In one of the breakout performances of The Haunting of Bly Manor, T’Nia Miller plays Hannah Grose, the housekeeper at a mysterious and very haunted house in England. There’s a big twist for Hannah, a development that’s revealed in episode five, and anyone who hasn’t seen the show should know that we talk a lot about the twist in this conversation. We also discuss how Miller came to the role, her thoughts on horror as a genre and the particular brilliance of Mike Flanagan’s Haunting series, and the thing Miller is happy to admit that she got wrong about Bly Manor.
When I spoke with Miller over Zoom, she’d just finished shooting in Madrid for the day. In an unfortunate turn of events, I didn’t realize that Miller’s friend was seated next to her for the first half of this conversation — in spite of Miller’s reassurances, I am absolutely sure I spoiled some significant surprises in the series. Whoops!
Where did you get your amazing coat?
I got it on The Haunting from one of the drivers! I had finished early one day, and we kept passing this little vintage shop, and I said, “Oh Dave, do you mind if we stop in there?” He was like, “No, not at all!” He’s like this middle-aged guy, plain clothes, doesn’t have a lot of fashion sense. But anyway, he picked out this jacket for me! Turns out he loves fashion — he loves shopping for his daughters! He’s amazing!
Anyhow, how are you?
I’m well. How are you?
I’m good! I’m in Madrid. I’m shooting. It’s great — I’ve had lots of tapas and wine [laughs].
The Haunting of Bly Manor has been out for a little bit now. Do you read reviews or responses from viewers? Are you someone who tries to ignore them?
It’s been very hard not to notice the response! I’m on social media, and the response has been overwhelming. It’s No. 1 worldwide. I didn’t expect that at all, and I didn’t expect the reception of Hannah’s character to be quite what it’s been.
We’re also our own worst critics, aren’t we? So when I watch it, I think, Oh, I could’ve done that better, or, Oh, that’s a bit shit. So, yeah, I wasn’t expecting it. But I’m glad that people have stuck with it.
The Haunting is popular enough now that Hannah Grose will probably be the character you’re associated with in people’s minds, at least for the next little while. How do you feel about being tied to her?
Some people in the U.S. have seen Years and Years, so they’ll know me for that, but I think you’re right that more people will have seen this. Hannah’s a bloody trooper, man. She’s an awesome, awesome being. She’s far more generous than I am. I think I would’ve spoken up a little sooner than her. But that’s okay. I’ve been fortunate in my career to play all sorts of different women, all sorts of powerful women. I don’t expect it’ll be any different going forward.
I read that you weren’t a big fan of horror before you became involved.
Oh no, I am a fan of horror! I don’t like slashers — I can appreciate the makeup, but all the blood and gore [winces]. But no, I love horror.
What kinds of horror do you like?
The classics, like The Shining. Not the latest version, but the original scared the shit out of me. Couldn’t sleep for weeks. I was 12 years old when I first watched it. But for more recent titles, things like Stranger Things, that first season. Anything with children: The Omen, Insidious, Poltergeist. Get Out is also quite recent. Anything that goes supernatural, because you just never know if it could be true, that has you looking in the corner and double-guessing things.
Why do you think children are so scary in horror?
Because they’re innocent! Children are meant to be these beautiful, innocent beings, and you can’t help but have a maternal or paternal nature to protect them. Or at least I can’t, because I’m a mother. It’s in most of our DNA, that we protect. And when that thing is evil, there’s a conflict within us, and I think that’s what gets us with children. The thing that we’re meant to protect is the very thing that’s coming to get us.
Did you show your kids scary movies, horror movies, when they were young? I’ve been wondering about how scary is too scary for my own kids, who are still very little.
My kids are in their 20s. They’re grown-ups, but, I have to say, my daughter was 5 or 6 at the time and we were watching a documentary about the holocaust in Germany — the first one, with the Namibians, which is one people don’t really know about. Anyhow, she wanted to stay up and watch it, and I let her because I thought, Oh, it’s educational! I was a very young mother. Oh Jesus, what a mistake. What a mistake! She was scarred! Don’t do it. Let them be children!
Yes! And yet with horror, in particular, there is that thing that kids have as well, where a part of us wants to be scared.
What is that about? Masochists, we’re all sadomasochists.
I think about it when I think about The Haunting, both seasons. Because you can imagine a version where it’s a realist drama and it’s just about these families and their trauma. But turning it into a ghost story gives it this very different kind of appeal.
Well, I think you’ve touched on something there, because it could very easily have just been a drama. What Mike [Flanagan, the creator of The Haunting] is very clever at doing is he’s got comedy in there, he’s got horror, he’s got drama — he’s got all these genres blended together. It is a drama about our own lives, and we relate to that fear because it’s our deepest, darkest secrets, our own fears, our own demons. And I think that’s why he’s so successful at what he does. It’s about that inner fear — all the bullshit that tells you that you can’t do something, you’re not good enough, you’re not allowed to do that. It’s all our own psyche, and he taps into that place. That’s the real horror.
And then something happens when it gets turned into a literal ghost story.
It’s a ghost, it’s something else! It’s outside of us! And it’s not. Well, okay, in The Haunting it is also something outside their control. But, for me, it’s all about epigenetics. I’m not a Christian, but I am spiritual, and the Bible says the sins of the father will be visited upon the sons. Like, I’ve fucked my children up. There’s no doubt — I’ve fucked them up 100 percent. I think it’s that, it’s: What do we carry from our parents? What do we hand down to our children and keep repeating ourselves until we can break the curse?
