Recently, Román Zaragoza gave an interview to observer.com about ‘Ghosts‘ Episode 14 ‘Ghostwriter‘, an episode that retraces a little of his backstory.
“I think we see how Sas really cares about Sam and Jay, and he enjoys having them there and he wants to help out in any way he can,” Román Zaragoza told Observer. “Because at the end of the day, if she doesn’t finish the website, they don’t finish setting up the B&B, they might lose the house. We definitely see this new side of Sas, and he dives into this storytelling persona. It was just something that was so exciting to do and to work on.”
When did you first discover your own passion for storytelling, and what was the driving force behind your decision to become an actor?
I first fell in love with acting in theater when I was around three years old and my father was on Broadway doing Annie Get Your Gun. We would go see him do that multiple times a week, and Bernadette Peters was in it. It was just an amazing show. And that was my childhood, which is so crazy to think about. I’ve been acting since I can remember, just in commercials and little TV spots here and there—and don’t get me wrong, I love theater—but I didn’t know that I really wanted to really, really pursue it. I dreamed about pursuing it, but I think when I was around 18 and didn’t get into UCLA for musical theater, [where] I thought I was gonna go ’cause my sister went there for musical theater.
I was having a quarter life crisis at 18, and I decided to go to Cal State Northridge. It’s a state school in L.A. for film production to learn how to make my own projects, so it was around 19 years of really figuring out what I want to do with my life. Do I want to act in other people’s projects where I get to play stereotypical characters, or do I want to write my own and produce my own and star in my own projects? So that was something I got really excited about when I was around 18, 19. And pretty much it just took off from there, and I’m very grateful for finding my voice.
Did your parents ever encourage you to find a job that was a little “safer,” like Sasappis’ father tells him in the episode?
[Laughs.] What was funny about that is both of my parents were so supportive of me pursuing what I wanted to pursue. They both come from families and parents who really forced them to have practical jobs—my dad was a lawyer in addition to being an actor, and my mom is a business professor and she was very much in the business world. Very money-oriented, very steady job families, so my parents both wanted me and my sisters to really pursue what we wanted to pursue, and they supported us every way that they could.
My dad is always very much like, “Do what you love. If you’re poor, who cares? As long as you love it.” And my mom is a little bit more practical. [Laughs.] I think my mom was like, “Yes, do that… but also why not get a degree in business?” I’m like, “Okay, that’s not really my style, but maybe…” My mom definitely was the one who kept me grounded. I wouldn’t say anyone really doubted [me], but there were definitely conversations, like, “Are you sure you want to do this? Because it’s a really hard life.”
I’ve been very blessed and privileged to have gotten a series regular at the age that I am. It takes years and years, and of course, I’ve put in my years and I’ve come from theater where I was making nowhere near what I’m making now, but I had the same amount of enjoyment. It’s definitely an interesting world and process of being an actor, but I guess I would just say that I’m very grateful my parents were so supportive of me from a young age.
On paper, one might expect all of the ghosts from various eras and backgrounds to clash with each other, but they all somehow seem to complement one another. Did you also feel that immediacy in your connection as an ensemble?
It’s so funny to think about because we all just clicked right in that first week shooting the pilot, when we all didn’t know each other. The whole cast, they’re kind, good-hearted people, and we knew that this was an ensemble comedy, so you have to really work with your ensemble or else it’s not gonna work. Everyone knew that coming in, and so it was a really exciting shoot for that pilot because we were like, “Wow, this is really cool. I think we got something here.”
Sasappis was obviously Native American when you auditioned to play him, but how have you worked with the creative team to ensure that you were honoring the specificities of his background?
After the pilot, I had really good conversations with the Joes—[executive producers] Joe Port and Joe Wiseman—about bringing a Lenape consultant into the project. If you want him to be Lenape, you should be engaging with the tribe or someone who is associated with the tribe, because otherwise, it could come off a little disrespectful. I’m like, “I’m not Lenape. I’m not knowledgeable on the Lenape people’s history. That’s not me, so I would love to bring someone in.” So they brought in Joe Baker, who is this amazing resource and amazing guy, who is enrolled in the Delaware Tribe. He’s Lenape, he’s the executive director of a Lenape justify. He’s been such a blessing for us and so supportive, and you can really see the impact he had on Sasappis and on the show as a whole, from my costume changing from episode 1 [to] episode 2.
