In 2018, the dark comedy Ghost BFF appeared on our screens. The show follows best friends Amy (Vanessa Matsui) and Tara (Kaniehtiio Horn) as they are reunited. But there is a catch: Tara has come back as a ghost, and only Amy can see and interact with her. When she first reappears into Amy’s life, it has been a few years since she died from suicide. During the episodes, they try to rediscover themselves while finding closure from Tara’s suicide.
The female-led series deals with the heavy, and rarely discussed in media, the topic of mental health and suicide, but it is not a doom and gloom show. I watched both seasons in a day. I loved it. I surely laughed and cried, but it is heartfelt, honest, and witty while dealing with a very real thing.
The second season returns on July 7 to KindaTV. During the latest season, Matsui and Horn are joined by Jean Yoon (Kim’s Convenience), Angela Asher (Bad Blood), Dani Kind (Wynonna Earp), Steve Lund (Bitten), Yani Gellman (Bosch), and Thomas Colford (Backstage). They will be joining Dan Beirne (Workin’ Moms), Jane Moffat (Backstage), and Rick Roberts (Fortunate Son), who we saw in the first season.
The show is filmed in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. It is directed by Lindsay MacKay (Running with Violet) and produced by Katie Nolan (The Rest of Us) and Lindsay Tapscott (The Rest of Us) from Babe Nation Films. Along with being one of the leads, Vanessa Matsui has many roles when it comes to the show. She is also the creator, writer, executive producer, and directs the sixth episode. The series is also produced with the assistance of Ontario Creates, Bell Fund, Telus, and the Canada Media Fund. Last year, it received two Canadian Screen Award nominations for Best Web Series and Fiction and Best Lead Performance in a Digital Program or Series (Matsui).
Nerds and Beyond had the opportunity to speak with Vanessa Matsui (Shadowhunters: The Mortal Instruments, Lost Girl) and Kaniehtiio Horn (Letterkenny, Hemlock Grove) about the upcoming second season, mental health, representation, and more.
Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Nerds and Beyond: So, I got to see the second season, and it was amazing. [This] is a female-led show that tackles mental health and grief. Why do you think it is important to have a series where that would be the main discussion point?
Vanessa: I mean, the inception or the seed of this show was very loosely inspired by a time in my life where one of my best friends was suicidal. This was almost eight years ago, seven years ago, when suicide was still very taboo. At the same time, I had a friend who died by suicide, and nobody was talking about this. I was looking around, and there were so many young women in my life who were suffering, and yet no one was talking about it, so that was the kernel of inspiration. And then my background is in comedy, so it was just weirdly natural for me to want to make a comedy about suicide. I think when dealing with taboo subjects, using comedy is just a really effective bridge to talking to a larger audience.
Kaniehtiio: Yeah, I agree. I think it’s just been a really cool way to normalize talking about it all. Like for myself, being pregnant, I couldn’t self-medicate. I couldn’t, you know, like during the stress of COVID and all this lockdown. I couldn’t just smoke a joint or drink a half bottle of wine or anything. I actually had to sit and face all these things. I guess being a part of a show like this, and having it be less taboo to talk about things like this, kind of gave me the confidence. I didn’t isolate myself anymore, and I spoke about it. I reached out, and I’m going to therapy now. I think that’s why shows like this are normalizing talking about our mental health. Especially as women, it’s really important. I am really grateful to be a part of something like this.
Nerds and Beyond: That’s what I loved. It’s very rare to find a show or series where the main focus point is on mental health and dealing with grief from losing someone from suicide or even anything on the subject, so I was very thrilled about this. Was it difficult to find the balance of humor?
Kaniehtiio: Really? Because I find with really good writing, you can. I feel like it’s grounded, and working with all the super talented actors, and me and Vanessa are friends. So, we got — I mean, I don’t know if you felt this way — but I feel like we got a lot closer while shooting this. I think that because it’s so grounded in, obviously, in a heightened reality. It was easy to find the comedy and still stay rooted in the reality of what was happening, what happened, and what was going on. And that’s good writing, and that’s good people you are working with right.
Vanessa: No, 100%. I think that our cast is incredible, like everyone. No one is a caricature. You know it is a heightened show, but at the same time, yeah Kaniehtiio, you’re right.
Kaniehtiio: I’m playing a ghost. So, I’m like it’s reality, but it’s still like, I am a ghost. So, should I say that it’s reality?
Vanessa: Exactly. So I do have to say, to be totally honest when I was launching season one, I was terrified about how this was going to be received. Because that last thing I wanted was to be disrespectful. I wanted this to be like a love letter in a way to people who are suffering. So, I’ll never forget right before our TIFF [Toronto International Film Festival] premiere thing we did in season one. I was going to throw up. I was so nervous. Then the reaction though, from people where suicide had directly touched their lives, was just so positive. I had one girl come up to me after the screening, and her father had died by suicide when she was a teenager and was like you know, if a show like this had existed for me, it wouldn’t have been such this elephant in the room. It made me, I think, a lot more confident going into the second season and trusting the honest place, and I kind of hate the overuse of this word, but the authentic place that it was coming from.
