Season 4 of “Sleepy Hollow” has been its most transitional yet: The action has moved to DC, and Ichabod Crane’s (Tom Mison) got a new partner: Diana Thomas (Janina Gavankar). This season, they’ve been investigating tech magnate Malcolm Dreyfuss (Jeremy Davies), who’s trying to get out of a soul contract by becoming immortal — and it was recently uncovered Diana’s daughter (Oona Yaffe, “MasterChef Jr.”) is the new Witness.
For Gavankar, “Sleepy Hollow” is the latest in a long line of impressive credits: She’s made memorable appearances on “True Blood,” “The Vampire Diaries,” “The Mysteries of Laura,” she’s a serious musical talent, and recently her movie “Sidney Hall” premiered at Sundance — she plays a publisher (Nathan Lane)’s assistant, handling a reclusive author (Logan Lerman).
Gavankar spoke with us midway through filming the current “Sleepy Hollow” season. Since the show is set in our nation’s capital now, Gavankar shared her thoughts about the current political climate and what artists like herself can do to preserve the arts in education. Edited for clarity and length.
How has fan reaction to Diana been, so far?
I’m so happy to say that it seems to be a fairly good response. I was worried, as I would hope anyone in my situation would be. I’m really happy. The fans of the show seem to be sticking by us as we make this transition, and they see that we’re doing it with love and respect.
What aspects of Diana have the fans responded to so far?
I think that the fans love my daughter — they seem to, I don’t want to speak for them. They seem to love the mother/daughter moments, which I do as well. Anything that humanizes the world of “Sleepy Hollow” is fine by me.
Was playing a mother appealing? As appealing as a Homeland Security agent, fighting monsters?
Absolutely. My favorite fantasy shows succeed in that they are innately human and have universal themes in them. That’s incredibly important. Most people feel the love of their child, or a child that feels close to their own, at least once in their life.
What about your daughter being the next Witness?
In the first third of the season, my character has gone through denial, has decided that there was no way these people were going to come close to her daughter. She’s tried to force them away from her, tried to keep her daughter away from her, didn’t want to tell her. Just figured, “I’ll fight her battles for her, and she doesn’t even need to know that this is a thing in her life…” And then realized that wasn’t going to work either. So they sat down and had a heart-to-heart talk. Diana took the time to, to the best of her ability, explain what being the Witness is… Now they’re just going to try to get through it with the least amount of drama as possible. Good luck to them! She made it sound like a really positive thing, and she’s just hoping for the best — as most mothers do.
So what’s coming up in the rest of the season?
Oh my goodness — monsters, monsters, monsters. Molly’s going to have to really deal with what it means to be the Witness, and that means Diana’s going to have to deal with it as well. It’s certainly not easy. There are some incredible monsters that get conjured for various reasons. Dreyfuss’s immortality is going to be a major problem, and Dreyfuss fears for his infinite future. He’s going to do whatever it takes to not end up in hell. He’s a very powerful man so we’re going to have to figure out a way to make sure that he doesn’t scorch the earth in the process of trying to ensure his own perfect future.
How much time have you gotten to spend filming in DC?
We only did one full day in DC. We shoot in Atlanta, which is where we shot last year as well. The climate when we were in DC was perfect, it was one of the most beautiful days. I have family who lives in DC, so I’ve been through rainy days and hot days and cold days and snowy days — it’s like the heavens opened up and we were allowed to have the most beautiful day in DC ever. It was really, really beautiful.
Atlanta is so hot in the summer — it is not for the faint at heart. And winters, we had 20 degree days, so there’s a really big swing. You just get used to it. We’re not curing cancer and we’re not digging ditches. You’re basically around 120 people who tell stories together the whole day. Even when you’re freezing, it’s the best job ever.
Have you been back to DC since the political transition has taken place?
I have not. I’m from Illinois but my sister and my brother-in-law live there. I am working on a project in Los Angeles for the next four months so I don’t know when I’ll be able to go.
