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Nicole Beharie reveals what thrills and scares her most about 'Sleepy Hollow'

Nicole Beharie
Nicole BeharieFox

The Fox TV series "Sleepy Hollow" is a modern-day twist on Washington Irving’s classic. Ichabod Crane (played by Tom Mison) is resurrected and pulled two-and-a-half centuries through time to unravel a mystery that dates all the way back to the founding fathers. Revived alongside Ichabod is the infamous Headless Horseman who is on a murderous rampage in present-day Sleepy Hollow. Ichabod quickly realizes that stopping Headless is just the beginning, as the resurrected rider is but the first of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and only one of the many formidable foes that Ichabod must face to protect not only Sleepy Hollow, but the world. As Ichabod finds himself in 2013’s Sleepy Hollow, he discovers a town he no longer recognizes and grapples to understand. Teaming up with Lt. Abbie Mills (played by Nicole Beharie), a young cop who has her own supernatural experiences, the two embark on a mission to stop the evil that has awoken along with Ichabod and that now is seeping into this once-sleepy town.

Nicole Beharie
Nicole BeharieGetty Images

Clues from the past enlighten mysteries in the present, as each episode features a flashback to Ichabod’s life in 1776. Ripe with untold stories from American history and cloaked in mythology, the divide between present and past becomes dangerously blurred. Lives are in the balance, including that of Ichabod’s late wife, Katrina (played by Katia Winter), who is trapped in a mysterious netherworld. In his pursuit to save her, Ichabod uncovers secrets about her, leaving him with countless questions. Not everyone believes Ichabod’s tales of 1776 and supernatural evils, especially the new head of Abbie’s police precinct, Captain Frank Irving (played by Orlando Jones). When faced with bizarre events he can’t explain, Capt. Irving reluctantly turns to Ichabod and Abbie to investigate.

Ichabod’s extensive first-hand knowledge of our country’s hidden history, coupled with Abbie’s superior profiling and modern threat assessment skills, make them a formidable duo. The complex pasts of the pair, from Ichabod’s inclusion in the powerful and secretive Freemasons Society to Abbie’s childhood visions, will help them solve the intricate puzzles of Sleepy Hollow in order to protect its – and the world’s – future. As history repeats itself, the oddly-linked pair will draw on the real stories and secrets this nation was founded on in their quest to stop an increasingly vicious cycle of evil. Here is what Beharie said in a telephone conference call with journalists a few days before the first season finale of “Sleepy Hollow” aired.

“Sleepy Hollow” has become such a fan favorite very quickly overnight. What do you think it is about the show that has drawn in so many viewers?

About the show, I think the show has managed to strike a nerve with so many people. I think the success of the show is about the audience. People are open and ready to take that kind of journey and are looking for the sort of fantastic, but mysterious drama. I think that the show has a lot of different elements to it and demographics that definitely open it up to a much broader audience.

But I think it’s really all about the audience because it is kind of outlandish. We’re all over the place, and you never know which way we’re going to turn. It’s really the audience’s engagement with us and they’re sort of coming along with the contract that makes the whole thing live.

You have great chemistry with Lyndie Greenwood, who plays your sister on “Sleepy Hollow.” Do you enjoy doing the more action sequences or the tender moments with her? Do you think the sisters will ever be able to trust each other again?

Well, the first one, I’ll say that’s another thing about the show is there are so many different levels and then dynamics. I think that it’s just an amazing gift for an actor to have the opportunity to have tender moments in something that would just be considered a procedural. Then, you think, “Oh, just procedural.” But then next thing you know, there’s like a supernatural element, and then there’s conspiracy theory, and then there’s a history lesson.

So it really works every muscle in your creative body as well as your physical body. I don’t really have a preference. I will say that I haven’t had as much experience doing the action stuff, and so when I do get the opportunity, I really get a kick out of it like recently. I don’t want to give it away because the finale stuff, but I have a massive fall that I had to take. I’ve never done that before and it was a lot of fun.

