One recent sunny Sunday in New York City, we had the pleasure of a leisurely coffee date with Sleepy Hollow‘s Joe Corbin and frequent stage actor Zach Appelman. Fresh off of his role as Diomedes in the Public’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Troilus and Cressida (which we saw from the front row on a magical, rainy night), Zach sat down with us to talk about the pros and cons of fandom culture, the intersection of sci-fi and Shakespeare, and pranking Lyndie Greenwood. We covered a lot of ground, so let’s get right to it:
Sage: What was the con experience like for you?
Zach: New York Comic Con was my first one, I had never done any of those before! It was fantastic! What was interesting was that I hadn’t done that stuff before but from theatre, any time you do a play you do those Q&A talkbacks, so that part wasn’t foreign. But it was just really exciting, there was so much positive energy. You know I had never been to a con before, even as a fan, so I never knew what they were really about. There was something about walking around on the floor and I was like “Oh, I get it. This is a place where people of all ages can come and everyone is here because they fucking love these stories and they can go and celebrate that where no one is going to judge them.” There was such a sense of positivity and community there, it’s fantastic.
Sage: We met Lyndie in San Diego and she was in a FULL cosplay that she had made herself and we were like “Oh, you are a NERD.”
Zach: Both she and Tom really love comics and graphic novels.
Kim: Her costume was a character that was SO obscure. She was late to the brunch she and Orlando hosted BECAUSE she was putting it together.
Zach: I’m really sad I won’t be there this year. I’m thinking of just crashing.
HOF: You SHOULD crash.
Zach: We did WonderCon in LA which was great. That one was really tricky because it was the week before the episode where I was getting killed. Lyndie and I were both trying our best to put a positive spin on what was going to happen without spoiling it. It was a really interesting time to try and do the promotion because we both knew what was coming and we couldn’t say anything about it.
Kim: It was so funny because we KNEW you were doomed when you were doing all the press for the week that episode. We were like “Oh, shit! He’s doomed.” (Zach laughs). How far in advance did you know that you were being killed off?
Zach: I found out a couple of episodes ahead of time, so about three weeks before we started shooting, which is not a lot of time. You get that phone call and you know it’s one of three things. It’s either we’ve been picked up for another season, we’ve been canceled, or you’re off the show. We really didn’t see it coming. We knew at that point there was a possibility of Nicole leaving, so because that was already happening, I don’t think any of us thought there’d be another death. It was a rough phone call. I had to call Lyndie and tell her.
HOF: Oh no!
Zach: It was not fun, there was a fair amount of drinking after. It was a bummer though. I had such a good time. The loss of the job ends up not being the thing that’s a bummer. It was having to say goodbye to everybody. But this business and this profession is so inconstant anyway. I could get a call tomorrow saying “Oh, you’re on Game of Thrones” and even then, you get that dream job and it could be gone in a second. I think in order to not go crazy in this profession, you have to really just be comfortable with never knowing where you are going to be in a month. Even if you get a nice long theatre gig that lasts four months, it’s only four months! It’s such a weird profession. You don’t ever get a job and it’s like “Oh I have a job now for the next few years!”, you know?
Kim: You’re a gypsy.
Zach: Yep. You could book a lead role on a new pilot and you don’t know whether it will be picked up. It can be picked up and then canceled after episode 3. I’m learning to be really zen about it.
Kim: This was your first major foray into television, right?
Zach: Yeah, all the stuff I had done before had been one episode guest star things, so this was the first time I was an extended series regular, which was a really great experience. I got lucky. I had great people to work with and they gave me a lot of material. Because you can also get picked up as a series regular and move to Atlanta and end up being in one scene per episode which means you’re working one day a week. And then all of the sudden you’re just out of place twiddling your thumbs. I knew going out there that could be the case. I had no idea what the plan was for me for the season. It ended up just being a wonderful thing where I would get the script and go “Oh, I have a STORY. I have a plot, I have a lot to do.”
