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‘Frozen Empire’ Star Mckenna Grace on the Saga of Phoebe Spengler, the Definitive Hero of ‘Ghostbusters’

When Jason Reitman and Gil Kenan first conceived what would become 2021’s Ghostbusters: Afterlife, their top order of business was to reframe the franchise around a 12-year-old girl with a proton pack. Well, since then, Mckenna Grace has proven time and time again that her co-writers/directors made the absolutely right choice, as her fan-favorite character of Phoebe Spengler is currently the definitive hero of the Ghosbusters franchise.

In the Kenan-directed Afterlife sequel, Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire, it’s been two years since Phoebe led the Ghostbusters to victory over Gozer at Egon Spengler’s Oklahoma farm, and she and the rest of the Spengler-Grooberson family are now full-fledged Ghostbusters, operating out of the famous New York City firehouse from Ghostbusters (1984) and Ghostbusters II (1989).

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But early on in Frozen Empire, the Ghostbusters’ pursuit of a ghost causes some of their signature damage to the city, and an old foe, William Atherton’s Walter Peck, who went from EPA Inspector to NYC Mayor, makes an example out of Phoebe and sidelines her. This act sends Phoebe on a very unexpected journey throughout the rest of the film.

“She’s fired and booted from Ghostbusters, and she’s like, ‘Literally, I saved the world! What are you guys doing?’ So it was really interesting to be able to play Phoebe like that, and she was able to have a lot of emotional growth in this film,” Grace tells The Hollywood Reporter.

Given that she’s going through a hard time, Phoebe’s deadpan jokes from Afterlife were also minimized, which bummed Grace out a bit since those jokes were adopted from her real life.

“When I was younger, I didn’t know how to make friends or talk to people, and I still don’t. So I would carry around joke books with me,” Grace says. “I’d walk around and tell jokes to people to make friends, and so that [delivery] was just how I would tell jokes. That was me. Every take [on Afterlife] was a different joke that I came up with and had read in a book. It was really just Jason’s pick of what he liked the best … So I did miss Phoebe’s jokes this go-round, but she was going through it.”

Much like her character, Grace had her own obstacles to overcome while filming both of her Ghostbusters films. At age 13, when she shot Afterlife, she had just been diagnosed with scoliosis the year before, and because she was filming all day, she was unable to wear her back brace full time. So just a handful of months before Frozen Empire was slated to begin filming in March of 2023, she underwent major spinal surgery to not only prevent further curvature of her spine, but also correct it. In late November 2022, just five weeks removed from surgery, Grace told THR that she went from a 47-degree curve to a 6-degree curve. But naturally, she was still a bit anxious going into Frozen Empire‘s shoot a few months later.

“I was definitely nervous. We shot maybe three [to five] months after my spinal surgery, and those [proton] packs are 30 or 40 pounds, so they are very intense to carry,” Grace admits. “But I am so grateful to my surgeon at Cedars, and I’m so thankful to the team there because they did a fantastic job. Of course, my back is not the same as it once was, and I definitely had back pain and whatnot from the packs, but I did have my mobility. I was able to do my stunts. I did , and everybody was so great at watching out for me and my back on this one.”

Below, during a recent conversation with THR, Grace also explains how she gives equal priority to her burgeoning music career, before having a laugh about a particular trend in her body of acting work.

So you cosplayed as a Ghostbuster when you were a little girl, and now you’re the hero of two Ghostbusters movies. Has it sunk in yet that you’ll forever have the legacy of a Ghostbuster?

At this point, I’m four or five years into being a part of this franchise, and after two films, it’s still not real. I got to the carpet last night and immediately during my first interview I was like, “Okay, I’ve got to stop talking for a second because I’m going to start crying, so you’ve got to give me a second.” (Laughs.) And then I immediately saw Jason Reitman, and I went up to him and said, “Jason, you don’t understand how much this has meant to be.” And then all of a sudden I was crying again. So I’ve cried in three different interviews now, and it doesn’t feel real.

Mckenna Grace in Ghostbusters Frozen Empire
Mckenna Grace in Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire

I still marvel over the transformation you make to get into this character. I think you cut off your hair for Ghostbusters: Afterlife, but I don’t believe you had to do it this time. Were you pretty amazed by the hair and makeup team’s work on Frozen Empire?

I did have to cut my hair off and dye it when I was 13 on the last one. It was so crazy, and I’m so happy that I was able to get a really lovely wig this time. But it’s really fun to be able to transform into Phoebe. She’s so different from me. And yeah, [the hair and makeup team] is fantastic. I’m so happy with the way [the wig] looks, and it was just so fun to be able to put it on in the morning and be like, “Alright, here we go. I’m Phoebe.”

