“For being on shows that deal with blood a lot, I’m very squeamish,” says the actor, who, over the course of three seasons, has become a fan favorite on FX’s What We Do in the Shadows. Sometime in the near, as yet unspecified future, Guillén will appear on the Amazon Prime crime series, Reacher, portraying a young but brilliant southern medical examiner.
“It’s funny because blood just gives me the heebie-jeebies. I don’t like needles. I don’t like blood. I’m used to seeing blood on Shadows, but because we’re making a comedy, it’s never too gruesome,” he says. “But in Reacher, my first day on set was just — it was just blood and a lot of gore. It was so realistic.”
Guillén, who last appeared on the cover of this magazine in May of 2020, just as the coronavirus pandemic had taken a devastating hold on the country, has seen his star skyrocket over the past eighteen months. Not only was he cast in Reacher, but he played a pivotal role in the charming and wacky horror-spoof Werewolves Within, where he was featured as husband to Cheyenne Jackson.
“We were an untraditional queer couple,” he says, “because that’s not what’s usually shown on television or film. It’s usually like two people with Adonis six-packs. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s like, there are people out there who are in queer relationships that don’t look like that, you know? So it was good to show that. Cheyenne — gorgeous and tall, with this beautiful voice. And then you have someone like me, who’s shorter than him, who’s stout, who is Latinx. It was a nice combination to see people who could genuinely be in love with each other for who they are.”
Guillén also spent the pandemic amassing an array of voice-over work in animation, a dream of his. His roles have included Funny on Disney’s Mickey Mouse Funhouse and Alton, on FX’s riotously funny spy spoof Archer. He even found time to do a guest stint on NBC’s recently canceled Zoey’s Infinite Playlist, where he got to show off his musical chops as office-worker George, who got a massive song-and-dance send-off when his character’s arc ended.
Not surprisingly, the 31-year-old Guillén would love to someday star in a Broadway musical, and even posits that perhaps it could be an original based on What We Do in the Shadows. But he’d be more than content with a classic.
“Maybe revamp The Producers? It would be great to be one of the leads,” he says. “Or I would love to do a lead in Book of Mormon. I wouldn’t even mind playing Boq in Wicked, just because I love that musical so much.”
For now, though, the LGBTQ-identified actor is content with the highly recognized role of Guillermo, a frustrated familiar-turned-vampire killer to a household of dysfunctional, clueless vampires in Shadows. In the midst of airing its third season — with filming on the fourth season underway in Toronto — the show is as riotously funny as ever, skewering vampires, werewolves, witches, ghouls, hellhounds, and even a few humans, not to mention a magnificent, brutal pummeling of the worn-down Atlantic City.
Guillén generously attributes much of the show’s success to the writers, the designers, and his fellow cast members, who share tremendous, instinctive chemistry with one another.
“We all saw each other last night for the first time in months at a cast dinner,” he says. “Kayvan [Novak, who plays Guillermo’s master, Nandor] just came over and gave me the biggest hug. It’s just like he’s literally my best friend. You can’t fake that kind of rapport with someone.”
METRO WEEKLY: The last time we spoke was about a year and a half ago, just as season two of Shadows had dropped. And now season three is up and running. Between the seasons, how have things evolved for you in your career and life?
HARVEY GUILLÉN: A lot has happened. I’ve been busier than I’ve ever been, which is good. I’ve been diving into different realms that I haven’t before. I got to do musical theater for television for Zoey’s Infinite Playlist. And I’ve joined the world of animation, as well, which has always been a dream of mine. I’ve also been writing with my writing partner — we have a show in development at Warner Brothers.
I guess more people are taking notice of the work that we’re doing on Shadows. Between seasons two and three, we really got a new fan base, because we’re on Hulu. People binged-watched the first two seasons and are now catching up with season three. We’re in Toronto right now shooting season four.
MW: Shadows has become such a huge phenomenon. I’ve been watching it since the beginning and it’s blown my mind how consistently funny it is. One of the things that has become increasingly apparent is how important your character, Guillermo, is to the overall narrative. He’s kind of the glue of the series. As the familiar to the vampires, he’s in charge of their household, but he has also learned he’s a descendant of the legendary vampire killer, Van Helsing, and so ends up protecting his vampires from other vampires who would kill them. What has the evolution of Guillermo been like for you as an actor?
GUILLÉN: It’s been absolutely great to see the character evolve, to peel away at the layers of Guillermo from season one to two and three, and even going into season four. The idea that this character started off as very submissive and soft-spoken, almost blending into the wallpaper to not upset his housemates and then to learn the power that he has within is very metaphorical, I think.
