Q & A: Tom Mison on ‘Sleepy Hollow’, Cast Chemistry and Why He Isn’t a “Fan” of Ad-Libbing

tom-mison-sleepy-hollowOne of the biggest hits of the new season, Sleepy Hollow, returns with an all new episode tonight and I got a chance to talk to series star, Tom Mison on a recent conference call.

Mison is a big presence in British theatre and even won the Sir John Gielgud Award back in 2003. You may have also seen him opposite Rebecca Hall in the HBO miniseries, Parade’s End. Mison is a great Ichabod Crane and even though a handful of episodes have aired, I can’t imagine anyone else in the role.

In this interview, Mison chats about playing Ichabod Crane, his chemistry with co-star Nichole Beharie and how he’s not a fan of ad-libbing.

Sleepy Hollow airs on Mondays at at 9/8 central on Fox

Ichabod is very intelligent and a very proper man, and he balances out really well with Abbie, who’s kind of shown herself to be willing to bend the rules when necessary. Are there any circumstances that we’ll see Ichabod be willing to kind of bend the rules or act out, beyond he yelled at Abbie once, but beyond that he’s really kept very calm.

Tom Mison: Yes. I think without giving too much away, when things start to get very personal, when there are revelations that are personal attacks on Crane and his past, that’s when the rules start to fly out of the window, and he starts misbehaving a little bit more. Yes. I’m trying not to spoil it. I’m sorry?

Is that fun to play when he kind of gets to act out a bit?

Tom Mison: Oh, it’s nice. Every chance to show a different side to Ichabod is great. As a very obvious example, the difference between Ichabod we see in the 18th Century and the modern-day Ichabod. There are different sides to him, and equally the well behaved and the less well behaved; the more unhinged Ichabod. There’s plenty of that to come, and I’m trying desperately not to throw spoilers at you or I’ll be in a lot of trouble.

Is Ichabod ever going to wear modern clothes?

Tom Mison: It was question number two. I was wondering how long it would be before that question comes up. I expected every question to be that. Yes. That will be mentioned very, very soon. You’ll see the question of clothes coming up. I think we quite liked having Ichabod in—give him an iconic look, which I think everyone’s managed to achieve rather nicely.

In terms of the character; he’s a long way from home, and 250 years away from home so anything that he can hold on to from his time, I think he certainly will. Any time you think of how much he stinks, just think of it as a big stinking security blanket that he carries around with him. Yes. That will be addressed shortly.

What’s sort of been the most fun as you’re putting on this character as you were creating this character, and getting into him? Was it the cadence of the language or the clothes or growing your hair long?

Tom Mison: I think it’s trying to work out how moody someone would be when they come out of the ground after 200 years. It’s been nice, as I said to the question before, finding the difference between Crane and his time and place, and Crane after all of this weird stuff has happened. It’s finding the balances, like the balances between that and the balance between Crane trying to hide his confusion at the world, and when it suddenly comes out.

There’s so much—there’s so many plates that need to be spun to keep Ichabod on track, and it’s hard work. It’s a really difficult part to play, but I think that’s what makes it so satisfying. There’s lots for me to sink my teeth into.

The show has a premise that even its fans agree is somewhat implausible. Did you have any trepidation about signing on because of that rather outrageous concept for the show?

Tom Mison: I always like to have faith that an audience will suspend their disbelief if you present it to them in the right way. I find it peculiar when people scoff at one bold idea, and yet they’ll then turn over and watch a man travel through time in a police phone box. I think it’s just how you present the idea, and between Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci and Len Wiseman, their careers have been built on asking people to suspend their disbelief because I think once you do that, once you can get an audience to go with you on an idea then you can just go anywhere, and that’s where the fun stuff happens. No real trepidation, more faith in the great American public that they’ll join us, and luckily it seems to have paid off.

One of the things that has been so much fun to watch is seeing what you do with Ichabod in terms of blending the comedy of his reactions to the contemporary world, and the drama that comes up from the older world. How do you think about that balance? Is it difficult to not get too far into the comedy? How do you sort of think about that when you’re approaching it?