Phoebe is a hero scientist at a time when they’re needed most, and from the rabbit hole I went down online, she’s apparently a big inspiration to kids on the spectrum. I know she’s modeled after Egon, but did you, Gil Kenan and Jason Reitman ever determine or diagnose what she may or may not be? 

No, I don’t think that there’s any particular [diagnosis]. Between her and Egon and all of the lore behind it, I think that she is something. She’s just different. She’s smart, she’s very capable, she’s incredible. And it is really special that parents and their children, who either are on the spectrum or not, are able to come up and say, “We love Phoebe.” And seeing little kids dressed as Phoebe is the weirdest thing in the world to me. She’s an inspiration to people, and it’s really a special feeling. It means the world to me that I’m able to be that for people.

Logan Kim as Podcast and Mckenna Grace as Phoebe Spengler in 'Ghostbusters: Afterlife'.
Logan Kim as Podcast and Mckenna Grace as Phoebe Spengler in Ghostbusters: Afterlife

Did you study Harold Ramis quite closely ahead of the last film? 

I was already such a big fan, so it’s not like I hadn’t studied the films already for my entire life, but, yeah, definitely. That was my biggest inspiration. The only things that I studied to play Phoebe were Egon and Harold Ramis, and whatever Jason wanted me to do in the first one.

In Frozen Empire, Phoebe the Ghostbuster gets grounded by bureaucracy, and her frustration leads her to make some big mistakes. For a character who’s a bona fide genius, did you enjoy playing those humbling moments where she realizes that she still has much to learn?

Yeah, I think that it’s important for her. She’s so smart, and it’s so hard for her to connect with people, sometimes. She’s also just on such a different level, intellectually, most of the time. So it was very interesting to be able to play those struggles and play Phoebe at this point in her life, where the thing that she’s made for is being taken away from her. She’s fired and booted from Ghostbusters, and she’s like, “Literally, I saved the world! What are you guys doing?” So it was really interesting to be able to play Phoebe like that, and she was able to have a lot of emotional growth in this film. She’s able to connect with new characters and new people, and she tries to figure out who she is outside of ghostbusting.

Paul Rudd, Carrie Coon, Mckenna Grace and Finn Wolfhard on the set of Columbia Pictures’ GHOSTBUSTERS: FROZEN EMPIRE.
Paul Rudd, Carrie Coon, Mckenna Grace and Finn Wolfhard on the set of Columbia Pictures’ Ghosbusters: Frozen Empire.

Because she has a tough go of it in this movie, she only gets to crack one joke at the start. 

I know!

Did it take you a minute to figure out the perfect delivery for her jokes in the last movie? 

No, I’ll be so honest: that was just me. When I was younger, I didn’t know how to make friends or talk to people, and I still don’t. So I would carry around joke books with me. I was such a strange little child. I’d also carry around the National Audubon Society’s Field Guide to North American Birds. I’d carry that, binoculars and joke books in my backpack. (Laughs.) So I’d walk around and tell jokes to people to make friends, and so that [delivery] was just how I would tell jokes. That was me. Every take [on Afterlife] was a different joke that I came up with and had read in a book. So it was really just Jason’s pick of what he liked the best, but the wink has become a thing now, which I really enjoy doing. I’ve perfected Phoebe’s really slow, broken doll, one-eye wink. (Laughs.)

It sounds like you brought up Phoebe’s lack of jokes to Gil and Jason on the set of Frozen Empire.

(Laughs.) Yes, I was so sad about it! I was like, “I wish that I would’ve had more chances and opportunities to tell jokes in this one.” So I was sad about the lack of them, but I did enjoy my joke [at the beginning] and I’m glad that I got to throw my wink in. That made me happy. So I did miss Phoebe’s jokes this go-round, but she was going through it. We didn’t have time for her to [tell jokes]. Who is she even going to tell jokes to?

Lucky (Celeste O’Connor), Winston (Ernie Hudson), Trevor (Finn Wolfhard), Mr. Grooberson (Paul Rudd), Lars Pinfield (James Acaster), Phoebe (Mckenna Grace), Callie (Carrie Coon) in Columbia Pictures’ GHOSTBUSTERS FROZEN EMPIRE.
Lucky (Celeste O’Connor), Winston (Ernie Hudson), Trevor (Finn Wolfhard), Mr. Grooberson (Paul Rudd), Lars Pinfield (James Acaster), Phoebe (Mckenna Grace), Callie (Carrie Coon) in Columbia Pictures’ Ghosbusters: Frozen Empire.

