Román Zaragoza talks Sasappis and native representation in CBS’s ‘Ghosts’

Photo Credit: Kim Newmoney

Román Zaragoza has quickly become “one to watch” in the entertainment industry, bringing diverse stories to life on stage and screen. This year, Román can be seen starring in CBS’ highly anticipated, upcoming comedy series “Ghosts.” 

“Ghosts” focuses on Samantha (played by Rose McIver) and Jay (played by Utkarsh Ambudkar), a New York City couple that inherits a country home in upstate New York. The pair plans to turn it into a bed and breakfast and have to put a lot of work into the home, and when Samantha has a bad fall, she becomes able to see and communicate with the nine ghosts that have taken up residence in the home

Check out my interview with Román!

What can you tell us about your character?

Román: I play Sasappis. He is a Lenape man that died around 1520 and has been dead for around 500 years. He is a sarcastic troublemaker sometimes. He’s this old soul, young spirit that is really just trying to navigate this purgatory that he’s currently living in.

Bertrand Calmeau/CBS ©2021 CBS Broadcasting, Inc.
What sold you on playing him?

Román: Well, I think the biggest thing that sold me on playing him was- when I first auditioned for the show and, you know, when you read a script like that and you see 1520’s Lenape Native American, you’re constantly thinking, ‘oh man, they want it to be some like accent or something or they want it to be some stereotype.’ But right away, the note from the casting said, ‘please use your normal voice. Play it as you would play yourself. Do not try to play it as someone from that time period.’ He’s been dead for so long and I’m like, ‘amazing! I’m already sold.’ If you have creators that are trying to make a character that is just a contemporary person, or at least appears to be a contemporary person, but is trapped in this antiquated body, kind of, that was one thing that really sold me. For so much of my career, I’ve been working with native characters, native storylines, I work with a Native American Theatre Company, and a lot of the stuff we do, we also do a lot of contemporary stuff, but some of the stuff we do is talking about history, which is great because we’re trying to shed light on native history. If I do auditions for native films or native TV shows or native characters that are written by non native people, a lot of the time it’s in the past, it’s during the Western era and so you’re constantly trying to appease these writers and play these old stereotyped, almost, John Wayne feeling kind of characters. However, for this show, it was the opposite and I got to be just myself. I get to just speak how I speak. It’s been really amazing.

What is it like for you to play a native character?

Román: Yeah, so first identify as mixed race. I am of Akimel O’otham, Mexican, Japanese and Taiwanese descent. I come from a diverse background, I grew up in New York City, so kind of disenfranchised from all of my cultures. But my family has been doing a really great job with just trying to create ties and connect back to communities that we descended from. And so for me, this character means a lot because I relate to him. He’s been disenfranchised from his people, you know, he’s been displaced from his people, he’s been living with non native people for the last 500 years, and trying to navigate what that means. And so for me, it’s been interesting to kind of navigate that world and that part of the character. And then also trying to bring native representation to primetime TV, it’s been really exciting. I get to be that representation that I didn’t see that much growing up. For me, representation is such a big part of why I do what I do, so that young brown kids everywhere can see someone on TV that looks like them. And I want to make sure that I can be that. I know it’s complicated because I’m mixed race and I know how that can be a little tricky, but I also want to talk about what it means to be mixed race more. We don’t talk about that enough, especially as actors, most of the characters we play our uniracial or monoracial, the new term that people have been talking about where it’s just Native American or just Asian and nowadays in America, a lot of our country’s appearing to be mixed and I think it’s something we need to talk about more.

Photo: Cliff Lipson/CBS 2020 CBS Broadcasting, Inc.
This show is based on a BBC One show with the same title, were you familiar with that show going into this one?

Román: I actually wasn’t. I had heard of it, but never watched it, until I auditioned for the show. I was like, ‘oh, I should do some research,’ and I fell in love with the show. The show is hilarious. It’s so beautifully shot, and the characters, the actors are just absolutely incredible. But I got to a point, before we were shooting, where I couldn’t watch this anymore because it makes you nervous, like there’s so much to live up to. The show is so good. So, I had to kind of turn it off for a little bit and just focus on our show, because I was getting too much in my head, you know, with comparing and contrasting.

Did you feel any pressure at all?

Román: Tons! So much pressure, so much pressure on so many different fronts. I feel pressure about the BBC show because it’s such an amazing show. I have such respect and admiration for that show. And now with the American adaptation, yeah, it was definitely nerve wracking, I also feel pressure as the native representation. I feel pressure on that front as well. I also tend to just put a lot of pressure on myself. 

For fans of the original BBC show, what can they expect from this one?

Román: I feel like one thing to expect is that we’re different, we’re like cousins. I feel like we’re the BBC show’s cousin where we’re similar, we look similar, but we have a different background, we have a different history, different upbringing. I think it’s interesting to just note that because English history is different than American history and we’re talking about different stuff and I think we dive into a lot of race issues and and talk about, like for me and my character, we talked about land a lot, we talk about who were the original people on this land that we’re on right now and so I think it’s definitely different. I hope BBC fans get to watch ours.

Photo Credit: Kim Newmoney
In looking forward to the rest of the season, what can we expect? What exciting things are you allowed to talk about?

Román: That is a tricky question. Expect to dive into more backstories, you know, as we saw from episode three. We get to dive into characters’ backstories and some of the ghosts’ inner struggles and why they’re there and that’s been such a fun part of our show. It’s getting to shed light on these characters a little bit more. And, yeah, more on jokes, more laughs, and I think more heart. I think that’s what I love about our show so much is the heart that you feel. Like in watching episode three, you just feel for Thorfinn and feel that visceral feeling that I don’t feel a lot of men talk about, you know, this insecurity and this vulnerability and seeing a big guy get vulnerable like that. 

What is something that you are very excited for people to see?

Román: I’m excited for people to see our guest stars. We have some incredible guest stars. But also the representation of having our own storylines that we get to dive into and I hope that people fall in love with all the characters. Every character has their own past, their own journey and I’m excited for fans to see that.

Thank you so much for chatting with me, is there anything else that you would like to say about “Ghosts?”

Román: I am just grateful to be a part of this production. I’m grateful that we have a native writer in the writers room, by the name of John Timothy, who is Mvskoke Creek, and he’s a native writer and comedian. We also have an amazing Lenape consultant by the name of Joe Baker. It just means a lot that our creators, Joe Wiseman and Joe Port, made sure that the writers room was as diverse as the cast because a lot of the time that’s not how it is. And I hope viewers know about that too, you know, know the people that are behind the scenes, know the people that are writing these projects because it’s easy to just see the actors and congratulate them, but there’s a lot of behind the scenes work and I just want to make sure we shout out to those people as well.

Photo: Bertrand Calmeau/CBS ©2021 CBS Broadcasting, Inc.
“Ghosts” airs on CBS on Thursdays at 9 p.m. You can follow Zaragoza @romanzaragoza