'What We Do in the Shadows’ Star Harvey Guillén Is Not That Innocent
'What We Do in the Shadows’ Star Harvey Guillén Is Not That Innocent
It’s an unusually warm September day in Los Angeles and actor Harvey Guillén is supine on a hot pink background, sporting dainty boy shorts, a black bra, and a classic white button-down that’s unbuttoned and falling around him, framing him in the pink. In one hand, the star of the campy vampiric hit What We Do in the Shadows holds the receiver of a corded landline — a relic from days past — and in the other he clutches, in some shots, a teddy bear, and in others, a boy doll. Britney Spears fans and former ’90s kids will likely recognize the call-out to Spears’s iconic 1999 Rolling Stone cover, although in her right arm she hugged a stuffed Tinky Winky, what was then a political lightning rod that sent conservatives into a tailspin over the fictional character’s perceived gender and sexual identity.
Though it's not a political act per se, Guillén’s desire to upend traditional gender roles by re-creating Spears’s sexy cover is in line with his lifelong ethos to unequivocally be himself and to model that for others.
“The image that I always thought was so cool was the Rolling Stone Britney cover,” Guillén says of the aesthetics of the era. “And being a person of size, as a child, I never saw someone like me on a cover in that pose. Given the chance, I jumped to it. I want to show that little Harvey out there to love their body and to not let anyone dim their light.”
From the instant a 5- or 6-year-old Guillén first saw the movie version of the musical Annie on TV, he knew he wanted to be like the kids on the screen — a performer. His mother responded by letting him know that pursuing acting and the training involved was for rich kids — that he could do it, but he’d have to work hard. Like his complex Shadows character Guillermo — a bloodsucker’s assistant with Van Helsing vamp-killing blood who bucks against norms and longs to be made a vampire like his master — Guillén has since defied naysayers to make his own way.
He shares the story of his teacher in grade school who asked her students to guess the number of seeds in a pumpkin, insisting the kids choose a number under 500. Guillén picked something over 600 and stood firm when the teacher challenged him to go lower. Not only was he correct and won the jack-o’-lantern to take home, but the incident stands as a crucial, early lesson in holding his ground.
“I always had moments like that where … society would tell me, ‘You can’t do this because you’re fat. You can’t do this because you’re Mexican. You can’t, just because you’re queer.’ I just hated hearing those no[s],” Guillén says, adding that Hollywood tried unsuccessfully to pigeonhole him into those categories of his identity. “All those stripes were all my strengths. And I reversed it and put it into my character … if you don’t see yourself represented, then become the first.”
Guillén says he learned early in life to “do what makes you happy, and if someone gets in your way… then just go around them.”
The lesson Guillén gleaned from the pumpkin seed contest stayed with him for years. In addition to his star-making role in Shadows, the Orange County, Calif.-born actor has starred in The Magicians and Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist (where he had a full-circle moment performing “It’s the Hard-Knock Life” from Annie).
Having studied performing arts at Citrus College under former opera singer Ben Bollinger, where he learned discipline and structure as well as performance, Guillén enrolled at AMDA College of the Performing Arts. But Guillén, who admits, “I hate people telling me what to do,” defied the college’s rule against auditioning until after graduation and went out on auditions for “practice.” When he landed a couple of gigs during his first semester, the powers that be at AMDA advised him to turn them down, drilling it into him that he wasn’t ready. Guillén wasn’t cowed. He took the jobs.
Now in its fourth season, Shadows — based on Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s 2015 mockumentary about ancient vampires navigating the modern world — exploded in popularity during the pandemic and earned an Emmy nomination this year. It took Guillermo longer than the actor who plays him to step into his true power. But Guillermo, who once seemed too smitten with his master Nandor (Kayvan Novak) to climb out from under the vampire’s shadow, proved his mettle this season. He returned from his year abroad with a boyfriend back in England and came out to his family on-screen and to viewers in an episode where he saved the vampire Nadja (Natasia Demetriou), one of his beloved chosen family, from being staked by his vampire-killing kin.
Unlike Guillermo, who took 4.5 seasons to say the words “I’m gay” (although, to be fair, he has been busy cleaning up bodies around the vampire estate in Staten Island, N.Y.), Guillén never had a public coming out.
“I’ve always been my authentic self and thought at some point that would be a topic of a conversation of ‘Oh, well, guess who’s queer?’ I’ve always been myself. … But I did notice that at some point to be out, it was like a taboo thing,” he says. “It’s still surprising to me that it’s still news to people.”
“So my work spoke for itself and I talked about my sexuality,” he adds. “When you let the work speak for itself, then it’s just an added bonus that you’re queer. It was the nice transition of like, ‘Oh, we just found out that you’re also [gay]. Great work on this.’”
For all of Guillén’s steadfast self-assuredness, he’s experienced his share of discrimination. He shares a story from his childhood of playing with his Tonka truck on his grandma’s ranch in Mexico. The kids there refused to play with him. They called him the Spanish word for butterfly, a homophobic slur, before hurling a rock at his head. The scar outlines his eye to this day. But Guillén’s mom stood by him, encouraging his inner strength and framing the hate in a different way.
“Who cares what they call you? Because butterflies are beautiful. So who cares if they call you that?” Guillén recalls his mom asking him. “I could see that she was giving me that motherly moment of like, ‘I don’t care that they call you that. You shouldn’t care either,’ because she was protecting me, and I appreciate that moment.”
“From that day on, I knew that I was different — and I have always felt that,” he says. “But then I knew that I had nothing to lose because I had nothing. I came from nothing, so I had nothing to lose.”
Although Guillermo took his time coming out to his family and the audience, he’s been a light to those who see themselves in him. That’s something Guillén cherishes.
“I have fans who reach out on social or at Comic-Con with tears in their eyes, and all relate to [Guillermo] in a different way. They may not be all queer plus-size Latinx [people],” Guillén says. “Because, you know, you can relate to Guillermo — even if you’re not plus-size, even if you’re not queer, if you’re not Latinx — you can relate to them. Because Guillermo has represented all of us in the workforce, and we’ve all been in a job where they overlook us for promotion. We’ve all been maybe infatuated or maybe have feelings for someone [but] we don’t have the guts to say it out loud.”
Back to that Britney Spears-themed photo shoot, where later he’s sporting a lacy shrug and leaning into the phone as if in mid-gossip. It’s all part of exploration while standing firmly in the intersections of his identity.
“It’s important for all of us to be able to tap into our feminine and masculine self and be comfortable in that space. There is both in each of us, both powerful and beautiful,” Guillén says. “I think when we let go of the fear of being too [much of] one or the other, is when we can breathe and just live.”
Photography by Jen Rosenstein @jenrosenstein
Digitech, Derek Wooden @drexdigital
Lighting, Nick Dodge @nickdodge_
Photo Assistant, Mike Nelson @mknlsn
Prop maker, Sorrell Scrutton @sorrellscrutton
Stylist, Taylor Orear @taylororear
Hair and Makeup, Laila Hayani @lailalhayani
This story is part of The Advocate’s 2022 People of the Year issue, which is out on newsstands November 1. To get your own copy directly, support queer media and subscribe — or download yours for Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.