Since its debut in 2013, FOX’s Sleepy Hollow has become a gallop-away sensation. It has a devoted legion of fans called Sleepyheads — those who tune in every week to follow the odd-couple team of Ichabod Crane and Detective Abbie Mills. The supernatural drama brings elements from Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, biblical apocrypha, real events in American history, and other lore into the modern-day New York village. It sounds far-fetched, but Tom Mison’s curmudgeonly portrayal of Ichabod and Nichole Beharie’s no-nonsense Detective Mills lead the cast in pulling it off.
And, where there’s an Ichabod Crane, there must also be a Headless Horseman. Apparently, the two have been inextricably linked since their blood was mixed on the battlefield during the Revolutionary War. When Ichabod is resurrected in the 21st century, so, too, is his decapitated, evil counterpart. While Ichabod sets about making sense of modern-day America, Headless has his own agenda: beheading the residents of Sleepy Hollow with his iconic axe and newly acquired shotguns.
It’s soon revealed that the Headless Horseman is actually one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, as in the Book of Revelations — specifically, he's the Horseman of Death. In addition to carrying out the duties involved in that particular role (smiting everyone in sight, destroying humanity, etc.) Headless has a personal vendetta against Ichabod Crane, who stole his fiancée. Needless to say, the Headless Horseman is a commanding, terrifying presence on the show.
We spoke to Craig Branham and Jeremy Owens, the two stuntmen responsible for bringing this iconic character to Sleepy Hollow. On set, they’re known as Headless Riding (Branham) and Headless Fighting (Owens). Together with Neil Jackson, who plays the horseman pre-decapitation, they're "Team Headless." Go team.
How much did you know about the legend of Sleepy Hollow before getting cast on the show?
Craig Branham: “I remember, as a little kid, seeing the old Disney movie and reading the book. There’s a town called Knight’s Ferry that has an old covered bridge near where my family lived in central California. I always imagined that covered bridge up in Knight’s Ferry was that same bridge in Sleepy Hollow.”
Jeremy Owens: “The Headless Horseman is such an iconic character. Every kid has grown up knowing the tale of Sleepy Hollow from Washington Irving and the Disney cartoon. It was one of my favorite Halloween stories growing up; I used to watch the cartoon all the time."
How did you get cast on the show?
CB: “I grew up on a ranch in Tombstone, Arizona. I’ve been a cowboy since I was 6, when I started roping and riding. I’m also a professional team roper. I have an extensive horse background and have done a lot of big westerns like True Grit and Lone Ranger. When they were getting ready to shoot the Sleepy Hollow pilot, I was recommended to the stunt coordinator, and he asked if I was interested. I had to do a lot of stunts on horseback, like saddle falls and getting shot off the horse.”
JO: “I’ve been doing martial arts since I was a kid, and I own a martial arts school near Wilmington, North Carolina. I’m also a firefighter and a lifeguard. I’ve been doing stunts in the area for almost 10 years now. I auditioned for Sleepy Hollow when the role opened up. I’m 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, and they wanted an intimidating presence, so I guess I fit the part.”
CB: "Jeremy plays Headless on the ground because he’s almost 6-foot-5. They needed somebody really tall, so when he’s shoulders without a head, he’s about even with everyone else. I’m 6-foot-1."
You still look so much larger on the show.
CB: “Our boots have lifts built into them, and they have big heels in them, so the boots alone add a couple of inches to each of us.”
Jeremy Owens: “The boots probably add about two inches or so, and with all of the gear on and the weapons in Headless’ arsenal, it’s pretty intimidating.”
Is it hard to do stunts in Headless’ period costume?
CB: “They custom-made everything to fit us. The boots are the toughest part. They’re kind of hard to do any super athletic stuff in, but since I'm usually on the horse, it’s fine."
What does it feel like to swing the Headless Horseman’s iconic axe?
JO: "It’s unique to fight with an axe. It’s such an important part of Headless. When I started portraying the character and doing the fight scenes with it, just having that and getting used to it was so important. I train with a couple of axes that I spin around and swing pretty much every day, just to stay in tune with the axe and making it part of Headless. I keep it in my truck; it’s an extension of myself now.”
Do you use real axes in the fight scenes?
Jeremy Owens: “We choreograph the fight scenes, and when we do them, we have prop axes that are rubber. The prop department made ones that reflect light, so they look real. We have a real axe that’s extremely heavy that I definitely wouldn’t want to swing around all night.”
CB: “The real axe is just too heavy to really do the tricks that make it look cool. I use a heavy rubber and plastic one so no one will get hurt when I do the stunts.”
How do you film the headless scenes?
CB: “We wear a green-screen mask, which has eyeholes and Xs that act as reference points. I put on the costume, and right before they shoot, they put the mask on my head. I can see everything very clearly right in front of me, but my peripheral vision is cut down a bit. They get the shots with everyone in the scene. Then, everyone clears off set for something called a 'plate shot,' which is when the cameras are set up in the exact same way and follow the same action as if we were there. Then, they can remove my head with visual effects, and they have a clean plate of what was behind me. There’s not going to be a blank head spot.”
JO: “They did a scene that I thought was pretty cool for the first episode of season 2 where I was shirtless. They rolled the green-screen hood all the way up under my chin, so I still had a little bit of a neck and a stump on that one. The visual effects team is amazing. They basically took a digital mold of our bodies so they can place that in with the green screen. Both Craig and I are always wearing these green hoods, so we look super tough and badass in our costumes until you see our little green hoods. It’s kind of comical.”
In season 2, we meet Headless when he was alive and named Abraham Van Brunt. What’s it been like now that Neil Jackson also plays the role?
JO: “Neil, Craig, and I work as a team to bring the character to life. Everyone kind of jokes around about ‘Team Headless.’ Craig’s on the horse doing the same movements I would do on the ground as Headless. Neil does the same things. It’s all an extension of Headless. Just having that relationship with the other guys portraying the character is so important to bring him to life. It takes three of us to do it. We watch what each other does and how we move and keep that persona for the character.”
What’s it like interacting with the rest of the cast?
CB: “I’ve become really good friends with Tom Mison. He gives me a big hug when he sees me. I’ve become good friends with Neil [Jackson]...the cast is great. Nicole [Beharie]’s really nice. There’s a lot of positive energy.”
JO: “They’re such talented actors on Sleepy Hollow. At first, it was intimidating, but everyone is so nice and helpful. I did my first fight scene with Tom, who’s such a great person and such a great actor.”
Why do you think the show is such a success?
CB: "The show is just so fascinating because you’re dealing with history and the Revolution. In this story, Ichabod worked right underneath George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, and he has opinions on each of those guys. There are references to the Bible, and the whole deal that the Headless Horseman is actually the first horseman of the apocalypse. Now, the horseman of war has emerged from hell and come into the picture.”
JO: “It adds to the legend of Sleepy Hollow. I can’t wait to see what the writers come up with next.”
Have you had any interaction with Sleepyheads?
JO: “I have never been big into social media, and Neil Jackson convinced me to get a Twitter account. Fans tweet me; it’s cool how passionate they are.”
Finally, the all-important question: Are you going to be Headless for Halloween?
CB: “I kind of hinted at wearing my costume for Halloween. I didn’t know how much it cost or that it was custom-made. They laughed it off.”
JO: “I don’t think anybody would recognize me with the costume and the green screen hood. I have to pick another costume for Halloween, I guess. It’s kind of like Christmas around Sleepy Hollow. They had pumpkin-carving contests last year.”
Sleepy Hollow airs Monday nights at 9/8c on FOX.
Interviews were conducted separately and condensed.