The supernatural teen comedy Darby and the Dead follows high schooler Darby Harper (Riele Downs), as she juggles the ability to see dead people with trying to live her own life. Helping lonely spirits clear up their unfinished business can be challenging to juggle with homework or explain to friends, so Darby has become an introvert who’s unconcerned with popularity. But then, Queen Bee Capri (Auli’i Cravalho) dies in a most unexpected freak hair straightening accident, making it her mission from the other side to force Darby to really start living again.
During this interview with Collider, co-stars Downs and Cravalho talked about how they might react to being able to see dead people, how Cravalho viewed Capri, what it was like for Downs to talk directly to the camera, the fun of getting to work with Tony Danza and Wayne Knight, and shooting Capri’s death scene.
Collider: High school is hard enough for anyone to get through, but Darby has the very complicated issue of also seeing dead people. How do you each think you would react, if you suddenly found yourself in Darby’s situation? Would you want to help every ghost? Would you want it to stop? Would you hope there were other people that also saw ghosts that could help you handle it all?
RIELE DOWNS: Good question. I feel like, personally, I would definitely be freaked out at first, because I don’t really mess with the other side like that. But after a while, I think it would be a process. I would definitely have moments of wanting to help them, but if I was alone in that, it’d be really difficult. I feel for Darby. Getting to play her character, I was like, “Dang, this is hard.” Just even talking, back and forth, and acting like Auli’i’s character doesn’t even exist was hard. I’m not sure if I could do that forever, unless there were other people who were in it with me. So, that’s what I would hope for. But of course, if I was the only one, I would help because I just feel like it’s the good thing to do.
AULI’I CRAVALHO: If it was a gift that I could not give back, and I started to see dead people all the time, I would just lean in. I would just wear a big fur coat, and I’d just be talking to the air. I’d be like, “It’s fine. This is who I am now. I’m getting brownie points for the other side. None of this matters.” I’d get more cats. It’s a win-win.
Auli’i, how do you view Capri? Do you see her as someone who’s insecure, so she has this big personality to compensate, or is she just that confident in herself?
CRAVALHO: I think it’s a real mix. That was something that I really had to figure out in her backstory. She’s not very empathetic because she’s never had to be. She talks in a higher pitch, and she talks really fast because she’s really excited about things, and she’s a little vapid. But mostly, she’s just a teenager, and she’s having fun. And also, specific to Darby, she’s insecure in the sense that she’s never had as close a relationship with anyone – no close friendships and not really a close relationship with her mother. That’s the background that I did where, when Darby lost her mother, Capri also lost a really important matriarchal figure. There are a lot of layers to Capri, and I’m glad that I got to portray that because I didn’t want her to just be a mean girl.
What was it like to find out just how big to go with her? You don’t want to make her too obnoxious to lose the audience, and you want to still have that sympathy there, so do you put your trust in your director? Is it just a gut feeling that you go with?
CRAVALHO: I had a real struggle with that, to be honest, because I’ve never played a comedic-forward role like that. In my mind, I was like, “All right, I want her to still feel grounded, but I think I just want her to be camp.” Everything about her, she does at a 10, and that includes cheerleading and that includes having a boyfriend who spins her around in science class. It’s a bit much, but she exists like her life was a movie, and she expected nothing to go wrong, until something does go wrong, and she has to get real.
Riele, I really love how Darby breaks the fourth wall and talks to the camera because we get to see different sides of her when she does that. That also always recalls a bit of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. What was that like to do? It goes against everything actors are usually taught about not looking at the camera, so was there an adjustment to having that feel natural?
DOWNS: That’s a good question. It was a lot of fun, honestly. Believe it or not, I started my career looking right into the camera. My first commercial, that I did at age four, they were like, “Why does she keep looking at the camera?” I was like, “I’m four, I don’t know what’s happening.” So, I feel like maybe because of that, it came a little more naturally than it should have. In actuality, it was very fun. Once you get into the groove of it and figure out who the camera is to me and to my character, it just becomes natural. It becomes fluid. It becomes, “Oh, this is the person I talk to when something’s happening.” It was very fun. I always wanted to play a role like that.
Was it harder to be aware of when you have the ghosts there, but nobody else can see them, and you have to figure out where to look and how to deal with talking to them when nobody else can be looking at them?
DOWNS: Yeah, I definitely feel like that one was a more difficult challenge because, obviously, I’ve never had to do anything like that before. You can put someone in placement of the camera. I’m like, “Oh, the camera’s like my sister.” You talk to people all the time, but no one’s ever just disappeared. So, it was an adjustment to remember, but luckily Auli’i was the only person who we ever had to do that with. It was about, “Oh, is this a scene where I’m actually talking to Capri, or is this a scene where she’s supposed to be invisible because other people are around?” Once we figured that out, it wasn’t too difficult, but it definitely was an adjustment at first.
What was it like to shoot the scenes with Tony Danza and Wayne Knight? Were there a lot of laughs? Was there a lot of fun?
DOWNS: It was a ton of fun. They both were so invested in their characters, and they brought something new to the table. Something we were all excited about with this project is that it was so collaborative, so all of us would add our own things in, and it didn’t stop with them. They added so much personality in, and had little line changes, here and there. Tony even added the little nickname “Darby Girl,” just to make it more personalized. They were both incredible. We had a lot of fun, on and off set. Tony would always teach me little tap dancing moves on the side. It was all fun and games.
CRAVALHO: Yeah. I only got a couple scenes with them, but it was so funny to watch them talk to each other in between scenes. Tony’s from New York, so he was having this whole conversation and telling a story, and then they were like, “Okay, rolling,” and he would stop in the middle of his story. I thought it was so funny. He was our Italian grandpa on set. We were singing, “Hold me closer, Tony Danza.” That was stuck in all of our heads for months.
DOWNS: It really was. I forgot about that.
Auli’i, what did you think of the way that Capri dies? Did you feel like it was a fitting way for her to go? How did you react, the first time you read that scene?
CRAVALHO: I did my own stunt. I did the fall myself. I have to say that because they did have a stunt double for that, and I really appreciate Hulu saving my derrière, but I did it all myself. I thought it was really funny. This is a teen/kid movie as well, so it couldn’t be too graphic, but electrocution is a pretty serious way to go. And if you notice, my hair changes because I get electrocuted and wet, so my hair from the flat iron goes to my natural curl.
Darby and the Dead is available to stream at Hulu.