Tom Mison: Yes. The temptation could be to just go nuts on the comedy; not only for me but for the writers as well because there’s a wealth of things we can do with that. We worked out very early on, Len and I doing the pilot, that the only way you can really sell the comedy is to play it as straight as the serious stuff.

Finding the balance between the confusion and those funny scenes and the more serious, “Oh my God, the apocalypse is coming” scenes. The way to balance them is to play them with a very similar tone rather than separating them as this is now a tragic scene and this is a comic scene.

Everything is very real for Ichabod, and so we just have to try and play everything straight, which I think was a really good thing to find and a bit of a saving grace in terms of performance. It also stops me from hamming it up.

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We’ve seen Ichabod do battle with plastic, with the OnStar system, and with a coffee machine. What other technology is he going to confront in upcoming episodes?

Tom Mison: Well, there’s everything. When we go into a new set it’s always nice to have a look around and wonder what Ichabod would be attracted to or repelled by, and what would be baffling and it’s kind of, everything. Everything’s new. Yes. There will be plenty more of that, and hopefully it will be just as fun as the stuff from before because, like I said before, there’s a wealth of stuff to mine into.

Are you a history buff and, if so, how much of a stickler are you for authenticity even in a premises as outrageous as this one is?

Tom Mison: Yes. I’ve always been a history buff. It was one of the few subjects at school that really, really caught me. I think because—I think you’ll find a lot of actors will be interested in history because it sparks your imagination so much. When you enter a period of history your imagination just goes wild in creating the world, which is really what acting is.

Yes. It’s always a treat to have something that lets me explore a different period, and yes I do try to be a stickler as much as I can, but luckily the writers are as well. There are a few language things which luckily they’re very open when I say I think this is 12 years too late this word and they’re very happy to play around with it.

I think it’s—even if 90% of the audience aren’t going to spot that certain turn of phrase as a bit out of date it’s still important to get a level of authenticity for us to play around in. I think if it wasn’t completely authentic then it wouldn’t really work very much, it would then just be a modern man with a weird costume instead of a man from another time.

Yes. Everyone is very patient with me getting very anal about things.

What is it about your character, Ichabod, that you find the most fascinating? What would be something that the average person wouldn’t know about your character?

Tom Mison: I think the one thing that—everyone always goes to the fact that he would be lost in the modern world and everything is above him and baffling, but what I find really fascinating is that any room he walks into he’s probably the most intelligent person in that room, but no one will allow him to show that because everyone thinks he’s insane. I think the interesting thing is that he thinks everyone else is the maniac, whereas everyone thinks he is. That’s really fun. He knows that he’s cleverer than everyone else, but his manners won’t allow him to tell people to stop being stupid.

Working with some of the recurring characters like John Cho back and John Nobel. How has it been being able to build a rapport with these really great character actors that are coming in and adding great dimension to the show?

Tom Mison: It’s really nice. It’s great to have actors who are often cast against type. They’re often—it’s surprising, the actors who are coming in for characters. I think very few people would imagine that John Cho would become the baddy, which we notice in the pilot. Clancy, Clancy Brown who is—you don’t see him often as the father figure, or the Obi-Wan Kenobi type. Orlando Jones, you wouldn’t immediately think of as casting as the highest ranking police officer, and I think actually a lot of people would be rather surprised at me being cast as Ichabod.

I think there are probably lots of people in England who wouldn’t have— casting people who wouldn’t have considered me for it. It’s one of the brilliant things of the show is that they cast the net wide, and they surprise you with their casting choices.

You’re coming back for a second season; have you had conversations with the howrunners or the writers yet about—do you want to know what’s coming for him so you can kind of prepare for that if you had to, or at the end of this season, or do you prefer to just be in the moment and get the scripts as they come?

