‘Sleepy Hollow’s’ Neil Jackson on Headless Romance and the Horseman’s Humanity

Halloween is still more than a week away, but Fox’s “Sleepy Hollow” isn’t holding back its scares, revealing one of its most chilling monsters to date in its Oct. 20 episode, “Weeping Lady.” As with many of the show’s most potent antagonists, the supernatural specter isn’t just any old ghoul — she has an unexpected connection with Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison), and a history that could endanger anyone close to him, including his partner Abbie (Nicole Beharie). The episode gives viewers plenty of insight into the time-travelling hero’s past, as well as his relationship with his wife Katrina (Katia Winter), who is currently in the hands of the Headless Horseman of Death — aka her former fiance Abraham (Neil Jackson).

Variety spoke with Jackson ahead of Monday’s episode, and the British actor previewed that “Weeping Lady” will give viewers a glimpse of Abraham’s “genuine affections” for Katrina for the first time. “It’s no longer just the evil machinations of the Headless Horseman, we’ve actually got a guy who genuinely cares and loves and is fragile,” he admitted. Read on for more on Abraham’s feelings for Katrina; his uneasy alliance with the Horseman of War, Henry (John Noble), who is also Ichabod and Katrina’s estranged son; and whether there’s any chance of redemption for a Horseman of the Apocalypse. (Light spoilers ahead.)

Abraham obviously has feelings for Katrina, but does he trust her at this point?
He’s not entirely sure. She’s a captive against her will and she’s also a very strong, intelligent, manipulative woman, so he knows that she’s willing to say whatever she thinks she needs to say in order to get what she needs. She’s shown that she’s willing to stay there when she could have escaped, so he trusts her to a degree, but I don’t think that trust is anywhere near complete. And he also knows that’s reciprocal as well, and he needs to show her that she can trust him and that his affection is genuine and his interests are honorable.

Abraham is being forced to work with Henry in service of Moloch, but how does he feel about being faced with this tangible reminder of Ichabod and Katrina’s relationship through their son?
I think it’s pretty difficult. He’s very, very angry at Ichabod. Ichabod is the cause of everything bad that has ever happened in his life. He was never supposed to be a Headless Horseman. He was never destined to be caught by the Hessians. He was destined to be the man that he was, which was a rich, aristocratic man who funded Washington’s efforts, and was a friend to all and had a beautiful fiancee until Ichabod Crane stepped in and had desires on his fiancee and they fought. So he’s just justifiably pretty peeved at Ichabod and that frustration has sat with him for the last 250 years. So to be constantly reminded of the woman he loves’ affections for this man, and this man continually trying to scuff his plans, is a thorn in his side, to say the least.

Ichabod and Katrina have been separated for a long time, so it’s natural that cracks might start to form in their relationship — especially if she’s stuck with Abraham for too much longer. Is Abraham hoping to be able to exploit some of those weaknesses? Does he think he can bring Katrina over to his side given enough time?
I believe that’s his plan very, very much. I mean, when you break it down and try to look at it logically, he’s a dude without a head, so how much of a relationship can they actually have? But when we throw it into the world of how Abraham is thinking, I think that he thinks it’s kind of Stockholm syndrome. If he shows her enough affection and shows her that he’s honorable and that he’s genuine and that he’s not going to force himself on her — he wants her to come to a decision through her own volition… If he showers her with gifts, and if he constantly gives her that affection — affection that she’s not getting from the man that she’s married to — he hopes that over the course of time she will, very Beauty and the Beast-like, slowly fall for the Beast and have some sort of affection, or sympathy, from which love might grow.

It’s easy to forget that logistically, he really can’t even kiss her if they get to that point, because she can only see his head because of the enchanted necklace. It didn’t really occur to me just how irrational his cunning plan is, because we’re now getting used to seeing Headless with his head.
It’s one of those discussions we seem to have on a daily basis on set: the head is a mirage so is the mirage solid, and therefore would she be able to touch the mirage? How complete is the magic that he’s imbued the necklace with? We have a segment that’s coming up in a later episode, we have a fight, and Abraham is having a scrap, and the fight choreographer had put in all of these wonderful moves that were head shots, and we ended up having a whole discussion of, “Well if somebody is punching for the head, presumably he doesn’t even have to block because it’ll just go straight through. So do we need to change the fight?” And so it’s a constant discussion with us — what are the parameters of the mirage that is his head, and would his hairstyle change and can his hairstyle change? Would he sweat? Does he have to clean his teeth? I don’t know. [Laughs.]