How much of the plot did you know in advance? Did you know how it was going to go throughout the season or were you really surprised as you went along?

They gave an outline of the option to know where it’s going. I just basically asked at the beginning for any information that I needed to know that Abbie would have known like when they’re uncovering gradually things about her past and things like that. I wanted to know that. But as far as what was going to happen with each demonic entity or each monster or each level of fighting the apocalypse, I didn’t really know that.

I wanted to discover it as we moved along. I think each writer brought something new. So even when we had an idea of what the next episode was going to be, we had no idea how it would actually come to fruition. Yes, I didn’t really know. We had sort of an outline. But I couldn’t have imagined for the most part by any means what we ended up doing, what we were starting with.

And I have to say from looking at the pilot to now, to the finale, it’s drastically different. I know after Abbie has grown so much and changed so much. It’s a drastically different world that we’re living in now. I love that that everything keeps changing and evolving.

Are we going see more of Abbie/Luke and kind of learn more about what went on with them?

I’m not really sure, to be totally honest. I think that there may be more into the two. But now with the season finale, we have a lot of massive fish to fry. But I think there may be something going on with Luke. That’s all I can say.

So what do we have to look forward to from the “Sleepy Hollow” Season 1 finale, as far as what you can tell us, and especially your character?

Well, you know we’re being really coy. We can’t really give it away, but I think it’s for the greater good and the fans deserve to get the full ranges of surprises. We do have quite a bit of them. I will say John Noble is in the cast, Victor Garber.

Basically, the story starts off where Abbie and Crane unearth secrets in the Bible, as you guys. They discover new things about the nature of George Washington’s death. That basically sends them on this like mad hunt. That hunt tests some loyalties and there are sacrifices made and all kinds of stuff. That’s about all I can tell you.

What have been your biggest challenges on “Sleepy Hollow” as an actress?

Man, it just happened so fast. I think we finished a week-and-a-half ago, like two weeks ago and now it’s out there. As we were shooting, we started in like late July/August [2013], and we’ve just been going ever since because we didn’t have much time in between shooting and the air dates. So it was just kind of like keeping up with it and staying energetic and really committing to some of the bigger, crazier moments has been a lot of fun.

I think a lot of people are like acting’s so hard. It’s actually a blast, like that’s a lot of fun. It’s just the sort of quick pace. I’ve done a lot of film work and it’s just a little bit slower, you know?

Do you feel like the writers are setting Season 2 of “Sleepy Hollow” to kind of feel like a departure or are moving into a new direction or what can you kind of tease us in terms of what to look forward to next season?

I feel like the finale in and of itself is the tease. I feel like you just have to watch it. I can’t really tease the tease, you know what I mean? Of the season, I think all I can say is it’s drastically different from where we started, where we’re going. I don’t think anyone will expect what we uncover. I know, that’s horrible.

Do you feel like Abbie and Ichabod are still on the same side by the end or are we going to see maybe a rift between the two of them?

I definitely think that there are challenges along the way for every character. I think in the last episode you saw there was a little bit of questioning and even the episode with where they captured the Horseman. They have their issues. But I think for the most part they are on the same side, yes. We’ve seen that throughout. I don’t think that part has changed.

But there are a lot of tests coming up. I’ll say that. So with tests come those sort of challenges and definitions of what your character, not just the actual acting character, but the character’s character, who they are and what they really stand for, and how much they can actually withstand. I think we see some of that, and that’s challenging. If I might add, Tom is really good at all that emotional stuff, too. It’s beautiful work in the finale. It’s really good.

A lot of people think that Ichabod and Abbie should be together, but Ichabod’s still waiting for his wife, Katrina. So if you were a viewer and if you weren’t a part of this at all, you’re just kind of watching this, would you root for Ichabod and Abbie or Ichabod and Katrina, because they’re in a weird spot?