We don’t know how powerful we are until we’re pushed to our limits. Everyone has their limits, but he definitely gets pushed to his, for sure. Every season there’s a new evolution of him. His confidence is starting to evolve slowly but surely in a good direction.
But I think people cheer for Guillermo because we’re all Guillermos. We’ve all been in a place where we were overlooked for a promotion at work and someone else gets it. We all have been in a place where we’re in a relationship or in love with someone, or we don’t have the courage to speak our mind or our feelings, or we haven’t been fully honest with our family. We’ve all been there. So when we see Guillermo, we root for him. And in turn, we’re rooting for ourselves and for each other because we all have been Guillermos.
I never sought out to be a role model. My goal is to create art. And by doing so, if that changes someone’s life, changes the world, makes change, period, then that is just the cherry on top.”
MW: In the current season, the vampires seem even more absolutely resolute to not make him a vampire, which was at one point his ultimate dream. Is that still his dream, to become a vampire?
GUILLÉN: I think it is. I think that it’s hard to let go of a dream that you’ve invested so much in. Remember, at this point in his life, he’s been a familiar for twelve years. So shortly after high school, he’s known nothing but this. He’s known nothing but being on track to becoming a vampire. But it hasn’t happened. And the clock is ticking and he seems to be getting more and more flustered with the idea that this might not be happening anytime soon, especially not with this group of vampires.
MW: It’s all mined for comedy, though.
GUILLÉN: There’s definitely humor in the situation. Every time you think he might get just a little bit closer, the joke is an absolute no. He’s like, “You’re making me part of the gang?” And they’re like, “No, no, we’re not making you a vampire. No, you’re going to be a bodyguard.” That joke is either be a bodyguard or get killed by them. So at that point, he’s like, “All right, I’ll try being a bodyguard. I’m really good at defending you guys. I killed a whole theater of vampires for you in the ending of season two. So I think I’m pretty good at it. So why not?”
So in season three, he’s putting on a bodyguard hat, and he’s trying it out. But if he doesn’t become a vampire soon, it might drive him mad….
MW: Shades of Renfield, perhaps? It all begs the question: can a vampire killer actually be a vampire? It’s an incredible paradox for the character. He is a killer of the thing that he most wants to be.
GUILLÉN: It’s a great emotion to play as an actor, wanting something so bad, but your destiny sets you on a different course. Nothing’s more excruciating to anyone than to see your dream and your goals in front of you — so close and so tangible, and yet so far. It’s a frustration that goes along with the character, but it’s what makes him such a great character to play. It’s so layered.
I think that Guillermo has a heart that the audience wants to see babied or sheltered because we worry about him. We worry about his fragile state, his fragile mind, and fragile heart if things don’t work out for him because we see how high the stakes are. If he doesn’t get his wish, we are just going to be devastated. But if he does get his wish, we might be devastated as well. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
MW: Becoming a vampire would change Guillermo into a different kind of killer. He’d essentially become what we consider to be a monster in traditional lore, except that this show has actually defined its monsters as incompetent buffoons. They continue to kill people for their sustenance, but we sympathize with them. It’s a really interesting flip that this series has done on the vampire notion.
GUILLÉN: I agree. If you think about the whole idea, it’s a great preposterous world where vampires and trolls and witches are normalized. And if you think about it, all the vampires are queer. It’s just who they are.
MW: They’re also murderers.
GUILLÉN: [Laughs.] Yes, they’re also murderers, but in their world, it’s normalized because humans are murderers too. Humans eat meat, they eat chicken. Vampires are murderers, but they’re doing it for feeding. That’s how they survive. I guess the same thing could be said about a human eating a burger. But it is different because one’s eating an animal and the other one’s eating a human or draining a human of their blood.
MW: In a vampire’s world, humans are simply part of the food chain.
GUILLÉN: Exactly. I guess vampires are at the top of the food chain, so they eat humans.
MW: What about the werewolves? Are werewolves ahead of the vampires on the food chain? Who’s at the top?
GUILLÉN: Hmmm. Werewolves eat vampires, so they’re just — I would put them in the same category, I guess.
MW: The monster category.
GUILLÉN: [Laughs.] The monster mash category.
MW: We’re being very scientific here. The first season cleaved a little bit closer to the original movie itself. We saw more brutal killings by the vampires. They’d be out in the park and they would viciously attack somebody. We see much less of that in season two and actually, so far, in season three, there are only oblique references to it, like when Guillermo is dragging a shrouded body out of the house. We don’t see much of them actually pursuing or killing anymore. It’s an interesting shift.
