‘Sleepy Hollow' star Nicole Beharie: Kerry Washington ripped open 'hole’ for black actresses
Imagine if a revolutionary soldier stepped into the contemporary era where slaves are emancipated, women work, cars exist, and Starbucks runneth over.
With a ghost hot on his trail and a black female cop his only ally, so begins the new legend of Sleepy Hollow.
“I do tend to be drawn to things that are asking questions,” actress Nicole Beharie observes to theGrio about her new television series. “We are talking about the history of the United States versus modern times. What’s happening now, what’s happening then, the change in demographics and all that stuff without really saying it. It’s there. I feel like it’s happening in subtle ways. We’re still having that conversation while fighting off monsters and the apocalypse.”
A creative vision of Washington Irving’s classic tale, Fox’s mystery drama series places the very confused Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison), a white, British, 18th-century legionnaire resurrected from his grave, into the current day to ward off the age-old Headless Horseman.
Except in this adaptation, viewers quickly learn the evil demon is one of the Four Horsemen of Death from the Book of Revelations.
Beharie plays Abbie Mills, an African-American detective who partners herself with Crane to take on his nemesis despite what initial reserves he has, considering he believes black people are still in chains.
“It just kind of feels like this dude is crazy,” the 28-year-old actress comments. “I like that the writers are bold enough to take it there and not try to ignore it, and not necessarily make light of it. But to poke at the fact that it’s a part of American history and turn it on its head.”
Race and social construction rather poignantly slip into the fantastical plot, Beharie comments, and others have taken note as well.
The Bay State Banner even called it a “new day for race on network TV.”
Beharie agrees, adding, “Even though we’re not heavy handed about it.”
‘Sleepy Hollow’ awakens the crowd
Following Sleepy Hollow’s premiere Sept. 16, the pilot caught fire, taking Twitter and Tumblr by storm, and giving Fox the highest-rated show in primetime and its highest-rated fall drama premiere in seven years.
Reviewers felt it was crazy, bold and ridiculous enough to be entertaining.
Rolling Stone described it as “dumb, convoluted, and absolutely insane at times, but it’s way more fun than many of today’s self-serious action dramas.”
Time deemed it “straight-up-bonkers” and anything but sleepy.
And Entertainment Weekly suggested, “There is peculiar electricity crackling through this familiar bag of bones.”
For Beharie, who has previously been seen in films like Shame and 42, the TV series offers a challenge and new direction.
“It’s a real risk,” she says. “It’s a crazy story, right? Fantasy, but based in modern times. There are flashbacks, retelling history, monsters, the whole shebang. It’s not a vein that I’ve gone down before – mind you I love that kind of stuff – but it’s not something I’ve done. I feel like it’s completely out of the box, not something people would necessarily expect.”
She adds, “I’m always looking for challenges in my career.”
On Kerry Washington’s impact: ‘This is possible’
Beharie may not have been formally introduced to the world yet, but she seems to have stepped onto a promising trajectory.
From McQueen’s contemporary take on sexuality and addiction, to the Jackie Robinson biopic, her choices test the range of her skill and traverse time, circumstance and collective identity, and all take an interest in social innovation.
“I’ve been really lucky to be able to do very different things and work with different types of people,” she explains. “I’d never done anything with this texture, with this group of people, so I guess the goal would be that I would continue to be challenged and to have other opportunities.”
After Kerry Washington rebirthed the black female lead on network television with Scandal, Beharie follows a trend in drama to be all-inclusive, defying expectations for characters of different races, genders, and religions.
She believes Washington’s accomplishments enabled the prospect for her in this new role.
“Absolutely, without a doubt,” says Beharie. “She just literally, her and Shonda Rhimes with Scandal, just ripped open that hole…They made it known to the industry that this is possible. I’m really glad and I’m totally rooting for her. I love, love, love her work.”