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The stars of The Haunting of Bly Manor talk finding the human side of a ghost story
The Haunting of Bly Manor shares quite a bit of connective tissue with its predecessor, The Haunting of Hill House. Both stories are rooted in classic works of literature — in Bly Manor's case, the ghost stories of Henry James — both hail from the same creators, and they feature many of the same stars, including returning actors Victoria Pedretti, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Henry Thomas, and others. But while Hill House focused on the generational trauma of one family across decades, Bly Manor is taking a different route. This time around, creators Mike Flanagan and Trevor Macy were after a distinct Gothic Romance feel, which meant rooting Bly Manor in many different forms of love and assembling a very different cast of human characters to exist around the ghosts.
"You're establishing how to tell the story best, utilizing your body and your vocal cords," Victoria Pedretti, who has stepped up from part of the ensemble in Hill House to become the clear protagonist of Bly Manor, told SYFY WIRE and other journalists at a press roundtable ahead of the series launch. "So, it's just about how do you imagine the character moves and how do you imagine they vocalize? Beyond that, I feel like I work pretty intuitively, and this season's required different things, and I'm also a different person, so I feel like the process is always changing."
This time around, Pedretti stars as Dani, an American living in England in an effort to escape darkness back home. To pay the bills and perhaps extend her escape, she takes a job as a governess for two children at a beautiful home in the country, the Bly Manor of the title. This is, of course, the setup of James' classic novella The Turn of the Screw, but Flanagan and company are not strictly adhering to the format of that story. Upon arriving at Bly, Dani meets the rest of the home's staff, who form a kind of chosen family among themselves even as they're all devoted to looking after the children, the strangely wise and witty Miles (Benjamin Ainsworth) and the precocious and vivacious Flora (Amelie Bea Smith). In the early episodes, in particular, Dani spends a lot of time bonding with Miles and Flora and learning their various eccentricities and secrets, something Pedretti says was reflected in her real-life relationship with her young co-stars.
"They taught me so much. I mean, just being able to talk through everything and how open and honest they were. You know, we cultivated trust between each other. It was a real gift," Pedretti says. "I was nervous to work with kids, 'cause there's kind of this thing in the industry that people that work at a really young age, that it's really damaging. And I don't want them to have that experience, you know. I want them to feel safe in the environment and that this is an experience that can enrich their lives and their futures. They put me at ease about that.
"It was also incredible, I think, particularly [co-star T'Nia Miller] had an incredible knack for getting on their level, play-wise," she continues. "We have all of these things where we teach ourselves not to get too silly, especially in a professional environment, but when we're acting, we have to maintain — especially doing this dark material — we have to maintain a sense of buoyancy and lightness within the work. 'Cause we are playing, after all. It isn't real life. It is magic that we're creating. So I learned a lot from all three of them."
For Ainsworth and Smith, both of whom had to step into some rather heavy, dramatic moments in the midst of Bly Manor's hauntings, the sense of play Pedretti mentions was on display from the moment they walked onset, thanks not just to their costars, but to Flanagan's own sense of fun.
"He's such an amazing guy in that he respects children's ability as much as adults, and gives them the amount of freedom as he gives adults on set, which I think is really good and really nice," Ainsworth says. "So yeah, that was sick."
Smith adds: "He was so cool to work with. He likes things being done lots of different ways. His directing is amazing. And he helped me and Ben do our pranks in the beginning. He sat down on the steps of the set and it was great [finding out] what people don't like and then find some pranks we can do on them."
When Dani arrives at Bly Manor to meet her two young charges, the first adult she meets is Hannah Grose (T'Nia Miller), the housekeeper at Bly who seems to exude patience and a kind of reverence for the tragedy that has haunted Flora, Miles, and the manor at large. For Miller, who notes she worked closely with Flanagan, like many of the cast, to perfect her character, the real joy of sinking into the world of Bly Manor was the kind of found family that exists between the children and the staff at Bly, something she explains was helped along by the pre-existing warmth that Pedretti and Flanagan brought to the project through pre-existing collaboration and casting.
"It was great coming into the series with some of the existing cast. They were really welcoming, getting to know these guys. Everyone had their own little thing about them that was really special. And the kids. My favorite days were when I was working with Ben and Amelie. 'Cause they were such troopers," Miller says. "These kids not only knew their lines, they knew your lines. I was at the kitchen table and I was waiting for Amelie, like, "It's your line.' Amelie whispered my line back to me! I need to step up my game. This kid's showing me up! They were great, yeah. So what do I take away from it? I take away, past the series, it's a family. It's some really great friends, man. Soul family. Which is what this show's all about, it's all about modern soul families and connections, and Mike did that."
With Pedretti, Miller, Ainsworth, and Smith in place, Bly Manor introduces us to the rest of its "soul family" in the form of the manor's pun-loving cook, Owen (Rahul Kohli), and the groundskeeper, Jamie (Amelia Eve), both of whom have important roles to play as the series begins to flesh out not just the history of the house, but the history of the various characters (living and dead) who populate it. That sense of history, of lived-in reality within the story, was helped along with Flanagan's encouragement by the actors themselves, who sought to craft a detailed understanding of the people they were playing even if the audience would never see all of it.
"When I first read the character, the description I got was sarcastic, blunt, and prefers plants to people. And I was like, 'Yes. Absolutely,'" Eve says of Jamie. "I would describe myself in exactly the same way, but prefers dogs to people. And then when I got there, I didn't really know what the character was gonna turn into, or how she develops, or any of what really happened. So, when I met with Mike, he gave me an overview of the story, and I realized how integral she was to the storyline."
Eve continues, "I wanted to just really pinpoint how she had learned all of the skills that she had learned, and why she was the way she was, and what had made her slightly jaded or a little bit sarcastic and blunt on the surface. I managed to find this incredible article that was about architecture in London, and specifically, it then started going into squatters. Female squatters, in London, and how they started to migrate down because they had this sense of freedom there, and that they were allowed to finally be themselves and to explore what it was like to be around other women and to learn how to do the plumbing in a house that's about to fall down, 'cause they were temporarily taking it over. But they're also women, so they're homemakers. So they don't just put up with, like, a wall falling down. They build it back up again, and then they make it comfortable to live in."
The Haunting of Bly Manor is, obviously and unabashedly, a horror series, full of ghosts and tension and darkness and all the things fright fans might expect after The Haunting of Hill House. But it's also, as several members of the cast explained in their discussions of their characters, a show about love in all its forms. Each major character in the series is struggling with love in their own way, and though the ghosts that inhabit the series are perhaps first and foremost there to scare the audience, they're also there to allow the characters to work through their own humanity.
"At the beginning, we find [Dani] haunted by her past and her experiences that she comes to Bly with. And I've been kind of thinking about it and expressing it as almost her feelings towards herself, her inability to move forward beyond a certain experience that makes her see herself in a way where she is isolated," Pedretti says. "She's seeing something that nobody else can see, which is that she's not good, that she's bad. And so she doesn't deserve love or care. And that's a horrible thing to be haunted with, and I think a lot of us deal with feelings of not fitting in, or not being deserving. But she eventually tries to confront those things."
The Haunting of Bly Manor is now streaming on Netflix.