Nerds and Beyond: I definitely went from laughter to tears. I’m like, “I just want to hug Amy and Tara.” So, Kaniehtiio, how did you get involved in the show?
Kaniehtiio: I know Vanessa, I mean I think we had a Facebook memory come up from like 13 years ago or something…
Vanessa: I think it was 15. No, it was 15 years ago that we’ve known each other…
Kaniehtiio: I was like, oh my god — and she honestly was talking about this Ghost BFF thing for friggin’ ever. You did a bit of a teaser thing, and I remember I always tried and share it. We’ve emailed and talked about this years ago whenever you first started this. I just remember that you always had this sort of thing on the go, and then finally, you were like I’m doing that. We are actually doing it, you know.
Vanessa: We finally got funding, after like five years of trying.
Kaniehtiio: But I remember being just like wow. Working with these women has just taught me so much. I love that she kept going for it and didn’t get discouraged. I mean, I’m sure you got discouraged here and there, but you didn’t stop right. It didn’t stop you. I think, well, they always say the story was we were at a TIFF party, and I was like double fisting a glass of whiskey and like a glass of champagne or whatever and they were like, “Oh my god.” And then they asked me to audition for the role. I was like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe you didn’t ask me before, of course, I will audition.” I put myself on tape when I was in Halifax, and then that’s it. That’s how I got involved.
Nerds and Beyond: I love that there are also the Let’s Talk About Our Feels PSAs where it goes deeper into talking about anxiety and as well the mindfulness. How did that come about?
Vanessa: Katie Nolan [producer] and I were first developing this like way back in the day. We always knew that I didn’t want just to create a show about suicide, and like there, here you go and leave it up there. We always knew that [we] were going to be trying to figure it out. Maybe it will be an interactive website, so people have access to links immediately or whatever. But then our executive producer for season one, Ana Serrano, came on board. Her mother happens to be Tita, who is one of the heads at the Center of Mindfulness Studies, and we took a meeting with her, and I loved everything about this center. I was pretty new. I have dabbled in meditation or whatever, but that world was really new to me. What really resonated with me is that in Canada, as in most countries in this world is that there is a two-tiered approach to mental health. It’s people who have money, and people who don’t. Traditional therapy is very costly, and because of who our audience is, there are young women who are no longer under their parents’ insurance or don’t have a full-time job and have their own insurance. There was something about mindfulness which is evidence-based and cost-effective as a tool to really helping manage your anxiety. Honestly, because we got to do a free mindfulness workshop because of season one, I feel like I wouldn’t have been able to handle COVID. I wouldn’t have been able to handle quarantine without these skills. That’s what a lot of people might not know [is] mindfulness can actually rewire your brain, and it’s free, so that’s why we decided to work with them and bring mindfulness into the show.
Nerds and Beyond: Do you have a favorite scene in either of the seasons for your characters?
Kaniehtiio: I think one of my favorite scenes is when Amy wakes up from being punched out and discovers the black eye. I’m not really interactive. I’m interacting with her a little, but for me, it was just so much fun just to watch. I was literally legit giggling, you know. And then sometimes we’d finish, and I’m like, “You’re funny, Vanessa.” Up to that point, I don’t think we even ever worked together. It was fun. We were feeling it, so that’s one of my favorite scenes in season one. Umm, I have to think about season two.
Vanessa: Yeah, that was probably one of my favorites in season one as well. ‘Cause we also hit a rhythm, it was like bam bam bam. I think in season two for me, I think my favorite is the charades scene, and then Tara appears. She’s like, “I know why I’m back.” I felt that the banter was really good. It was ridiculous. I don’t want to give a spoiler, but it’s a ridiculous charades game like I don’t think anybody has seen.
Kaniehtiio: Yeah, I think that’s my favorite as well. I feel like that’s the thing about this cast, I feel like my favorite scenes are when I’m watching everybody else. Watching the family work, and then you know, watching you yelling at Dan [Beirne]. It was very interesting. It’s very interesting playing a ghost, I’ll tell you that much. There is a lot of very weird things we’d have to do and adjust. They’re lucky that I can do yoga and stuff, ’cause I’d have to slink out of the shot. It was a lot of fun.
Nerds and Beyond: What is it like to film the scenes where no one else is supposed to see you but Vanessa’s character, but there are all those people around that have to ignore you?
Kaniehtiio: Yeah, that was fun. But it was also cool too. I mean I’m on the other side right. I get to just walk around and be like a goof or whatever, and they have to pretend that they are not seeing me. Then the actors are like, “Oh yeah, no, it’s so hard to ignore you right now.” I’m like, “Sorry!”
Vanessa: Oh, totally. And when we’re in the editing room, when we’re in the editing suite, you can see. Obviously, we don’t use these takes, but you can totally see sometimes, ’cause you know you’re super funny. They’re trying not to go to you. We always have to remind the actors, “You can’t see Tara, you can’t see Tara.”
