What’s the secret to Sleepy Hollow‘s success? It’s easy to point to any number of factors — breakneck pacing, sharp writing, a supernatural premise that takes itself just seriously enough. Ask a Sleepyhead to answer that question, though, and chances are they’ll respond with just two words: Tom Mison, a.k.a. the English stage actor who stars as moody, arch, utterly captivating man out of time Ichabod Crane.
Nobody’s more surprised by how well the show has hit than Mison himself. “We’re [shooting] in some dark corner of deepest North Carolina — [so] we’re kind of in a bit of a bubble,” he tells EW. “We weren’t aware of how many billboards there were all over New York, for example, or how much it was promoted on telly.” Now, though, the word is out — and the humble Brit is having a blast both filming the show and keeping up with the fervent fanbase it’s already produced. “They’re very clever people watching,” he says, “which is a dream. It’s so nice to be part of something that inspires people.”
Before the series returns from a baseball-induced hiatus with an all-new episode tonight, read on to learn how Mison snagged the role of a lifetime — as well as his thoughts on Ichabod’s never-changing outfit, Sleepy‘s twisted version of American history, and Crane’s future with Detective Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie), the Scully to Ichabod’s Mulder.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First of all, what was Sleepy‘s casting process like?
TOM MISON: Well, this was really the first year that I approached American pilots. [Sleepy Hollow] was actually the last one that I read — and immediately had to read it again because I didn’t quite believe what I had read the first time. It was so completely different, and such an audacious thing to attempt to make. So it immediately was the one that I wanted to do. I put myself on tape in London, one wet Saturday morning, went off to meet my mum and dad for lunch, and then forgot about it, as you do with auditions. And then a week later got a call saying, “You’re coming to L.A. tomorrow to screen test.” So I went and did a screen test for five hours, which I’ve never done before.
Yeah, that was a long one. Three of them were reading with Nicole, ’cause she’d already been cast. I left that five-hour audition and thought, ‘They were nice people, and it’s been a lot of fun, but I don’t know if I’ve got that,” in my typical self-deprecating English manner. “So I’m going to go and have a beer and a burger.” And just as I was tucking into my burger, I got a phone call from my agent, two hours after the audition, saying, “You’ve got the part.” And I just couldn’t stop laughing.
It’s unusual to hear back so soon, isn’t it?
Certainly I’ve never heard back from anything that quickly. It was quite a treat. And then three weeks after that, we were in Charlotte shooting the pilot. It all happened very quickly, and I just — yeah, it’s bizarre. Such a sudden thing. I loved it.
Could you feel chemistry between you and Nicole right away, during your screen test?
I don’t think there’s anything mystical about chemistry between two actors. Immediately, we were throwing ideas at each other, and we were responding to each other and playing around. She’s a very playful, very clever actress. And that’s always a treat to play opposite. I think that’s where the chemistry lies — a mutual respect and a mutual quest for fun. Which, yeah, was present immediately.
After you had been cast, how did you prepare for the part? Had you read Washington Irving before?
I’d read it a long, long time ago. And I remember it very clearly, because it’s full of images that stick with you — but didn’t go back to it because ours is quite different. I always find it useful to stick with the script, rather than going back to the source material, in case you find things that you might want to explore but the writers and director don’t.
Do you remember Irving’s physical description of Ichabod?
Yeah. Apart from the sticky-out ears and the very skinny shoulders, we’re actually not too different. I mean, I’m rather tall and lanky. I’m not as gangly and flailing as he is, I’m pleased to say.
He doesn’t sound like the most attractive guy in the original description — he has big glassy eyes, a long nose…
Well, I’m far too self-deprecating to comment on that.
Understood. What about Ichabod’s voice — did you work with anybody to come up with his speech patterns?
No, no, that was just, that was all my invention, really. I had a very, very good speech coach when I was at drama school, a brilliant, brilliant lady called Carol Ziegler, who actually told me to concentrate on a certain style. She said, “Look at you. You’re not going to get any of these gritty, Ken Loach-style urban films. You should aim towards period stuff.” Which was a very sensible bit of advice.
