T’Nia Miller on Bly Manor’s Ghost Twist and Love Stories

Spoilers for The Haunting of Bly Manor episode 5, “The Altar of the Dead” below.

To hear T’Nia Miller say it, horror isn’t really her thing. She knows comedy, as evidenced by her performance as Maxine Tarrington, president of the school board on Sex education. And she’s more than comfortable with the drama, as evidenced by her role as Celeste on Years and years, which examines political upheaval through the eyes of a Manchester family. But the horror? “It’s not necessarily a genre that I know and play in,” the actress admitted to ELLE.com on a call from her south London residence.

It’s ironic, then, that Miller ended up in The Haunting of Bly Manor– playing a ghost, nothing less. She hadn’t even looked The Haunting of Hill House, the previous episode of showrunner Mike Flanagan’s horrific Netflix series, before his agent sent him the script. But when she tried the first episode, she was hooked. In fact, she stayed up late looking at him. “I was like, ‘Ooh, that’s good’,” she recalls.

Like its predecessor, Manor of Bly forces its actors to think beyond the concept of a haunted house and exposes some of our deepest fears, including abandonment and grief. As Hannah Grose, the mansion housekeeper looking after two young orphans (Amelia Bea Smith and Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) while struggling with her own solemn reality, Miller channeled her past. Although Miller’s young son had been ill for years and struggled to care for him as a single mother of two, the experience still weighs heavily on her mind.

“I wanted to collapse,” she recalls. “When you see your child injured and there is nothing you can do to help him… I felt like I was going to have another seizure, but I couldn’t. I had to keep this together. The usually composed Mrs. Grose hits that same boiling point in Episode 5, as she calmly walks out of the mansion before releasing a painful moan. This is the moment when Miller becomes – perhaps to her surprise – a Screaming Queen.

But it shouldn’t shock anyone that Miller can transform into a role once she decides to do it. After all, she enrolled in the prestigious Guilford School of Acting in the UK while raising two children under the age of five because she was determined to make her acting dream come true. “I want everything!” she laughs. Taking a break from planning her move to Los Angeles – or maybe Crystal Palace in London, as she hasn’t quite decided yet – Miller discusses love amid the horror, “d ‘having the balls’ to proudly swing a shaved head and exploit his vulnerabilities in The Haunting of Bly Manor.

What drew you to Hannah Grose?

She’s so multi-layered. She’s got this very stiff thing going, keeping it together. But in fact, she’s like a swan, seemingly soaring through life. She is in denial. She is so afraid of upsetting the status quo. She is so afraid of being vulnerable or of being left behind, of not being loved and not being loved. And also – he’s a ghost!

I absolutely loved this twist.

I was like, “What !?” Everyone was saying, “Have you read this?” And I said to myself: “No! I will read it. But I always did Sex education. And then I read it and I was like, Noooo! I was like, Oh shit I’m dead.

What was your point of entry into your character’s arc?

It was my own story, really. I have experienced grief in different ways. Hannah is saddened to lose her husband, [who] left and had an affair. And she has to take care of these two children. I have raised two children myself as a single parent. My son went through a stage where he was really bad, and thank goodness that was a stage and he got out of it, but he had very serious ailments. And I wanted to collapse. When you see your child injured and there is nothing you can do to help them, it is beyond your reach. It’s not that you can use a rag and an antiseptic and love them and put them in bed.

And I went to drama school with two kids under five. When they were well, a dear friend said to me, “You need to cry. She is a beautiful spirit, and she told me to cry! And I cried. I let him out. So I take inspiration for Hannah from that experience in episode 5 when she walks down the path and roars. It was my trip with my son, once she gave me permission.

What made you decide to take action after having two children?

It was something I always wanted to do. My dad is a photographer and on my third birthday he took this photo of me. I remember this photo because I received a slap on the butt before it was taken for sucking my thumb. Someone asked me [that day], “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And I said I wanted to be an actor. So that’s something I’ve always wanted to do, even before the kids, before the mortgages, the dissolved marriages, all that sort of thing. I don’t deliver smart. I had the passion and I was like, “I’m going to do it.” My mother started out as a nurse and then became a psychotherapist. She rose in her career with the great belief that you can do whatever you want. So I was like, “I’m going to make this work.”

It’s a great mantra.

