Man of the Times | EW.com

TV

Man of the Times

As Ichabod Crane on Fox's 'Sleepy Hollow,' Tom Mison went from unknown actor to TV star in under a year. But as far as he's concerned, his career is just waking up.

Tom Mison (Brownie Harris/Fox)

”I don’t selfie,” declares Tom Mison, raising his eyebrows. The actor is at a restaurant in Wilmington, N.C., where he’s just finished eating a piece of fish the proper British way: knife in right hand, fork in left, tines pointed demurely at the plate. In his sonorous, soothing voice, the cutesy neologism sounds wrong. It’s like watching Hamlet tweet. ”When I look at things, I don’t want someone’s face in the way,” he continues. ”I was in Venice, and people are there by the Rialto Bridge taking pictures—but I’m sure they can’t see the bridge. It’s just them from a very bad angle.”

It’s a rant that sounds tailor-made for Ichabod Crane, the curmudgeonly demon fighter Mison plays on Fox’s supernatural drama Sleepy Hollow. The show was an unexpected hit for the network last year, drawing 13.6 million viewers for its premiere and cultivating a rapt fan base of ”Sleepyheads.” (Season 2 ratings have settled in at 7.6 million.) What’s more, Sleepy is actually good—delightfully goofy, yes, but also smart and spooky and (intentionally) funny. After the series’ debut in September 2013, Mison transformed almost overnight from working actor into king of Comic-Con, an icon who inspires fan fiction and loving Tumblr homages like Ichabeard Crane, ”dedicated to the glorious scruff that is Ichabod Crane’s facial hair.” There are even Ichabod imitators—the first of whom the actor spotted in San Diego this July. ”I was too excited to see a man dressed as me,” he says. ”I had my picture taken with him.” Naturally, Mison didn’t take it himself.

The cast of Sleepy Hollow probably wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Mison shares his character’s distaste for modern-day fripperies like iPhone self-portraits. ”He is a lot like Ichabod Crane,” says Katia Winter, who plays Crane’s witchy wife, Katrina. Sleepy’s other star, Nicole Beharie—a.k.a. Lieut. Abbie Mills, the Scully to Crane’s Mulder—agrees: ”He likes being the smartest person in the room. He likes the jokes. He is very chivalrous. He tells a good story.”

Meet Mison in person, and you’ll get what they mean. The 32-year-old actor answers questions haltingly, thinking before he speaks—a rarity in a culture obsessed with immediacy. While Sleepy is huge on social media, Mison’s Twitter and Instagram accounts are sparsely populated; like most people over the age of 25, he says that he doesn’t really get Tumblr. Mison doesn’t even own a pair of jeans. (”It’s not part of his sartorial vernacular, if you will,” says Sleepy costume designer Kristin Burke.) And soon Mison and his wife—fellow Brit Charlotte Coy, who owns a ”vintiquing” business called Dotty Pigeon—will relocate to New York City, just 30 miles from Ichabod’s (fictional) home in Sleepy Hollow.

Admittedly, transitioning from British stage work to American television isn’t quite as tough as waking up in a cave after a 250-year nap. Mison’s journey started early: His parents, a sports marketer and a former dance teacher, met ”in amateur dramatics, to be an English suburban cliché,” he explains. They encouraged their son to do theater, mostly to keep him from getting into trouble.

When Mison was 16, his parents sold their car so that they could send him to Hurtwood House, a performing-arts school. From there, he moved on to the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art, where he became friendly with future Game of Thrones star Natalie Dormer—though he ended up leaving his program early. When pressed, Mison admits, with a laugh, that he was ”chucked out.”

Wait—Ichabod Crane got kicked out of drama school? ”I think [I was] just generally enjoying myself too much,” he says. ”I would never, ever want to be the tortured artist—you know, real soul-searching, clenching your fist, closing your eyes, and talking about changing the world. No. I want to open my hands to everything”—at this, he gestures vigorously—”and play with my imagination for the rest of my life.” Mison pauses. ”And I don’t think they liked that very much.”

So he struck out on his own, enduring the usual trials of a struggling actor—living off a tin of soup a day, sleeping in an apartment above a chip shop, ”trying to see what friends were around to buy me lunch”—as he steadily worked toward his ultimate goal of crossing the pond. His big break came in 2012, when Mison was featured in both the drama Salmon Fishing in the Yemen and the BBC/HBO miniseries Parade’s End. With those two credits, his profile was high enough to justify meetings with American agents, which Mison took—before promptly returning to London. ”I’d always wanted to avoid pilot season,” he explains, for fear of being just another man in ”the tidal wave of English actors.” So when Mison taped his initial Sleepy Hollow audition in London, he was certain nothing would come of it. ”We always assume when we self-tape and send it to L.A.,” he says, ”it’ll go in the pile marked English that just gathers dust.” Of course, things didn’t quite work out that way. Just four weeks later, he’d trade his chambray shirts and beat-up Toms for Ichabod Crane’s signature coat and boots.

Mison can be hard on himself. If he had gone away for the summer as a kid, it probably would have been to ”irritating little bastard camp,” he says. But there’s no trace of that alleged attitude on Sleepy’s North Carolina set. In between takes he is accommodating and playful, standing obligingly as handlers—makeup toucher-upper, coat holder, wig wrangler—swarm around him. He answers an accidental profanity from Beharie with a swear of his own: ”F—ing potty mouth!” He’s even cheerful when complaining about the oppressive Southern heat, heightened by his period attire. ”There’s no way of hiding that gluing a mound of hair to your head is desperately uncomfortable,” he says.

He’d better get used to it: In Sleepy’s pilot, Ichabod and Abbie learned that they’re destined to spend seven years staving off the apocalypse. (Coincidentally, that happens to be the length of a standard TV contract.) The optimism of that line stuck out to Mison—how many shows last that long?—but it didn’t faze him. ”It’s certainly a character and a story that I think we could keep interesting for seven years,” he says. ”And, more important, one that I’d still be excited about playing in seven years’ time.”

But when the roller-coaster ride does come screeching to a halt, Mison will be ready. ”I love William Shatner, but I wouldn’t like to follow his career,” he says. ”I don’t want to be Ichabod Crane for the rest of my life.” Mison talks about returning to the theater, doing films, and even moving on to prestige TV—”Cable is where the really good stuff lies”—starting as soon as Sleepy’s next hiatus.

In the meantime, he’ll never be bored. Season 2’s first 10 episodes alone have Ichabod and Abbie grappling with a haunted insane asylum, a succubus, a bloodthirsty wendigo, a quest to find the Sword of Methuselah, and a handsome Indiana Jones-esque treasure hunter. The art department, he says, likes to try to trip him up by planting surprises in Crane’s notebook. ”I was flicking through, and there are pictures of sexy witches that Ichabod has drawn.” Plus, Mison and the show’s prop master have a bet: ”He’s determined to find a prop that I won’t be able to use.” That’s no mean feat, since the actor has already had to handle muskets, crossbows, explosives, and even the Headless Horseman’s moldering skull. ”But yeah,” he says, smirking like Ichabod about to explain an ancient insignia. ”I intend to win that bet.”