Kim: For a lot of the season it felt like Joe and Jenny had their own spinoff.
Zach: Yeah! We got to hold down the B-Story. Which I think was something in the past that Sleepy Hollow had struggled to figure out. It’s a logistical thing too when you have two lead characters and you don’t have a solid B-Story, you’re going to have two actors who just get worked to the bone. So part of it came from the necessity of being like “We need to figure out a way to make sure we’re taking care of our actors by sharing the work.” I was glad to be a part of that.
Sage: Had you watched everything up until that point?
Zach: When I came in for Season Two, I actually wasn’t familiar with the show when I got the audition.
Sage: And to your knowledge, it was only going to be for that one episode.
Zach: At that point, yeah. It was just going to be a one-off. When I got the audition, I had like 5 days to prepare, so I went on iTunes and downloaded season one of Sleepy and got up to speed really quick. I was like “Oh, this show is fantastic!” I went out there and did that first episode. The writer, Heather Regnier (I love her, by the way, she’s fantastic), she talked while I was out there and floated that if they got a season three, they would love to have me back. It was a whole lot of hypothetical at the time, so it wasn’t anything that I was expecting. So it was a nice surprise.
Sage: It made so much more sense. Having watched through season two when Hawley just kind of shows up and you’re like “Who’s this guy? Where did he come from?” I found it was hard for them to integrate him in a way that made it grounded and with Joe it was like, these people have a history with him.
Zach: I will give a 30 second loving on to Matt Barr (Hawley) though. When I was out there for season two, it’s such a weird thing to come out as a guest star. You fly out to North Carolina, where we were shooting at the time, and you’re put up at a hotel for two weeks. You can feel bizarrely displaced. That first night I got to North Carolina, there was a grocery store across the street. I went to buy coffee and beer for my hotel room, the essentials, you know? I had my six pack of Shiner and my coffee and I’m standing in line and I look at the line opposite me and there’s this absurdly tall, handsome, shaggy, blond man. I look at him and he looks at me and we hadn’t met but we were both just kind of like “Sleepy Hollow?” “Yeah!” And he ALSO had a six pack of beer, so we went and introduced ourselves, because he was at the hotel too. We ended up just going back to the hotel that night and having a bunch of beers by the pool. It was like INSTANT FRIEND with Matt Barr. It was really really nice to be out there and have a buddy. Did you guys ever see Hatfields and McCoys? It’s REALLY good and Matt’s one of the main characters in it and he’s so fucking good. So anyone who’s ONLY familiar with him from Sleepy Hollow needs to go watch it. It’s SO good. Anyway. That’s just my plug for Matt Barr.
Kim: You’ve obviously got a theatre background, and Tom does too…
Zach: And Nicole too! Nicole came out of Julliard. I think her first few gigs…she did a big play at Lincoln Center. The three of us had very similar backgrounds. Yale, where I went, and Julliard have very similar programs that overlap. So Nicole and I realized we had a lot of friends in common.
Kim: I feel like a lot of these genre shows attract classically trained actors. You look at Doctor Who, Outlander, Sleepy Hollow…all of these genre shows booking really strong actors and yet you don’t get the credit for the work you’re doing.
Zach: It’s interesting because I heard Patrick Stewart talk about this in an interview, so I’m going to steal from him. It’s the same thing with him, you know, and Ian McKellan, who are known for theatre and then genre films and TV. Someone was asking him about that and he said there’s a lot of overlap between the skill sets you need to do classical theatre and the skill sets to do genre and sci-fi/fantasy. You’re often taking scripts that are not completely realistic and the language is often heightened. I mean, you look at the language used in Lord of the Rings: it’s not colloquial English, it’s big, it’s epic. It’s the same task that you have if you’re doing a Shakespeare play: how can I take language that isn’t realistic and make it truthful? AND not try and apologize for the fact that the language isn’t realistic. When you try to do Shakespeare and try to make it sound colloquial, which is what a lot of modern actors and a lot of YOUNG actors try to do because they’re like “Oh everything needs to be ‘realistic'” so they take Romeo and Juliet and add a lot of “ums” and stuttering and breaking it up, when you actually just have to embrace the fact that this is big language. That doesn’t mean that it can’t be truthful. And it’s the same thing if you say “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!”, you know? It’s epic and it’s big and I think that’s WHY a lot of casting directors find that classically trained actors have a knack for being able to sell that material.
