Based on the feature film of the same name, from 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 (Mark Proksch), Nandor’s familiar, aka servant/protector, 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 1-on-1 interview with Collider, actor Kayvan Novak talked about why this is the most enjoyable job he’s ever had, having been a big fan of the original film, his audition experience, the incredible costumes and sets, working with this cast, the Nandor-Guillermo dynamic, and how technical the wire work is.
Collider: Did you have any idea how much fun this show would be, when you signed on to play this character, and how much you would get to play with it?
KAYVAN NOVAK: I guess the pilot was a good taste of how much fun it could be. Then, to do it for 11 weeks straight, it was really enjoyable. It was probably the most enjoyable job that I’ve ever done.
Had you been familiar with the movie, when this TV series came up?
NOVAK: Yeah, I was a big fan of the film.
So, you had a sense of what the tone and humor was meant to be then.
NOVAK: Yeah, totally. I love the film, so being able to audition for the TV version was super exciting. And then, to suddenly be thrown in a room with Taika [Waititi] and Jemaine [Clement] was intimidating because I’d never worked with them before and I didn’t know how they work. I didn’t know how they made a film that was so funny. So, to be a part of that process was very exciting.
What was the audition process like? What did they have you do, when you were in the room with them?
NOVAK: I didn’t meeting them until I got the part, so it wasn’t until I did the pilot that I actually go to meet them. It was very much, “This is the script, but don’t worry about the script. We’re gonna come up with new things, and you can improvise lines. Keep it natural, and we’ll throw ideas at you.” It was a constant evolution, doing it.
Did you get actual scenes for your audition?
NOVAK: I auditioned in London, and it was just a scene. On the breakdown, it said, “You don’t have to wear fangs, but if you want to wear fangs, then wear fangs.” So, I went out and bought some fangs, I did my hair like Fernando does his hair in the show, and I wore a white shirt with the top button done up.
Did you spend a lot of time working with the fangs, before you did the audition?
NOVAK: No, only on the day, actually. It was fine. It was all right. It wasn’t too bad. I was just worried about them staying in because it was one of those home fang kits. If they’d fallen out, I would have had to have been like, “Oh, I’m not really a vampire.” I just read the script in the voice that I was gonna do.
Was the voice that you decided to do what we hear now, or has it evolved a bit?
NOVAK: It’s as it was in the audition, yeah. I made that choice, early on, and no one told me to change it, so that was good.
It’s cool that they’re so collaborative.
NOVAK: Yeah, totally. That’s what’s exciting about working with them. They’re never like, “This is what’s funny, so do it like that.” They’re eager to be surprised. They always want to be surprised. They always like to keep things fresh. You’ve gotta play, when you come to the set. It’s playtime.
Have there been times that you would just keep going with scenes, and then it all actually ended up getting used?
NOVAK: I don’t know yet because I haven’t seen it all. I don’t know what’s been left on the cutting room floor, but I remember doing lots of long takes of stuff. It’s the most immersive show that I’ve ever worked on because you’re in those costumes, on these incredible sets, or you’re outside, in the middle of the night because you’re a vampire and you can’t be exposed to sunlight and you’re just living it. It’s escapism, at its finest.
Because there are always crazy things happening, it leads to some really funny and fun moments.
NOVAK: Yeah. I think people like seeing characters with superpowers. It’s got that fantasy element, and capturing it in a mockumentary style makes it even more real. It’s not like a special effect in a sci-fi film on IMAX cameras. It’s very immediate. It’s like you’re there, watching this happen. It’s totally casual. That was one of the things that was so good about the film. They used that element, in just doing the dishes or vacuuming.
Do the costumes ever get challenging to wear, especially when you’re out in the world in a long cape?
NOVAK: I really enjoyed wearing my costumes. There were a couple of times where I left my long johns on, for an indoor scene in a room with candles everywhere, which suddenly would get really hot, but I was thankful for the long leather boots, on those cold Toronto winter evenings, at three in the morning.
This show has some incredible sets. What’s it like to be in and surrounded by all of that?
NOVAK: It’s totally immersive because you’re not just walking onto a set that’s built in the corner of a room. You’re walking into a room that leads into another room that leads to a staircase, where you can walk upstairs, and that leads to bedrooms and taxidermy and chandeliers, and all sorts of things. If they do any more of this, they should do a VR tour of the set because it’s incredible. It’s incredibly detailed. Every picture on the wall is like a 14th century oil painting, but it’s got Natasia [Demetriou]’s face in it. The attention to detail is incredible, and the art direction is incredible.
What was it like to work with this cast and explore these crazy relationships?