It’s hard for me to separate myself as if I weren’t. I’m not a viewer. I do this thing every day. I’m highly invested, you know what I mean? I will say those are questions made for really interesting viewing and seeing everyone’s comments and things. I actually hadn’t really seen people thinking that Ichabod and Abbie would become an item. I know they have chemistry, but God only knows what happens in the future.

I know Abbie personally isn’t really thinking that way. I think that they have a massive job of massive undertaking. Trying to save the world is a pretty big deal, and try to keep it clean and basically out of trouble. Flourishing in the modern world is enough. But who knows?

Do you think that a romance on the show, so far, there’s been none, which makes sense. They’re fighting demons. You can’t really think about kissing someone when you’re fighting a demon, right?

Right, exactly. It’s like Sandman shows up and you’re like, “Thanks for saving me!” Now, it’s like make out. It’s like no.

And, they move so fast on the show. By the time you have a moment to blink or bat your lashes, there’s something dragging you through the next portal of doom. So it’s like there really isn’t a time for that. I think he’s been longing for his wife and Abbie cares about him and wants him to be happy. But I think there’s potential that Abbie could have some things going on. I think she’s finding her power. So I think with that there may be relationships in the future.

Could you tell us a little bit about the audition process for your role in “Sleepy Hollow” and what that was like for you?

OK, my audition. I liked the script and I thought it was outlandish, but fun. I thought it was intriguing. So it was like, “OK, I don’t know about this. We’ll see how this goes.” I had other auditions that I put in first-priority zone, because I didn’t feel they would cast me in this.

For some reason, I was just like this doesn’t seem like something I would be cast in. I’m short. I’m black. It’s like that’s kind of like not going to happen. It’s just not something that we’ve seen before. So I was like, “Yeah, sure. Maybe I’ll go and do this. But first let me do these other ones that seem like more practical.”

Then, it came back around and I just ended up going in for a meeting with the creative team and fell in love with [“Sleepy Hollow” executive producers] Alex Kurtzman, Len Wiseman and Heather Kadin. These people are really special. And, they were telling me everything about their vision of the show. And basically, it was a pilot at the time, what they foresaw and how they saw Abbie.

I was like, “Look, it has to be like this, da, da.” They were like, “We’re with you. We’re with you. Keep it dry, have fun.” They gave me that path to interpret her as I felt. Then, I went in for a cast, a test read. I think it was the very next day I found out I got the job and then had to do a chemistry read with Tom.

You have no idea who the person would be because I had only read the Washington Irving piece. So I was sort of expecting, even though I read our pilot, our pilot didn’t necessarily mean it was going to be like some attractive, tall Englishman. I thought he was going to be gangly and nerdy and all this stuff. I was like, “OK, I’m going to meet this guy.” And, I had a vision of him and then Tom walks in.

I was like, “What the hell is going on? What’s this?” But it was great. He kept me on my toes and we kind of played a little bit. I think neither one of us really knew what was going to happen for them, but it’s history now. So it was great.

You mentioned that John Noble is going to be appearing in the season finale. You have worked together before. I just wanted to find out maybe a little bit about working with John, what that was like on the show so far for you?

Oh, it’s fantastic. It was like one of my favorite things. He’s been on “Fringe” for a while and he’s just like such a breath of fresh air and the voice of reason. We haven’t done a great deal of television, Tom and I, so he’s just been giving us pointers about what it means to be on a series and in shows, to sort of finding your legs.

I feel like the timing, him appearing in the world of “Sleepy Hollow” and just on the set is perfect because we are just starting to really, in my opinion, we’re really starting to find our legs and things are starting to feel really good in these last three episodes. So what better than to have a pro like the kindest, easiest actor to be around? I mean he really brings it, too. He really brings it and just keeps the stakes alive and everyone in a really creative place. So I think we’re really lucky to have him.

