Emmy Magazine Full Story: Stars Tom Mison and Nicole Beharie of Sleepy Hollow — Fox's man-out-of-time series inspired by tales written 200 years ago about a headless horseman — reflect on how the show became a multi-genre mashup hit.
The first time Nicole Beharie laid eyes on Tom Mison was early last year when he flew to L.A. from London for a chemistry read, an audition that's something like a blind date:
Producers pair up actors they are considering hiring to see how they work together.
Beharie had been cast in a new Fox pilot, and the producers were hoping they'd found their leading man in Mison, an English theater actor best known in the U.S. for the 2011 sleeper Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.
"I was a bit shocked," Beharie says, remembering her first glimpse of Mison. "I was expecting a nerdy, professorial-looking guy. When I walked in and saw Tom it was like, 'Oh, he's kind of dashing. What is he doing here?'"
Her confusion was understandable. The pilot was Sleepy Hollow and the role Mison was up for was Ichabod Crane.
Yes, that Ichabod Crane - Washington Irving's skittish, nineteenth-century schoolteacher whose name conjures images of a long-necked, long-beaked, pencil-legged bird.
Take it from Irving himself. In his 1820 short story, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," he didn't mince words about Crane's appearance: "He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together."
It's no wonder that over the years the gawky Crane has been played on television by an assortment of offbeat actors, including Jeff Goldblum and Ed Begley, Jr. But here was Mison, looking like Prince Charming with his liquid blue eyes, noble brow and modish pompadour.
When he and Beharie started sparring, any doubts about the pairing quickly vanished. "He'd throw something out," the petite actress recalls, "and I'd react to it, like he was giving me a gift. Or I'd have an idea. It was two people keeping the ball up in the air."
One year later, it's clear that Beharie and Mison kept that ball up - way up - through the first season of Sleepy Hollow. When the show debuted on September 16, 2013, it was seen by an estimated 10.1 million live and same-day viewers and rose to 15.3 million when DVR viewings were added, making it Fox's highest-rated fall drama premiere since Dark Angel in 2000.
On October 3 that year, after only three episodes had aired, Sleepy Hollow became the first show of the season to be picked up for next fall. Announcing the renewal, Fox chairman Kevin Reilly called it "a conceptual blast unlike anything else on television."
And when the series wrapped its 13-episode season the following January - taking its cue from the limited-run paradigm popularized by cable, Netflix and Fox's own Kevin Bacon vehicle, The Following - it outperformed NBC's The Blacklist for the first time.
A Perfectly Fun Storm of Genres
If the show is unlike anything else on TV, that's partly because it's tough to categorize. Supernatural action comedy? Americana folk-tale reboot? Pre-apocalyptic soap opera? No label does it justice.
While most series fit into a certain slot, Sleepy Hollow is an audacious mash-up of multiple genres - a perfect storm of comedy, drama, supernatural, cop procedural, thriller, tearjerker, romance and history.
Despite its humor, this is no fish-out-of-water comedy like Mork & Mindy or My Favorite Martian. It's more man-out-of-time mystery, closer in tone and style to The X-Files or Lost.
"At the core, there's a grounded truth and emotional reality that our actors have embraced that make it ring true even though it is so fantastical," says executive producer Mark Goffman, the former White House consultant-turned-showrunner who helps balance it all with series creators Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Len Wiseman and Phillip Iscove. (Along with Goffman and the four co-creators, the show's executive producing team includes Heather Kadin and Ken Olin.)
With its cinematic look, old-school preference for rubbery monster costumes (over slick computer-generated creatures), eerie visits to Purgatory (where Crane's bewitching wife Katrina has been confined) and its revisionist take on history (George Washington is buried where?), Sleepy Hollow is nothing if not fantastical. But it's presented with such a sophisticated mix of style and storytelling that the show is just pure fun.
"This world can be quite ridiculous as long as you love [the characters] and feel they're responding in a way that you're connected to," Wiseman says. "When there's real danger and real emotion, you can have a lot of fun with everything else."
And with Crane as a prism through which to view country and culture, the writers are having a field day with laugh-out-loud observations, off-the-cuff commentary and throwaway bits that add a smart comic edge to the show.
"We never wanted to reach for a joke," Kurtzman says. "We always wanted them to be very organic to the way Ichabod would see the world."
Everything about modern life is fair game - smart phones, fist bumps, texting, Facebook, hipster jargon, skinny jeans ("The devil's trousers," Crane scoffs after reluctantly trying on a pair). What other show this side of Downton Abbey would have a character say something as playful - and pointed - as: "For judge a man not by the wear of what he wears but by the flair and how he wears it."
A Then-Fledging Writer (and UTA Assistant)
Masterminds a Mash-Up
It all started two years ago with Iscove. The young Canadian, then a fledgling writer working as an assistant at United Talent Agency, had the idea to merge two classic Irving short stories - "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle" - and have Crane awaken from a spell after 250 years.