Was it hard to figure out all the different facets of Hannah? She’s a servant, but she also raises the children, and by the end of the series, she’s really running the whole house.
By the time we actually meet her in the present day in 1987, she fancies herself the lady of the manor. She rules the roost. Yes, everyone has their job, but she fancies herself in charge. She’s a bit of a bossy boots, really. Lovely, but a bossy boots. Going back in time and being that more subservient woman, for T’Nia the actor … calling someone “Sir” … the last time I called someone “Sir” was at school, and even then I didn’t like it, just for the connotations, you know? [Laughs.] And also being a Black woman and playing basically a maid. All those things I had to reconcile with, and eventually I thought, No, I’m okay with this. We’re all servants here. It’s fine. It’s an equal playing field. Had it been any different, it would’ve been someone else playing that part.
Those nuances, finding them was about time. They were her family. She’s so divorced from her own culture. She lives in this very whitewashed world, living in the countryside in England with no access to her roots or anyone that’s like her. The closest thing to her is someone like Owen, who is a brown man who understands the complications politically of what’s happening at that time. I was a child of the ’80s, so I know what that looked like. I heard the story from my grandparents of not being allowed on the bus and seeing spray paint of the National Front of the shop windows.
For her, this is a safe place. Her and Charlotte [Wingrave, the owner of Bly Manor] become friends. Hannah says, “I know this sounds like upstairs-downstairs, but this is my home.” So those other things don’t matter as much, and therein lies the nuance. Sorry, that was a very long-winded answer!
No, that was really helpful, because I think I put something together I hadn’t really before. I’d been wrestling with why Hannah dies. It’s so sad, and I wish she could’ve survived! But when you explained that she really sees herself as the lady of the manor, it makes sense. Because the house kills all the ladies of the manor. It’s almost like by dying, the show proves how powerful she was.
Yes! It’s very sad, though. It’s so sad.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who imagines an alternate future where Hannah and Owen [Bly Manor’s cook] get to run away together.
Yes, they would’ve had such a beautiful life.
When you found out about the twist in the middle of the season [that Hannah’s been dead this whole time], did you have to reconceive what you’d thought about the character?
Yeah! You know, it’s really funny, I’ll just show you … [Miller spins her laptop over so that I can see her friend, the actress Lorna Gayle, has been sitting on the sofa next to her this whole time] I have this friend with me, to whom I owe a lot of my success, because she fought for me to have my agent. But she hasn’t seen episode five yet! So I’m talking to you, and I’m like [Claps hand over her mouth].
Oh no! Hello!
Lorna Gayle: Hi! How are you?
I’m so sorry!
L.G.: No, it’s okay. I’ve got some music on — I never heard it!
I’ve got some other questions about the twist, but now I feel bad!
No, no, she’s got some headphones on — it’s absolutely fine! She’s in the other room now!
Okay, if you’re sure. Did you read all the scripts before you started shooting, or did you read as you go? Did you go into shooting knowing the twist?
It was a little bit of both. When I accepted the part, I’d literally just got the sides. I was like, She’s really, really nice. This is not really my thing. But I’d watched Hill House and been absolutely blown away, totally addicted. So then I got the part (for Bly Manor), and I thought, Yes, I don’t care what the part is. This is brilliant.
As you got more into the part, did you have the sense that Mike Flanagan was waiting for you to figure out the twist? Did you have the sense that something was up?
They did say, “Have you read episode five yet?” And I’m a bit dizzy. I just said, “Huh, no.” They said, “You need to read episode five. There’s some really good stuff there for you.” So I thought, Oh, I’m going to have a couple of really nice scenes. I was not expecting that at all. I didn’t see it coming.
So then, yeah, I had to rework how I was going to play that and what clues I was going to give. In episodes one through four, you’ll notice she sometimes will just touch her hair, or she’ll notice the crack in the wall. Those were little clues but didn’t want to make it too obvious, but you never know until it’s edited what it’s going to look like.
Before you read episode five, did you have any guesses what the crack in the wall meant?
I had no clue! I thought, It’s an old house. It’s falling apart. I’m so simple! [Huge laugh.] Oh God.
Have you watched the show?
I have! My favorite episodes were six and seven, with Ben [Howling] and Yolanda [Ramke, the episodes’ directors]. I thought they were just spectacular. I think it’s where Tahirah Sharif [who plays Rebecca Jessel] really comes into her own. And, I have to admit, I didn’t expect to like episode eight. They were like, “It’s going to be shot in black and white,” and I thought, Really? The whole thing’s in color. Really?
You thought it was going to be cheesy?
Not even cheesy, just bad. Too avant-garde, too indie Sundance Festival. I thought, Nah, babe, this is Netflix. Just keep it real. But oh my God, they know what they’re doing. It was bloody brilliant! I eat my hat. It was spectacular.
Did you watch it recently, or before it was released?
I watched it before it came out, and I watched it with my mom, who thought it was hilarious. She pissed herself laughing. She flew back on the sofa laughing.
She went, “You’re a ghost and he wants to take you to Paris! Haha!” She thought it was absolutely hilarious. “He wants to take you to Paris, but he doesn’t know you’re a ghost!”
But that’s so sad!
Everybody else thinks, Oh, that’s so sad. But she just pissed herself laughing. I don’t know where her mind went, but it was bellyaching laughter.