Are you following politics from afar? As the daughter of immigrants are you fighting the travel ban?
Yes, I have many friends who have been affected by the travel ban. We ware all doing whatever we can to educate ourselves on the ever-changing situation and holding each other very closely and making sure that everybody’s safe. And also just trying not to be living in fear. I can’t walk around thinking that half of this country thinks anybody … the color of a person [on the ban list] should be banned, or is evil. I’m too much of a humanist to believe that half this country feels the same way as our President.
And as an artist, are you concerned about defunding?
Yes, I’m very, very worried about the arts, and education within the arts. My arts education is the reason I am who I am today. I have been an advocate for arts education for as long as I can remember, I am terrified that this could happen to arts education in this country. I feel like we need it more than ever — because when you allow your child to be an artist, it’s allowing them to look inward and make their own decisions, in a critical and artistic way. I think that’s what this generation needs more than ever. There’s so much noise on both sides of the street … if the next generation isn’t given the tools to make up their own minds, and their souls and their hearts, that’s just not good for the future. I could talk about it for hours…
My last music video, “Don’t Look Down,” was all to support arts education. That was before this happened.
I’m terrified, it has a fifty-person drum corps in it, and a drone…
[Screener Dep. Ed.: Well. We had to take a look at that point, and can honestly confirm it to be a banger and a half.]
The Jersey Surf is a world class drum corps, and they all volunteer their time to come be a part of it.
There’s this alternate universe where I’m actually a traveling percussionist, who’s doing environmental theater with percussion. If you watch the behind the scenes video, you’ll see the impetus for that whole project…
You’ve spoken about your brother-in-law helping you with Diana, detailing his experience with government agencies. Though ‘Sleepy Hollow’ is a fantasy show, is it a chance to champion real institutions like Homeland Security?
I think fantasy shows, like I said before, are at their best when they reveal the most human elements. When you can represent people doing good work — no matter where they are, whether they’re in an institution or civilian, whether you’re in an agency or just a full time mother — I think it’s an opportunity to showcase people just trying to be good the entire day. There are enough challenges just being a human being! I think we all fight monsters every day. Especially now.
Is Atlanta your return to the south?
Yeah. The series I shot before “True Blood” was in Shreveport, LA which is hilarious. When I started “True Blood,” I sat with Alan Ball and told him all about my time in Shreveport, and he built an entire backstory for my character that was filled with places from the half a year I had just spent in Shreveport. I worked in Atlanta on “The Vampire Diaries,” and Artists Development Boot Camp. I used to be signed to Cash Money Records with a girl group, which sounds crazy but it’s true, and I went to Artists Development Boot Camp in Atlanta. So it was a return to the south for me in that way.
What did you do in Artists Development Boot Camp?
It’s pretty incredible! They put us through so much. The whole idea was that if you can get through this, then you can live on tour. Even though we did some gigs around town, I never did a national tour with my group. That boot camp sure helped prepare me for life on set — because you work really, really long hours. You have to be able to ration your energy. Making it through that boot camp definitely formed me. So did marching band though. There’s an attitude in marching band of just keep going. All of the things that you live through prepare you for what’s next.
With ‘Vampire Diaries’ in its last season, is there any chance you could show up one last time?
Oh no, I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think it’s too late. Tessa is in an alternate place now. She’s beyond the veil.
I saw ‘Sidney Hall’ at Sundance. Though you have a supporting role, every character is pivotal. How did you see her?
I worked on that movie for about a month in New York. I worked closely with Logan and Nathan Lane. I got to play this character that was the bullsh*t-caller. She’s basically the one that knows that Sidney is a genius, knows that he deserves to be protected but also is willing to slap him around to keep him inline so he doesn’t fly so close to the sun that he gets singed.
Sounds great — not to mention good practice for dealing with Ichabod, of course.
“Sleepy Hollow” airs Fridays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on FOX.