“I’ve always been myself and comfortable in my body,” Harvey Guillén recalls to The Advocate. “I’ve always been a big kid growing up, and I was always happy.”
It wasn’t until others started pointing out his “imperfections” that the actor, beloved for his role as Guillermo de la Cruz in the hit FX series What We Do in the Shadows, even began to question if he was beautiful. (Which, for the record, he most definitely is.) These conflicting messages were mirrored by loving nicknames given by his family like gordito (“little fat one”) which, while a term of endearment, unintentionally confirmed what others with less pure intentions were telling him about his body.
It’s a story so many people can relate to, of having their confidence unfairly snatched away by outside influences. Guillén, however, has come full circle and realizes that there’s nothing wrong with his body; he embraces and celebrates it now.
“You have a big butt,” Guillén recalls bullies telling him, a message that he took to heart for years, wearing baggy pants just to hide his curves — curves he now happily flaunts on his Instagram to the delight of his followers. “Now people would kill for a big butt, you know what I mean?” he laughs.
It’s a personal journey that made him the perfect fit for the panel of guest speakers at this year’s The BodCon conference, a virtual day of discussion about confidence and radical self-acceptance. Created by Jess Hunichen and Emily Ward, The BodCon has become a social space built around body confidence but has also spawned a podcast and a series of mini-events held virtually throughout the year. In other words, it’s the perfect venue for the kind message of confidence and body positivity that Guillén just naturally exudes — because he didn’t set out to be an inspiration for body positivity; it just kind of happened.
“I never noticed how, by living your life or your authentic self, or just being your true self, you inspire people,” he shares. “I’m surprised how many times I get messages on Twitter or Instagram from people who say, ‘I love watching your stories. It just gives me so much confidence in myself.’”
Guillén’s combination of confidence and talent has taken him far in an industry that’s notoriously superficial. Guillén has thrived because of his tenacity, even with the call to lower his expectations coming from inside the house. “I remember my first agent — who was Latinx himself — told me, ‘You’re only going to play these certain roles... like the janitor or the gangbanger,” recalls Guillén. “Because I am Latinx, I am plus-size, and I was put into a category automatically. ‘I’ve studied Shakespeare, I studied dance,’ I said. “You’re telling me all that training used for me to say two lines with an accent, while I scrub a toilet? That’s what you think that I represent in my culture? It blew my mind.”
Guillén refused to settle or give up on his dream, even when it meant fighting his own team. Ultimately, it came down to knowing who he is and his value. “I’ve had to go face-to-face with my agents in the past — that was old agents because they’re no longer the team,” he laughs. “I have to remember that what I’m selling is myself. And my product is me. And I have to love every part of me and be and be 100 percent behind it,” he says. “I bring myself to the table ... I’m not wasting more time trying to convince you to like this, because I know what I’m offering.”
Guillén offers this tantalizing analogy: “So if I roll down with a cart of desserts to your dinner table, and it’s like, ‘not tonight,’ OK, I’ll move on to the next table because the other table is in dire need of dessert. And that’s what I have to offer — sweet, sweet dessert.”
That approach is working, because Guillén is staying very busy. His film I’m Totally Fine is on the way, as is a podcast series titled Bone, Marry, Bury. Reacher, in which Guillén plays the role of Jasper, is a huge hit for Amazon and has been renewed for season 2. And then, of course, there’s Guillén’s breakout role in What We Do in the Shadows. Guillermo, the vampire familiar turned vampire bodyguard (with a brief stint as an unintentional vampire hunter in between), quickly became a fan favorite with his dry delivery and knowing eye darts to camera, to the point where the show would be unimaginable without him now. However, were it not for a chance meeting at a wine and cheese party, Guillermo — as fans know and love him — never would have been, Guillén confides.