Otherwise, why do we live if we don’t do what makes us happy? I see this job as a lifestyle that I have chosen for myself. Now my children are old. I had them very young. They have grown. The latest just graduated with a [degree] in politics. They are doing very well for themselves. I’m glad I persevered. It also teaches them: if you want something, go for it. The universe will meet you.

“Why do we live differently if we don’t do what makes us happy?”

I find it interesting that there is so much love and loss woven throughout this otherwise gruesome story into Manor of Bly. What was it like looking at it from the inside?

I’m like Hannah, sweet and sweet. I’m like “I love you” and I’ll tell you. I don’t care if we just met. I fall in love very easily. It doesn’t necessarily mean sensual. But I think that as an actor you have to come to intimacy very quickly. You might meet someone and in the next scene, you kiss them. There is a shortcut to privacy. In the series, there is a lot of love and a lot of loss, and [it’s] really [about] how these two come together, and sometimes they conflict with each other. Even with Dani and Jamie [Victoria Pedretti and Amelia Eve, eventual lovers who play the manor’s au pair and gardener], there is always something in the way. And it’s only us who get in the way, right? Or death, in my case.

Hannah’s death is so brutal to watch.

So brutal! And that’s the denial part – Miles [Ainsworth], this kid. Everything about children is really scary. Most people love kids and they are really cute. But when they’re mean … Miles is wrong. He did an incredible job. Both are the most caring, beautiful, well behaved, funny and confident children I have ever had the pleasure of working with. And they are just lovely.

They are certainly fascinating on screen. The series has a brilliant way of transforming the house, usually a place where people feel most secure and centered, into an epicenter of horror. How were you able to help reinvent this space and dig into the deepest fears of yourself?

I actually have an interesting story. On the first day of filming the first episode, when Dani comes to the mansion and we sit down and have dinner, the light has gone out.

Oh my God.

And every time someone would change the light [it] just kept on blowing. I’m not shitting you. I was like, “Oh damn. What did I get myself into? This is the thing: if you watch a horror movie, it feels like something is over your shoulder, even in your own home. There were times that I felt like Oh, what is this? It’s not okay. It just doesn’t feel safe. I think it speaks more of the fears in us than the building or Bly. I think the energies are being left behind and that’s what Mike tapped into.

t'nia miller with bly manor co star benjamin evan ainsworth
Miller with Manor of Bly co-starring Benjamin Evan Ainsworth.

EIKE SCHROTER / NETFLIX

You have already played on Years and years, which is a horror of a different kind because it reflects our real-life dystopia. Do you feel more responsible now to question or look at our reality through your work?

Absolutely. I think if we look at the story in its truest form, it was to educate. It was to bring the villages together. It has been used as a political tool to really look at what is going on in society [and] with those responsible. I think it’s really important for all of us to come together – not just actors and musicians, producers, casting directors and journalists. [like] yourself. We all need to continue to question ourselves and have an honest dialogue.

During this period of Black Lives Matter, it’s horrible. It makes you angry. But the beautiful thing is that people come together. They have the conversation. Because it’s happening. This is nothing new. My son was arrested and searched when he was 11 years old. An 11 year old kid! What do you stop and look for? It’s just the reality. We have a huge responsibility to question and reflect the truth, and to continue asking questions and listening with an open heart.

I agree. Where do you get your sense of yourself – the one that gave you the confidence to declare a career at three, cradle a shaved head like a badass, and channel your own vulnerability for all to see. ‘screen?

When I was 13 I was like the tallest person in my class [at 5’6”], so I always stood out from the rest of the kids. People expected more from me because they thought I was older, and I was always called weird. I made the decision around 15 that I’m just going to stick with it. I will be the strangest. Its good. I’m terrible at jokes. People laugh at me and that’s cool. But when I make a joke, no one laughs. It’s like tumbleweed.

So all of these things build character, confidence. With the hair … I don’t know if you watched Chris Rock Good hair, but I had what they would call “good hair”. I relaxed him. It was straight, long. And I got to 20 and I was like, What am I perpetuating here? This idea that with the length, I look more European. I am not decent as a black woman. So, I shaved it with the intention of repelling an afro. I sat in this barber’s chair, saw my skull and thought, “Wow, there’s nothing behind to hide.” I can’t hide behind all these different hairstyles. I was scared that I wouldn’t find a job as an actor, but it actually paid off: loving my skull and not hiding behind the beauty, makeup, and hair gave me the confidence to act these characters.

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