You said that they gave you, when you auditioned, some leeway to play Abbie your own way. How did your version differ from their vision of her?

I think the cool thing is that they were open. I think that they just wanted to find something that felt real perhaps, but that could also live in the supernatural storytelling version of the show. So I guess that’s what I mean. I think that there are certain ways that things could have been played, you know. Girls on TV, they want to sex it up. They want them to look good and all that kind of stuff.

But I was just kind of like, “Look, she’s gruff. She wants to get out of town. She’s not really too concerned about what anybody thinks because she had like a hard life and she has secrets.” I think she should have secrets and does have quite a few secrets. We’ve only, I think in Season 1 sort of chipped some of that off, a little bit of it, but I think that there’s potential for more there. I said with that there’s a certain ground that we can sort of have.

So there is comedy, but it comes out in a really sort of dry, dry way. Even her cynicism in the beginning, I think people at first were a bit like, “Does she like him? Is she being a b-i-t-c-h?” It’s like no, it’s just what anyone would do. It was like “You’re crazy. I’m committing you.” So to play that straight, I think, could have been a risk. But I think it also helps ground things and it made it better for it actually.

We touched on Abbie’s relationship with Jenny and how popular that is with the fans. What kind of chemistry do you think you have with Lyndie Greenwood, who plays Jenny?

I think we have great chemistry. I think we have great, great chemistry and I think it’s only getting stronger. We had a ball working on the finale. We actually did a few things together where by the end of it we were a bit like, “Damn! We’ve got to wait a few more months to do this again. It’s starting to get good.”

So I’m looking forward to us doing it again. Yes, we’re just having a great time. She’s really lovely to be with, to be around. I’m really fortunate that the writers are creating such a complex back story for us, for us all. They’re not just creating complicated emotional themes; it’s going somewhere. So there’s a payoff eventually and I think that that’s so worth it.

And, you know, you don’t really see sister relationships that are on television, like even sibling relationships period that are complicated really. It’s either like a comedy and they just kind of tease each other and they’re a little different. But for it to be so complicated and for them to have to work together and everything, it’s really interesting, you know.

Abbie and Jenny seem to kind of be the sisterly counterpart to like the Winchester brothers on “Supernatural.”

Yes, right. Don’t be talking about “Supernatural” during my interview.

Abbie’s seen and gone through a lot of things since the first episode of “Sleepy Hollow.” How is the Abbie we see in the Season 1 finale different or even the same from the person we first met?

The only things I think are the same are that she knows that she had a larger purpose. I think in the finale she knew that she had another purpose, but didn’t know what it was. That’s why she wanted to get out of town. I think that’s the only thing that’s the same basically. She knows she has a purpose and she has to sort of serve it.

The rest of it is like her mind is completely blown open. She’s done so many things that she could never imagine, seen things that what’s going on in this world sort of underneath our day to day life. It’s like understanding what you were or what you thought you knew is not actually all that there is. It’s like a huge thing. I think it’s a huge theme in the show.

She’s basically given over to that now, like she’s not cynical. She is cautious, but she is no longer cynical about what they’re doing. She’s in it now. I think now it’s just about serving that purpose. I feel like everything has changed, including the ensemble. I think she started in a cop uniform and then we were in the jeans and now it’s like yoga clothes, and it’s like she’s getting more and more comfortable in her skin and thinking outside the box. She was just very narrow about the resources that she was willing to use to get answers.

Now, you see her breaking into homes and break the rules and all sorts of things. It’s changed from being by the book and wanting to go to Quantico and become a profiler to being like we’re witnesses to the apocalypse and that means anything is at our disposal. We can do whatever we want when we’re fighting for good.

This has been a huge year for black people in television and film, with yourself and Kerry Washington being featured in prime-time starring roles, as well as your “Shame” director Steve McQueen’s recent award season success. What are your thoughts on these barriers being broken down?

