'Ghosts' Star Rebecca Wisocky on Character's Death Reveal

[This story contains spoilers from the season 3, episode 8 of Ghosts, “Holes Are Bad.”]

The premise of CBS’ hit comedy Ghosts is a notably ridiculous one: After a near-death experience, Sam (Rose McIver) can communicate with the spirits who haunt the country home she inherited from her great aunt — a group of specters from all walks of life and historical eras who died on the property at some point in time. One of those ghosts includes Hetty Woodstone, the great-great-great-great-aunt to Sam played by Rebecca Wisocky who maintains a stuffy, Gilded Age-era attitude that prides wealth and power and shows a disdain for modern times.

In the eighth episode of Ghosts‘ third season, however, we learn a surprising fact about Hetty that brings more depth to a character who has slowly revealed herself to be more than just an uptight robber baroness from a far-off generation. Unhappily married to a devious man of means, she is pinned into a corner when her husband’s business affairs make her a criminal target. Pushed into a corner — and thinking her death would save her wealth for her son, Thomas — Hetty dies by suicide, using the cord from her newly acquired telephone to hang herself.

That reveal comes when she realizes that the cord, still wrapped around her neck and hidden by a high Victorian-era collar, can be put to good use in order to rescue fellow ghost Flower (a perpetually high hippie played by Sheila Carrasco) from a doomed eternity trapped in an abandoned well. But in the grand tradition of sitcom comedy, this touching and sensitive moment isn’t used merely as a clever plot twist, but rather offers a extremely human look at a character whose mental health suffered during an era in which there was no one to turn for help.

Wisocky spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about how she first learned about her character’s backstory, the pride she feels for Ghosts‘ treatment of serious subject matter amid broad comedy and why the sitcom’s premise rewards its writers’ efforts to play a long game with its cast of characters.

Rebecca Wisocky as Hetty, Rose McIver as Samantha and Brandon Scott Jones as Isaac in Ghosts

Bertrand Calmeau/CBS

When did you first find out what the writers had in store in terms of revealing this part of Hetty’s backstory? 

They’ve done some last minute surprises on us in the past, and this one [came] about a month before we shot the episode. [Creators] Joe Port and Joe Wiseman came to me and said, “We think that this is the direction that makes sense to go in with this.” And I was blown away, I was not at all expecting it. But they’re so smart and were so generous to involve me, on a dramaturgical level and sensitivity level, to make sure that things felt like they jived with Hetty’s motivations and what was plausible and accurate. And also, that we tackled this subject matter with the sensitivity that it deserves. We’re on a half-hour sitcom, but it’s become known for tackling difficult challenging topics and opening up conversations. I’m really proud of that. 

Can you tell me more about those conversations, about pulling this off effectively and sensitively? 

I love the way they wanted to tie it easily into the storyline [about rescuing Flower from the well]. There’s so many beautiful little seeds that have been set up throughout the first three seasons [about] why Hetty is so terrified of being alone — things that I wasn’t even aware that they were picking up on. Like, I always have made the choice to stand very close to other people or have a hand or an arm around someone. She enjoys that; she’s very orderly and standoffish, but she really has a terror of being alone. For them to explore, after 150 years of close friendship with these ghosts, she’s going to reveal the secret to save Flower from being doomed to an eternity of abandonment and aloneness … It just was very moving to me. I mean, the episode’s title is right on the nose: “Holes Are Bad.” It’s a really beautiful metaphor. 

Hetty possibly only recently put all the pieces together for herself. There’s a moment of heavy processing, where she thinks that the right thing that could have helped her was to talk to someone — but she didn’t know what that meant [at that time]. People weren’t necessarily going to therapy as we know it. Those things weren’t available to her. And then in that same moment, when she says I didn’t even know that that telephone could dial out, I just thought it was so heartbreaking. And that’s the kind of humor I’m interested in: a deep truth into someone’s blindness. She killed herself by the very means with which she could have saved herself.

It’s also poignant because the method she used to commit suicide was also how she saved Flower — and she also confesses that she originally thought she was saving her son. All of her motivations are for other people. 

Exactly. And in true Hetty fashion, she gets it just a little bit wrong in every single way. She was oblivious to the thing that her child actually needed [from her]. It’s a message that I feel proud to send with this episode. It’s not being used as a sensational plot twist — it really is a message that her existence matters, regardless of the amount of money she had, regardless of the value that she thought she had. Not to get too precious with it, but it feels very important to me that if someone watching the show is in a hole of despair, who is despairing in any way or feels darkness, this is a reminder that they’re not alone. It feels very, very important to be on a show that takes such risks and is taking them with responsibility and consideration.

I am a sucker for TV sitcoms, even if they have fallen out of favor lately as comedy has become edgier and darker. But Ghosts is so joyfully dumb — which I mean as a compliment … 

That’s exactly the right word. This premise allows us all to be kind of ignorant in a way that’s not stupid. It gives the audience a chance to be hundreds of years of insight ahead of the characters. The writers are smart enough to give their characters hundreds — if not thousands, for some of them — years to learn and change and grow. And they  give characters like Hetty permission to stumble and only get a portion of the lesson. With this one, she finally gets it right. She actually understands something really, really true and deep. What she goes and does with that after the fact, I don’t know. I can’t wait to see what they do with it. 

We knew from the beginning how many of the ghosts had died, but it took three seasons to learn about Hetty’s death. Did you have a placeholder death scenario in your head for the character?

Well, I had hoped that it wouldn’t be a cocaine overdose. The audience may or may not have made that guess. 

She was quite a fan of cocaine when she was alive.

I didn’t want to rob her of that delicious humor of enjoying these things, and those wonderful jokes come from the failures of the medical establishment [in her era]. In the first season, I asked the writers, “How am I going to talk about my character? I don’t know what my powers are, I don’t know how I died. Are people going to ask me these questions?” And they said, “Just wait. We want to leave lots of doors open.” And that’s one of the smartest things they’ve done. They planted seeds so cleverly throughout. Earlier in the season, when we have that flashback to Hetty being 25, you see her feel cornered into making the decision of giving up love and truth and happiness for money and success and safety. It was essentially a death warrant for her.

There’s so much depth to Hetty, who is also so broadly funny. I mean, last season she was having an affair with a washing machine. So it must be the rare dream job for an actor to balance so much within one character.

I’ve been a working character actor for 30 years. This job is such a gift. The fact that we’re doing it together, this ensemble that has such deep love and respect for one another. I know how fortunate I am. We have thousands of years of history and stories to play with — the possibilities are endless. It was really smart for the writers to play a long game with the storylines, and there’s still more things to discover.

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