GUILLÉN: Just because we don’t see it on screen doesn’t mean it’s not happening. We definitely know that they’re feasting. They have to survive. We just don’t see it every day. The thing can be said with any show. We know humans need fuel to survive, but we don’t necessarily see them eat every episode.
I love meeting the fans. People travel from all over the world to come and talk to you for five minutes. They wait in line for an hour and a half to talk to you for five minutes. They want to express to you how much the show means.”
MW: One of my favorite episodes so far this season has been the Atlantic City trip. There’s a great moment for Guillermo to prove how much he loves and cares for this dysfunctional group, despite how badly they treat him. He goes above and beyond the call of duty at one point.
GUILLÉN: He does. At the end of the day, Guillermo has his family and his mom, but he’s been devoted to this “family” for over a decade. He sees this family more than he sees his own. And in a weird way, he feels freer to be himself with the vampires than he probably would at home.
The idea of wanting to be a vampire — how do you explain that to a parent? And since he now is devoted to this group of vampires, it’s easier to just go with the flow. But he’s a human at the end of the day. Guillermo has a heart and is driven by emotion. And even though sometimes this is a group of a-holes to him, he loves them for better or worse. Without him, the household falls apart, literally.
They’re very powerful and dangerous vampires, but they’re very helpless at the same time and out of touch. And sometimes that can be deadlier — to be out of touch to reality. So he constantly swoops in and saves them, because he knows that they’re helpless in that world. The most mundane task could actually kill them. They can easily rip someone’s head off, but they could also be killed by the stupidest choice or action on their part.
MW: That’s what I meant earlier when I said he’s the core of this show. He’s the glue that holds the storyline together. He’s also the stand-in for the audience. Everyone does face-to-camera time, but Guillermo gives us a ton of these exasperated glances and sly asides. He’s our surrogate.
GUILLÉN: Guillermo takes you on the ride and the journey, and it’s great. Sometimes when the camera just pans over to him, he expresses what we’re all thinking without saying a word.
MW: I want to address the sexuality of the show’s vampires. They are all sexually fluid at one point or another.
GUILLÉN: I think the writers made the conscious decision of making the vampires just be queer. They’re fluid, and they are just who they are. They all fuck. They all fuck. They all fuck each other, and it’s fine. We had a huge orgy episode the first season where it’s all normalized — switching partners and whatnot. They continue that with the storyline this season and moving forward.
The vampires don’t apologize for who they are, which is a great metaphor for [the LGBTQ community] — we should not apologize for who we are. Everyone should be allowed to be their authentic selves. Hopefully, not everyone’s an asshole, but you should be able to be your authentic self wherever you go. I think the vampires represent that.
MW: That leads me to a big question about Guillermo. Do you think he’s gay?
GUILLÉN: I think Guillermo is definitely queer. Where he falls in the spectrum of that queerness has yet to be announced or discovered, but I have this feeling we’re getting closer and closer to that answer. We saw earlier in this season, he was going to be honest with the vampires. He says, “I think I was around 13 or 14 when I realized that….” And unfortunately, we didn’t get an answer because the neighbor came over and stopped that moment, which is heartbreaking.
We had a lot of fans online go, “No, let him finish! I want to hear it. I want to hear what he has to say.” People are eager to find out, people want to know. But just like in real life, when the time is right….
MW: Are you saying we might see a point where that question is definitively answered?
GUILLÉN: I think so. I think it’s inevitable. But when will that be? Who knows?
MW: I’d like to see Guillermo have a boyfriend.
GUILLÉN: Manifest it. Put it out in the universe, and you never know. You never know.
They’re very powerful and dangerous vampires, but they’re very helpless at the same time. They can easily rip someone’s head off, but they could also be killed by the stupidest choice or action on their part.”
MW: Celebrities can go two ways. They can either sort of back away from it all and seclude themselves, or they can fully embrace it. You seem to be in the latter category. You publicly celebrate the ton of fan art that’s sent to you and seem fully engaged with fans at the cons.
GUILLÉN: I love meeting the fans, because they remind me of why I keep doing this. Because I feel that the fans that we have on this show — and any fan that supports any project that I do — is an extension of the work that we do constantly. So if I do a show two years ago, or even a show four years from now, those fans are loyal to you and the work that you do. And I gladly go to cons to meet the fans, gladly.
People travel from all over the world to come and talk to you for five minutes. They wait in line for an hour and a half to talk to you for five minutes, sometimes even less. They want to express to you how much the show means.
For me, it gets to the point where I personally love hearing their stories. Some of these stories are really beautiful. I had people at Dragon Con this summer come up to me in tears and say, “You don’t know how it feels to finally have someone on screen who feels like me. I feel like me when I’m watching you on screen. I feel validated, I feel good about myself.” And this comes from different fans for different reasons, whether they’re LGBTQIA, or they’re Latinx, or they’re plus size. These are different fans who like my work for different reasons.