His agent hooked him up with Kurtzman and Orci, the busy writer-producers behind Fox's Fringe and CBS's Hawaii Five-0, who had a deal at 20th Century Fox Television.
"It was one of those ideas‚"Kurtzman says. "We talk about how we search for the 'Lego click' - that wonderful sound when two pieces come together and it just makes sense."
To complete the team, they brought in Wiseman (Underworld, Total Recall), who had directed the Hawaii Five-0 pilot and whose vision they trusted.
Kurtzman pitched him Iscove's opening scene: "I said, 'Ichabod Crane is in the Revolutionary War. A Hessian [soldier] comes running at him and drives an ax into his stomach. The Hessian is about to deliver the killer blow when Crane swings his sword with one last breath and cuts off the Hessian's head. They both fall together.
"Cut to black, and suddenly Ichabod wakes up. He's in a cave buried in mud - he doesn't know where he is and stumbles into the daylight. His feet are moving through the dirt and brush, and suddenly he's walking over cement. He stops because his feet have never felt asphalt before. He hears a honk, turns, and there's this truck.'
"I said, 'I don't know where it goes from there, but that's where it starts.' And Len said, 'I'm totally in. I love it.'"
So did the studio and the network.
"It felt eventful, exciting and epic, with the ability to retell history a little, which I think is fun for the audience," remembers Gary Newman, chairman and CEO of 20th Century Fox Television. "We pitched it at the Fox network and they bought it preemptively."
"It was such a captivating pitch, we bought it in the room," says Terence Carter, Fox's executive vice-president of drama programming and development.
That was July 2012. Over the next few months, the four fleshed out the story: Crane meets a young woman cop, Lieutenant Abbie Mills, who is about to leave town to join the FBI.
At first, she is skeptical of Crane's wild claims - he seems more like a mad man than a stranger in a strange land.
But the meeting forces her to face her demons - literally. Abbie has lived in denial about a childhood confrontation she and her sister Jenny had with a supernatural creature in the woods.
While she lied and said it never happened, Jenny blathered on about it so openly that she was committed to a mental institution - and Abbie has lived with repressed memories and guilt ever since. Now she and Crane come to understand each other's pain.
"Bob and Alex bring a soulfulness and heart to everything," Carter says.
"What we saw were the dual layers of storytelling you can do - the Creature of the Week is great from a storytelling perspective," he continues. "But also they had a larger mythology we could explore, which would be tied to both of our lead characters and their histories. We were able to get the best of both worlds."
In December 2012 the script was submitted, and after the turn of the new year, Fox picked up the Sleepy Hollow pilot. In May, the network picked up the series, and that triumphant premiere came four months later. But bringing the series to life was not without its challenges.
"These kinds of ideas are one molecule away from [being] absolutely terrible," Kurtzman observes. "If you pull it off, you're giving people something they've never seen before. But we also could've been laughed out of town."
Finding Their Abbie
Nicole Beharie wasn't looking to do a series.
A 2007 graduate of Juilliard, she had come to L.A. to explore film work.
The South Carolina native had already appeared opposite Michael Fassbender in the racy 2011 Steve McQueen film Shame, and she'd played Jackie Robinson's headstrong wife in 42. "I read [Sleepy Hollow] and figured, 'Let's do the audition and we'll see. They're not going to cast me.'"
She was wrong. "We were looking for a great actress and were open," Wiseman says. "We wanted someone you'd buy as a policewoman, but also as someone who had this tragic past and [carried that] emotional weight. Nicole performed Abbie's entire back story at the read, and we were hooked. After she finished, we forgot to turn off the camera."
Abbie had not been written for an African-American actress. But having come face to face with Beharie's beauty, vulnerability and unmistakable air of authority, the producers knew their search was over.
Says Wiseman: "When we found Nicole, we said, 'Okay, our character is African American.'"
Though race is not an issue on the show, once Beharie was cast, some minor changes had to be made in the pilot script - the writers needed to address how this man out of time would respond to meeting an empowered modern woman in slacks who also happens to be black.
The fact that she is a female lieutenant (or "leftenant," as Mison drolly intones) is almost more startling to him than her skin color.
The contrast only enriched the characters and their chemistry. Early in the pilot, when Crane asks Abbie if she's been "freed," she turns defensive. But the audience is in on the irony - Crane, an abolitionist in his day, has an intellectual curiosity, as well as a genuine confusion, about modern times.
"He's an innocent," Wiseman says, "so his arrogance becomes charming in its naivete."
Finding Their Ichabod...on IMDb
The producers had been late in casting Beharie, but they were almost ready to start shooting when they found Mison - which involved another major change.
"It was always American Ichabod Crane, son of the Revolution," Kurtzman says. "We read a ton of actors, but you just didn't believe they were men out of time. They felt like guys from the Valley."
