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'Ghosts' Star Román Zaragoza Talks Sasappis' Trauma and Representation — on Screen and Through Trees

What happens when you have to spend 500 years watching everything and everyone you know disappear? No wonder Sasappis is so jaded.

Whitney Friedlander
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Román Zaragoza in 'Ghosts'

CBS

Warning: This story contains spoilers for the fourth episode of Ghosts Season 2, titled "The Tree." Read at your own risk!


It's appropriate that the character Sasappis on Ghosts is nicknamed "Sas."

Actor Román Zaragoza's spiritual being of a Lenape Native American is, well, sassy.

The character has spent the past 500-odd years trapped on an upstate New York anchorage that once belonged to him and his people. Eternally stuck in one area for reasons unknown to him, Sas has watched that landscape change into everything from a war zone between American and British soldiers, to an estate for robber barons and a hideaway for rich Wall Street bros at which they ingested an inadvisable amount of semi-legal substances (while semi-clothed). 

In the fourth episode of the CBS comedy's second season, entitled "The Tree," audiences get a glimpse of a more vulnerable Sas. In an attempt to save a tree that meant something to him when he was alive — and is also one of the few remaining evidences of his existence — he convinces his clairvoyant human housemate Sam (Rose McIver) that it cannot be cut down because it's a significant tree to the Lenape people. 

This is kind of true. It's just significant to one Lenape person

Here, Zaragoza talks to Metacritic about Sasappis' journey, Native representation, and the (slowly) changing way that Hollywood tells Native stories.

How much of a heads-up did you get about this script and that you'd be the focus of the episode?

I knew that this was going to happen the day I read the script right before the table read. So I did not know this was gonna happen. We're definitely having talks beforehand about what we wanted to see in Season 2, and I was really pushing for some contemporary Native representation. I love Sasappis. He is my everything. But I think it's really important that we show contemporary Native representation that is not just a Lenape man for the 1500s.

In "The Tree," Sasappis uses the fact that no one really understands Lenape customs to his benefit. Sam, thinking she's helping her friend save his heritage, just runs with the idea that this tree must not be destroyed. How accurate is it to say that this is a problem? Especially with well-meaning people like Sam who don't truly understand specific Native cultures?

I think that is a really interesting part of this episode of what it means to be Native and why we are defending Native lands. Why is this tree important to Sasappis? And he has to come up with this big lie to try and save it. If he tells them the truth, they won't think that's a big deal. But, it's like, this is a big deal because that is a piece of my life. Everything else was taken away because my people were pushed out. 

The reason it means so much to him is because it's tied to this woman he's been pining after for 500 years. How much of this also gives you a backstory for him and we actually get to see more of what his life was when he was alive?

I think that is a big part of this episode is you get to see who he was when he was alive. He wasn't just this sarcastic, pessimistic person. He was a lover; a hopeless romantic. He was awkward and shy and just trying to figure things out when he was a young guy. 

We see a lot of ghost coupling this season. But Sasappis is staying out of a lot of that. Do you think about his past loves? Maybe there was another ghost who was in the house who got "sucked off" to the great beyond?

I think about that all the time. Because he's such a lover. I think, at first, he probably tried with all of the people in the house and realized that, you know, no. I don't think any people here for me. We'll see what new beings come into the house. Maybe he'll inact with one of them.

You've said that your costume changed between the pilot and the series order because it wasn't authentic. So is that also something that's important when you're talking about representation?

That was a really powerful chain of events that happened and I'm really grateful for the Joes — [showrunners] Joe Port and Joe Wiseman — for having these really good conversations about what we needed to do to go forward with Sasappis after the pilot.  I was like, "Let's bring in a consultant; someone who is Lenape." So we brought in Joe Baker, who is executive director for The Lenape Center and he is the co-founder of The Lenape Center. To have him on the project; it's been a dream come true. 

He consulted on the costume and said what changes need to be made. And we now have a new costume designer by the name of Carmen Ali who came in. She's a Canadian costume designer. To have her work with Joe Baker and make sure that everything was respectful … Because, at the end of the day, if you're gonna make a character that's Native, you got to be engaging with someone of that tribe. 

On that note, you are Native but you're not Lenape. And you're not from the 1500s. What are the challenges for you in playing this part?

That is always something to consider as being an actor in general. I'm mixed race. I'm of Akimel O'otham, Mexican, Japanese, and Taiwanese descent. So anytime I come into a project, it definitely comes with some impostor syndrome. With that, I wanted to make sure I did the best that I could do to engage with members of the tribe. So it had good talks with Joe Baker about how we can really bring this character in and have it be respectful toward the Lenape storylines and all that stuff. I don't want to ever put it out there that I am Lenape. I'm not Lenape.

But I also think the important thing too is that we have a Native writer. We have John Timothy, who is Muscogee (Creek) in the writers room. And then having Joe Baker there, it's been really great. And also Jim Rementer worked on the project for a bit [during last season's "Ghostwriter" episode]. He has been a great resource. I go to him sometimes and chat with him. He's Lenape and lives in Oklahoma. So, I think, having those resources on the project is just incredibly important.