Nerds and Beyond: I have to ask, what are the chances of a third season?
Vanessa: I have no idea. I honestly didn’t even think the second season was going to happen, ’cause making season one was so hard, we tried for so long, and when it finally happened, it just felt like this gift, this bonus. Then when we got greenlit for a second season. I was in total shock and was not prepared on how to write the second season because I never had it in my head. Which I realize is such a rookie move now, and everything I’m writing now, I’m like oh, this is seven seasons and can plan seven seasons. But I mean obviously, I would love to. I think that if season one is a valentine to friendship, season two is kind of a valentine to motherhood, but it’s also Amy and Tara letting each other go, and I think season three would be the goodbye. But I would love for it to be for television, just putting that out there.
Nerds and Beyond: What inspires you both as creators and storytellers?
Kaniehtiio: I think my family inspires me. My family really inspires me, and they’re the ones who made me think I was funny. I think if I make them laugh, I think that’s the sweetest, the best satisfaction, you know. The biggest victory that I have is when I make my family laugh.
Vanessa: I think for me, what inspires me as a creator is if I feel like there has been an injustice. Like how I felt nobody was talking about suicide, and I thought it was this, not uniquely, but I noticed that it was disproportionately affecting the women in my life. So, I was like, this is effed. We need to talk about this. My latest pilot is about the Japanese Internment. It always drives me bananas when Canadians don’t know about the internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II. So, I think that when there’s this thing inside me that I’m like, I’m going to makes sure everyone knows about this, that tends to be my kernel. But yeah, I feel the same way as an actor its making people laugh for sure it’s the best there’s nothing like it.
Kaniehtiio: Yeah, there really isn’t. But also making people cry. That’s a whole other thing. I was like, “Wow, that was a power.” It was amazing. But that’s on like another scale, you know what I mean. But I also feel like as a creator, what’s the point about talking if I am going to talk about something, or I’m going to create something, then I have to have some sort of social impact. I think for me, I agree with you. I don’t feel like I can just do something for the shits and giggles. I mean, I don’t want to hammer something over people’s heads, but no matter what, there’s always some underlined message there whether I intend to do it or not. Sometimes I’ll look back and be like, “Oh, yeah, I guess maybe I was trying to say this,” you know.
Nerds and Beyond: That leads me to my next question about the importance of having representation, and the representation and portrayal of women and women of color in media. What do you think, because right now things sort of moving along, but what do you think needs to be done to get a more accurate portrayal?
Kaniehtiio: I think that we need more people of color, women people of color, in the writers’ room. In places of, in position of power, we need to be consulted. I’m doing this job for this British company where they are writing something that takes place in Canada, and it has Indigenous characters. They hired me to make sure that their Indigenous characters are real, basically. I was like, “Man, I just want to commend you for doing this.” This is the sort of stuff that we need, because you know you can get to set, and then an actor like me might get this material and be like, this is garbage. Like we would never say this, we would never do this, we would never wear this, you know. I think that a lot of things can be handled that way if you start way in the beginning with the writers, and with the creators, with the producers, or you know if those positions are being filled by people of color.
Vanessa: One-hundred percent I feel the same way. It has to go beyond tokenism because the thing is if you are the only one, it’s — this is hard to say — but it’s isolating, and…whatever I’m just going to say it, but like sometimes white people, until pretty recently, don’t necessarily understand the experience, you know. For example, I had an experience on another thing where I was receiving notes. It was kind of like a relenting note from a white person, and I went, and I showed it to my friend who also happened to be Asian, and I was like, “You know this scene just means a lot to me, and I’m not understanding why it’s not coming through.” And my friend was like, “I think they just don’t understand because they don’t have an Asian mother.” It was really like this moment and was like yeah. It’s a thing. If the people on top are all the same person, I think it’s really hard for previously unrepresented voices to shine or come through in an authentic way, because it gets watered down. I would love to see representation on the screen. I see a show, and it’s in like New York City, and it’s only white people, and I’m like what New York City are you living in? Even, what Toronto are you living in? It just really drives me insane.
Nerds and Beyond: So, for the last question, here at Nerds and Beyond we embrace our nerdy side. What is something that brings out your nerdy sides?
Kaniehtiio: I feel like I’m a really big nerd, but I can’t think of it. I mean my cat, I’m a cat nerd. I love my cat. I spent some money on a portrait of my cat, like a literal portrait, like a professional painter painted my cat very regally. It’s beautiful.
Vanessa: And also I’d like to add that you also really like Forensic Files and Unsolved Mysteries. You are into true crime.
Kaniehtiio: Oh, yes! That’s true.That is my nerdy. Yeah, I love true crime.
Vanessa: I mean listen, I’m such a huge nerd, too. What do I nerd out on? I’m a nerd in a way. I’m not like high brow about the TV I watch. I love sci-fi. I love ghost stories. I mean, obviously, I do. But anything, like if somebody had an encounter with something supernatural, I need to talk to them about it. I need to hear all the details. I love me a ghost story anytime, anywhere.