Kim: Some of my favorite moments in Sleepy Hollow would be where Tom would just let loose. What was that one episode where he just speechified…
Zach: All of them?
Kim: Oh! It was when he was trapped in the room with the Hidden One and he was just going off about Shakespeare and poetry and it was just like look at you GO, Tom.
Zach: Ichabod, the way Tom plays him, could be a character completely at home in an Oscar Wilde play, in a Noel Coward play. The way that Tom’s able to make that dialogue pop: one, it’s just his own wonderfully unique sense of humor and personality, but there’s also a lot of technique in making those lines land and getting the wit of it. That’s something that I think you learn on stage and you learn through trial and error because one night the audience doesn’t laugh, the next night you change it and they laugh a little more, and the next night you change the pause and you get the big laugh. It’s finding where the rhythm is. It’s hard to learn on camera because you don’t have that immediate response but if you spend years and years figuring that shit out on stage, you start to get a knack of the little technical things. It’s why I think Tom can do that so brilliantly.
Kim: At New York Comic Con last year, a friend tweeted us after the panel saying he had seen you play Henry V. We were like “We had no idea he was a Shakespeare!”
Zach: I mean, basically most of my work when I got out of drama school was all classical theatre. I haven’t done a contemporary play since I’ve been in New York. It’s been all period stuff. I was getting ready to do Hamlet when I was doing my first episode of Sleepy Hollow, so it was a wonderful position of being in my trailer and learning my lines for Hamlet and then coming on set and turning into a wendigo. But I love it. I love doing both. I want to keep doing both.
Kim: What’s it like, at your age, to have DONE Hamlet and Henry V? Those are some MAJOR Shakespeare roles.
Zach: It’s all down hill after that, right? No, and there’s no shortage of great Shakespeare roles for men throughout your life. You can literally go through the canon, working your way from Romeo to Henry to Hamlet to Macbeth to Iago to Lear. I was really happy to get to do Hamlet and Henry V pretty young, younger than they’re often cast. You often see a 40-year-old actor playing Hamlet and Henry V and part of that is simply because you need a certain amount of experience in order to be ready to do those roles. Neither of those roles are starter roles. Any actor who’s a big name wants to play that role, you still want to play it when you’re 45 and you should still get to do it. But they are both really young men, you know? Hamlet’s a college student, Henry V when he invaded France was 26 or 27. So with both of those I got to do them around the age they actually WERE, which is really nice.
With Hamlet, with all the endless scholarly shit that’s been written about it, the simplest thing is it’s a play about a boy who’s just lost his father. Simple storytelling: kid’s away at college, his dad dies, he comes home, and everyone else has gotten over it but he’s still mourning. The loss of a parent at ANY age is monumental but especially when you’re 20. A young man having to actually confront death for the first time in his life can really fuck you up, you know? You find yourself pondering those big questions. When you look at THAT way, it’s a really simple story and all of the philosophizing that goes on is really something any of us would do the first time we lose someone. We didn’t have to go into Freud and psychoanalysis and any of that stuff because it’s much simpler than that. I think when you have a 45 year old Hamlet who’s unmarried and at home with all these mommy issues, you’re dealing with an adult with some developmental problems, you know? (Laughs) When it’s a 20-year-old, you’re dealing with a really recognizable young man who’s on the cusp of adulthood and is not quite there yet and is really struggling with grief. It’s a different perspective than what we often see since it’s played older. Anyway. That was a tangent.