Do his feelings for Katrina outweigh his loyalty to Moloch at this point?
I think that’s it’s a question at this point that he hasn’t actually asked himself, but I believe if he was forced to make a choice between Katrina or Moloch he would choose Katrina. I believe that his love — and love is a very sort of loose, transient word for what he feels for her: there’s a sense of ownership and I think there’s a sense of retribution in all of the various things that are boiled in this feeling — but I think that that does outweigh his sense of loyalty to Moloch, because Moloch was always a means to an end. He didn’t join Moloch because he believed in Moloch’s cause. He was dying and he joined Moloch because Moloch was the only path to retribution. So he got given a second chance to see Ichabod in battle and that was the only reason he signed on to eventually become ol’ stumpy. So I think his overall goal is retribution and to get Katrina back.

You only appeared briefly in season one, and in season two, we’re obviously being given far more insight into Abraham’s motivations. Have you found it easier to find his humanity and draw out those relatable elements this year?
Yeah. I have a huge amount of sympathy for Abraham. Once I started mining who the character was, and what the situation was, finding that sympathy for the guy was actually fairly easy because he never planned on this. This is a curse that’s been thrust upon him — not only did he get shot and killed, but the curse of then being brought back and having his head cut off and having to walk the earth as the Horseman of Death, as a headless man… All of this was never part of his plan, so he’s incredibly frustrated and angry and feels embittered and that the world has betrayed him. Then on top of that, he’s a man who was, in his own way, very much in love with this woman, and as much as he may have seen her as an object or as a prize, he still very much loved her, and he loves her still, and feels like he wants to get her back. So there’s a lot to sympathize about with him, apart from the fact that, yeah, he’s trying to bring hell on earth and all of that bad stuff. I think that’s all an icky byproduct of this pain that he’s feeling.

Do you think there’s any hope of redemption for him, or has selling his soul to Moloch damned him forever?
That’s something we actually start teasing in later episodes, which is really fun. It’s a discussion point that’s making its way into the stories. Is there a point of redemption for him? If Katrina can start sympathizing with him, and therefore audiences start sympathizing with him, that means the audience and Katrina sympathize with the Headless Horseman, which is fascinating because he’s such a blunt instrument of death.

Talk me through the logistics of filming the kinds of scenes where Katrina is seeing Abraham with a head while other characters are seeing him headless — it much be a very technical process.
First of all, we have an incredibly long discussions of who can see [him] and how can they see and why do they see and everything else like that. We have those discussions to try and get the logistics down, and we’ll block the scene and we’ll walk through the scene and we’ll talk about the scene from the acting perspective. And then once we’ve blocked that through, I’ll then work with Jeremy Owens, who’s the stunt performer who plays the Headless Horseman, and make sure that when they shoot it from other people’s perspectives, he’s able to mirror the acting choices that I’ve made, although he has no head so he’s doing it all with his body. We literally block it down to a very finite dance of, “On this line I pick my glass up. On this line I put it down. On this line I take a step.” So he’ll mirror those beats to make sure that from other people’s perspective they’re seeing exactly the same actions, just with a very different looking person. So, yeah, it becomes very, very meticulous, especially in later scenes that you start seeing the two of us more and more together. It makes complete sense and it helps to unify the character as one.

I came across your “At Home with Abraham and Katrina” video on YouTube, which was hilarious — do you have any more of those outtakes coming up?
Yeah, we’ve got a few more. There’s just so many scenes where it was just the two of us and it’s so almost comically staid — the fact that he’s a humorless person in many ways, just because of everything that’s gone on in his life, and she’s obviously humorless because she’s captive and everything else — they’re such funnily contrived settings that kind lend themselves to ridiculousness. So we’ve been recording silly ones along the way that once that episode has passed where we’ve done one, we’ll put some stuff up. We just end up cracking each other up because Katia is hilarious and it’s normally just the two of us there, and in these situations we’re making ourselves giggle…

It’s fun in so many ways. We were actually in the sonic cell, which is the cell that they held Headless in — in season one where they chained him up and had him in UV lights — and it’s stunning. I mean the work they’ve done, the set designers, and everybody on that side of production, has just created something incredible. I’ll bum around just snapping pictures and putting them up on Instagram. And you add into that the costumes, and the wigs, and the makeup, and everything else, it really is a suspension of disbelief everyday you’re on set. So it’s fun from that perspective. There was a moment where I’m screaming at somebody that, “I am the Horseman of Death,” as I’m standing there in my red coat and my wig and everything, and you just start giggling, “I’m a grown adult and I’m threatening somebody with a rubber axe while I’m screaming, ‘I’m the Horseman of Death.’” So you can’t help but giggle.

Sleepy Hollow” airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on Fox.

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