[Editor’s note: This interview contains spoilers from the Ghosts episode “Halloween 2: The Ghost Of Hetty’s Past,” which premiered October 27.]
Rebecca Wisocky knows Hetty Woodstone is a hypocrite—but that’s precisely what makes her so funny. “I think she’s such a good example of [the fact that] evolution is not linear, and it’s difficult and hard-won,” Wisocky told The A.V. Club of the Victorian-era lady of the manor she plays in Ghosts. “She wants to grow and change, and she sees all the benefits of doing so, yet she remains kind of entrenched in these prejudices of her time, and I think that’s what makes her human.”
In this week’s episode of the hit CBS sitcom, titled “Halloween 2: The Ghost Of Hetty’s Past,” Sam (Rose McIver) and Jay Arondekar (Utkarsh Ambudkar)—the young, living couple that inherited the quaint country estate—perform a séance at their last-minute Halloween party and accidentally conjure up a spirit from, yes, Hetty’s past: Molly (Hannah Rose May), the Irish maid who slept with Hetty’s hell-bound husband (and cousin), Elias (Matt Walsh).
After being locked in the mansion’s impenetrable vault with Sam, Hetty and Molly are forced to address the source of their animosity and discover that they had a shared contempt for Elias and were confined to the strict gender roles of their time. In doing so, the two are able to make up before Sam and Jay perform a reverse séance to send Molly back to the afterlife. “One of my favorite lines is, ‘What a shame and how ironic that the one Irish person I took the time to know happens to be the only good one,’ which is just so ridiculous,” Wisocky said. “She’s always just shy of getting it, and she’ll remain that way.”
On a recent day off from shooting in Montreal, The A.V. Club met up with Wisocky to chat, over tea, about Hetty’s personal awakening this season, her dream guest stars, and the surprising storylines that she can’t wait to see play out.
The A.V. Club: How do you think this encounter will change Hetty’s perception of the women of her era? Is there any hope for the Irish people she’ll encounter going forward?
Rebecca Wisocky: Irish people, doubtful. Other women, likely. [Laughs] I think Hetty’s loathing of the Irish is very funny. It was not an uncommon position from Americans of that era, but I also think it’s ironic that all of the people from that period, despite the fact that Hetty loathes the Irish, kind of look the same. We’re all white, pasty and ginger, so we all look really Irish. My hope is that there’s like an Ancestry.com episode at some point, and we figure out that Hetty is actually Irish, because to watch her head explode over that would be really delightful.
AVC: In the final moments of the episode, Hetty calls the rest of the ghosts a bunch of “peasants” and unsuccessfully attempts to latch onto the maid to be “sucked off” as well. How do you think Hetty truly feels about being stuck in an indefinite purgatory?
RW: I think there’s a parallel with all of the things we learned about her in the “Possession” episode from last year when she took over Jay’s body, and she had this capacity to actually interact with food and drink and objects and people, and we realized what a voracious person she is. So when she gets a taste of trying to leave in the “Possession” episode, she comes back and says, “I do realize though that I would miss you all terribly, but don’t make me repeat it.” [Laughs] So there’s a real family there. I think [the ghosts] all desperately want to move on and be saved from this purgatory, yet they also recognize that this is the family that they’ve grown to love, and they’re comforted by this particular cage at Woodstone.
AVC: Were there any harnesses involved in the scene in which Molly is “sucked off”?
RW: Yes, there were! Her stunt double was taken up on a harness, and I really did grab onto her boots and ride that poor woman up into the sky while screaming that line. I’ve actually asked the showrunners [Joe Port and Joe Wiseman]: How do we get away with saying these things? How do we get past standards and practices? And the answer is, of course, my character is not aware of the double entendre, so she can say these things and she’s not actually making a raunchy, crude joke, so we can get away with it. So that’s a lot of fun, and I think that one is gonna rival the dirtiest of them all.
AVC: For me, the washing machine scenes in episode two were the first laugh-out-loud moments of this season. What were some of the beats that you wanted to hit in that storyline to show how repressed Hetty has been for the better part of the last century and a half?
RW: I love physical comedy, and the ghosts also never get to touch anything, so to actually be given a physical object that I could interact with and be literally moved by to such a degree was a lot of fun. All the women, we love each other in real life, and we feel this real sisterhood of spanning these different particular eras of repression or empowerment, yet [are] still all trapped together. So that scene where Hetty feels very shameful about it, and then Flower (Sheila Carrasco) gives her this little window that it’s her right to explore her body, [but] in true Hetty fashion, she doesn’t quite get the lesson.
Once those floodgates are open for Hetty, this whole season, she’s going to be wrestling with what that means—that sense of feminine wiles and how it relates to power and status, and how she can use it to her own benefit. So much of the language that she has to refer to it; she learns only through watching [a fictional show called] Bodices And Barons. [Laughs] I have asked the Joes a lot—I’m like, “Well, this is really delicious stuff, to have me play this vixen, this horndog all of a sudden, but would Hetty really have the language to do this?” And the two answers are she watches soap operas, and she, in her time, was incredibly cunning and had not necessarily sexual wiles but social climbing wiles.
AVC: By nature of what she wears and how she speaks, Hetty has such a distinctive physicality that is unlike any of the other ghosts. How did you come up with her gait and mannerisms? Are there any acting tricks that help you get into character?
