The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Maryland: Brandon Scott Jones goes from tennis to TV star as a sassy captain in the hit series ‘Ghosts’ [Interview]
Brandon Scott Jones didn’t plan on being a TV star, certainly not on television’s biggest new comedy of the season, but that’s exactly what happened.
Growing up in Bel Air (Maryland, not LA), Jones was an avid tennis player, and good at it, ranking in the top 10 in the state as a teenager. But the allure of performance compelled him more and soon he was off to New York City to pursue this new dream, spending time with the Upright Citizens Brigade and finding himself on shows like Difficult People, The Good Place, Broad City and The Other Two.
In the freshman season of CBS’s Ghosts, which just wrapped up April 21 and has been renewed for season two, Scott is a part of one of television’s most diverse and eclectic ensembles; a group of ghosts in a run-down country estate populated by people who have died there over centuries. There’s a sassy Prohibition-era jazz singer, a ’60s hippie fond of hallucinogens, a Wolf of Wall Street-type 80s stock broker, a short on words Viking, an overly upbeat ’80s scout troop leader and more. The mansion is inherited by Samantha and Jay, a couple played by Rose McIver and Utkarsh Ambudkar, who want to leave their cramped New York City apartment and turn the place into a B&B. When Samantha has a near-death experience in the house, she inherits the ability to see and hear the ghosts. Scott plays Captain Isaac Higgintoot, an American Revolutionary soldier who died of dysentery, hates Alexander Hamilton and has a not-so-secret secret. Higgintoot is in the closet, but, much like Samantha’s ability, everyone seems to be able to see it except him.
Scott has played gay characters before and in our interview we talk about what’s different about this one, why coming out stories are still needed, his own personal experiences with ghosts and what he hopes for Isaac in season two.
Erik Anderson: All right. Let’s dig in.
Brandon Scott Jones: Let’s dig in baby.
EA: But also I’m so happy to talk to you.
BSJ: I’m so happy to talk to you. Thanks, Erik. This is going to be so much fun.
EA: First, congratulations earlier this year on that Critics Choice nomination because, oh my God.
BSJ: Oh my God. What a weird moment in my entire life, where I was like, “What the hell is happening?” That was so sweet. It was so nice and so wild and unexpected.
EA: It was pretty great, I have to say. And also congrats on the success of the show, because it was a huge hit.
BSJ: Yeah. We had no idea what it was going to be, if anybody was going to watch it. We were up in Montreal filming, having no idea. This was just one long prank that was never going to air. And then to see that the audience found it and they keep coming back is really, really cool.
EA: Yeah, it is. I think it’s harder and harder to find a hit on television, especially network television these days. So how does a boy from Bel Air, Maryland go from being a budding tennis star to making a move to acting? What was that journey like?
BSJ: Well, I would say the key element… And I find that this is a good theme in my life, is like a good mental breakdown. And so I would say that, I was like 14, 15, and I wanted to be a tennis player more than anything in the entire world. That entire time too, falling in love with movies and television, theater and so forth just naturally. But that was my one focus and you just sort of… One thing led to another and I reached a point where I realized that this maybe wasn’t going to be in the cards for me, which is a fun like crisis to have when you’re a pubescent teenager. And I was like, “I need to make a career change.” And I ended up deciding to go into acting because that’s a real smart decision after all that. And got really involved in community theater and doing high school productions.
I became the president of my drama club. And it was really from there just knowing I had to get out of Maryland, get to New York, get close to where the action was. I always wanted to go in New York City. And while I was there studied drama, ended up going to the Upright Citizens Brigade, was also writing on the side. And so it was just a slow long path of trying to take one step forward every single way and hope that it was leading in the right direction.
EA: And it was, as we know.
BSJ: We did it! We did it. [laughs]
EA: In Ghosts you play Captain Isaac Higgintoot. I swear to God, that name will make me laugh every single time I see it or say it.
BSJ: The first time I ever saw it was in the scene. it was there written down, I didn’t even know that was my character’s last name, and then I saw, it said, “Captain Isaac Higgintoot.” And so I was like, “Oh my God.” It made me laugh too.
EA: It’s amazing. He’s a closeted American Revolutionary Officer. What kind of research were you able to do for such an invisible part of history?
BSJ: Great question. I actually ended up not doing the kind of research I thought I was going to do. There was sort of… You get excited about a role and you’re like, “Ooh maybe I’ll just go live in Williamsburg, Virginia for a little bit. Just really get an idea of what it’s like to be of that era or I’ll crack open a 7,000 page about life and the revolutionary times,” and, didn’t do that. Did try to do more pop culturally za KAIST research. And I guess what I mean by that, is I tried to look at what is the baseline we all know of these people from that era? Because I probably would’ve done the more academic research had it been a 21 minute show about people in that time period with people just from that era.
