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'What We Do in the Shadows' Star Harvey Guillén Reflects on Guillermo's Growing Confidence

Plus, the actor looks back on his groundbreaking role on 'Huge' and the ending that could have been for George on 'Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist.'
by Danielle Turchiano — 
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Harvey Guillén

Dia Dipasupil / Getty Images

As the soft-spoken and lovable (but terribly mistreated) familiar-turned-bodyguard and also vampire hunter Guillermo de la Cruz, Harvey Guillén steals scenes left and right on FX's What We Do in the Shadows.

The mockumentary is based on the 2014 independent film of the same title, but Guillén and Guillermo were new additions to the series, and with them came both added comedy and conflict. Neither man knew Guillermo was actually a descendant of the legendary vampire hunter Van Helsing when the series started, which made the character's love of vampire lore all the more layered, but made his interest in becoming a vampire even more of a pipe dream. Both men grew as the seasons went on, with Guillermo gaining confidence as he leaned into his inherited skillset, despite remaining loyal to the vampires with whom he lives in Staten Island, and Guillén showing off his own leading man ability through scenes rich in both physical combat and emotional complexities.

What We Do in the Shadows may be Guillén's latest ongoing project, but he has worked as a professional actor since 2008, earning his first major role in 2010, on then-network ABC Family's one-season drama Huge. There, he played Alistair, a teenager sent to a weight loss camp where he is often excluded by other campers and whose own twin wants to keep their relation a secret.

"I like to play characters that you can easily judge by the cover [but] that remind you not to do that," Guillén tells Metacritic.

Since his breakout role, the musical theater-trained actor has dedicated himself to doing just that, from work on The Magicians, to Room 104, Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist, Werewolves Within, Reacher, and of course, What We Do in the Shadows.

"I have a friend who told me that one of the characters you play is always gonna be someone's favorite character and they'll have no recollection or any interest in the other characters that you play. And I like putting myself in a position where I play different roles in different genres and then you can be in one room and mean something different to three people and they don't know what the other people are talking about," he says.

Here, Guillén reflects on several standout projects from his career so far, including breaking ground with Huge, getting back to his musical theater roots on Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist, and having fun with the supernatural in Werewolves Within and What We Do in the Shadows (including what's to come in Season 4).

Your character on Huge felt groundbreaking at the time in the way he took on a female name and owned his interest in traditionally feminine things. How did you approach the responsibility of taking on a character who was so underrepresented in media?

I knew that Alistair was very special in the way that [creators] Savannah [Dooley] and Winnie [Holzman] wrote him, and they were very careful with the way that he was perceived. That was 2010, and to be a young actor just starting in Hollywood and to get to play a role like that where I was so committed to being honest with with Alistair and where he was going was amazing. And such a backstory with his twin sister played by Ashley Holliday: It was so heartbreaking to be so close to someone that is your family and they ignore you. All these layers that came with Alistair and questioning his sexuality and maybe being in the process of transitioning, it had never been done on television. I really do believe that it was groundbreaking. The show was ahead of its time.

What did you know of Alistair's arc when you auditioned?

They did tell me when I auditioned that the actor needed to be comfortable with the character being queer. And then they said the actor needed to be comfortable in future episodes in women's clothing. But that can be taken in different ways: Maybe he does drag, maybe he becomes a drag queen. He likes entertainment, he likes musical theater. So, I wanted to keep it very light on his journey of finding himself. Because if you give me the end result, I know how to get there, [and] subconsciously, I might be looking for ways to drop clues — to help you cheat on the test, basically. And I don't want help you cheat on the test because I'm still figuring out the math problem, and part of the journey is working it out. 

Towards the end, they did tell me that if we go for another season [he'd be transitioning], and I was like, "Whoa, that's never been done." And they were like, "No, especially not with a young audience like this." But unfortunately we didn't get another season. But to this day, I'm very proud of the one season of that show. When we were doing the show, I got letters from from kids in different states where they felt like they couldn't be their authentic self and they were proud that Alistair would dress up as a cat and didn't care what people thought about him and would meow and LARP. It was really heartbreaking to read those letters because some of them were suicidal: "I was about to take my life and I saw the show and it changed my life, and I want to say thank you." Can you imagine just hearing that what you've done for art has somehow impacted someone to continue living? I always say I'm not a doctor, and during these crazy last couple of years, I can't provide first aid assistance in that way — medical — but I can provide an escape. And if I can make you escape for 22 minutes, that is a different dose of medicine and a different dose of therapy that we can all use.