RW: I often approach a character from whatever musicality I hear in the voice on the page, so not necessarily a dialect, but Hetty does speak in a very particular manner that I think is authentic to that period and that class. But the cadence in which she’s written on the page, and it’s a testament to just good writing, it’s different than [how] anyone else speaks. [The writers] give her these long, winding arias that seem to happen all in one breath, although she’s wearing a corset that constricts her breath entirely. So the physical impediment of the costume and the way I have to hold my arms—I can’t really raise my arm past a certain level—kind of made the choices for me, and then it turned into this wonderful creature that is Hetty.
AVC: What has been the biggest plot twist thus far that has changed how you view and understand Hetty?
RW: [Laughs] Well, it has yet to come! There’s a really good one that happens, I don’t know, around Christmas time. [Winks] There’s an evolution in a certain relationship that I think will blow people’s minds, and I don’t really think I can tease more than that, but it follows along with some of these themes that I was talking about with Hetty having a voracious appetite and being very interested in the ways in which she could exhibit status, power, and control in the house.
AVC: Woodstone Mansion, in many ways, feels like the land of misfit toys.
RW: I love that you said that. The thing very recently that we’ve started calling ourselves is Muppet Babies, because wouldn’t we be a really great animated show? I come from a dance background, so I think about vocal patterns and things musically, and when we’re all in these big group scenes together, it all really feels like it has a rhythm that is just so satisfying. But I also think about it in terms of composition. There are certain people we can’t walk through; there are certain people we have to hop out of the way from. There’s a way in which all of these very outsized personalities have to share this very small space constantly, and when it works really well, we just feel like Muppets to each other.
AVC: How would you describe Hetty’s place in this gaggle of ghosts?
RW: I think she still perceives herself to be the lady of the house, and people defer to her in that way. She has real, invested, also motherly relationships with a lot of the characters. Her friendship and intimacy with Isaac [Brandon Scott Jones] has become incredibly important—also to Brandon and I—and the legacy of what it means to be a Woodstone. She has a chance to see some of what might have been for her and for her family through Samantha. I think we hinted at the fact that she probably had difficult relationships with her own children—you might see a little bit of that this season—and you’ll see that twisted mother-daughter relationship develop more with Samantha and Hetty this season as well.
AVC: The best part of an ensemble comedy, especially one that has such a distinctive voice and tone, is the ability to mix and match characters and get plausibly different dynamics each time. What are some dynamics that you would like to explore further, and which ones are you really excited for fans to see in the next few episodes?
RW: I can’t stop thinking right now about Román Zaragoza [who plays Sassapis] because his episode last week, “The Tree,” was just so beautiful and he’s so young and filled with such confidence and intelligence. Many, many years ago, his father and I did late-night soap opera sketch comedies together, so I feel like I’ve known him since he was a baby. He and I often talk about that period of time when he would have been a ghost in the house when Hetty was alive. Many of the ghosts actually watched her whole life, and I want to go back to that time period. I’d love to see the time period when it was just Thor [Devan Chandler Long] and Sassapis sitting on a rock together, and it was just land before anyone built anything on that land, and when we get to see Thor with little baby Hetty. I love any time the women get to be together.
There’s an interesting dynamic that develops this season with Trevor [Asher Grodman] and Hetty that I think will surprise a lot of people. What I’ll tease is that it’s an old money, new money type of vibe. Those two are natural enemies, so you can’t help but think that when there’s tension, there must be some sort of payoff or more interesting conversation to be had amongst them. The writers are doing a really great job of separating us into these little duets, but there are also a lot of satisfying group scenes.
AVC: What was it like having Mathew Baynton from the original Ghosts guest star in an episode this season?
RW: We just fangirled and fanboyed all over the place! He was so kind and so effortlessly funny, and I think it felt really surreal for him to step into our world, because it was an extension of something that he so painstakingly created and that is so close to his heart, that he’s still living in. He’s still shooting the next season. I think people are gonna go nuts for it, and Richie [Moriarty] was in heaven. Oh wait, no, you can’t say things like that about our ghosts, because that sounds like I’m asking them to get sucked off! [Laughs.]
AVC: Who are your dream guest stars?
RW: I would love for each and every one of the Horrible Histories [and original Ghosts] gang to come and play with us. Martha Howe-Douglas was so generous with me and so lovely. It really was important to me to feel like I had her blessing a little bit, because the Hetty and Lady Button characters are really nothing alike, yet they represent the same kind of position in the shows, and she was very generous with me.
AVC: I know Danielle Pinnock, who plays Alberta, has been campaigning for Lizzo to play her great-great-great-granddaughter.
RW: Yeah, and we recently pitched Whoopi [Goldberg] too. There’s one that I cannot tease that just came to work with us, like an icon, that I’m obsessed with. [We can now say that she’s speaking of Laraine Newman.]
AVC: Who would Ghosts superfan Mark Hamill play?
RW: He’s a natural to be Sam’s dad, but he can do anything he wants.
AVC: What are you most looking forward to exploring about Hetty going forward?
RW: I think there’s a lot of good material in the years just after each one of the ghosts became ghosts and the beginnings of their relationships. I want to know what Alberta and Hetty had to say to each other right after Alberta died. I want to know more about the house itself and what kinds of conversations Elias and Hetty had about building that house. It’s a genius concept and format because the possibilities are endless, and it just keeps on getting richer.