Whenever anyone talks about Netflix's The Haunting of Bly Manor, one question inevitably comes up, and usually comes up fast: "Have you watched Episode 5?" That's because "The Altar of the Dead" is an enthralling maze that leads to the beating heart at the center of the ghost story. Much like "The Bent-Neck Lady," the lynchpin fifth episode of The Haunting of Hill House, the first season of the horror anthology series, it begins by slowly clarifying some of the supernatural laws tormenting the characters and ends in a reveal that delivers an emotional gut punch. Proving that horror stories aren't all jump scares or atmospheric tension, it grapples with very human experiences like loss—the loss of love, of potential, of what was and what could have been.
As Hannah Grose, groundskeeper and de facto head of Bly Manor, English actress T'Nia Miller plays a sensible but sometimes flighty leader who holds together a house staff who've become the only family to the manor's two resident orphans. In "The Altar of the Dead," Hannah finds herself in a kind of continuous time warp, returning to the same scene in her memory as a sort of holding area between past and present. It finally leads her to a dry well on the grounds of Bly, and then to a revelation at the well's bottom: her own dead body, revealing that she is one of the many apparitions trapped in the home.
Hannah, who lit candles for the dead and lost was one of their own ranks; the romance blossoming between her and Owen (Rahul Kohli), the house cook, was an impossible dream severed by the line between life and death. Miller plays the episode with an understated but palpable anxiety, grounding it in a feeling familiar to many of us: the struggle to cope with a reality we desperately want to deny.
Here, Miller talks to BAZAAR.com about how the episode came together, how the show did LGBTQ+ relationships and relationships between people of color right, and how long she's willing to crouch behind a door to commit to a good prank.
Let's start with an essential question: Do you like the horror genre, or are you a scaredy cat?
No, I'm a glutton for punishment. But I don't like slasher movies. I appreciate the makeup and the special effects and stuff. But it's not scary to me. The supernatural stuff, though … I'm spiritual, so I do believe in other realms. I just think there must be things that are bigger than us. Human beings, we think we're the most important things on this planet, and we're not. We're just a fucking parasite, you know what I mean? We're the only species that kills the environment where we live. It doesn't make any sense. Anyway! So, yes, I do believe in spirits. And I think because of that belief, a show about ghosts and the supernatural is freaking scary. But it's like going on a roller coaster. Oh, shit, I could die but this is going to be thrilling.
Plus, I just like scaring people. I love playing pranks. So I'll wait, crouched down by the toilet door for a whole 15 minutes. The person inside could be having a bath or taking the biggest dump, and I'm crouched in the most uncomfortable position the whole time, ready just to pounce out.
Who are these poor victims?
Mainly my kids, my mom, or the various partners I've had over the years—and all people on set. My kids are like, "Oh, Mom, can you just … seriously?" And my daughter in particular is like, "Mom, seriously, you just need to grow up. You're so immature." And I say, "All right, Saffy." Have you ever watched Ab Fab? She's like Saffy, and I'm Joanna Lumley.
There have been famously "cursed" scary movie sets like the set of The Exorcist. How did you feel while filming? Anything spooky happen?
There are loads of people around, so it's not really scary. As soon as they call cut, you've got people lifting things, the audio, the lights, so it's not really scary.
But there were two things. First, I'm superstitious. I come from a Caribbean background, and we're rooted in African culture as well. And we're just like, "Don't bring the devil to your doorstep." And on the first day, in the first hour, the light bulbs in our lighting would just keep popping and blowing for no reason. They changed the lights, they got new bulbs, and they would just pop. Then they checked the electrics. We didn't know why. I was just sitting there going, "Shit, what have I got myself into? Is this going to be another Poltergeist situation where stuff happens to the cast afterwards? Like, what the fuck?"
And then there are those little Easter eggs—the ghosts in the background. They have their own beautiful backstories, but they'd just be very silently placed in a corner, and then you'd walk by and—"Oh, fuck. I didn't see you there! What the hell?" So, yeah, there were a few jump-scare moments on set.
Did you know the whole story when you arrived on set, or did you learn it script by script?
I didn't really know much about Hannah when I'd gotten the job. I had watched Haunting of Hill House, fell in love with it, loved [creator] Mike Flanagan, and said, "Yeah, I'll do it." But I thought it was just going to be a nice, small part. And then they kept asking, "Have you read Episode 5? Have you read Episode 5?" But I was shooting Sex Education at the time, so I kept saying, "No, I'll get to it." Then, I finally read Episode 5 and fell off my chair. I was like, "Damn, I'm a ghost. I'm a ghost! I've never played a ghost before." And then the realization dawned on me: "How the fuck do you play a ghost?"
Hannah is often found lighting four candles in the manor's chapel. Two were for Miles and Flora's parents, and one for Rebecca. Who was the fourth candle for? Was it foreshadowing Hannah's realization that she, too, is dead?
Well now, there you go, so that's the question, isn't it? I had it in my mind as Sam, Hannah's ex-husband. I think it's an expression of her sadness. So I think both of those answers are correct.
You and Rahul Kohli are both new among the returning cast of this anthology series, and you spend a lot of time on-screen together. How did you guys build a rapport on set?
