood right there and used to watch his troops drilling in Van Cortland Park.’ Every time I go out there, I believe that there is a certain rhythm to this world, that the universe is holding us up a little bit.

George Washington believed in providence. The world was in chaos, everything was against him, there was no chance that he was going to win the war. But he had faith that everything was going to be okay. From a financial or personal perspective, if we can find the humility to believe, it changes every aspect of our life.