I never sought out to be a role model. My goal is to create art. And by doing so, if that changes someone’s life, changes the world, makes change, period, then that is just the cherry on top. I’m here to create art. I’m here to entertain. That is my gift. I’m not a doctor. I can’t save a life through surgery, but I could potentially save a life through humor.
MW: What has it been like doing the cons during COVID?
GUILLÉN: Since COVID, I’ve only done two, and they’ve taken precautions. People must show proof of vaccination or a negative test. We don’t really get to interact with the fans face to face. There’s usually a shield or a plastic barrier if we do take a picture, so that’s been changed. But we can still talk to them. That’s the most important part — talking to them and hearing their stories.
MW: How difficult was it to shoot season three during the pandemic?
GUILLÉN: I can tell you from being in the front lines, it wasn’t easy. It was extremely difficult in the sense that we wanted to create the same caliber of work that we’d been creating. We decided not to introduce the pandemic into the plot. Yes, it was happening in the real world. But in our world, we were escaping.
We had to go through excruciating tedious protocols to be safe. I felt safer on set than I did walking into a grocery store because everyone in our environment is tested every day. Everyone had masks, everyone was sanitized. We had so many protocols to make this work. But it’s all credit to our network and our amazing crew, who literally wanted to make this happen and do it right. We continue to do that today, which is great.
MW: I have to ask, what was it like meeting Mark Hamill, who was a guest on season two?
GUILLÉN: Oh, my gosh. Such a lovely person. When he showed up to set, we were all waiting for him. He was coming up in a van. And he gets out of the van, and the first thing he says is, “Harvey!” And he opens his arms and just gives me a huge hug. And then hugged all of us.
It was just so surreal to have this icon on set, who literally is a fan of our show. His children got him into it, and he was literally thrilled to come and play with us. This is the kind of level that still blows my mind — there’s people out there, huge names who are fans of our work, who say, “You’re doing really great, great, great work. Let me know if I can come and play.” That’s such a nice gesture, such a nice thing to be told.
I think Guillermo is definitely queer. Where he falls in the spectrum of that queerness has yet to be announced or discovered, but I have this feeling we’re getting closer and closer to that answer.”
MW: It used to be that actors feared being typecast in a role that they make indelible on television. But you seem to have bucked that with all the non-Guillermo roles you’ve had in the past year.
GUILLÉN: I always say, “I don’t like to be put in a box.” But Hollywood likes to do that to actors anyway. But I like to challenge myself and prove that at the core of it, I’m an actor, and as an actor, I can transform and bring life to different characters, you know?
MW: You have a forthcoming Amazon Prime series that you’ll be featured on, Reacher. What do you play?
GUILLÉN: I play Jasper, a medical examiner with a Southern accent. He’s really smart and articulate. He’s really good at his job, but he’s also pretty young and he’s learning as he goes. It’s just a nice challenge to get to play that character and have a Southern drawl.
MW: Can you give us a sense of the story?
GUILLÉN: There’s a killer in the small town and Reacher is trying to figure out who’s doing it. I’m the medical examiner, and I’m trying to put the clues together as well, and help along the way with the case. It’s very dark and it’s very gruesome. It’s going to be an edge-of-your-seat thriller.
People cheer for Guillermo because we’re all Guillermos. We’ve all been in a place where we were overlooked for a promotion at work and someone else gets it. So when we see Guillermo, we root for him.”
MW: My final question to you today goes back to Shadows and the fact that vampires kill people to feed. If Guillermo were to become a vampire, who do you think should be his first meal?
GUILLÉN: I don’t know if Guillermo would have the heart to bite a human. So I don’t think that he would necessarily kill someone. He doesn’t necessarily love that aspect of being a vampire. Even when he has to do it for his master, I think he’s learned to be a little bit repelled by it and doesn’t like to take victims. So even if he becomes a vampire, I think that he’d be smart, and he would open a blood bank for donations. It might be deceptive that the blood’s not being used for hospital purposes, but no one would die. And people would donate blood, and he would be able to sustain himself and live. And it would be done in a civil way, where Guillermo’s not hurting anyone.
New episodes of What We Do in the Shadows air every Thursday on FX, and are available for streaming on Fridays on FX on Hulu. Seasons one and two are currently available on Hulu. Visit www.fxnetworks.com or www.hulu.com.
Following each new episode, Harvey Guillén hosts After the Shadows, featuring short interviews with members of the cast, crew, and guest stars. Visit www.instagram.com/theshadowsfx.
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