Sage: I saw Benedict Cumberbatch do it in London. The Tennant one is really great too.
Zach: I mean Richard Burton did it when he was in his late 40’s and he was phenomenal. So it’s not that it’s better or worse one way, but it’s nice to see that it can work in so many different ways.
Kim: How did Shakespeare in the Park come about?
Zach: I actually hadn’t worked at the Public before, it was my first time doing it. I was itching to do a play, cause I hadn’t done one in about a year because I had been fighting monsters in Atlanta. I had come back to New York after Sleepy Hollow and I was trying to get on another TV show. I had a bunch of things that I really wanted, that I got very very close to and didn’t get. Which, that’s what happens, you know? I was feeling pretty down about it and then my manager came to me and was like “Shakespeare in the Park would be an interesting thing for the summer. It’s not a HUGE role, but what do you think?” I thought about it and I thought it would be good for my SOUL to do. I’d been in the rough world of TV land for the past year and just being back outside, with an ensemble of actors was a really wonderful and refreshing thing. I’d really missed the audience interaction, which you don’t get on camera, or you don’t get until you go on Twitter, for better or for worse. There’s nothing like it, especially with Shakespeare in the Park because it feels like such an event, a New York institution. There’s a real sense of community when you’re doing it. I came out of it just being in a better head space than I was three months ago. It cleansed me a bit, in a wonderful way.
Kim: And performing in the rain?
Zach: You know, that’s thing. The night that you guys were there, by the end, I think the audience was an eighth full but the people who stayed were the people who really really wanted to see it. It ends up being the best audience you’ve ever performed for.
Sage: We left being like, we ALL collectively went through something: the ushers, the cast, everyone who was there was like, “We are committed to seeing this performance through.”
Zach: It is a communal experience, for sure. It’s something I don’t get when I’m filming a TV show for a crew and then four months later everyone sees it. It was such a nice thing to be back to.
Sage: I only read a couple of the reviews, but they were all positive. You rarely see a good production of Troilus and Cressida because the play is so all over the place tonally. Did you have that opinion going in?
Zach: I had only seen one production of it that was done when I was in drama school. It’s rarely performed and it’s a really tricky play to make work. I think what was interesting was our production made people go “Oh, it can totally work.” I think it’s a real testament to Dan Sullivan, who directed it. I went into it not knowing if it would work. As an actor, I knew it would be a really fun challenge. I think I said to someone that if people are coming to Shakespeare in the Park this summer expecting a nice summer evening in the park, this is not a nice play. It’s men behaving at their WORST. My character especially was really horrible. I was like “People might REALLY hate this.” I think I was surprised that without sacrificing the darkness of that story that we were still able to make an enjoyable dramatic performance. There WAS a lot of humor in it. Somebody said that it was like Shakespeare read The Iliad and then wrote fan-fiction. If you go back and read The Iliad if you’re a giant nerd like me, it’s this heroic epic. And Shakespeare just comes in and undercuts the whole thing! He takes all these giant heroes and just says “Nah! These guys are flawed, petty, disgusting human beings.”
Kim: Like with Odysseus! He’s supposed to be a HERO!
Zach: And he organizes essentially a gang rape!
Sage: THAT SCENE. The scene with the bracelet, the way it was staged with the guys in the background, I was blown away by that. It was so uncomfortable.
Kim: We were in the FRONT ROW and we were all just like “Oh, GOD.”
Zach: It’s so contemporary. You talk about everything that’s in the news right now about rape culture and it’s ALL in that play and it’s not different than it is now, you know? That was something that I was very conscious of when we were doing it. If we’re doing a play that’s showing this, we can’t skirt away from it and we can’t try to lessen it. If we’re gonna show it, then we need to SHOW it. I don’t know what we’re saying ABOUT it other than drawing attention to it.
Sage: That alone is really powerful. Because so many people argue that doesn’t exist and you’re putting a stamp on it.
Zach: Setting it in a modern context especially.