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From left to right: Harvey Guillén, Nikki Blonsky, and Raven Goodwin in 'Huge'

Bruce Birmelin / Getty Images

And certainly not resigning yourself to playing the tragedy of certain situations adds to that. Alistair didn't have it easy, but he would say things, like the kissing prank, didn't bother him.

By society's standards and by Hollywood tradition, we've always seen the plus-size person be a victim or a punch line. And we've never seen a plus-size queer person end on top; it's just all these strikes against them. And I didn't want to make Alistair a victim, so he chose to kill you with kindness. It's easier to watch someone that you maybe bullied [in] tears because that's what you expect and that's gratifying. To watch someone not give you that power and to be forgiving, in a way, is the most painful backslap you can give to someone who has been bullying you. Killing someone with kindness makes them realize they are terrible, makes them look in a mirror and realize, "Wow, I'm a piece of sh--." 

Monsters aren't born, they're made, and we didn't want to make Alistair the victim that could slowly turn into [the guy who says], "Everyone's against me, I'll show them!" So, you lead with empathy and you choose to see if the glass is half-full or half-empty.

That feels true of Guillermo, all these years later, too. In a way, he has been in an abusive situation with the way the vampires treat him, yet he remains loyal, even as he is coming into his own. In Season 3, he literally traveled the world for that ancestral dirt, when he could have just faked it.

[Executive producer] Stefani Robinson and I talk about this all of the time: We walk Guillermo on a tightrope. He's becoming more confident and you see it in his posture and the way that he talks — his volume's a little bit higher. Also, his clothes are a little more fitted, he's more comfortable in his skin. He was ashamed of his body before, and he's realizing he's stronger than he knows mentally, physically by lineage, and that's given him the confidence. Sometimes we don't know how powerful we are just in our own human body — just being and holding space. 

He's been told that he's a waste of space, he's been told that he's worthless, so what takes over: nurture, nature? He's been living with people who have, for lack of a better phrase, [given him] Stockholm Syndrome. They treat him like sh-- and he's still loyal to them because the end of the day, he leads with empathy and he still has human emotions, and he loves them. He genuinely loves them, even though sometimes they drive him nuts. He has chosen them as his chosen family. He has a family that he barely sees, but he has never been completely honest with his own family. They probably think he still works at Panera Bread. He's been loyal to this vampire family for 12 years, and he's so loyal that now he's realizing, "I'm so good at what I do, protecting them. I'm a bodyguard for them now."

The Stockholm Syndrome analogy does feel very apt, but at the end of Season 3, Guillermo thought he was going to tour the world with Nandor (Kayvan Novak) and become a vampire, but Laszlo (Matt Berry) pushed him into a box and sent him across the world with Nadja (Natasia Demetriou). How does that experience change him?

A year goes by, and being away from someone that trained your mind to think of yourself as worthless and a piece of sh-- gives you the ability to open up to other ways of seeing yourself, to being honest with yourself, to seeing the value in yourself. And he had more time on his hands, and he's made a lot of self-realizations. He's utilized that time away and he comes back with even better skills at what he does and even a stronger mindset, and he's just quicker to react to things. Guillermo has to keep everything contained because he can't show the vampires that he can blow up.

Ever? Because we have seen him show signs he can reach that point. He very clearly said in Season 3 that these vampires are still around because he lets them be. He just didn't reach the boiling point yet.

I feel like he's gonna blow up, and we're all going to root for him because it's justifiable. He's going to have a moment, like we all do, where he's just had enough. We're going to find out more about his lineage and learn more about the family. We're just scratching the surface, I think, with him.

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Harvey Guillén in 'What We Do in the Shadows' 

FX

Now that you are entering the fourth season of What We Do in the Shadows, with two more coming after, how much are you able to influence who Guillermo is and that trajectory now, compared to at the start of the show?