But because these sort of an anachronism just as a character, you kind of wanted to just really kind of settle into the archetype and then start deepening it that way a little bit. And so the thing that I kind of kept coming back to was, yes, all right, fine, I’ll put on the Patriot Heath Ledger, or I’ll watch Hamilton. And so I would do those things. And then I kind of sort of remembering what we’re taught in this country about our founding fathers and that time period. And I was sort of like struck by how much we mythologize our founding fathers and how much we make them out to be these larger than life personalities that just were so brave and started this country. And it’s so ridiculous. And obviously that type of education really ignores an enormous part of this country, which is very dark and not great.
And so I thought it was really fun to start approaching the character as if it’s somebody who wanted to be a mythical creature, wanted to be a fable and finding out that every other person you knew was, except for you. And you’re like, “What?” Then that element of not being the person you thought you were going to be and not being the person you felt others expected you. That’s a very queer narrative to me. And I felt like that was where we could sort of play the closeted element. And I tried to find a tie between those two.
That was a really long-winded answer.
EA: It was a beautiful answer.
BSJ: Oh Erik, thank you.
EA: It was funny because I was watching the show and I couldn’t think of any real representation in history of this caliber. We have of our Abraham Lincoln rumors and that’s kind of really where it begins and ends. But I did a little bit of digging and there is a General von Steuben…
EA: I know, talk about a name.
BSJ: I know, right?
EA: He kind of gave me a little bit of Higgintoot teas. He was secretly gay, hired by George Washington, and get this, recommended by Benjamin Franklin.
BSJ: Oh my God.
EA: Which considering how many Benjamin Franklin cracks there are in Ghosts, I was just like, living.
BSJ: The idea that Isaac thinks of Benjamin Franklin is such this nasty pig is so funny to me.
EA: I was going to ask you later what some of your favorite Isaac lines are because the amount of Benjamin Franklin shade is so funny. “You got the all the time for attention,” kills me.
BSJ: Oh my God. Yeah. I remember laughing at that line too. I was like, “Oh, that’s a fun one to say.”
EA: I love it. Did you watch the UK version of the show, or did you want to kind of go in neutral?
BSJ: I kind of wanted to go in as neutral as I possibly could. I did watch the very first episode. It’s a bummer, right? I think now I can watch it because we’ve sort of got our footprint and got our thing going. But when we did the pilot or when I was auditioning, my agent sent it over to me. They were like, “Here, if you want to watch it.” And I started watching it and I was so like, “This is awesome.” I was like, “Oh no, I can’t keep watching it, or I’ll just feel like I’ll crumble under the pressure of this.” And obviously in our first… They’ve done 18 episodes over three series, we’ve done one season with 18 episodes. So now that we’ve sort of caught up, I feel like I can watch it, which is great because everybody I know who has, absolutely loves it. And everybody I know who’s involved with it I love from other things as well, and from the little I did see of Ghosts. So I’m pumped to be able to finally sit down and watch it.
EA: The core arc of your character is this 250-year coming out story, which is a lot. And it’s to yourself, it’s to the other ghosts. It’s to your rival/victim/crush, Nigel. What was the development of your storyline from page to screen? Because it really runs the gamut from being super funny, and having a lot of pathos too.
BSJ: Well, thanks. I feel really lucky the writers and our producers have been really supportive of that character storyline. And I know that they have 10 characters to be looking after and they look after them equally and they do a great job of making you feel taken care of, which is amazing. That journey was kind of interesting. It was sort of… I say that the word collaborative comes to my mind because I was handed sort of this gift of this character, which is just this like ridiculous human being. And in the first few episodes specifically, he’s obviously sort of making closeted jokes and he’s sort of also funny, can be funny. And then he’s also making these other jokes that are very petty about the people in his time period. And also he’s thinking of himself so revered amongst his ghost friends and he’s absolutely not.
But I think as we started to kind of move forward with the character, I remember I pulled Joe Wiseman, our show runner, aside and I was like, “Hey, just wanting to know, where do you guys see him going this season? ” Because I think ultimately everybody was starting to feel sort of like the closeted jokes were kind of getting old, or at least they were becoming less joyful to play in a fun way. And I think that, thing that you want to do with a character like that, is once an audience locks in on knowing, okay, well, that’s what this guy’s deal is, I think we wanted to push it a little bit further, get us to the place where we don’t know what’s going to happen next with him.
