August 17, 2021

Ghoul Proof

On the cusp of its third season, What We Do in the Shadows — the riotous FX comedy about vampires in surburbia — continues to prove that viewers seek “complete escapism,” as one producer defines the show. And it’ll take more than a stake through the heart, or a global virus, to kill off these undead.

Frank Decaro

They are the roommates from hell — frightfully messy, monstrously self-absorbed, ferociously hungry, murderously violent, insatiably horny, and just bloody pains in the neck. Literally.

But, more than anything, they're screamingly funny, and that's why fans have embraced the batty friends of What We Do in the Shadows.

A quirky mockumentary about four vampires and one very put-upon "familiar," as a vampire's human servant is called, What We Do landed two years ago on FX and didn't remain in the Shadows very long.

Based on the 2014 cult film of the same name by Flight of the Conchords alums Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, the show arrived with hipster cred built in.

Critics took to Shadows immediately — The New York Times called it "perfectly fun" — and it was nominated for two Emmy Awards in its first season (for cinematography and sound editing) and eight in its second (for outstanding comedy series plus three noms for writing, and one each for casting, picture editing, production design and sound editing). A much-anticipated third season starts September 2 with two back-to-back episodes.

Like a modern-day Munsters — but utterly filthy — What We Do in the Shadows strands a family of goofy ghouls in suburbia, where the most frightening things they have to deal with are chain stores, trashy neighbors' invitations to "Superb Owl" football parties and an occasional werewolf rumble.

Wellington, New Zealand, where the movie was set, has been replaced by Staten Island, New York. "We wanted them to be lazy vampires who didn't venture far from where they got off the boat," says Paul Simms (Atlanta, Girls), an executive producer alongside Clement (the series' creator) and Waititi. Two hundred years after arriving from London, these fanged laggards haven't budged.

The team had considered New Jersey and Pennsylvania. "We liked the idea that the vampires thought it sounded like Transylvania," Simms remembers. But Staten Island — New York City's only uncool borough — proved the perfect setting. It's so close to the glamour of Manhattan, yet so far down the glitz scale that even the Statue of Liberty gives it the side-eye. "They're omnipotent creatures, but they're still not at the top of the pyramid," Simms says.

Relocating the show, which is actually shot in Toronto, wasn't the real challenge; recasting it was. Clement and Waititi surprised everyone when they announced they didn't want to star. Simms, who'd worked with them on Conchords, took that news like a stake through the heart. "It was like, 'Wait, you guys aren't going to be in it?' "

That meant the show had to dig up fresh bodies.

Clement knew he wanted to work with Matt Berry, a BAFTA Award–winning actor and writer known for the British comedy series Toast of London. Berry was cast as Laszlo Cravensworth, a pansexually lascivious British fop who always yells "BAT!" before turning into one.

"I was convinced Laszlo was going to be an Eastern European character with an accent," Berry says. But Clement quickly nixed that. "Then I thought about a straitlaced upper-class man who was ruined by a vampire and, as a consequence, has turned into an outrageous character — a man who was set free." In other words, Laszlo will say, do or sleep with anything. "He doesn't care what other people think," Berry says.

The search for the other housemates began in England.

For Nandor the Relentless, a once-mighty Ottoman Empire warrior whose ruling territory has been reduced to just two Staten Island streets, they found Kayvan Novak, a comedian as goofy as he is broodingly handsome. Before Shadows, he was best known as the star of a prank-call comedy show called Fonejacker, for which he, too, had won a BAFTA.

Novak says he found Nandor's essence in his guest bathroom. "I sat there on my thinking throne, and I came out a changed man," he says. "I came back into the bedroom and auditioned my take on Nandor in front of my now fiancée. She laughed and that was it." Once he found the voice — a mix of hauteur, petulance and camp — he had his character.

The role of Nadja, Laszlo's shrewish but seductive wife, went to Natasia Demetriou, a London improv comic whose love of vampires began with a teenage Twilight obsession. She'd heard that an American TV version of Shadows was being made, but never imagined she'd even get to audition. After several tryouts, including an all-improvisation Facetime with Clement and Waititi, Demetriou clinched the role. "I screamed and jumped up and down and cried and couldn't believe it," she recalls.

The fourth roommate, Colin Robinson, was different. Billed as an "energy vampire" — someone so boring he can suck the life out of anyone, day or night — he, naturally, had to be American. Shadows nabbed Mark Proksch, a Wisconsin native — "They don't hand this accent out at Cedars Sinai [hospital] in L.A.," he quips — who'd had recurring roles on The Office and Better Call Saul.