For the first couple of seasons, it was very secretive. We weren't really involved, to the point where I didn't know anything about Guillermo's trajectory or history or background. I remember I went to Jemaine [Clement, executive producer] and I said, "Can I give him a last name? It feels weird to be a human in this world of empires, and it's just a first name, like I'm Beyoncé or something." [Laughs] I didn't know about the Van Helsing side until the table read [for that episode]. And so, any time I'd make a plan of what I think Guillermo is going to do or where he's going — what's that old saying, when you make plans God laughs? When I make plans, the producers laugh. [Laughs

But as I got further into it, I was just really wanting to be more involved. When it comes to the Spanish in the household, I remember helping write that scene with Paul [Simms, executive producer] and some of the writers to really get that flow of home life with Guillermo and how he talks with his mom. He has a different tone and a different inflection when he's talking to the vampires and a different inflection when he's talking to the The Mosquito Collectors of the tristate area. He's a different person for different people, which we all have done. He puts on a different voice when it behooves him to because he's trying to assimilate to the situation. For me, the Spanish style was really important because some verbiage and slang that you use at home might not be used in a household in Argentina or Colombia. And then they said, "What would the mom be making?" And I was like, "Well, if it's wintertime, it's around the holidays, she would probably be making some Mexican holiday treats like buñuelos." They wrote that in and our wonderful set designer and props designer, she googled buñuelos and the first thing that came up were Columbian buñuelos, and they're delicious, but they're different. And so, when I got to set, I was like, "These aren't Mexican." And we were about to shoot the scene, and I was like, "It's OK" because we were in a kitchen in a real house that we rented for the scene. There was a skillet and cooking oil, and I said, "I need flour tortillas and cinnamon sugar." And I made the buñuelos on the spot to be the prop in the background. 

People notice details, so it was really important to me to contribute my culture into the scene.

How does playing Guillermo for this long affect how you approach roles in similar genres, namely Joaquim in Werewolves Within?

With Guillermo, I'm so content with that world and that character and that personality that I don't really need to do it anywhere else. Werewolves Within was so farcical and far-fetched for comedy, similar to the world I live in, but the character is completely different than Guillermo. Joaquim is over the top and eccentric, and Guillermo is so quiet and shy that sometimes I'm doing scenes with Kayvan and he's like, "Man, I can't even hear you." He's so timid.

George on Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist was also timid, so maybe a little similar to Guillermo in that respect, but the show is a very different genre. 

That character, George, was so fun. He was a combination of people that I knew in school and musical theater who are so great as a person but maybe are not good at their jobs.

It definitely felt like he should have been fired well before he actually got fired. But it also felt like he was the type of personality that could have stuck around with that group longer.

They wrote an episode later in the season where it's Zoey's birthday and George comes back and says, "Firing me was the best thing." Sometimes we forget that breaking out a relationship is the best thing that could have happen to you. Sometimes you want to hold on to that because it's familiar. But firing George is the best thing. He comes back, he's the president of his own company that he started, he has a partner, he's in love. His story was supposed to be this great message to the world, like, "Don't be sad if you get fired." And we couldn't do it because I was shooting Shadows, and so, that song "Kiss Me" by Sixpence None the Richer was supposed to be my song, but they gave it to everybody.

Going out on a Britney Spears song is a pretty solid exit, though.

Absolutely. It's very relevant, and I just thought, "Wow, if you would have told a 12-year-old or 14-year-old me I was singing Britney Spears, I would have been like, 'Yeah right.'" But singing Melissa Manchester's "Don't Cry Out Loud" was a really sweet way to introduce him and then "Stronger" was a great way to see him exit. And choreography by Mandy Moore, it was a pop star moment. And even the moments I got to be in as company — I really loved "Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing." The movement of that with the chair and the posing, everyone has to be sharp. I felt like such a badass in the musical theater world that I hadn't visited for a while. So, that one I was very passionate about doing.

It certainly feels like Guillermo needs to unearth another hidden talent on What We Do in the Shadows. If Nadja ever gets the vampire nightclub up and running, could you nod to your own roots on a stage or dance floor?

At one point in Season 1 Guillermo had a line where they go to the necromancers hut and it's in the community college, and the scene was cut out, but it was something along the lines of, "How did you find this place, Guillermo?" And I said, "I used to take stagecraft here." The joke was that he was the second understudy to the lead's understudy. He wasn't confident enough, but maybe he's talented, we don't know. 

I know that there's definitely performing in a nightclub by different characters. I will always welcome throwing it into the show any way I can. I'll probably be the annoying one to say, "We should probably have him sing and dance, right?" And they're like, "No, you're doing a fight scene. You're jumping out of a third-story window." "But wouldn't it be cool if he piqués out of a window?"

Exactly, you're just putting a little more flair on it.

When I do the stunts — and you'll see more coming up, like in the night market scene — I call it choreography. I count it as beats. And when you see it, it's a dance. And in the night market scene, I have some really cool moves that I'm excited about. It's exciting to play that and show off that, again, don't judge a book by its cover.