Does the fact that you are mixed-race make it harder for people to cast you? 

That's been a really interesting part of my career — and life. I've been acting since I could remember. And growing up, I would have different times when I'd be only type-casted for different things. 

When I was younger, before I was 18, I would only go out for Asian roles. I had shorter hair and that's how casting directors saw me as. I'm like, "OK, but I'm more than just an Asian nerd." I don't want to be playing these stereotypes. 

And a big thing that I did is I ended up going to college for film production. I went to California State University Northridge because I was fed up with all of these stereotypical characters that I would be auditioning for. But while I was doing that, I was also working at Native Voices at the Autry [Museum], which is a Native American theater company, and that really became my second home. And then, with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and working with mentors like [professor, director and playwright] Randy Reinholz and [actor and professor] Brent Florendo, they really taught me to embrace all of my cultures and really figure out who I am as a person.

Your dad, Gregory Zaragoza, is also an accomplished stage and screen actor. And he cameoed as Sas's dad last season in the "Ghostwriter" episode. Do you talk to each other about the different kinds of parts you're offered versus the ones he was offered when he was younger?

Oh, for sure. We talk about this all the time. He's just really excited that I'm going out for roles like Sasappis where it's a three-dimensional person — or ghost, right? [Laughs]

It's a three-dimensional being. My dad, for most of his career, was playing very stereotypical Native characters who were usually written by non-Native people. So that was always really difficult, and kind of frustrating, for him being the villain and being someone who dies really quickly; he's just there to satisfy a storyline for the white character.

Sasappis is interesting, also, because of what he must have witnessed in the death and devastation of his people — and then how the world has changed in the past 500 years since he died. Do ghosts have trauma?

I think that's a really beautiful question. And I would say 100-percent, yes. I think we see and talk about his trauma in this episode a bit and about how difficult it was to be surrounded by this house with all of these people that don't look like him and who are not his people. The Lenape were pushed from this area and sent to Oklahoma. It's a dark past and it's something that we don't really talk about a lot, especially on TV. 

Do you think that is why he's more pragmatic and sarcastic than most of the ghosts? 

Yes. I feel that that sarcasm has developed over the 500 years that he's been dead. I don't think he was as sarcastic and pessimistic when he was alive. It's something that he really picked up while in his death. He's gotten so jaded. He's around people that don't necessarily understand him and knew him when he was alive. I think there is just a difficulty in him and he lets that out in his sarcasm and his pessimism and those areas of his psyche. I think we definitely see a different side of him, especially in this episode. 

We're gonna see some different sides of him throughout the season. Who he was when he was alive is a more immature and inexperienced young soul rather than this jaded, sarcastic, very over it, soul.

A lot of the other ghosts are white and all of the ghosts besides the Viking Thor (Devan Chandler Long) are younger than him. And some of the (still, after all this time) clueless things they say can be frustrating to Sasappis. So it's interesting to see how bluntly he reacts to them.

He gets really impatient  with some of the — I guess I can say — white characters. Specifically with Isaac [Brandon Scott Jones' American Revolution captain], where he sometimes has to put him in his place. There's an episode where Isaac is talking about land owners and he says something like, "Yeah, sure, white landowners. Like that's so hard." Or when Trevor [Asher Grodman's pants-less business executive, who is the youngest ghost] says things about being pro-America and he's like "OK, calm down."  I think there's some beautiful moments of him speaking out to people who otherwise wouldn't have been around someone like Sas.

We've also seen important issues that have been part of the Native conversations for years suddenly getting airtime on TV series that don't primarily focus on Native characters. Showtime's sequel of Dexter and ABC's journalism drama Alaska Daily both have plot points surrounding the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement. This is great in that it pays more attention to a cause that needs it. But should [white] showrunners take caution when delving into these stories?

It's just such an interesting topic to dive into. One of my courses in college, which was taught by the amazing Dr. Nicole Blalock, we talked about how we can create within an Indigenous lens. There's four things you really need: respect, commitment, engagement and imagination. I think a lot of film and TV really fall short on the engagement. 

My senior thesis film is called This Is Their Land and we're hitting the festival circuit right now. It's a really powerful short film about the Modoc war. I was one of the producers on the project and I was like, "You cannot make this film without engaging with members of the tribe." And, so, we have direct descendants of the characters in the film and half the film is in the Modoc language because we have this terrific language coordinator named Joseph Dupris. I really think that is how you tell those stories. You can't just say, "I'm gonna check a box. I'm going to talk about this difficult thing going on" without actually engaging with people that have a direct experience with these difficult experiences and difficult topics.

Ghosts airs at 8:30 p.m. Thursdays on CBS and then

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Get to Know Román Zaragoza:
The son of influential Native actor Gregory Zaragoza (The Last of the Mohicans; Stumptown) and college professor Shirley Zaragoza has also appeared on TV series including Disney Channel's Austin & Ally and as a guest star playing a nephew to his dad's character, Hollis Green, on Stumptown (Metascore: 73). He also acted in the feature film Shadow Wolves.