And so they were really, really supportive and collaborative in about trying to develop, not just his character as a human being, but then also just what that little arc is. And they were really thoughtful in knowing that I felt I could bring an element of myself to this. And you said it’s like a 250-year-old coming out story. I remember that one with me, it wasn’t 250 years, but it felt that long. And I don’t know why I said that so angrily at you, but I remember thinking that, “Oh, okay, if we can really nail this and really bring nuance to this, all those other ridiculous things will be even more fun to play.” Again, I don’t mean to monologue at you over and over again, but I feel like that’s… Hopefully that answers the question.
EA: Yeah. And that kind of was where I wanted to ask and you almost led to it right there. What does this character mean to you professionally and personally? Because you played gay characters before, but this feels a little different.
BSJ: Yeah. That’s a good question. It means a lot to me, in a way that I wasn’t expecting it to. I was really excited to play this sort of screwball comedy element, and week to week have these crazy characters running around the house. Just like the more time you spend with any human, the more time you spend with this character you start to find things you love and dislike about them, and try to bring as much as yourself to it as you can. And what’s interesting is that, to me, I get asked a couple times, “What characters did I see growing up that were queer that you could really kind of latch onto?
I do struggle to think about them, like maybe Christian in Clueless, obviously Jack and Will in Will and Grace, but really, I didn’t have access to it, especially on a network like CBS and especially a revolutionary war character. So I think to get a chance to play a character that kind of subverts a lot of what we’re taught about classic masculinity, or what does it mean to be a true American or whatever is really, really, fun and cathartic in a lot of ways. And then at the same time too… I’m not spring chicken, I may look 19, but I’m a little older than that.
I would say that to see a character… I think we reserve a lot of stories about being who you are for young people, and for great reason, for awesome reasons. That story doesn’t end there though. It also is about people who are older. You never stop that process of trying to become more of who you are, and that this is somebody who’s gotten to do it after two and a half centuries is something I thought was really cool.
There’s something really comforting, and every time you’re going through any crisis, anybody, I don’t know if you’re like this, but maybe you are. But I always try to see if, is there anybody… I always find so much comfort when I find that somebody else is going through it. And then to do it like this, on this cracked-out story, where he’s a ghost and he killed his lover, you know what I mean? It’s like, how fun, how juicy, how comforting.
EA: I was going to just ask directly, why do you think we still need coming out stories? Because I think sometimes people feel like, “What? We’re 2022. We don’t need that anymore,” when literally we do. And something like this carves out a niche that hasn’t really been tapped before, but we’ve got avid elementary and our flag means death. And shows that are exploring coming outs in a way that are deliberate and less deliberate and it’s just… I don’t know, it feels very different now.
BSJ: Yeah. It really is. And that kind of brings to mind two things, one, I think it’s the idea that stories are universal, right? The idea that, something that feels so of the now or something that people feel like is a hot button issue, 99% of the time it’s not. This has been going on forever we just haven’t chosen to write it down. And I think that’s maybe where I’m finding something new with it, which is sort of, what would life have been like as a contemporary, queer person in the revolutionary war, or what maxed out sort of pressures would Isaac have felt that I can sort of remember feeling as somebody who was growing up in the early odds. So, I feel like there is that. And other thing that brings to mind is, I just did this movie that I have coming out called, Senior Year and…
EA: Just watched it last night.
BSJ: Oh, you did?
BSJ: My God. Okay, cool. Well, I… What did you think?
EA: I was going to talk to you about it in a little bit.
BSJ: Okay, cool. I was just going to say that I was really moved and touched by the young cast [of Senior Year] in that and the way they interact with each other even off screen. And you do see so much hope that the world is changing. The world is moving in a different way. And I think the reason…
We don’t need to treat coming out stories… We need to have those stories because we need to see those people and just remember that, hey, this is something that they dealt with as well. This is not necessarily the story, this is just part of their journey. I think that we’re normalizing the concept of coming out, which is good, I hope. Sometimes I get nervous when I talk in grand strokes about queer things because people are like, “Well actually.” And I’m always like, “Oh wait, no, no, no, I think that too.” But you know what I mean, right?
I’m sorry, I promise you I’m not on cocaine. I feel like I am. I had one coffee today and truly I’m like, “Well that’s it, I can go.”
EA: No, I love it. Are you kidding? Interviews are really funny because it’s either you get one sentence answers or like this. And I could just sit and listen. I love it. I don’t care if I have 20 questions, sometimes I just want to listen to stories.
BSJ: That’s sweet.
EA: In Ghosts, you are part of an ensemble, a pretty big ensemble, which is a really eclectic group of people, both in characters and the performers themselves. How did you find your way to being a cohesive set?