Tom Mison: It’s nice to know when there are important things—important revelations later on that should affect the entire character. It’s nice to know them early so then if there was suddenly a revelation that people would then think back to a few episodes before, and something different was being played. It’s important to know those big revelations. I’ve been told what they are, and shall remain silent.

Other than that, the smaller things in the episode, but I know the big story arcs and they’re quite remarkable, but episode by episode I quite like finding out when I get the script. It’s quite nice to be surprised and excited episode by episode in the same way that hopefully audiences are when they watch week by week. Yes. I like to keep a few things as a nice little treat each time I get a script landing on my doormat.

The chemistry you have with Nicole Beharie, was that right off the bat?

Tom Mison: I think it was right off the bat. After I put myself on tape in London, I was then called over to Los Angeles to screen test, and it was a five hour  screen test. The first two were just me, Len Wiseman and the producers and the casting people, a big room of people, and we played around for a couple of hours and then Nicole, who had already been cast, came in and we read together and played with a few scenes for about three hours. Yes. It was instant.

I think we’re very similar actors. We both like to play with what the other actor gives us, and we both like to be generous with each other. We know that the good stuff, and what everyone refers to as chemistry, is actually generosity. We like to be generous with each other mainly—it’s nice to throw things at an actor and be excited and surprised by what they throw back, and so yes it was fairly instant, and we’d like exploring the scenes together rather than as two individuals. We like to do it as a team, and yes she’s as wonderful off screen as she is on. It’s always a nice thing to find friends on a job, and I think I certainly have with her.

Is there any sort of improv done, or do you stick pretty closely to the script?

Tom Mison: Not really. We tend to stick to the script. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of adlibbing. I think there’s a story that the writers and the directors want to tell, and I don’t think it’s up to an actor to act or detract from that. It’s our job to tell their story in as imaginative a way as possible. I don’t think it’s our job to change their story even if it’s slightly like that. Any script change is always discussed with the writer beforehand, and there are a few. Nicole and I often—as we get to know our characters more and more there are often a few things that we would like to explore; but no, we tend to stick to the script.

Have you been able to add your own touches to this role or do all of Ichabod’s traits come from the script?

Tom Mison: No, they come from long discussions from day one; from before we started shooting the pilot. As soon as I met Len and Alex and Bob Orci, we all kind of had similar ideas about what Ichabod should be, and this sort of story that we all think would be the most exciting, and yes, there’s constant discussions between me and the writers. They’re very open to my ideas, and I love all of theirs so yes, it’s kind of a balance.

It’s a balance, and it’s changing a lot. It’s so nice to be a part of something that runs for such a long time. Before this, I think the longest series I’ve done has been I think six episodes. Lots of mini-series I’ve done before, but never done something that stretches over 13 episodes and now with a second season added to that so it’s nice to find a very gradual evolution to the character, and, yes, that comes from both counts because we’ve got excellent writers.

What it’s been like working with John Noble?

Tom Mison: It’s really remarkable. Our first scene together it’s just me and him sitting opposite each other at a table, and he came in and sat down and we did the scene, and I was quite surprised when someone shouted “cut” because I forgot that there were cameras and other people about the place because when you’re acting with someone like John you just completely lose yourself in it. He’s mesmerizing. He’s brilliant.

Given the unusual premise, what is it that initially attracted you to the role?

Tom Mison: The unusual premise. It was something that had so many elements to it, and the show as a whole throws in so many different styles and different genres, and Ichabod is caught up in the middle of that. I mean you don’t get parts like this very often. You don’t get shows like this very often. I can’t think of very many others that are like this. Also knowing that it’s apart that, as I said earlier, I don’t know whether I would have got it in England, and I knew that it would be hard work.

When this job came up there were other offers thrown at me that wouldn’t have been as much of a challenge, and I knew that if I took on Ichabod Crane in this incarnation of Sleepy Hollow it’s going to be a tough job and it’s going to keep me on my toes and keep my imagination fired up. I mean there’s nothing better than that. It’s good to work hard.

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