"Ghosts" star Rose McIver on poking fun at the Christmas movie, cultural appropriation and all

The actor discusses the "Ghosts" yuletide episode, "A Christmas Prince" and lessons from the holiday movie universe

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published December 15, 2022 12:00PM (EST)

Utkarsh Ambudkar as Jay and Rose McIver as Samantha on "Ghosts" (Bertrand Calmeau/CBS)
Utkarsh Ambudkar as Jay and Rose McIver as Samantha on "Ghosts" (Bertrand Calmeau/CBS)

Before Rose McIver became CBS' best-known bed and breakfast proprietor-slash-apparition whisperer, she spent four and a half years portraying a sentient zombie in The CW's "iZombie," and three holiday films portraying a writer who marries a royal in Netflix's "A Christmas Prince" and its sequels.

As it turns out, her previous acting experiences came in handy for the "Ghosts" one-hour holiday episode "The Christmas Spirit." Each week the hit CBS comedy finds McIver's Sam and her husband Jay (Utkarsh Ambudkar), who does not see dead people, at the center of several overlapping and potentially disastrous situations – which occur regularly at Woodstone Mansion.

"As soon as I started getting into the Christmas movie universe, I realized it's like watching your favorite old kind of comfy comedy."

The holidays present special circumstances, even for a pleasantly haunted house. Sam adores holiday movies and decks out her recently acquired old mansion to suit her wildest candy cane-and-mistletoe fantasies. But not all the couple's phantom housemates are as enthusiastic as she is. (Hilariously among those who are as hyped as Sam is Asher Grodman's Trevor, the stock broker bro spending eternity pants-free, who sets about securing a Hanukkah miracle for himself.)

"The Christmas Spirit" is a heartwarming homage to Hallmark's Yuletide flicks that implicitly addresses the critiques the channel sustained concerning years of insistently featuring white heterosexual romances at their center.

Brandon Scott Jones as Isaac and John Hartman as Nigel Chessum on "Ghosts" (Bertrand Calmeau/CBS)"Ghosts" features one of the most inclusive ensemble casts on broadcast TV, which means it couldn't replicate that without contorting itself into something it is not, thank goodness. For example, Revolutionary War officer Isaac (Brandon Scott Jones) is igniting a relationship with British officer Nigel (John Hartman). Their prominence in the show immediately achieves something Hallmark waited years to do by featuring a gay courtship in a major ongoing storyline.

"These are movies we love to laugh at, but they're definitely movies we love as well," she told Salon. "So it kind of felt like the perfect marriage and the right forum like to do something like this, where you can kind of lovingly poke fun at the genre, and also still recognize how sweet it is."

It's best to come into "The Christmas Spirit" cold, more or less, to preserve the sweetness of the humor and the joyful twists. But in our recent conversation with McIver, her enthusiasm about what the "Ghosts" writers and casts have achieved in these episodes is infectious. We discussed her connection with this genre, the reality of shooting a Christmas episode well outside of the holiday season, and hinted at a few of the more pleasant developments in this hour-long installment, all while doing her best not to spoil anything.

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

As an actor, you have jobs that you take for work, and there are the roles you have passion for because you love them. So: how did you feel about holiday movies before these episodes, and not only that but before working on "A Christmas Prince"?

I wasn't super well-versed in holiday movies, I would say, before I got introduced to the Christmas universe by "A Christmas Prince." I kind of came into them at that point, although I did grow up loving feel-good movies. There are certain movies I could just watch over and over again, like Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen taking on Paris, [in "Passport to Paris"]. That kind of movie was my sweet spot for just comfort and escapism.

As soon as I started getting into the Christmas movie universe, I realized it's like watching your favorite old kind of comfy comedy or something that you fell in love with, and it's not going to challenge you or confront you. It's going to support you after what may have been a long year. Especially in these last couple of years.

"It's a really significant time of year for people well outside the sort of cisgender white male system that we may assume these Christmas movies were first made for."

Christmas movies used to get a lot of eye-rolling. And more and more now people are like, it's been a very hard, challenging time and to have something that we can just escape to and feel warmed by and comforted by is very valuable.


Utkarsh Ambudkar as Jay and Rose McIver as Samantha on "Ghosts" (Bertrand Calmeau/CBS)This episode acknowledges the Hallmark movie format, starting with the big, beautiful snow-covered house and all the other holiday details that Sam raves about. At the same time, and this is part of the DNA of "Ghosts," the subplots are very inclusive in a way that, until recently, Christmas movies were not. I don't know how much the cast gets to sit down with the writers and talk about the story beyond simply getting the scripts. But was that discussed in terms of honing this episode's focus?

Well, "Ghosts" really prides itself on being an inclusive show. And I think that it's sort of a given that based on the characters that we know and love . . . if we're going to have a Christmas experience that does cover everybody, hopefully people watching the show feel well-represented and like they've been taken into account.

It's a really significant time of year for people well outside the sort of cisgender white male system that we may assume these Christmas movies were first made for. So I think it was a given with our show that we were never going to approach this in a way that wasn't inclusive.

But I was very proud of the way that they did it. It really does ride that line between earnest and sort of self-deprecating. We see Sam really, really invest in Christmas, and I know that there are very earnest undertones for why she is so caught up in this escapism. A lot of people who love to escape into very sweet movies may not have always had the easiest family dynamics themselves or, you know, didn't get the picture book version of what Christmas represented as kids or even as young adults.

