Rose McIver is no stranger to the supernatural, with a filmography including cult favorites such as “Xena: Warrior Princess” and “iZombie.” Her most recent project, the CBS sitcom “Ghosts” in which she stars as Samantha Arondekar, is more grounded than those … but only minimally.
Based on a British series of the same name, “Ghosts” follows Sam and Jay (Utkarsh Ambudkar), a young married couple who move into a mansion that’s falling apart in upstate New York after inheriting it from a Sam’s distant relative. After Sam falls (or is invisibly tripped?) down a flight of stairs and almost dies, she wakes up from her coma with the ability to see ghosts — and there are eight living in her new home. Jay can’t see them, but believes Sam, and the new family of ten must learn to coexist peacefully.
While actively shooting Season 2, McIver spoke to Variety about finding her place within an adaptation and how playing Rose has touched her own life.
How much or how little of the original British series did you watch to prepare for this role?
I’ve watched the first few episodes of the original British series. At some point I’m going to dive in and finish it, but I really wanted to have some good momentum going with what we were creating, without feeling like we were just trying to do an imitation. I’m a huge fan of the first few that I’ve seen, but I just didn’t want to psych myself out too much by watching Charlotte [Ritchie] absolutely nail the performance the way she does. I wanted to build my own thing.
The roadmap is the same. We have the same premise, some of the same characters. Any opportunities we had to ground in our own truths and ideas were just going to help us feel creative ownership over the characters.
Because your character is the only living person who’s able to see the ghosts, there are many scenes that have to be shot twice — with and without the ghosts. How does that alter your process and performance compared to other roles you’ve had?
It’s definitely more technical than I ever would have expected a half-hour sitcom to be. We do have a lot of fun on set, but it’s definitely some of the most focus that I’ve had on a project — trying to remember physically where people are located, whose voice was coming from where, the energies that they were each giving in each take, [which] I want to be matching. I try to take a photo imprint of what they’re doing when they are in the scene, and then when they’ve left, I have these frames that I put them in. It’s a little bit of juggling. There’s 10 of us too, and it’s a huge exercise in listening, this whole project. Making sure that we make room for everybody all the time, and that we’re all serving each other and setting each other up to knock it down. That’s what works so well: It’s a very generous cast.
So scenes are typically shot with the ghosts before removing them, instead of the other way around?
Almost always. And because we’re filming in Montreal and it’s French Canadian, we call it “fantômes” and “sans fantômes” — with ghosts, and without ghosts. It’s a lot of fun. And it’s not just for me that it’s a technical project — it’s very technical for our crew as well. Like, we can’t have a piece of furniture move that they’ve been sitting on. For example, when one of the guys sits down on a bed, so that they’re not physically leaving an imprint, which we normally would do, they put a board of wood underneath the sheets. There’s lots of little details like that that people are having to think about all the time. For something that ends up coming off very fun, I have a great deal of respect for all of the concentration that has gone into it.
[When shooting takes without the ghosts], people do try to stick around so that at least I’m able to hear the actors reading their own dialogue, which makes a world of difference. I was taught that acting is reacting. It’s very important to me, as much as possible, not to have to work with a cross of yellow tape stuck to a tennis ball on a stick. That happens, and we all get why and why and how that happens, but it enhances everything when people have other scene members to play off. Even just an audible cue makes a big difference.
What does the rehearsal process look like for a show like this?
What rehearsal process? We wish! We move pretty fast. For example, this year we’ve got 22 episodes of television to shoot by Christmas, so we don’t rehearse very much at all. I think there are good and bad things about that. I love rehearsal because I feel like I can be looser and funnier when I have everything as prepared as I can before. It’s nice to have some stuff lined up before you jump and hope that the theater will catch you. But I do think that there is something very fresh and surprising and impulsive that happens when you’re working without [rehearsing], and that really suits some of the people involved.
Right, it seems that this cast could pull off some good improvisation. But how possible is that given the continuity issues of editing together “fantômes” and “sans fantômes” takes?
The group around me improvises a lot. I don’t quite so much on this project. A lot of what I’m doing is [being] a portal to them. I’m providing a portal for the audience. But when we have time to bring those elements in, [we do], and this season, more and more, we’re starting to understand each other. To know where we come from, how to play tennis — how to knock it to each other.
You mentioned wanting to create your own version of Sam as opposed to Alison in the original series. What were your priorities in coming to this woman? What resonated with you about her?
When I play a character, I don’t think of it as becoming somebody else. That adds an extra layer of work that, personally, I don’t feel like I need. What I like to do is strip away whatever doesn’t serve Sam in Rose. I’ll come to the character and be like, ‘Which parts of Rose really resonate with Sam? What can I kind of hone in on in myself that feels like her?’ And there’s lots of things. Sam is desperate to be liked. She’s a total people pleaser and wants to get it right — and doesn’t always get it right. I can completely identify with those qualities. I think a lot of actors can — it’s probably part of why we ended up with this job. But the flip side of always wanting to please people is the reality that you can’t, and that can feel quite frightening. I think that’s where Sam’s desire for control or looking for things she can hold on to comes from.
I really enjoyed shooting flashbacks to her in high school. I hope we get to explore a little bit more of where she came from. We understand that between not having a very strong family — her relationship with her mother was pretty fractured — and not being one of the cool girls at school, she’s been really longing for kindred spirits, for want of a better word. And she’s really surprisingly found them in the house despite everything. With the most supportive husband on the planet in Jay and this incredible group around her in the ghosts, she’s kind little coming-of-age experience through this series.
The episode where Sam, accompanied by Jay, gets to reunite with her dead mother who is now a ghost is particularly profound. How did you approach shooting that?
It’s not surprising that people who are always wrapped up in fixing everybody else’s problems haven’t quite resolved some of their own. Sam, through and through, is really worried about the dynamics and relationships between all of these ghosts and how people are going to get along, when she hasn’t made peace with her own dynamic with her mother. There’s a lot of grief in Sam. There’s a lot of holding on to a childlike version of herself.
I think she has found this incredible rock in Jay, who is so deeply supportive. We always talk about how if the ghosts each have a superpower, Jay’s superpower as a ghost would just be just unconditional love. He stays with her despite — I mean, we know what the premise of this show is. It’s outrageous that he just sticks around, really. And I think she knows that, and he’s probably been the key to her being able to develop trust and intimate and meaningful relationships in her life, and very much a key for how she relates to the ghosts as well.
[“Ghosts”] has made me process some things for myself on a deeper level, and I really hope it does that for the audience as well. We’ve had some pretty amazing interactions with fans. Conversations about mortality or things that you don’t expect to come up in a half-hour sitcom have really been provoked through the show that I get to be a part of. It’s been a huge gift. I’m just very grateful that we get to come back and make more of it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.