‘What We Do in the Shadows’: Harvey Guillén and Mark Proksch on Improv & Not Getting Costumes

     April 17, 2019

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Based on the feature film of the same name, from executive producers Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, the 10-episode FX comedy series What We Do in the Shadows offers a documentary-style look into the lives of four vampires who share a residence in Staten Island, New York. The self-appointed leader of the group, Nandor the Relentless (Kayvan Novak), who lives by the ways of the Old World and dresses as though he’s still living in another century, is not taken seriously by his roommates Laszlo (Matt Berry) and Nadja (Natasia Demetriou), who think that they know better. At the same time, energy vampire Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch), Nandor’s loyal servant Guillermo (Harvey Guillén), and Nadja’s new friend Jenna (Beanie Feldstein) are underappreciated by this trio who have been tasked with total and complete domination of the New World.

During this interview with Collider, co-stars Harvey Guillén and Mark Proksch talked about whether they were familiar with the original film that inspired the TV series, how they ended up getting their roles, the show’s tone and sense of humor, doing some wild improvised scenes, whether they’re disappointed that they don’t get to wear the more elaborate vampire costumes, what they most enjoy about their characters, and how surprised they were with the journey of this season.

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Image via FX

Collider: When this TV series came your way, what was your reaction to it and the character? Had you been familiar with the film?

MARK PROKSCH:  Yeah, I saw the film at the Minneapolis Film Festival, years ago, and I just remember thinking, “Oh, that’s a very smart idea.” So, it was very strange to then appear in the TV version is kismet. With Colin Robinson, my character, he’s not in the movie, so it gave me a little bit of freedom. It gave all of us freedom with our characters, that we could create something new, instead of trying to step into someone else’s shoes. It was actually really nice to be able to create our own characters.

HARVEY GUILLEN:  The movie was actually on queue for me to watch on Amazon. It was a message. I was really getting signs. Instead of watching the movie one night, I actually went to Wine and Cheese Night, instead of staying home to watch the movie.

PROKSCH:  That’s why your career is way better than mine. I would have stayed home.

GUILLEN:  So, I went to Wine and Cheese Night with my friend and her best friend from high school, Yvonne, and we didn’t talk about the industry, or anything. It was just people having wine and cheese, and I was there for the wine and cheese. The next day, I got a text from an unknown number, and it was Yvonne, who’s Garrett Basch’s fiancé, and he’s an executive producer on the show. So, she texted and said, “Hey, I think you’re so funny. You’re should audition for my fiancé’s new show.” And I was like, “What?! This is so Hollywood. I’m not gonna fall for this. All right, what time?” And then, she said, “You’ve gotta move quick ‘cause they’re auditioning this week, and the shoot is in September.” People had been auditioning since the fall, and it was now January. There was four months of auditioning people, around the world. I read the script and went in thinking, “I’ll just go meet the casting director, who’s amazing.” Allison Jones casts everything under the sun, so I just wanted to go in and make a friend out of her. I thought that I was too young for it. And then, I went in and auditioned, and I got it. So, you should never miss Wine and Cheese Night.

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Image via FX

PROKSCH:  I auditioned so early on that I thought they had moved on. I just thought I didn’t get it. If you don’t hear in the first couple of weeks, you forget about it ‘cause you need to, as an actor in this industry. And then, I got a call, out of the blue, a few months later. My agent and managers were like, “You got the role,” and I was like, “Oh, I completely forgot about the fact that I was still up for that.” It’s always very exciting when you land something, especially something that people you respect have created and are working on.

There’s certainly a definite tone and sense of humor to this show. Was that something you found you adjusted to pretty quickly?

PROKSCH:  For me, it definitely has the same genre of humor as The Office, and I guest starred a couple of times on that, so it was familiar territory.

GUILLEN:  [Mark] has done more than 20 episodes of The Office. I grew up watching The Office and wanting to be a part of something like that, to have the liberty to do improv, where you do a scripted version because the writers are amazing, and then you also get to do it your way. Usually, you get told, “Don’t add that, at the end.” The writers are really picky about. For the first time ever, I feel like I can breathe [on this show]. You just completely live in these characters. It’s like playing hot potato, but with this cast, no one drops the potato. You can toss it for hours, and everyone can keep going. We had one take that lasted 22 minutes, for a scene that should have only been about 30 seconds to two minutes. It was insane that we kept going, and they kept rolling. The camera didn’t stop because we had such good material. You don’t stop until you feel that you’ve drained that well out, and sometimes we had so much that we could keep going forever.

Have there been times when it’s just gotten so crazy, you figure that there’s no way that they can actually use it, but then they do?

PROKSCH:  Yes.

GUILLEN:  Yeah. They’ll make you do a line and they’ll say, “Okay, you’re really sad. You might die.” And then, on the next take, they’ll say, “Okay, now you don’t care.” When they put it all together, it’s like a puzzle. They have such a variety of options.

PROKSCH:  There are quite a few moments that we filmed where, right after we would film it, we would all say, “There’s no way that they’ll use this,” but then you’ll hear that Jemaine [Clement] really liked that moment, so you never know. It’s what the editors and the directors feel works best, and a lot of times, those moments where you’re just goofing off are the most natural.

