Kaniehtiio Horn in Ghost BFF
Now more than ever, mental health is important to prioritize and discuss openly. Everyone has a different experience, and sometimes it can feel overwhelming to reach out for help. Some of the most comforting words to hear are that you are not alone. The arts are important as a reflection of reality you can draw on to better understand your emotions and to know that others might feel a similar way. One of the greatest on-screen portrayals of mental health is Ghost BFF, a dark comedy web series that follows two best friends (one alive, one dead) as they struggle to find themselves and right past wrongs following a suicide. Amy (played by Vanessa Matsui) has developed anxiety after the loss of her best friend Tara (played by Kaniehtiio Horn). Suddenly, Tara returns from the dead as a ghost with unfinished business. Tara’s presence brings Amy to question who she is and where her life is headed. Best friends literally forever.
I completely fell in love with Ghost BFF. As someone who can relate to topics discussed in the series, I find myself often going back to rewatch episodes. There’s a comforting openness to it that draws me in, and makes me feel less alone. This wonderful women-led series shines a light on mental health and tackles heavy subject matter within a comedic framework, while remaining totally grounded. Topics such as depression, anxiety, suicide, treatment, abortion, and mindfulness are addressed in a way that feels accessible and empathetic. As well, the series is a wonderful example of diverse and inclusive representation in Canadian entertainment both in front of and behind the camera.
Ghost BFF is directed by Lindsay MacKay (Running with Violet) and produced by Katie Nolan and Lindsay Tapscott of Babe Nation (The Rest of Us, upcoming feature Alice, Darling). The series stars creator Vanessa Matsui (Grand Army, The Handmaid's Tale, Shadowhunters) and Kaniehtiio Horn (Letterkenny, Barkskins, Sugar Daddy). Both are nominated for Best Lead Performance in a Web Program or Series at the upcoming Canadian Screen Awards (CSAs). The series has four total acting nominations, including two for co-stars Jean Yoon (Kim’s Convenience) and Angela Asher (18 to Life, Hard Rock Medical).
I had the opportunity to chat with Kaniehtiio Horn, who gives an incredibly funny and grounded performance as Tara. Kaniehtiio discussed what drew her to the series and working alongside close friend Vanessa. She also talks about the importance of prioritizing mental health, inclusive and accurate representation in the industry, her upcoming projects, and more. Check out my interview with Kaniehtiio below, and read for my interview with Vanessa here!
Nadia: Kaniehtiio, thank you for taking the time to chat with me. I want to start by saying I fell in love with Ghost BFF. It’s an incredible blend of comedy and drama that tackles tough issues in a fascinating way. Congratulations on the series, and on your Canadian Screen Award nomination. What does this nomination mean to you?
Kaniehtiio: I got to see the evolution of the project over nine years. I’ve known Vanessa (Matsui) since Montreal, fifteen to sixteen years ago...we’ve known each other since then. I remember her sending out emails and talking about this project that she was creating, and I was always cheering her on and hoping she got it made. I’ve watched her uphill battle to get it made, and then I got a chance to audition to become her on-screen BFF. So just to see the evolution of it and end up being a part of it is such an honour. It’s been inspirational to watch her succeed with this and all of the women involved are women my age. It’s all kinda good all over the place.
Nadia: Tara is such an interesting character and you play her so brilliantly, and with great comedic timing. I loved watching the journey that she goes on throughout the series. Could you talk about how you found Tara’s voice and what drew you to the role?
Kaniehtiio: First what drew me to the project was Vanessa, and knowing her. She’s hilarious. Then I think my biggest concern and biggest challenge was, first of all when you’re telling someone, “I’m in this comedy about suicide, it’s like, what?” I wanted to make sure that she was grounded and relatable, but still funny and making people laugh. I think that it was all in the writing anyway. It wasn’t that hard for me to get to that place. Working alongside Vanessa and finding those moments of realness made it easier. I didn’t feel like I was alone in this whole process of trying to keep this grounded, and something that isn’t making fun of very intense subject matter. And it’s fun to play supernatural beings. It’s kind of in my wheelhouse now (laughing). I played a witch. I played a ghost. I just played a deer lady. So it felt like a good fit.
Nadia: One of the elements I love about the series is that there are great roles for women and a strong portrayal of friendship at the center. There’s been such a seismic change in the film and television industry, particularly in the last few years with the movements that have emerged. Ghost BFF is a wonderful women-led project, and a great example of diverse and inclusive representation in Canadian entertainment. Could you talk about the importance of representation for women of colour in this industry and how you think things are progressing with accurate portrayals in Canadian content?