“Guillermo was not written for me,” shares Guillén, who adds that if he had attempted to audition for the part as it was written, he likely wouldn’t have made it through the door. The chain of events that landed him the role started at a friend’s party. It was there that he hit it off with a woman who turned out to be the girlfriend of a producer on the show, which at the time was still casting. She suggested him for the role and he went for it. The role was written for someone 20 years older than the 32-year-old actor. “I have to make myself look older because I’ll be too young for the role,” he recalls. “I know what I’ll do. I’ll look the part. So I found this nasty orange long-sleeve shirt in my closet with a brown sweater vest over it. I had these Harry Potter glasses and I popped out the lenses. I parted my hair in the middle and curled it to the sides like it was like 1994 Home Improvement. I went in thinking if this doesn’t age me, I don’t know what will.” Guillén says he got so into the character he can’t even remember the audition. He clearly nailed it, as a few days later he was on set and the Guillermo that fans know and love was born.
It’s not just in his professional life that Guillén’s body confidence has paid off, but in his dating life as well. “The more confident I got in my body, the more people are attracted to [me]. Because oozing confidence is sexy,” he shares. “The more confident you are, that’s so appealing. You walk around with that, because it’s contagious, and having that confidence is contagious, you want to be around positivity.” That’s not to say that the queer community doesn’t have its own issues with body shaming and prejudice about body size, something Guillén has witnessed and experienced firsthand. “The queer community is like, ‘Please love us. Love is love, love is— eww, get away from me, fat person,’” says Guillén. “We can be very judgmental in our own community. We have so much division.” It’s not unlike how, early in his career, the roles given to Guillén were assigned to him by others — and just as limiting. “We start putting people in categories, and it’s like twinks and bears, chub chaser, all these terms that I didn’t know until I was in high school, like why?” he asks.
“People come up to me like, ‘Are you chub for chub? Or are you a chub for chaser?’ And it’s just like, ‘What are you saying?’” asks Guillén. “Oh, so I’m automatically a chub because I’m already a person of size,” he recalls with a sigh.
This need to put queer individuals in boxes goes against Guillén’s ethos and his romantic history. “I look at the background of who I’m attracted to and it’s been a rainbow of people. I’ve dated people of bigger size, people with different backgrounds. I can’t put myself in a category, because at the end of the day, that’s not reality,” he shares. It’s time to do better, Guillén says, because it’s not healthy for queer folks. “In queer culture it’s like ‘no femmes, no fats.’ That’s damaging and just kind of ridiculous.” It is getting better in his eyes, however. “I feel like we’re getting better at having a conversation about things,” he says. “it’s a conversation that’s being had even in the queer community.” For Guillén, everything comes back to his guiding philosophy: “Lead with empathy, and lead with empathy with yourself and with others.”
Evolving attitudes about body diversity are also positively impacting Guillén’s career. “I remember a time not too long ago, some of the roles that I will be playing now wouldn’t have been an option for me,” he says. Guillén also hopes that he’s been able to open doors that will allow more people to follow after him. “Now when I do [conventions] for Shadows, I get people who come up to me, people from different backgrounds and sizes. They’re like, ‘I literally didn’t see myself on television, and I saw you and I was like, yes, he can do it. I can do it.’”
While his confidence hasn’t kept some in the public and in the media from commenting on his body — a practice that Guillén says he finds “to be very American to talk about people’s bodies” — he’s no longer bothered. The same is true for what the bullies used to say about what’s become his favorite feature, his butt. “It’s funny,” says Guillén, thinking back to a time when he was ashamed of his body, “the other day someone said, I found a picture of you online where it’s just you and you’re dressing like ... sexy Pugsley Addams. The photographer had ideas like why don’t we make you goth and scary. You’re like if Pugsley Addams was all grown up and living his best sexy life,” he laughs. “And it’s just me holding a cherry and twisting around and seeing my backside — and it’s just that leaves nothing to the imagination.”
You can hear more of Guillén’s body confidence story at The BodCon conference February 27. Tickets are on sale now at TheBodCon.com.