Rahul? He's a little bastard. Honestly, he's just such a twat. You can quote me on that! He knows it. He's not bothered, he knows it. But really, he's so very sweet. The kids absolutely adored him. Everyone loves Rahul. He's this silly, sweet guy. He's like a big, gentle giant—that will deliberately fart just before your close-up.
This coming from a woman who'll crouch behind a bathroom door to scare people …
This is true, this is true. But come on, it's my close-up, man!
This season was diverse in terms of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ representation. In particular, seeing a blossoming love story between a Black woman and a Brown man was impactful.
Yeah, absolutely. Because when we see people of color having biracial relationships on-screen, it is normally with a white person, right? And then it's "passable." So we very rarely see Brown and Black people come together on-screen. And in London in the '80s, there was a real bond between the Caribbean community and the Pakistani community against the [far-right National Front party]. And in a town like Bly, as people of color in a really small, very white village in the South of England, you would have had to band together. So I think that Mike was really clever there.
And picking up what you said about LGBTQ+ representation, as a queer woman, it was really nice that Dani's first lesbian relationship wasn't all about her struggling to come out. It wasn't a big deal that she was coming out; it's just about love. And I want to see more of that on our screens, so that we're not always following the same heteronormative narratives. For me, heterosexuals are weird! That's not my norm.
When Dani begins to explore her sexuality with Jamie, it wasn't fraught; it felt natural.
Certainly. Love is love, whatever body we're born into, whatever physical body we love, whatever spirit we love. Whether you're trans, gay, bi, whatever, it doesn't matter. Love is love, right? And I think Mike shows that really beautifully with all of the relationships on the show—even if some go drastically wrong!
Once you knew Hannah was dead, how did you decide on how you'd foreshadow that in your acting?
It was a fine line to walk. How do I play a ghost who's in denial of which plane they exist on? And so when we see her dithering or staring off, I didn't want to give too much away. And I'm quite ditzy anyway. I'm a ditzy person. I kind of go off, lost in thought. So I decided that I would just … stare off. Then it was about repeating the same action, the same movement.
One day, my mind sort of wandered off in a scene during filming, and I thought, Oh, that's it! That's when the penny dropped. It was in Episode 1, when I was passing Henry the cup. I thought, "Ah, that's it. It's that absent-mindedness, going off somewhere else." And so I leaned into that as Hannah.
Did a complicated, pivotal episode like "The Altar of the Dead" require extra conversations on set to nail down the supernatural laws of this world, to ensure that you got the timelines right, or set up where the show goes from there?
I think Episode 5 is where, like you say, we start to understand that world. It sets up the narrative about the history of Bly and all the people who have come before. And so Episode 6, 7, it ramps up, doesn't it? We start to see more of the history, back to the 1800s. But it's Episode 5 that opens up that landscape to us through Hannah's eyes.
So [episode director Liam Gavin] did his own timeline, I did my own timeline, and the script supervisors did theirs, and we cross-checked them. Sometimes they matched, sometimes they didn't. And we would watch playbacks, asking, "Now, where is she going? What's just happened? What year are we in? Where are we seeing the relationship? Is Charlotte alive at this point? Who's dead?" Then we'd call in and say, "Okay, now we ready to shoot the scene."
When the episode loops back around to the first time we meet Hannah, who's staring down the well at her own body and whose first line is, "I'm sorry, goodness, I was miles away," it becomes such a sad moment.
Isn't it interesting that even with the truth staring right at her, she convinces herself that it can't be right. And we do that in life. We're totally in denial of some of our biggest demons, which are often ourselves, I think. And you can't escape yourself. A couple of weeks ago, I was so angry with myself. I was like, "Oh, you're just getting on my nerves, T'Nia." But I can't run away from T'Nia, because I know she's right here!
You also spend a lot of screen time with the children who play Miles and Flora. How were they?
Let me tell you, I've worked with children before, and these two kids, Benjamin [Evan Ainsworth] and Amelie [Bea Smith], are the best-behaved, well-mannered, beautiful, funny, gorgeous, kindest children I have ever met—including my own! [Laughs.] They are spectacular to work with. They know their shit. There was one scene, where I'd forgotten my damn line, and Amelie whispers my fucking line to me. I was like, "Damn, this kid is showing me up. I'm going to bring my A game tomorrow."
It bears mentioning that you play a very chicly dressed groundskeeper.
I know, it's because she's Lady of the Manor now. Charlotte's gone, so she's ruling the roost. So she has to keep up with the Joneses. I think all of them are quite well dressed, actually—except for Rahul.
What's your personal fashion philosophy?
Oh, my God, I converted one of my bedrooms into a wardrobe and I still didn't have enough space. Most of my wardrobe—I'd say 90 percent of it—is from [vintage] shops. And I have stuff from when I was 15. I've only just recently got into buying some new pieces, because I was so pissed when vintage came into fashion and everything went up in price.
What's something that you have in your current wardrobe rotation from when you were 15 years old?
I think it has to be this crochet dress that my mom crocheted, that I still have, that I still wear, and that I still love. She made it for herself, and I stole it when I was 15.
How dare you still be able to fit into an outfit you wore when you were 15.
Oh, no, no. No, it was oversized back then. It was the '90s. Now I'm wearing it like it's fitted.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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