Ashly Burch is proud of her Thai heritage.
Being of Thai descent, Burch has never really gotten the opportunity to play a Thai character, let alone showcase her mixed heritage onscreen until now with Disney Channel’s new animated series, The Ghost and Molly McGee. After Burch was cast as the title character, the creators — Bob Roth and Bill Motz — decided to base Molly and her family on Burch’s own cultural background.
“I didn’t realize actually that they were going to base Molly off of me I think until I got cast,” said Burch during a Zoom call with The Nerds of Color. “Bill and Bob had always had the plan of whoever they cast as Molly that they would model her heritage off of the actor. So when they told me that Molly was going to be half Thai, it was a really cool meaningful experience because I can’t think of a single Thai character in anything that I watched when I was a kid.”
The creators and writers weren’t just going to label Molly as mixed Thai and leave it at that. They made sure to include her culture into the stories and subplots, including a story about Molly’s confusion on what it means to be biracial and that feeling of “being Thai enough.”
“I don’t think I realized just how meaningful it would be until I started doing it,” said Burch. “I was used to relating to characters that were either white or other types of Asian. I’ve never gotten to play a Thai character, so it’s been such a great experience and it’s so cool to see things that I grew up with, or that my mother used to do being showcased in this show.”
The Ghost and Molly McGee follows an optimistic tween girl and her family as they move to the town of Brighton, where their new house is being haunted by a grumpy ghost named Scratch. When Molly meets Scratch (Dana Snyder), instead of being scared of him, she takes an instant liking to him and claims him as her new best friend. Hoping to scare her off, he places a bounding curse on her, which leaves Molly even more excited that he could never leave her now.
“Molly needs Scratch and she’s not scared for even a second,” explained Burch. “She’s just excited to meet a Ghost.”
Molly has a positive outlook on life and craves having meaningful friendships — even if it is with a mean ole ghost like Scratch. Burch says it’s because Molly is in love with life and is a confident kid who is always looking for adventure. But, that’s not to say that Molly isn’t without her demons. The perky tween definitely has a shadow side to her, but Burch says that Molly never tries to hide any of it.
“[Molly] thinks she’s fixing something or making something better, [but] really, she’s making it worse,” Burch shared. “ Or she has a great idea of how a day should be spent and she’s sort of forcing everyone to do that with her — when they have a different idea about what they want to do. I think her heart’s always in the right place. She’s always trying to make people’s lives better, but I think sometimes she can get a bit single-minded and narrow-focused and think that she knows best. She has to learn lessons every so often [that] maybe [she] doesn’t know everything.”
This is where Scratch comes in. Although he is mean-spirited at first, he begins to warm up to Molly and they build this friendship based on shared loneliness. At one point in the story, Scratch has the opportunity to get rid of Molly once and for all, but genuinely begins to care about her and prevents it from happening.
“They are so different, but they kind of fit each other like a glove,” said Burch. “In terms of their personalities, I think what’s so cool about their relationship is that you really get to see it grow and change over the course of the first season. For me, you get to see how much they rely on each other — what they do for each other and how unique their friendship is because the show really lets them progress, shift, and change rather than just always being at odds with each other.”
As for Molly’s Thai heritage and the storylines stemming from it, Burch is most excited for everyone to learn a little bit about Thai culture. There is even an episode that features a Thai feast that reminded Burch of the food her mother used to make her.
“It was so cool to see dishes that were on that table [that I ate growing up] featured on the show,” Burch shares. “Anytime I come home, my mom always makes me mango sticky rice. I think there’s an episode where Scratch is eating it — because he loves to eat — and he’s talking about how good it is.”
Ghosts in Thai culture aren’t new. Thai people have a close connection with the spirit world, even building little houses for them outside their own home called San Phra Phum or Spirit Houses. So, it came to no surprise that Molly’s family would be welcoming to Scratch.
“My mom would always feed the spirits,” Burch revealed. “She would go out with a plate of food and light some incense and pray in front of it. Grandma, at some point, talks about that kind of tradition of connecting with the spirit world and your ancestors. It’s just so cool and it’s, honestly, so appropriate. They didn’t plan for this, but I think it’s appropriate that Molly is Thai and living with a ghost.”
Burch is really excited that fans will get to meet the blended family that make up the McGees — which includes Irish American dad Pete McGee (Jordan Klepper), mother Sharon McGee (Sumalee Montano), brother Darryl McGee (Michaela Dietz), and Grandma Nin (Montano, again). Like herself growing up, Burch craved feeling represented in the media and is happy to be part of representing biracial kids as well as Thai kids.
“I think what’s going to be so amazing for kids is to get to see a household that really looks like theirs,” she shared. “For kids that aren’t Thai or aren’t biracial, [they] get to see what a family that isn’t like theirs looks like and what sorts of things they value and ways that they’re different in interesting ways.”
Burch is looking forward to Molly and her family being celebrated for their heritage. “I think what’s changing now for [the current] kid generation is a celebration of being biracial. What does it mean to be Thai? What does it mean to be Chinese, Japanese, [and so forth]? Those [are the] cultural artifacts that I want to learn about [and] that I want to incorporate into who I am,” said Burch. “I think that’s what’s so cool is that if I had a show like this when I was a kid, I might have been sparked to want to know more about [the culture]. I think that’s really special that it could spark some of these conversations — potentially with kids that maybe don’t have as much connection to their heritage — to get excited about learning about where they come from or where their mom or their dad comes from. To me, that’s really meaningful because I think it’s so important for kids that are mixed race to understand who they are fully — from both sides of their parentage. So, I’m really happy to be a part of something that is providing that for people.”
The Ghost and Molly McGee premieres this Friday on Disney Channel. The first five episodes will then stream on Disney+ on October 6.