Kim: And that was all Dan’s concept?
Zach: I think he really wanted it to be contemporary, setting it with the Greeks in desert camo. I don’t think it’s much as a comment on the modern military as it is just a comment on modern masculinity. That machismo that is so evident in that 400-year-old play is really no different than that culture today, whether you’re in a locker room, barracks, or on the street. That’s when I locked into it and said “Oh this is what we’re doing.” And what happens to these women as a result? Do they fight it? Do they not fight it? How can they assert themselves under these circumstances?
Also, it’s a war that’s being fought for something that no one but these two guys, Paris and Menelaus, believe in. Nobody keeps quiet about that. I think that’s pretty familiar today. It was a nice surprise. I didn’t know it was going to be such a successful production. It was a wonderful ensemble.
Kim: A lot of dudes being dudes.
Zach: A LOT of dudes being dudes.
Sage: It is very unsettling to sit in the audience with people running around you shooting guns that sound very, very real.
Kim: You’ve also worked with Julie Taymor.
Zach: Yeah. She’s so incredible. When I was in college taking my first theatre history classes, we watched documentaries about her. And then to get to be in the rehearsal room working with her was such a trip. I mean, she’s one of the greatest artists of our time. Really really doing things that no one else does. I can’t say enough amazing things about her. If you guys get a chance, we did a film of that Midsummer Night’s Dream that I did with her. It goes around to arthouse cinemas and screens every now and then, it did a screening at BAM earlier this summer. If it comes around again, I’ll let you know, I’ll tweet about it or something. It’s really beautiful. I hope it’ll end up on Netflix or something.
Sage: Would you want to do some contemporary plays?
Zach: I would love to, I would love to keep myself on my toes and challenge myself that way. Especially in New York, there’s so much star casting, which is completely understandable. If you’re going to do a Broadway show and charge $150 a ticket, people aren’t going to buy tickets unless they know something about the actor doing it. It’s different with Shakespeare in the Park, one because it’s free and two because it’s Shakespeare in the Park and you don’t have to rely on [star casting] as much. I’ll often find that with contemporary plays in New York, especially the big theatres, some of the great roles are not necessarily available to me in the way they are to others.
Kim: The stunt casting can be very frustrating.
Zach: But I get it! I think we’d like to be like “Oh, this is a new thing” but it’s always been like that. The ironic thing is that the best thing I can do for my theatre career is to keep doing as much film and television as possible. I want to do both, and you’re not making the decision to do one instead of the other. Ideally, every time I do a high-profile play, that leads to more television work. And that leads to more plays. It all just sort of builds. When I did that production of Hamlet out at Hartford Stage with Darko Tresnjak, who is one of the best directors out there, we really talked about wanting to do it together in New York. I said, “YOU could, but you’d have to replace me with Adam Driver.” And I don’t mean that disparagingly, he’s a fantastic actor and people in New York aren’t going to buy tickets to see ME in Hamlet. Well. Some people would. You guys would. (Laughs) If I did a couple more years on a successful TV show, it would be a different situation. I’d say to Darko, “Give me a couple more years, I’m going to try to get a little more famous.”
Sage: It was such an interesting thing that happened with Oscar Isaac and Hamlet and moving it TO The Public.
Zach: I would LOVE to see him play that role, I hope it still happens. I think he’s a tremendous actor.
Sage: It’s interesting when the director and the actor have this partnership that they can have the power to take it where ever they want.
Zach: That’s a luxury you have when you get to a certain point in your career. You can start doing things like that, which is wonderful. You can have that agency you don’t have earlier in your career. Oscar and Nicole were at Julliard at the same time. AND Adam Driver too. I’d pay to see Oscar Isaac do almost anything. Inside Llewyn Davis is one of my favorites. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I grew up on that kind of music.
Sage: What other stuff are you a big fan of, TV-wise?
Zach: Besides The West Wing.
Sage: Besides The West Wing. We’ll get to The West Wing.