Kaniehtiio: Yes, I feel like I never know if it’s a short career or a long career...I’ve been doing this professionally for sixteen years, and it’s not the same industry as it was when I first entered the industry. Not that it’s like, “Oh wow, everything’s just changed for the better.” It’s slowly changed, and it’s still got a lot of ways to go. Vanessa had to create this [series] on her own, so that she could get cast as a lead because she wasn’t getting cast as a lead, because she’s a woman of colour. We’re being fed and told all of these same old stories, over and over again. We weren’t seeing ourselves, I wasn't seeing myself, being reflected back to us in the content that we consumed on Canadian television. I think there are more initiatives to get diverse stories told, especially in the past year. As an Indigenous woman I’ve gotten to play a few more leads, and people believe that I’m Indigenous now. In the beginning, it was because I’m light-skinned and light-haired, I was told that I wasn’t Indigenous looking enough by the industry. Because I wasn’t dark-skinned, with brown eyes, with long dark hair…these notions that the industry had of these boxes that we were placed in. Little by little, these boxes are expanding. It’s because of people like Vanessa who are breaking down these walls and creating projects. I think there’s definitely a change, and definitely a lot further we can go. I’m part of this MADE | NOUS Seek More Campaign to recommend and seek more diverse voices when consuming content on TV, film, and web series. Even in social media and the people that you follow, try to expand the voices that you are listening to.
Kaniehtiio Horn and Vanessa Matsui in Ghost BFF
Nadia: The series also shines an important light on mental health in a way that feels so accessible, hopeful, and empathetic. I love that each episode gives the characters a platform to express themselves, in any way that might be, and talks about issues without shame or judgment. Could you talk about the importance of prioritizing mental health, and what you hope this series contributes to the conversation?
Kaniehtiio: For me, even just being a part of the show, not even watching it but just having a chance to be a part of this project, made me a lot more confident to acknowledge my mental health issues. I hope that people who watch it don’t feel so alone, and feel it’s okay to talk about them. When I was in my mid to late-20s, I was convinced that by the time I’m 35, I would probably be committed once or twice by then, just because I thought I was nuts. Then being on a show like this and seeing, “Oh I’m not nuts, I just have some issues that I might need to talk to somebody about” made me feel stronger. I hope that people who watch this feel the same way and feel like they can reach out. I started going to therapy and realized, “Oh I can talk about this with somebody”. I’ve been going to therapy for maybe a year now and...I like love it (laughing). I like talking about my issues and then realizing at the end of the session, “Oh so I’m not nuts”. I understand where these things are coming from and I feel that knowledge is power. I feel more powerful now, and so I hope that any young person or older person, anybody who watches this, seeks some help if they need to. Or talk to somebody...look online and find the resources that are out there, because there are resources.
Nadia: I really wish I had found this series sooner, it’s very special and I love that it makes you feel, you’re not alone. Switching gears a little bit, I saw Wendy Morgan’s Sugar Daddy at this year’s Canadian Film Festival, which I loved. Another fantastic project that you were a part of. What are you working on next?
Kaniehtiio: I’m going back to Letterkenny, and I just guest starred on a show in the States, it’s called Reservation Dogs. I’m also working on turning my podcast [Coffee With My Ma] into an animated series. What else am I working on? I had a baby so, I’m working on raising my son (laughing). I’m also trying to create my own content. I started with baby steps, the way that Vanessa started with Ghost BFF, I started with making my podcast and doing it all on my own. Yeah, I want to do this animated series so that’s where my focus is at.
Nadia: That all sounds wonderful, and I look forward to everything that you do next. In the meantime I will be rewatching Ghost BFF. It’s just beautiful, an important conversation told in such an interesting way. In the spirit of the series, I wanted to end by asking what’s a mindfulness practice that you find most helpful in your life, at this moment in time?
Kaniehtiio: At this moment in time, I think without getting lost in being a parent, in being a mother, I think focusing on my son keeps me grounded. Keeps my focus on the things that are important, and not getting caught up in everything else like this industry. And just breathing, sometimes just taking a few breaths, if that makes sense.
Watch Seasons 1 and 2 of Ghost BFF here! 👻💕
Click here for a list of resources on mental health and to watch Let's Talk About Our Feels, a short educational video series where the Ghost BFF team talk about women's health in relation to mindfulness practices.
Click here to read more about the MADE | NOUS Seek More Campaign.
Check out Kaniehtiio’s podcast Coffee With My Ma here!
The Canadian Screen Awards will be streaming live on academy.ca from May 17-20.
[Interview has been edited for clarity and length]