Harvey Guillén Steps Into the Light

The What We Do in the Shadows star opens up about being surrounded by queer vampires and making his way into the DC Universe.

by Emily Maskell

A portrait of Harvey Guillén in a black shirt and beige trench coat
Photograph by Giancarlo Pawelec

In What We Do in the Shadows, Harvey Guillén ​​is the odd one out. It’s a feeling the 32-year-old actor is not unfamiliar with, having grown up “round, brown, and proud” in America—and now, as a plus-size, queer Latino man navigating the acting industry. But in the world of FX’s vampiric mockumentary, to be different is to be human, literally. Guillén plays Guillermo de la Cruz, an underappreciated human familiar (a vampire servant) wrangling four vampire roommates during their nightly exploits in Staten Island. While he may be the only living character in a show centered on the undead, the humanity Guillén brings to the screen shines just as luminous in his presence out of character.

Undeniably the heart of the show, based on Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s offbeat 2014 film of the same name, Guillermo has remained in service to Nandor the Relentless (Kayvan Novak) for over a decade in the hopes that one day his ancient master will turn him into a vampire. Guillén says he draws on very real feelings to depict the overlooked yearning of a human surrounded by supernatural beings. “I like playing Guillermo that way: his goals are always so close, yet just out of reach,” Guillén tells me over Zoom one recent morning. “It’s a lovely tightrope dance we do with him.”

Season four reunites the vampiric found family a year on from season three’s climactic cliffhanger, in which Guillermo was sent on vampire bodyguard duties halfway across the world. They may all be back together again, but Guillermo is far from the same. “He’s learned a lot and he’s ok with walking away and giving it up, but he’s reeled back in. Nandor has a hook on him,” Guillén says of his character in the upcoming season, which includes a baby crawling around the house and an unexpected wedding on the horizon, noting Guillermo will no longer be putting himself second.

That mind-set change is indicative of Guillén’s own career trajectory. Raised by the pragmatic encouragement of a hardworking single mother, Guillén remembers that “she never said I couldn’t do it, she said I had to find my own way.” For instance, he spent four weeks fishing cans out of the trash to sell so he could afford the fee for his local community center's acting class. “It’s funny, when people say ‘It’s so good to see an overnight success.’ Oh no, this has been in the making for a while,” he emphasizes. After getting his foot in the door of acting, Guillén recalls growing frustrated with the discouraging advice that he needed to lose weight to be a leading man. His former agent sugarcoated and offered him roles like "Fat Guy #2," the sort of character who was a punchbag for mean-spirited jokes that lacked any meaning and depth. “My plus-size idols were John Candy and John Belushi. These were all Caucasian men. I was like ‘where’s the plus-size, queer, Latino?’ There wasn’t.” He gestures to himself. “Now there is.”

Shadows came out of the blue, in what Guillén describes as “the most Hollywood story ever.” Attending a friend’s wine and cheese night, he met a woman who recommended him for the show. “My whole goal was not to audition—I just wanted to meet Allison Jones,” Guillén admits with a grin. Jones—the legendary casting director responsible for the cast of Bridesmaids, The Office, and countless others—was away auditioning other possible Guillermos. However, upon reviewing Guillén’s tape, she joined Waititi, Clement, and the show’s writers in unanimously backing him—a first in the audition process.

“In the first season, you see Guillermo’s face and he looks pretty petrified. That’s not the character, that’s just [me] not knowing what’s going on in the scene,” Guillén chuckles, explaining that Waititi called him a mere two days before shooting began to inform him he got the part. The first day on set was the first time Guillén met his co-stars, making their organic chemistry rather miraculous. This is most notable between Guillén and Novak, the character pairing fondly named Nandermo (a mix of Guillermo and Nandor) by fans of the show, many of whom are keen to see a romantic storyline between the human and vampire. Guillén doesn’t rule it out. “This absolutely is a queer show,” he notes. “All the vampires are queer and we’ve not officially heard it from anyone who’s human on the show, because they’re dealing with human emotions. We’re going to see [Guillermo] ask himself questions and that’s okay. There’s no expiration date on finding comfort in your own skin.”

While Shadows has been greenlit for a fifth and a sixth season, Guillén’s future is not just lurking in the darkness with vampires. He will be stepping into the DC Universe in both the live-action, Blue Beetle, and animated world, Harley Quinn, as Dick Grayson, aka Nightwing. Guillén would like to clear the record about his role in the latter: he laughs as he recalls the teasing comments that say he’s been typecast due to the character’s “bubble butt.” “I’m not ashamed of my body, so when people try to say ‘That’s just typecasting,’ y’know what? I’ll take it. Show off your best assets.”

Being visible and portraying a multifaceted array of characters is the path Guillén intends to continue on. “I realized at a young age if you don’t see yourself represented, then be the first,” the actor says with a smile. “No one left the door ajar for me…so I’ll leave it wide open. Make a line, come on in!”