Vanessa Matsui 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 Vanessa Matsui, who does fantastic work bringing this series to life. Vanessa discussed the inception of creating and writing Ghost BFF, and how the series tackles heavy subjects. She also talks about the importance of prioritizing mental health, inclusive representation in the industry, her upcoming directorial feature debut, and more. Check out my interview with Vanessa below, and read for my interview with Kaniehtiio here!
Nadia: Thank you for taking the time to chat with me. Thank you for creating this series. It’s funny, intelligent, unlike anything I’ve seen, and tackles tough issues in an interesting way. The series has four acting nominations at this year’s Canadian Screen Awards, including one for your performance as Amy. How does it feel to be nominated in this category for this role?
Vanessa: It feels great! I’m really proud of this show, not only the work that I did...I think it means so much that these four women were nominated for acting. I love actresses. My best friends are actors and actresses. It’s always been my dream to create really great roles for us, so I’m beyond thrilled. It means a lot to be recognized by your peers.
Nadia: Your performance is wonderful. I love how the series looks at Amy’s day-to-day life, and how her grief and anxiety manifest in different ways. For example, Amy forgetting plans from time to time, which made me think about how depression and anxiety can affect one’s memory. She’s such a resonating character. Could you talk about how you found Amy’s voice and how that character came about?
Vanessa: I mean, Amy, I knew I was going to be playing her. She came quite naturally to me. She was actually the easiest character to write, just because even though it’s not me, I obviously know my own voice (laughing). She’s a little based on my own personal experience with my friends who have suffered from depression, and some of which are suicide survivors. Amy came quite naturally. Especially now that all of us are, fingers crossed, knock on wood, coming out of this period of COVID. I think a lot of people can probably relate to issues with mental health and may be suffering from depression in a way they haven’t before. I’ll even hear people say, COVID brain, when they forget something. That’s a part of when you’re suffering. There are small things that your brain can’t process because it’s processing all these other things, and it’s kind of in survival mode instead of thrive mode.
Nadia: The series shines a light on mental health in a way that feels accessible, empathetic, and relatable to watch. It’s important for people to feel they can talk about topics like depression, anxiety, and suicide without shame or judgment. Could you talk about the importance of prioritizing mental health and what inspired you to create a series where mental health is at the forefront?
Vanessa: The inception of the idea came about when I was staying with one of my best friends. She was suicidal, and she's thriving now. To remind people suicide really is a permanent solution to a temporary problem, and I’ve watched people come through the other side. It’s so inspiring and I’m so happy. The original inspiration came about from that time being with her, and at the same time, I had another friend who died from suicide. This was probably eight or nine years ago now. I was looking around…there’s a lot of young women suffering and nobody is talking about this. So...I had the idea to create a comedy about it, but I am being respectful because I think that comedy is a really wonderful bridge when you’re talking about heavy subjects. Especially a topic like suicide which is so heavy.
My background is in improv, but also, comedy is a great tool to talk about difficult things. Also, when I was staying with my friend, all she wanted to do was watch The Mindy Project. I was like, "Yes! Exactly (laughing)!" You want to watch something that’s going to make you laugh. That was ultimately what I wanted to do. I wanted people to watch the show, and if you happen to be suffering or know somebody who is suffering, the show will leave you feeling a little less alone and hopefully make you laugh.
Kaniehtiio Horn and Vanessa Matsui in Ghost BFF
Nadia: One of the elements I love about the series is there are great discussions and great roles for women at the center of it. There’s been a seismic change in the film and television industry, particularly in the last three to four years with the movements that have emerged. Ghost BFF is a great example of representation in Canadian entertainment that is diverse and inclusive. Could you talk about the importance of accurate representation for women of colour in this industry, and changes you’ve noticed in Canadian content over the years?
Vanessa: For sure, part of why I wanted to make this show was because nobody was casting me. I was an actor before I was a writer, and I just got sick of it. Nobody was seeing me in a leading role, and I thought that the only way the industry would ever see me as a lead is if I just made it myself and put myself in that part. I’ve known Kaniehtiio (Horn) for a long time, we go back to Montreal days, and she’s such a muse and inspiration. It felt like a very perfect, natural fit to cast her that way. Also sometimes, although we’re both mixed race, the show isn’t about being mixed race. We are women living in Toronto, and these are the things that happen. We’re also just normal people (laughing).
And the other part of your question, women in the industry and how that has changed, part of what makes me proud about these four nominations is it’s four women nominated for one show. That’s huge! I don’t know if that’s ever happened before. Representation is so important, and female representation is so important, and I’ve noticed a seismic shift in the industry. I could tell you stories from what things were like in my early 20s, and what they are like now. One of the biggest shifts that I’ve seen, that has been actionable and positive, is this new position on set that’s been created called an intimacy coordinator. My first time working with an intimacy coordinator was on a show called Grand Army for Netflix, and I was like, “This is great”. It’s almost like, you know how we have stunt coordinators when you do a stunt, so it’s a specific person who’s been trained to help the director with a stunt scene so that nobody gets hurt. An intimacy coordinator does the same thing but for sex and nudity. I feel like so many bad situations that either I've been apart of on set, or that I've witnessed, would've just been eliminated because of this new position. So I think if anything that has come out of the Me Too movement, that is one of the most positive changes that I’ve seen.
Nadia: Absolutely. It’s important for women to feel they have a voice in this industry, and can speak up and speak out, and talk about their experiences.
Vanessa: Exactly. I mean I’ve always been very confident, even when I was young, I have no problem sticking up for myself. I would be screaming, asking people to stop, and nobody listened. Nobody cared. It was like I was nothing. It’s crazy how much things have changed, and I’m so glad for all these young women coming up in the industry now. It’s a very different place and I hope that continues.
Nadia: Speaking of more women in the industry, part of that is seeing more women behind the camera as well. I understand you’re about to direct your first feature film, Midnight at The Paradise.
Vanessa: Yeah! I’m slated to direct my first feature, I’m so excited. I was originally approached to be an actor in it, and the writer and I, he was also a really big fan of Ghost BFF. We found out he was also a really big fan of some of my earlier work with The Bitter End, which is my old improv group. He then saw some of my short films and said, “I actually think you’re the perfect person to direct this.” As first I was like, “No I’m not ready to do that” when I spoke with his executive producer, Paul Barkin. They really empowered me and I’m really excited about it. I do feel in this interesting way that could be a really great step in my career, and I’m excited. I’m starting to put the team together. [Liane Balaban] is one of my best friends and it’s so awesome to be able to direct her. We’ve collaborated many times in the past so it won’t be that new, but in this big of a capacity, it’ll be something challenging and exciting.
Nadia: I look forward to everything you’re doing next. In the meantime I will rewatch Ghost BFF. I really found it very special and comforting. I wanted to end by asking, is there any plan to revisit this story and these characters with another season?
Vanessa: There’s no current plan. My dream would be to somehow translate this to television, and get to make the TV version of what Ghost BFF is. That would be my dream.
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.
The Canadian Screen Awards will be streaming live on academy.ca from May 17-20.
[Interview has been edited for clarity and length]
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