I was reading about your experience on Afterlife, and I came across something that hit close to home, as you had to wear a scoliosis brace during production. Well, my sister also grew up in that back brace, and you both had the same spinal surgery. So did you have any restrictions on this movie, or were you good to go?

Well, on the first film, I was only wearing a back brace at night. I was supposed to be wearing it 22 hours a day, but how can I carry around this big old hunk of plastic and bust ghosts? So I didn’t have time and I totally should have worn it more. So I instead had to have spinal surgery, which is so fun — not. (Laughs.) But I was definitely nervous. We shot maybe three [to five] months after my spinal surgery, and those [proton] packs are 30 or 40 pounds, so they are very intense to carry. But I am so grateful to my surgeon at Cedars, and I’m so thankful to the team there because they did a fantastic job. Of course, my back is not the same as it once was, and I definitely had back pain and whatnot from the packs, but I did have my mobility. I was able to do my stunts. It was really special to be able to ghostbust and have my spine strong and straight and fixed, and still be able to use the packs and go down the pole and do the stunts. It was really exciting.

Yeah, I was wondering if you were able to slide down the firepole, so I’m glad to hear that.

I did , and everybody was so great at watching out for me and my back on this one.

You contributed a song called “Haunted House” to Afterlife’s soundtrack. Did the strikes make it virtually impossible to contribute another one this time around?

No, if anything, that would’ve made it easier. Whenever there’s a strike or a pandemic or whatever else is going on lately that’s causing everything to always get shut down, then I just sit and write music. That’s what I do whenever I’m not acting. It’s funny because every single time I’d see Gil, I’d be like, “So, are you ready for me to pitch the end credits to this one? I am going to do an orchestral version of the Ghostbusters theme.” So it was just a constant joke, but I wish that I could have done something for this one. I love creating music for films. That’s something that I really enjoy doing, but I don’t know why I didn’t end up pitching or writing anything. I figured they probably wouldn’t want me to do it again. (Laughs.) I was lucky and honored for the first one, and I was like, “I don’t want to push my luck.”

Has it been tricky to juggle both acting and music at the same time?  

No, honestly. Whenever I am not acting, I’m doing music. And whenever I’m not doing music, I’m acting. When I was in London shooting Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire, I had my two co-writers and producer come out and live with me for a month. And when I’d get home every day, we’d just write and create music all night. And then I’d wake up and go ghostbusting, and then I’d get home and we’d write music all night again. It was fun. I love working, and so I am always working as much as I possibly can. There’s not enough hours in the day, but I really enjoy being able to do both. I write a lot while I’m on set, and I bring my guitar to set every day.

Please tell me that Nirvana isn’t actually ruined for you. That would be a shame.

(Laughs.) No! I’m just so dramatic. Everything that I write is so personal to me. I have my songs organized in my phone by initials, because I write my songs about people and actual situations in my life. But while I was in London shooting Ghostbusters, me and the person that I wrote [“You Ruined Nirvana”] about became friends again. And he was like, “I loved the song. It was great.” And I was like, “You didn’t ruin Nirvana, by the way. I was just feeling really angry and dramatic, but you couldn’t have ruined Nirvana for me. You don’t have that power.” (Laughs.) So it was just really funny, but nobody can ruin Nirvana. It was that feeling of having your favorite songs ruined by memories.

Mckenna Grace as Young Tonya in <em>I, Tonya</em>
Mckenna Grace as Young Tonya in I, Tonya

Lastly, you’ve played younger versions of characters that belonged to Margot Robbie, Brie Larson, Annabelle Wallis, Kiernan Shipka, Kate Siegel, and plenty more. Did this become a running joke with your team about whose younger character you’d end up playing next?

Yeah, and it’s still a joke. That was my thing for so long, and it’s one of my favorite jokes about me that I see on the internet. I have somehow played every white woman in Hollywood. (Laughs.) That’s been my thing, and it’s hilarious. I love it. I loved playing so many different people and getting to learn from them.

I always break down my career by what phase I was in. I had my phase where I played every younger version of every woman ever, and then I had my phase where I played all the smart characters. And then I got in this weird little phase that I think I’m still in where I’m married and abducted all the time and really sad and traumatized. And then every once in a while, I’m ghostbusting. So I’ve had all of these phases in my career, but that’s one of my favorites. I love seeing memes about it.

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Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire is now playing in movie theaters.

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