Readers of The A.V. Club probably know Harvey Guillén best as Guillermo, the meek vampire familiar whose downtrodden life took an action-movie turn on the second season of What We Do In The Shadows. That role is more demanding than it may at first seem, requiring Guillén to be quick on his feet both literally (did you see him fall backwards out of a window last season?!) and figuratively, trading improvised banter with the rest of the show’s hilarious ensemble cast. Luckily, he’s more than up for the job, thanks to his background in musical theater.
Guillén gets a chance to show off this side of his persona on Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, where he’s wrapping up a four-episode arc as George, a new employee at Zoey’s (Jane Levy) company, San Francisco tech startup SPRQ Point. The role took Guillén back to his roots, working with an ensemble to learn choreography for the show’s musical sequences and recording vocals for his big solo number, a performance of Britney Spears’ “Stronger.” Whatever Guillén does now, however, it can’t be any more difficult than memorizing Wicked in phonetic Japanese, as he tells The A.V. Club’s Katie Rife on this week’s episode of Push The Envelope.
Listen to Rife’s full conversation with Guillén on the podcast—which also features editor-in-chief Patrick Gomez and TV editor Danette Chavez discussing the TV nominees for the upcoming Critics Choice Awards—and read some excerpts down below.
The A.V. Club: It turns out you and I were living in Osaka, Japan, around the same time.
Harvey Guillén: Isn’t that crazy?
AVC: It’s so random. I was teaching English, but you were working at Universal Studios, performing Wicked.
HG: I was still in school, and we were told not to audition for things because we weren’t ready. At this point, I was at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. It was my freshman year there, because I had just come over from the conservatory at Citrus College. And I was antsy. I wanted to see if I could audition, and [the school] was like, “no, you’re not ready.” And I was like, “well, I’ve been trained for the last three years, I think I can.” So I secretly auditioned. I found it on Backstage West and I auditioned, just for the feel of [it], just to get the feeling that this is what a musical theater audition [is like]. And I booked it.
I had to go tell the dean. I was like, “I’m going to leave,” and he was like, “no, we recommend you stay.” And I thought, but isn’t the whole point of this program to go out and get a job? Why would I stay and say no to a job? When you get out of here, you’re begging for jobs. That’s being an actor. And I followed my gut, as you always should. I just I had a feeling of, “I’m going to do this.”
It was a contract to do three shows, and it was at Universal Studios in Osaka, Japan, and it was musicals. I didn’t know that Universal had the rights to Wicked, the actual Broadway production ... My main show was Sesame Street Live, where I played basically a 12-year-old because I was young, short in stature, and had chubby cheeks. And then my second show was playing John Belushi in The Blues Brothers. They had to draw on a little bit of a five o’clock shadow for that. So I’m aging to that, and then I have to swing into the Wizard, and learn the Wizard’s tracks for Wicked. And I was like, “how do I go from 12 years old to 30 and then now to a 68-year-old wizard?”
It was a trajectory of one year, the contract was 13 months. So it was weird because I’m living in Japan, I start at 12 [on stage] and I’m aging to 30 as John Belushi, and then I eventually had to learn the Wizard’s part. I never went on as the Wizard, thank God, because I was like “this going to be ridiculous.” It’s like a 20-year-old kid playing Scrooge. I never had to go on, but I learned the Japanese song for “Sentimental Man.” I didn’t know any of this when I got there—I thought the shows were going to be in English. I don’t know, I was just young and foolish. But I got there, and I was like, “oh, the script’s in Japanese.” and they were like, “yeah?” I was like, “well, where are the English translations?” Of course the show was in Japanese! So I [realized], “oh, I have to speak Japanese.” They’re like, “yes, and we open in two weeks.”
So I had to learn Japanese very quickly and phonetically. In a way, it was easier to sing [in Japanese], just because you could connect [a phrase] to a note. To this day, whenever I hear “Sentimental Man” come on, I can’t even think of it in English.
AVC: In the work that I’ve seen you in, you do comedy, you do musical numbers, and you do action. And what strikes me about that is all three of those are really dependent on timing.
HG: Mm hmm.
AVC: So how how are those modes of performing similar and different in your experience?
HG: I credit everything back to training. Just stage training, whether it’s combat—which is like a ballet, everything has a momentum and a beat to stay in—or in comedy. Everything is in timing. Comedy is set up for you. It’s the rhythm of things, so everything is flowing ... And the way that those three things all are cohesive is in timing. Just doing it over and over and doing it right, because if you’re on the wrong foot while you’re dancing, someone can trip and get really hurt. And if you’re in the wrong stance while you’re fighting, someone can get really hurt. And if if you don’t set up the right joke at the right time, you’re going to get really hurt.
AVC: Your ego will get hurt.
HG: Yeah, your pride is going to be really bruised. So you’ve got to do your due diligence and do your work and know how the joke’s going to land.
AVC: Do you think that one of those is the most difficult? Or is it, like you said, all of a piece?
HG: I would say for me personally, I’m a mover. I’ve been taking dance since I was little. You don’t expect that from, you know, a short and stout guy. But I move really well. But I think that for me, I always take more time with the dancing and with the combat ... with those things, I take the work home and I just go over the number over and over again.
I remember for Zoey’s, [choreographer] Mandy Moore sent me a link of the video to learn from, because we’re in quarantine before we start production. And I just want it [down] as soon as possible when it comes to that stuff. I don’t want to be struggling up to the last minute with the number. I want to get it in the bag. It’s done, it’s locked in my memory. I’m moving on.
For comedy, I would say I’m more lenient because after years of doing it and being funny—when you’re at school, being the class clown, you learn the tricks. So with that, I think that’s great for improv. Improv is a lot of what we do on What We Do In The Shadows ... and so I’ve gotten really good at doing that comedy element, where we can just do it on the spot and do put on a show the day of.
AVC: But there is still structure and discipline underlying it, right?
HG: Totally. You need to know how to set it up for your partner, how to listen ... There’s structure to to it. It’s an art, and not everyone can do it. That’s why I always find it so funny—for our show, they encourage people when they audition to improvise a little bit. And some people are terrified to improvise, because they[’re used to having] words that are down in the script that are tangible. So you can memorize [those] and create a character. There are brilliant actors and comedians [who] can memorize a line and and know where to put the line and have a punch or where to put the inflection. But you can’t do that if you’re an improviser, because it’s all coming out of you as you’re saying it. You have to know how to time it, and not everyone can do that.
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