Having Sasappis be a storyteller, that was something that the Joes and Joe Baker were talking about because they wanted to make Sasappis that made sense to his character, not just making some stereotypical warrior or whatever other stereotypes there are for Native people. They wanted him to be this full-fledged person, and I was so excited when they said they wanted him to be a storyteller. Also, we have a Native writer in the writer’s room by the name of John Timothy who’s Muscogee Creek, so it’s been exciting to have Native creatives in the room so that I don’t feel like I need to take up all of that space. I can just be an actor, which is awesome.
Following the success of Rutherford Falls and Reservation Dogs, do you feel like a new day has come for Native representation in mainstream media?
One thing for me was I didn’t want Sasappis—and me playing Sasappis—to be groundbreaking. I just wanted it to be another actor playing a character, and I think with the success of Rutherford Falls and with Reservation Dogs, we’re seeing these shows that of course, yes, have Native showrunners, but are just really good shows. [They] have kind of taken the heat off of other actors who are just in shows. We’re like, “Hey, look at these amazing shows by Native showrunners. These things are what we should be talking about.” And Sterlin Harjo, I worked with him back in 2019, an amazing guy. I’m so proud of Reservation Dogs and all their success.
Having people telling those stories is so important—Native writers, Native directors. Hiring Native actors is awesome and we should have Native actors, but having people from the start that are Native telling those stories… that’s exciting. Let’s talk about that. I’m just so honored to be part of the Native representation in film and TV, not the representation. Just part of the representation.
Like you said, we don’t want to sensationalize Sasappis’ role on this show, but how do you hope your portrayal of Sasappis will help to move the needle forward?
I’m excited when I get someone on Instagram reaching out saying, “My kids look up to you.” Someone reached out to me and was like, “Hey, this kid in my class is a big fan.” And she was like, “I didn’t even know what your show was, but he told me!” And I was like, “That’s so cool!”
I grew up in a time where I didn’t really see myself represented onscreen unless my dad was in a movie, or just little bits here and there. I didn’t feel like the people that I saw in film and TV were full-fledged, three-dimensional characters sometimes, so I just really want people to see that Sasappis is a three-dimensional character. I want little brown kids to look up and see themselves represented, and I also want other people to identify with him and his cynicism and his sarcastic nature. Of course, representation is such a big part of my life and I want that to be the impact that I can have, but also I want people to see that Sasappis is more than the color of his skin as well.
Where did the idea to have your real-life father play your onscreen father come from, and what was it like for you to work opposite him after watching him for so many years from afar?
This is just an ongoing conversation I’ve been having with the Joes, because they found out my dad was an actor. My dad had worked with Rebecca Wisocky, who plays Hetty, back in the day, doing underground theater in New York City. It’s so cool. The Joes knew of his work, and they were like, “Hey, by the way, we’re writing a storyline that has Sasappis’ father. Would your dad be interested?” And I was like, “Yeah, I think he would be!” So it was just that easy and it was so much fun. My dad and I, we’ve never played father and son before onscreen, so that was just so special and we just had such a great time. The costumes were fun, the set was so cool. It was a really special day.
What can you preview about the final episodes of the season? Are there any fun storylines or guest stars that you’re excited for people to see?
Definitely fun guest stars, definitely fun relationships. We dive into more of the relationships with the ghosts and we learn some histories, we learn some back stories. And for Sasappis, we see him being a good friend. I really enjoyed kind of seeing the different colors and peeling away his external shell a little bit.
Ghosts has already been renewed for a second season, so what parts of Sasappis’ character would you like to explore going forward? Do you have any dream guest stars that could play other members of his family?
Oh my goodness, I would love all of my friends and family to just be in the show! [Laughs.] That would be so much fun. There’s so many, but storylines-wise, I’d love to see some contemporary Native representation on the show. Actually, we are getting some of that at the end of this season, so stay tuned for that.
But I’d love to see more of that—maybe some storylines about Sas discovering more about contemporary Native issues or contemporary Native culture. And then also more back story would be fun, and more relationship stuff with other ghosts. I just love getting to play with all of our cast, and I’m just constantly learning from all of them.