For Sam, we lean into that and we were able to imbue this holiday with meaning for people and complications. But at the same time, they're still able to have a twinkle in their eye about like watching Christmas movies themselves and the silly tropes people get caught up in. It rides that line between enjoying the genre without meanly mocking it.

Yes, I appreciate that the subplots are chosen for very specific reasons. One that I thought was very clever was the way that Thorfinn (Devan Chandler Long) was brought into it. You would expect Thor to be the one who would say, "Yay, Christmas!" given how many of the holiday's traditions are taken from Yule, but his reaction is a surprise.

Absolutely. And everybody kind of has funny, slightly unpredictable angles on these things, which I love. You know, we may assume that somebody just because they're from one world, or era or culture or generation that they are going to feel one way. There are moments on the show that I think the writers really smartly subvert those or put them askew just enough that you have to rethink what you what your own predetermined ideas were for each of these characters. I really liked the line, and this isn't much of a spoiler, when Sam is talking about Christmas, and Thor brings up how much of it is cultural appropriation. She's willing to turn a blind eye to cultural appropriation in this moment because it suits her and humanizes Sam as well. She really tries her best, but she falls short and she gets caught up. Nobody's perfect. And I think the writers and the creators are really smart about how they allow us to be fallible on the screen.

Devan Chandler Long as Thorfinn and Rose McIver as Samantha on "Ghosts" (Bertrand Calmeau/CBS)

You got to engage in some interesting physical humor, too. Did you have to prep much for that?

Well, I think it's fair to say that on "iZombie," which is a show I did for five years, I did eat a brain each week and I took on different people's characteristics. And I got used to working really fast to try to impersonate and become other people. What's nice is that working at that kind of speed . . .  doesn't allow perfectionism. You just do your best, working with as much research as you can do in a very short time, but a lot of instinct and impulse as well. And it was fun to put some of those skills that I felt like I developed on that show to use, to get to play in this really silly and quite farcical world again.

Yeah. This might be a nerdy production question, but I think a lot of people know that Christmas episodes are generally produced when it isn't Christmastime. When was this one shot?

Well, we had a sneaking suspicion that we were going to get a second season when sometime towards the end of our first, we saw on a call sheet that our second unit was going out and shooting snow sequences for a Christmas scene. And we were all like, "Wait, we're well past Christmas in Season 1. What is happening?"

Obviously, they had anticipated that would be something that they would want to do in a second season, should they get it. So the exteriors were shot last Christmas, I believe, just at the mansion and dressed in the snow. And then everything that we shot inside the mansion – this whole episode takes place inside, except the one scene at the railway station – aside from that scene, everything was inside and in Montreal . . . I think it was shot in August or something. Maybe July or August.

Yeah. Definitely not Christmas time.

It was crazy to feel Christmas-y when outside, you're not needing to walk in with mittens on at all.

That level of preparation of nearly a year ahead of time to get those exteriors for a first-season show seems unusual.

Well, it makes a big difference. Because when I shot "A Christmas Prince" in Romania three years running, we were regularly shooting without snow. And we were having to regularly pump shampoo foam all over the ground, so as we walked through, suds would traipse off our feet. So it was a pretty different experience than outside in Montreal, where they were able to capture real fresh snow for that sequence.

With Christmas episodes of long-running shows, there's either the tendency to present them as one-off plots, especially for sitcoms, or something major happens that changes certain dynamics going forward in the season. Which would you say that this episode is?

I need to think of how to answer these questions . . .

It's tough!

I think, yeah, [the writers] have to be very selective about the moments when there are things that elevate relationships or change storylines or open the rules of the "Ghosts" universe. Once you open those doors, it does change things. The landscape is different. But it's also very important. You don't want things to feel stale. What's good is that this enormous cast is that there are so many different pieces of history and backstories to explore. There is room to fairly frequently open something new and interesting and sort of tack towards the landscape changing rather than, like, overnight, everybody is now in a giant fight and that's over. That doesn't happen. Something irreversible may happen to two characters, and for the rest of them, it kind of holds the status quo. So yeah, it's like chess moves, you know? There are little pieces moving forward all the time, and the writers do a great job at being selective of when to do that. And there's definitely some of that going on in this episode.

Rebecca Wisocky as Hetty, Richie Moriarty as Pete, Danielle Pinnock as Alberta, Devan Chandler Long as Thorfinn, Sheila Carrasco as Flower, Asher Grodman as Trevor and Roman Zaragoza as Sasappis on "Ghosts" (Bertrand Calmeau/CBS)

Hopefully, this will be simpler to answer without going into specifics. What was your favorite part about this episode both from the production side of it, and also after seeing the finished product?

I really, really loved the ghost choir. That's not a terrible spoiler. We get to hear the musical prowess of most of our ghost cast. I think seven out of eight ghosts sing for us. And it just got us all excited about something we've talked about for a long time, which is we want a musical episode. A lot of us come from musical or dance backgrounds and everybody got very excited at hearing the ghosts singing in multiple-part harmonies. There's something so communal about singing together . . . it felt really lovely and kind of gave some nice focus to a few of the days on set.

The one-hour holiday episode of "Ghosts" debuts at 8 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 15 on CBS and on Paramount+.


By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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