Why do you think you’re so well suited for period stuff?
I don’t know, I never asked her! [laughs] I think because I don’t really look “street” enough for edgy, urban, modern things. With Ichabod, there’s lots with his voice that I wanted to achieve — a sense of archness and a sense of otherworldliness, a sense of authority. And just the fact that he’s a moody little prick at times.
Are there any other characters or performances that you have in mind as references?
Well actually, for the scene that I auditioned with, it was Charles Grodin in Midnight Run – [he] was really in my mind. Also, what would it be like if Walter White from Breaking Bad was played by Roger Moore.
How much did you know about American history before joining the show?
Well, we tend not to discuss that point in history, because it’s a war that we lost. So it’s not something that we learn in school. It’s been really nice to explore. I think people over here, they’re far too down on American history: “Oh, well, we have no history because we’re such a young country.” But that’s not true at all. It’s such a rich history that you guys have. And now we’re utterly bastardizing it. [laughs]
Ichabod speaks all these languages, he has a photographic memory, he knows cartography — what do you think his flaws are?
I think pride and arrogance. He is very proud, and that stops him from fully connecting with very much. What else would his flaws be? His moodiness, but I think that probably comes from his pride as well. His inability to deal with his loss — mind you, that’s kind of understandable when you die and wake up 250 years later and everyone you know died 200 years ago. You can probably understand why he’d be a bit moody.
You mentioned Ichabod’s archness earlier — I was wondering if you had a favorite line of his.
Oh, God! There are so many. I quite like that all of his putdowns, or his attempts at cutdowns, at Abbie — I mean, she’s the wrong person to try and put down. If he gets too arch or smug, she’ll smack him down. She’s not going to take any nonsense from this cantankerous old man. I think probably my favorite moment so far has to be in the car with the OnStar Yolanda lady.
What about the clothes? Are you getting sick of that outfit yet?
[laughs] I’m appreciating it now that it’s not 90 degrees and 90 percent humidity here. That’s a question that most people seem to go straight to, is about the clothes. And yes, there will be new clothes arriving soon. But how well Ichabod takes to them is another matter.
Are his colonial clothes comfortable?
Yes, they are. It’s another reason why I love doing period stuff, because the costumes are just gorgeous. What’s depressing, and I think most actors that do period things would agree, is that because they make you stand properly — it’s depressing how painful that can be. It makes me realize that I must have really dreadful posture in real life, that just standing up straight becomes agony after a while. It makes you long to throw on a hoodie and just go slouch in a corner somewhere.
Is that what you do when you’re done filming?
I’m permanently upright and well-postured! No, I do collapse in a corner. Exhausted. Beaten.
How far into filming season 1 are you?
We’re fast approaching the end. But I spoke to [Sleepy creator] Alex Kurtzman the other day. We had a long conversation where he explained in fine detail what’s happening in this season and the plans for season 2. And at the end of the phone call, every hair on my arms was standing on end. It really, really snowballs into a big avalanche, a disastrous avalanche for everyone. The next episode, the one that brings us back from the break, is I think one that we’re all incredibly proud of, and that’s the arrival of John Noble. That starts shifting us away from the episodic structure of the first half of the season and then gets into a really strong, clear single story, which plows through to the very end. And the season finale, I mean, it killed me when he was telling me about that.
How do you feel about all the passionate Ichabod/Abbie shippers out there already?
Oh, it’s really cool. I really like that they’ve got the name Ichabbie as well. It shows that people are invested, and care about the characters. And that’s all you can really ask for as an actor. It means we’re doing something right.
Can you say whether you’re shipping Ichabod and Abbie or Ichabod and Katrina?
[laughs] Well, you’re going to start seeing a lot more of Katrina, and a lot more of their relationship in the past. And you’ll kind of understand why their relationship is so strong. Of course, Ichabod and Abbie, that’s just lovely, isn’t it? That’s just a wonderful pairing. I wouldn’t like to pick sides, because I know that there are very strong opinions on both sides, and I wouldn’t like to upset either camp.
Sleepy Hollow airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on Fox.