I think it’s a fantastic time. I feel really lucky to be an actress during this time when people are sort of opening up to having more diversity in their home and just being interested in a lot of different stories. The one thing I really love about our show is that even though I think it’s one of the most diverse shows on television, not even ethnically, but gender wise. We don’t even talk about it. We don’t make it an issue. There are little things here and there like in the pilot, so hopefully be mentioning.

But it doesn’t become an issue and we just hope that the audience does perceive instead of colors, people, and histories in their experiences. I think that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do as an artist and an actress. So that be able to have that is the most humbling and fulfilling gift. It truly cannot be seen as a color or as a particular demographic. I think that opening up is great.

That being said, Steve McQueen is amazing and I’m so happy that he’s been doing well. Actually, we’re staying in the same hotel right now. I bumped into him. I think we’re doing “Arsenio” at the same time. So it’s like the world is getting smaller. It’s just really nice to see other people that you love and that have opened up opportunities for you doing well.

If you could bring three items to the apocalypse, if it actually happens, what three items would you carry with you at all times?

My goodness, I don’t know. A coconut, because apparently coconuts have electrolytes and all that kind of stuff and you can put it in the VitaMix and make something healthy and for your hair, make oil. Some coconut.

I would say a supernatural kit like salt and all that good stuff, like a little holy water. Instead of having like the hot belt, I would have all my supernatural kit stuff. I’m a tiny girl, so the monsters that are going to show up in the apocalypse are going to be pretty kick-ass.

I think a weapon isn’t really necessary. I think it’s just going to be wits, you know, and a prayer, I guess. I need my electrolytes and I need to have my wits about me. I think that’s about it. I don’t think there’s anything that can guard you from what’s going to come.

That’s what I also love about the characters is they have to be really resourceful and figure things out in the moment. We always have guns and we’re shooting guns, but those don’t do anything on the show. I’m always like, “What are we doing with these guns? The guns don’t kill anything.” We have to always find something else.

So it’s really about staying open and being really curious and studying history, but then also looking forward, like taking from history but moving forward. I think that’s the conquering the apocalypse key, but I may be wrong and I’ll just burn up and die.

“Sleepy Hollow” can get pretty dark and some of the story lines, at least to me, have been kind of creepy. Is there anything on the show that you guys have explored that maybe creeps you out a bit?

The possessions having something take over your person, because the other ones have been like monsters. But the possession thing kind of freaks me out. You can go on YouTube and see.

I don’t know if they’re real or fake, but you can see videos of like some small Argentinian town or like the video of a possession that someone has. I don’t know whether it’s mental illness or what it could be, but I don’t really want to be around it in real life. Nicole wants nothing to do with that.

My family is West Indian on my mother’s side and they have a lot of stories about that kind of thing. They call them the ghosts. And like there’s a lot of at least over Christmas you can sit down and talk about basically ghost stories, but indigenous ghost stories that have been in the family for years and years and years. It always used to scare me, and possession was one of those things that would come up like somebody, some spirit would take over someone and do something and then they would forget about it. I’ve always been really kind of freaked out about that.

Do you have a favorite scene or episode that comes to mind from this season of “Sleepy Hollow”?

I think John Cho and I had some really interesting moments in the finale.

What do you think of all the revisionist history that you feature on “Sleepy Hollow”? That seems to be kind of an entertaining factor for the audience.

I just think it’s nifty. The writers are so imaginative. It just makes for a lot of fun. A lot of people know these stories, some people don’t. It just gives a little twist to things that we already know, just like we’ve basically done with the Washington Irving story, turning it into something new, or the history of George Washington, or Jefferson, for example. Just getting a different perspective on it and having a little bit of fun I think is pretty juicy.

And, there’s a lot of mileage in it, like you’re going to see in the finale the things that we discover about Washington are definitely worth it. They may not be true, but then again, it’s fiction. Who knows if it isn’t true?

For more info: "Sleepy Hollow" website