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Image via FX

Are you guys ever disappointed that you don’t get to wear some of the more outrageous costumes?

GUILLEN:  At first, I was a little bit jealous because I just like to try different things. But actually, I thought that was just perfect for Guillermo because, of course, he’s gonna be jealous. He wants to be part of that. But we were very comfortable wearing sweater vests.

PROKSCH:  Yeah, it takes them quite a long time to get into those costumes, and they’re not comfortable. They just look amazing. But I’m good with a sweater and some loafers.

GUILLEN:  And we can get changed in two to three minutes. Sometimes they would have us change on set because we were so quick for our scenes, and then they could do three scenes, back-to-back. We can go into a room and get dressed in two seconds, and then come and do the next scene. Whereas the vampires have to go and get completely in a full-on harness and corset, with their nails and hair, and all of that.

Because your characters are the outcasts of this group, what do you like about them, and what you have really grown to appreciate about them, as you’ve gotten to learn more about who they are?

PROKSCH:  For Colin, there’s a part of him that you’ll see, as the series goes on, where he actually likes the other vampires that he’s living with. He struggles with wanting to be friends with them while killing them with every word that he says, draining their life force. As the show has gone on, I felt that I discovered that his character does have a need for friendship. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be living in this house, with these other vampires.

GUILLEN:  For me, I feel like we’ve all been there, in a job that we don’t necessarily love but we see the bigger picture, and then sometimes that doesn’t pan out. I feel for him. Guillermo has worked for Nandor with the promise of becoming a vampire, and it doesn’t happen. We can all relate to that. How much have we invested into a relationship, whether it’s romantic or a best friend or a family member, where you believe in them and think it’s gonna work out, and it doesn’t, or a job where you thought you were gonna be next in line to be the CEO or the manager, and it doesn’t happen. It’s just because we make these stories in our head of what we want to happen, but that isn’t necessarily what you’re gonna get. That’s always a little downer for me, but it makes me push even harder for him. He has to get redemption somehow. I’m rooting for him. I’m rooting for him to get what he thinks his dream is. He has this wish that he’s wanted, and I’m rooting for him to have his dream come true. You want to be a pig farmer? Go be a pig farmer. If that’s your dream, then I’m rooting for you to do what you want to do and love. I really want him to do what he loves, but sometimes destiny has a different plan for you.

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Image via FX

Will we learn where this dream of his came from?

GUILLEN:  You will. You’ll get snippets of why. As we go along, you do find out a little bit more. We don’t get too crazy into it, but we do find out a little bit. You’ll find where he comes from and what he’s made out of, literally.

Do we also learn why he’s become fixated on Nandor, in particular?

GUILLEN:  I don’t think it necessarily started that way. He was given the opportunity and, somewhere along the line, this homo-erotic tendency with their relationship developed, where they do care about each other. It’s a superficial love, and it’s in sexuality. We’ve all been in those kinds of toxic relationships. It’s not good for you, but you still love being with them.

Is there a point where enough is enough for him?

GUILLEN:  Absolutely! You’ll see what enough is, and what that entails, later in the season, for sure.

It seems like it would be difficult for Colin Robinson to have relationships with anyone, if he just sucks their life force away.

PROKSCH:  Yeah, it definitely begs the question of, who would have a relationship with someone like Colin Robinson. I’m sure that we’ll explore that, to some degree. That’s a story arc that will probably come about, and you’ll get some answers for that. Who would be able to fall in love with someone like Colin Robinson?

Is there any way that he can avoid it from happening, or does it happen whether he likes it or not?

PROKSCH:  Yeah, if he doesn’t feed off of you, he’ll die. Can a person turn off their need for food? It’s an interesting quandary. How much do you kill this person that you actually love? It’s a fun, silly, philosophical question, but it works for the character. As soon as he starts talking to you, the power starts transferring from you to him, whether he wants it to or not. It’s a curse, like King Midas having the golden touch. I can’t imagine anyone inviting him to a party.

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Image via FX

Were you surprised, along the way, about the journey of your characters, as far as where they went or things you ended up doing, or was it very close to what you expected the season might be?

GUILLEN:  I knew that we were gonna have fun, but the storylines, we were not in the loop about until the day before the table read. You could only speculate what the storyline was gonna be, for the next week. We would cross-shoot the episodes, so we would shoot Episode 9 while we were also shooting Episode 4, and you’d be like, “Wait, what?! What happened?!” They would tell us nothing, and we were always on our toes, which was actually cool and great for us. Not mentally, ‘cause we were going insane not knowing what was happening, but it kept you organic ‘cause you were not expecting anything. When you’re not expecting anything, and then something does happen or comes your way, you’re just thankful or surprised or emotional, depending on the day.

PROKSCH:  I was definitely surprised. There’s a great season finale twist. As far as a character journey, it took awhile to figure out the world ‘cause we only get bits and pieces. But by the third episode, we all started to really figure it out and get comfortable with our characters. That’s when you’ll see a little bit more play and relaxation, but that’s on any show.

What We Do in the Shadows airs on Wednesday nights on FX.

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