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Harvey Guillén Is the Queer, Human Heart of What We Do in the Shadows

Guillermo

In January 2018, Harvey Guillén received a last-minute invitation to a wine-and-cheese night from a friend, actress Mimi Michaels.

At the time, Guillén — an actor known for his roles in The Internship, The Thundermans, and The Magicians — was in his pajamas. A veteran of networking nights in Tinseltown, he was tempted to stay inside, watch TV, and skip the schmooze. However, he had not seen Michaels, who was visiting Los Angeles, in quite some time. So he decided to go to the event.

This decision proved to be a fateful one for the young actor. Over dairy products and libations, Guillén met a woman who recommended he audition for a role on a television show being produced by her fiancé, Garrett Basch (The Night Of).

The part ended up being Guillermo, a “familiar” — a human servant — to a vampire named Nandor (Kayvan Novak) on What We Do in the Shadows, an FX series inspired by the 2014 New Zealand mockumentary of the same name from Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi. The role had not been on Guillén’s radar, because it had originally been written for an actor a few decades older. However, Guillen so impressed the powers that be in casting that he landed the part against the odds.

“Never say no to wine-and-cheese night — that’s the rule,” Guillén advised with a laugh and some awe at landing a series regular role on the acclaimed comedy series. Shot in the style of cinéma vérité, the half-hour show centers on a group of centuries-old vampires trying to adapt to 21st-century life in Staten Island. It has enjoyed critical acclaim and was recently renewed for a second season on FX.

As the show’s sole human character — and as the one who aspires to one day becoming a vampire through hard work and dedicated service — Guillermo serves as the access point for mortal audience members. “Guillermo really represents all of us,” Guillén said. “He represents the everyday person trying to just get up and get on by and get onto the next level of their career, their love life, their relationships.”

In some ways, What We Do in the Shadows is also a metaphor for Hollywood. Guillermo endures degrading tasks that many assistants in showbiz can relate to — with the end goal of one day being rewarded with power himself. However, instead of fetching dry cleaning and lattes, Guillermo is rounding up fresh virgins for his master to feast upon and then disposing of the bodies.

Guillermo performs his role with gusto and (literal) sacrifices, but he is not always valued for his work. After a decade of service, he still has not been granted his vampiric dream, while others who did not even aspire to be fanged (such as Beanie Feldstein’s college-age character, Jenna) fast-track ahead of him.

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Nandor with his familiar, Guillermo

Guillén certainly related to Guillermo and his struggles of toiling for a seemingly impossible goal. “It just feels like being in the [entertainment] industry and being short and queer and Mexican  … that I had strikes against me. Because, automatically, the industry was saying … there's not a real place for you," he said.

However, Guillén — much like his determined character — did not let himself become discouraged by the limited opportunities available to actors who are LGBTQ, of size, or of color.

“Eventually, you start to think, if there's not a mold for me, then I'm going to be the first fucking mold," said Guillén, "because I'm not going to allow someone coming behind me to be disheartened or discouraged because they don't see someone like them … represented on TV or film.”

“When you don't see yourself represented, become the first of them,” advised Guillén, who noted how most actors will endure more rejection in a week that most people will encounter in a lifetime.

“You really have to have thick skin to kind of stay in this business,” he said. “I'm glad I stuck with it because I could have easily been like, The industry doesn't want you to be in this world, so I'm going to exit now.

Of course, choosing to leave a discriminatory space is not always an option. Even the LGBTQ community in the real world has many strides to make toward inclusivity. “We ourselves have been told we're not good enough for the rest of the world. And so now we're doing it to ourselves,” said Guillén, who has observed the shaming of others who don’t fit the white “Adonis” ideal among queer people.

When asked for his own coming-out story, Guillén said that, while he considers himself out, he has never been formally asked the question before by a media outlet. These aforementioned biases, he suspects, are also the reasons he has not been asked.

“I feel honored that you have asked me because no one has ever taken the time,” said Guillén, who would like to see more diverse faces and bodies on magazine covers. The actor would like to see less vanity and more humanity among his queer brethren — particularly in a political era in which LGBTQ rights and lives are being threatened.

"We should be focusing on our brothers and sisters who need help, who live in a small town in middle America who fear for their lives," he said.

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Queer people, as outcasts of society themselves, have long related to vampires and the myths, books, TV shows, and films featuring them; Guillen lists Interview With the Vampire and Buffy the Vampire Slayer as favorites.  

And the vampires in Shadows — in the tradition of forebears like The Hunger and True Blood — are queer themselves. In a given episode, Laszlo (Matt Berry) and his wife Nadja (Natasia Demetriou) might mention a vampire they’ve both slept with or a gay porn film Laszlo starred in. A pansexual orgy was even the focus of the season’s penultimate episode — with poor Guillermo being tasked with purchasing the sex toys for the dungeon and covering the furniture with plastic.

While topics like gay sex are often discussed in Shadows, there is no stigma around them. Sexuality is “never a topic of shaming,” said Guillén. While the vampires would not use an LGBTQ label — they are too old to be familiar with the terms — Guillén confirmed he would identify these characters as queer, as well as his own.

“With Guillermo, I can certainly say that identify him as queer because he always has borderline homoerotic moments with his master,” said Guillen. He compared the relationship between Nandor and Guillermo to one “where you're a little too familiar with the person you're working with and that crosses into an emotional attachment.”

Indeed, the relationship between these characters forms the heart of What We Do in the Shadows. Although Nandor often comes off as an unfeeling boss — he is surprised to learn at one point that a closet is, in fact, Guillermo’s room — he also stands up for him.

In one episode, “The Trial,” which features a council of famous actors like Tilda Swinton, Evan Rachel Wood, and Wesley Snipes (via Skype) who have played vampires in other productions, Nandor puts his own life on the line to save his familiar’s. It is a touching moment of self-sacrifice among a crew of predominantly selfish characters.

Apart from the homoerotic tension, Guillén believes that viewers who come from all marginalized communities will feel some empathy for the vampires and their various experiences in the United States — which include, humorously but with political shades, applications for American citizenship and demands for representation in the local city council.

"We are living in that comedy," said Guillén, who admires the sly political commentary cutting through Shadows. "We are literally in this hellhole of a comedy that is our state of the union."

The parallels don't end there. While they may be powerful beings, the vampires of Shadows are also flawed and at-times vulnerable characters who must contend with infighting as well as clashes with other outsider monster communities — like werewolves. There's also, of course, the deadly threat of sunlight, which limits their lives and movements to nighttime.

Like many generations of queer people, vampires are forced to keep their identities a secret — although much of the comedy revolves around their inability to stay closeted for long, due to their outmoded clothes and accents.

“They've been kicked out of communities with torches and told, 'You're different and your lifestyle is not welcome here,'” said Guillén, who sees lessons like the value of perseverance and found family in Shadows.

“You’re never truly the only one,” he said of the show’s peculiar but inclusive message. “And to know that you can create a family with other vampires, with other LGBTQ people like you? You can create your own army. We are more powerful in numbers. And we are more than you think.”

"That's what we all strive for, is to just live amongst each other in harmony and to love and accept each other," concluded Guillén. And to become vampires? "And to become vampires! At the end of the day, you want to be fabulous."

The finale of What We Do in the Shadows airs Wednesday at 10 p.m. Eastern on FX. Watch the trailer below.

Tags: television

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