The producers were looking for a young Harrison Ford, but during auditions the period dialogue was sounding forced.
"One day I was looking at the text and realized we'd written a British person here," Kurtzman recalls. So Ichabod became a former Oxford professor who comes to America with the King's army before turning colonial spy and working with George Washington.
With the start date looming, they had to cast their lead. "I found Tom during a 3-hour search on IMDB," Wiseman says. "I saw this picture of him from a period film, with long hair. I thought, 'Okay, but there's no chance he can also act.' Then I started to research him, and he seemed fantastic."
For a British Crane, Wiseman wanted someone with the look of Viggo Mortensen in Lord of the Rings. So he Photoshopped a wig and beard onto an image of Mison.
Six-foot-one and lean, the actor - who trained on the London stage and appeared on British television in Lost in Austen (2008) and Parade's End (2012) - could easily rock the period look. More important, he had the talent.
"Tom just got it," Kurtzman says. "We left the meeting thinking, 'This guy gets comic timing and emotional stakes. He's our guy.'"
Now, weeks after wrapping the first season, Mison is in L.A. with Beharie to promote the show. Which means getting photographed and talking shop. Sporting a teal blue velvet Alexander McQueen blazer, black Dsquared jeans (yes, they're skinny) and black patent-leather Ferragamos, he barely resembles his TV self.
"I went to our wrap party and nearly got thrown out," he says. "People didn't recognize me. It takes me an hour and a half [in makeup], so I'm there before everybody. We'd spent months together, and they'd only seen me in the wig."
Though Crane has made great strides fitting into modern culture, the producers are determined that he remain true to himself. So fans should not expect a makeover any time soon, despite prevailing questions about when he'll cut his hair, shave his beard or trade in "that ratty coat," as Abbie's sister, Jenny, calls it.
The writers even found a clever way around his wardrobe dilemmas by having him stumble on a Revolutionary War reenactment, where he stocks up on vintage attire.
Lightning in a Bottle
Shooting in Wilmington, North Carolina, the cast has been shielded from the public eye and got through the first season mostly oblivious to their success. Their new-found fame is hitting them now.
"I'm very lucky," Mison says with an admiring grin for Beharie, who is ready for her emmy closeup in a shimmery gown and stilettos. "I get to work with Nicole all the time."
Indeed, the real draw of Sleepy Hollow - beyond its intricate mythology - is its two leads. The show is always better when Ichabod and Abbie ("Ichabbie" to die-hard fans) are on screen together.
Despite obvious comparisons to The X-Files, their partnership goes well beyond the Mulder-Scully dynamic.
Abbie may have started off a skeptic, but she has joined Crane as a second witness to the Apocalypse and has accepted her role alongside him in the fight against the Horseman.
"We caught lightning in a bottle," Goffman says. "Nicole and Tom are phenomenal individually, and together they're unstoppable. They're game for anything. In a world that is so fantastical, we can dream as big as we want and know that somehow they will help find an emotional truth and a reality to the scene."
The rest of the diverse cast is equally strong - Orlando Jones as Captain Frank Irving, Katia Winter as Katrina Crane, Lyndie Greenwood as Jenny Mills. Clancy Brown, who played Abbie's mentor, Sheriff August Corbin, saw his character killed off early in the season. John Cho, as Officer Andy Brooks, also met an unfortunate fate - but this is Sleepy Hollow, where you might have died but you're not gone.
And then there's the show's other casting coup: John Noble - the eccentric Dr. Walter Bishop from Kurtzman and Orsi's Fringe - is now Henry Parish, a "Sin Eater" who breaks the curse connecting Crane with the Horseman. His jaw-dropping revelation in the season-finale cliffhanger was one of the most-talked-about TV moments of the year - and a tribute to the painstaking planning of the producers.
"We really wanted to have a payoff," Wiseman says. "And we wanted to let people who are investing their time know that there really is a plan here. We're not making it up as we go. They're in the hands of people who are paying attention, who answered some big questions and set up some new questions for the second season."
So where does Sleepy Hollow go next? While the show's second season same-day ratings are down from the its historic first season debut, the series remains strong in time-shifted viewing across all multiple platforms.
Season two's 18-episode schedule will give fans a few more episodes than last season's 13, although it is still abbreviated season. Carter points to viewers' changing taste and their exposure to the tighter seasons of cable shows like Homeland and Mad Men. Not to mention that a shorter season eliminates the need for preemptions.
From a creative standpoint, it allows the writers to craft detailed story arcs that don't have to be drawn out over time. And for an effects-heavy show like Sleepy Hollow, there's also more time for postproduction.
Wiseman says he is excited about where the Sleepy Hollow team can take the show now.
"I want to keep being able to push things further. It's exciting to see that people are putting out their theories about how [the cliffhangers will be resolved]. And they're all wrong," he maintains.
We're really trying to twist things up - they're going to be shocked."