NOVAK: I knew Natasia. I’d worked with her before. I’d never met Matt [Berry], but was a fan of his. I only knew Mark [Proksch] from the pilot, but he was hilarious. And I love working with Harvey [Guillén]. I’d never worked with him before, either. We all had a really good bond. There’s a clear dynamic between all of the characters that is really clear for the audience to buy into, and understand and enjoy.
How do you think Nandor views the relationship with Guillermo vs. how Guillermo views it?
NOVAK: Nandor is just like, “Guillermo’s my bitch. He wants to be a vampire, so he’ll do anything for me. I’ll treat him like shit sometimes, but I’ll always make it up to him because it’s not personal.” It’s a dysfunctional relationship. Guillermo puts up with Nandor’s shit, all the time. He’s a suffering familiar. Nandor gaslights Guillermo quite a bit, to keep him sweet. Ultimately, Guillermo is devoted to Nandor.
Do you think Nandor would miss Guillermo, if he just decided that enough was enough?
NOVAK: Of course! Oh, my god, he’d want him back. He’d be crawling on his hands and knees, and would do anything to get him back. If Guillermo rejected Nandor, Nandor would suddenly be like, “Oh, my god, no! Please, don’t do that to me!” They love each other and need each other. I guess it’s up to how patient Guillermo is.
Will viewers learn more about why these two ended up together?
NOVAK: Yeah, there’s definitely a journey that they go through in the series. Guillermo has been Nandor’s familiar for 10 years. That’s a crazy amount of time. Every time he meets another familiar, they’re like, “How long have you been this guy’s familiar? 10 years?! You should be a fucking vampire by now, man.” I think everyone can relate. Nandor has been alive for 500 years, and he’s going to be here for 500 more, so 10 years doesn’t mean anything to him. It’s difficult for Guillermo because he wants to be a vampire, but he’s dealing with an idiot. He must know that, but he’s greedy.
When you’re playing a character who’s been around for 500 years, how does he feel about things?
NOVAK: He’s not that nostalgic, I don’t think. He’s just trying to figure out the now. It’s weird, how he sees the world, because he’s very much about the vampires living together. They’re his world. He’s really living in the past. It’s like he was just transported from 500 years ago to now, especially with the clothes. Their fashion sense hasn’t really evolved.
Has there been anything particularly surprising about making this series and playing this character?
NOVAK: Every day is a surprise, but a nice one. It’s just been the most enjoyable thing that I’ve ever done. To put your faith and trust into people that are just so talented, and to be surrounded by so many hilarious people, is good. It’s a good place to be.
Are you somebody who’s done much comedy before this, or have you had to adjust?
NOVAK: Comedy has been my whole career, really. It’s not something that an American would necessarily know about me, but I enjoy trying to make other people laugh. If you fail, it just gets cut out, so it’s fine. It’s a dream.
What’s it been like to work with Doug Jones, as vampire leader Baron Afanas, on this show?
NOVAK: He’s just very patient. He’s in prosthetic for four hours, and then he’s on set. I can relate because I’ve done so much prosthetic work, myself, just not in Hollywood movies, but in my own prank shows, where you’re in the make-up chair for four hours, and then you’re basically in a prosthetic sock for 12 hours. The pace of work on a film set, when you’re in prosthetics, is different to if you’re doing a prank. He’s amazing. He’s such a lovely guy. He’s very sweet.
What are the biggest production challenges on a show like this? Are there times where it gets really technical because of some of the things you do?
NOVAK: The wire stuff is technical. The Canadian stand-ins were pretty awesome. They know what they’re doing, but it does take time to set up. And then, you’re suspended in the air and you’ve gotta act, as well. I always see the stunt doubles doing it gracefully, and you’re like, “Wow, that’s how I wanna do it.” And then, you get up there and you’re like, “Ow, my crotch hurts!” Those are some of the funnest bits, flying through the air, silently on a wire. It’s the closest that you’ll get to the feeling of flying really because it’s so quiet. You’re dressed in a cape, so you’re like Superman with fangs. It’s fun to pretend that you’re flying.
As long as you’re not afraid of heights.
NOVAK: Yeah. I wasn’t. Matt was a little afraid of heights, but then he was fine. We were like three stories up. You don’t feel that cool, when there’s a cross wind blowing you around. You just hang on a wire, feeling completely powerless, and you kind of are, but you’re pretending to be flying in the air.
Is there anybody that picks on Nandor, or that he’s afraid of?
NOVAK: They all pick on Nandor a little bit because he’s the leader. He’s like, “Listen to me!,” and no one listens to him. Laszlo and Nadija don’t listen to a damn thing that Nandor says, but he says it anyway. They just ignore him, and for good reason. They think they know better. That’s the thing with vampires. They all know better than everyone else.
What We Do in the Shadows airs on Wednesday nights on FX, starting on March 27th.