BSJ: Well, we had a couple things working in our advantage, weirdly. We started this show before the pandemic. Some of us, half of us got cast in the pandemic, before the pandemic started. And the day that everything shut down was the day we were supposed to start filming or something like that. And over that period of time, we found out that CBS was still going to want to move forward with it, which was amazing. But we got to watch our cast sort of grow. And the only way we could really kind of connect was just add each other to a text thread. And so we just sort of got to hang out and be friends with each other long before we even started the pilot. And then when we actually went to series we…
This is a show about a bunch of people kind of isolated and not being able to leave. And we shot up in Montreal, which is a fabulous city, but when you’re international borders during a pandemic, you feel a lot further away and a lot lonelier than you actually are. And I think that we really sort of leaned into that off camera as much as we did on camera. And so we really only had each other, we were friends with each other.
Like a Thursday night, if Rebecca and I didn’t have an early call the next day, Thursday nights were, all right, let’s go over to your deck and have some wine. And we had a Saturday Night Supper Club. We would go see movies on the weekends. It was sort of we spent all this time together and I think that sort of… And we got to meet each other’s families, for those of them who brought them with them. And I think you just start to care about these people a lot, and you start to realize, “Oh wow, I’m working with some of my best friends now.” And I think when you can have that genuine feeling and you bring it on screen, hopefully that helps the process of collaborating.
EA: I thought that might be the case, because it did seem like you could parallel the lives of these isolated ghosts with yourselves being isolated, trying to shoot a television show during a pandemic.
BSJ: Yes, 100%. It was very much that.
EA: What, if any, has been your own personal experience with ghosts?
BSJ: Oh God, I’ve never had an actual experience with a ghost. I’ve heard and believed other people’s stories and so forth. But I’ve never had an experience myself, which makes me question whether I’m a bad person alone or ghosts are like, “No, I don’t want to talk to you.” The other aspect is, I have, the closest that I would say is, when I was younger, dealing with a lot of anxiety, still deal with it, but on meds now, had dealt with sleep paralysis. Have you ever had that?
EA: Yeah, trauma, baby.
BSJ: Crazy. And so there’s this thing where you’re not sure what world you’re living in and you’re interacting with people that you know aren’t there, and you know physically, possibly can’t be there. So there is sort of that element to me. I had one really scary experience when I was a kid, when I was 18, with it, like saw a dead relative. It was weird. Anyway. So that’s the closest I’ve ever come. Though, the other half of that would be, I love scary movies. I love horror movies. I’m a real hooker for them. That’s a weird way to phrase that. I don’t know why I did that.
EA: We used to say stuff like that all the time. I don’t know, maybe the kids don’t do that anymore.
BSJ: Maybe the kids don’t. Yeah.
EA: What do you hope for Isaac and for Isaac and Nigel in season two and is there any chance maybe you’ll be writing an episode? Because I really enjoy your writing.
BSJ: Oh my God. I would say ‘good question!’ I don’t think I’ll be, I won’t be writing anything in season two, for sure. I am really, really vibing just getting to be a cast member right now and letting that be my portion or contribution to the show because whatever is going on in that writer’s room doesn’t need anything else coming in. I feel really lucky with them.
And then with what I hope for Isaac and Nigel and Isaac in general, I think I’m hoping that Isaac gets his book or his musical. I really think that would be the dream. If he could as somehow finagle it so he can feel that sense of like closure. And I think with Isaac in general, I just hope that he starts to continue that journey of accepting himself. I’m excited, I think there could be a lot of comedy to mine from the idea of somebody who’s now out of the closet and then still dealing with it. You know what I mean? Still, sort of trying to be not this self loathing person that he maybe has been and sort of reckoning with that. And I think it sounds really dark and serious, but I think there could be a lot of levity that comes from a character like that and a situation like that.
EA: Yeah. There’s an entire life to navigate post coming out.
BSJ: Oh yeah, my God.
EA: Yes. And Sarah’s book needs to be turned into a musical for a musical episode of the show.
BSJ: Great. Honestly, from your lips to God’s ears.
EA: My people will talk to your people and we’ll figure it out.
BSJ: Fabulous. I will literally put you in contact with Joe Wiseman tonight.
EA: I love it. Brandon, thank you so much for talking with me.
BSJ: Oh, thank you very much. Thank you.
EA: And I wish you definitely the best with Senior Year. I think that’s a next week, right?
BSJ: Yeah. May 13th.
EA: I had such a blast with it.
BSJ: Did you really? Oh, that’s nice. I get so… You never know how everyone’s going to react to it and you just hope that people like it.
EA: It needed more Mr. T!
BSJ: Well, there was… [laughs] It was so fun to talk to you. Thank you very much.
EA: Have a wonderful day.
Ghosts is currently available to stream on Paramount+. Brandon Scott Jones is Emmy eligible for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series.