On Vampires, Improv & Spreading Your Wings with Harvey Guillen

Actor Harvey Guillen

Photography by Valentina Vee. Hair by Adriana Ortega

We’ve seen actor Harvey Guillen in a number of roles over the years, but his turn as Guillermo in What We Do in the Shadows, the new FX series that adapting the 2014 film feels like a step in a new direction. Guillen discusses the role, improvisation on the show, and whether we’re seeing plus size actors get better roles in the industry.

Is there more pressure when you’re creating a show from a film or a book people love as opposed to creating something from scratch? It’s not pressure, it was perfect. All the series regular shows I’ve done have been books – they were always a prequel to something. Huge was a book by Sasha Paley, and my character Alistair was first trans teen on TV. Eye Candy was a book by RL Stine. With this show, there’s a similar character, and it’s the same timeline. Actually, Jackie van Beek, who plays the familiar in the film, directed two episodes.

Had you seen the film before you took the project? It was in my queue to watch, but I hadn’t. I went to a wine and cheese night instead. [laughs] A friend I made at the wine and cheese night connected me with her fiancee, who part of with the production, I auditioned, then 12 hours later I was testing for the role. I watched film after. I didn’t want to be influenced by it, so after the audition I saw the film.

Harvey Guillen April 2019

Can you talk about Guillermo? It’s so much fun seeing you play this character. Everyone can relate to Guillermo; he’s the only human. We relate to him because he is us. We’ve all had a job or relationship we’ve tried to make work but it doesn’t. We root for him because he’s you.

There was a fair bit of improv in the film. Do you get any opportunities to improvise on the show? We get a take based on the script, then get to do an improv take. [Improv] feels true to the characters. I couldn’t have asked for a better combination of improv and scripted.

I’m a big fan of Documentary Now! [in fact, he was in an episode] and doing a series that is a documentary style is so much fun. You’re not putting on airs or a persona, a lot of what’s interesting [in the show] comes from the mundane. It’s so funny to have the camera be a character itself.

It seems with improv you really have to know your character and how he would respond to any given situation. Does improvising make that more difficult? As soon as I get to the set, I become Guillermo. He’s very different from me. He’s soft-spoken, obedient. Lots of traits he has I don’t have, like patience [laughs]. But that’s him, and that’s what I do. When we do the improv and he answers, it’s what he would answer. It’s organically what he would say.

Harvey Guillen Actor

This feels like a different kind of role for you. It’s fun watching you play this character. I’m so glad we’re not getting stuck in familiar roles as we did in the past, but this has a different layer and it’s fun to play. It’s the goal of an actor to try to play something different. Thanks to Taika, Jermaine, Paul, and FX for letting us do this. It is opening new doors for me. People have already reached out [about new projects] after the first two episodes.

I’m glad people have embraced the show. It lives in the same world as the film, and there are vampires all over the world. There could be documentary crews everywhere, you might be surprised!

Spring is here, it’s getting warmer – how are you adjusting your style to the season? I’m loving ASOS, and loving neon and bright patterns. I’ve been experimenting with spring hair styles – Adriana Ortega, my hair stylist and I have been experimenting with throwback styles, like some 50s James Dean looks.

Harvey Guillen

What else are you working on right now? I produced a series called The Filth and I can’t say a lot about it, but it will premiere at a major LGBT film festival and will be available later this year. It is directed by Jamie Holt, who is also my writing partner. We were lucky to get so many people to guest star on the show, like Danny Franzese, Colleen Bollinger, Jess Garcia from On My Block – they were wonderful to help.

You can’t categorize everyone into a box, and we’re seeing that start to change.

I asked you this years ago when we first spoke, but so much has happened for you since then. Is the industry changing when it comes to diversity in body types and opportunities for plus size people to play different kinds of roles? It’s getting better, but I wouldn’t say it’s getting easier. When you’re a person of color or a person of size, it’s easy to get put into a box. For years, I didn’t see myself on TV and I felt like I was waiting so long for permission. Instead of being the garnish, I decided to become the main dish. You can’t categorize everyone into a box, and we’re seeing that start to change.

What We Do in the Shadows airs Wednesdays on FX. Follow Harvey Guillen on Instagram here.

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