For his audition, Proksch says, "I just repeated a lot of the stuff I've heard working in offices. I have a long list of things I can throw into any conversation to ruin that conversation."

Casting Nandor's familiar, Guillermo — "a friend who's also a slave," to quote the show — turned out be the trickiest of all.

"We looked in all different directions," Simms says. Originally conceived as an older, possibly female character, the role ultimately went to Harvey Guillén. After a screen test, Guillén remembers, "They said, 'We'll see you on set.' I had to call my agents and tell them I got the part." Simms adds, "Harvey just had a sweetness to him, which helps him be the viewers' way into this world."

"Guillermo is the straight man in the series," Guillén explains. "The others are vampires. They have nothing to lose. A human being has hopes and dreams, and whatever the audience is feeling, most likely Guillermo is feeling it at the same time." What Guillermo is usually feeling is an utter lack of appreciation for all he does for his roommates, and frustration over Nandor's refusal to make him a vampire, even after 10 years of servitude.

Fans love watching Nandor torture Guillermo. "There's particular joy in making Harvey Guillén's life miserable," Novak says. "I'm very lucky that my sidekick is someone I share a lot of laughs with. They didn't know that we would have such good chemistry. Ours is like an unrequited love story." Guillén gives the vampires a pass. "They've been around for hundreds and hundreds of years," he reasons. "They don't have time to deal with your human emotions."

In the beginning, filming What We Do in the Shadows was tough. Shoots could run 12 hours and often began at 6 p.m. Canada's weather didn't help. "Night shoots always depend on where you're shooting," Berry says. "If you're in L.A. or the south of France, they're not going to be as terrible as if you're somewhere where there are blizzards."

Many very cool guest actors, though, were undeterred by the cold. Vanessa Bayer of Saturday Night Live played an emotional vampire who becomes Colin's match. Comedian Nick Kroll was cast as a snobbish Manhattan vampire who advised, "You must kill someone in the Hamptons." Beanie Feldstein of Booksmart became Nadja's first-season quarry.

Kristen Schaal of The Last Man on Earth played a creepy floater. Haley Joel Osment of The Sixth Sense and Craig Robinson of The Office did guest shots. And even Doug Jones, the preeminent "creature actor" in Hollywood (Hellboy, The Shape of Water) signed on for a very funny arc that led to one of the show's most famous episodes, "The Trial."

That first-season installment marked the moment the show truly arrived. It not only brought back Waititi and Clement as their movie characters Viago and Vladimir, it also assembled an all-star vampire council featuring such bloodthirsty stars as Paul Reubens (of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie), Tilda Swinton (Only Lovers Left Alive), Evan Rachel Wood (True Blood), Danny Trejo (From Dusk till Dawn) and even Blade himself, Wesley Snipes.

"That was Taika and Jemaine using their connections," Simms says. The celebrity scenes were shot on green screen in the U.S., far from the Shadows set. Even so, he says, "It surpassed anything I ever expected."

The only thing that has come close to that star power was booking Mark Hamill to play Laszlo's nemesis, Jim the Vampire. "We saw Mark tweet how much he liked the show and we were like, 'Well, prove it,'" Simms recalls.

Hamill's time on set, not surprisingly, was very special. "I was starstruck, but the men on the show were having a real geek-out with him," Demetriou says.

"For somebody my age, Star Wars really was the biggest thing in the world," Berry adds. "To stand opposite someone who represents something beyond your wildest imagination and have him point a pool cue at you like it's a lightsaber? It was a fantastic moment where you check yourself and think, for a few seconds, 'What the hell, why am I here?'"

Hamill appeared in what may be the show's most beloved episode. In "On the Run," he sets out to kill Laszlo and sends him into hiding. The regal roommate ditches his Dracula attire for denim and disguises himself as Jackie Daytona, good-old-boy owner of a honkytonk bar in rural Pennsylvania.

"The idea of Laszlo as a bartender living in a small town was just so funny to me," says Stefani Robinson, the executive producer who wrote the episode. "It made me laugh so much that I didn't care if anyone else liked it."

But viewers were charmed, including a Texas garage-rock band named — wait for it — Jackie Daytona . No one on the show had known it existed, but, Simms says, "The band got a lot of attention and it worked out well for everyone." As for Jackie, Robinson says she couldn't have predicted he'd be such a fan favorite. "You hope you have good internal radar as a writer and that your taste will translate. But I'm always surprised when something that made us all laugh is embraced by the audience." ...

For the rest of the story, pick up a copy of emmy magazine HERE.

Go behind the scenes of our cover shoot with the cast of What We Do in the Shadows HERE

This article originally appeared in its entirety in emmy magazine, Issue No. 9, 2021

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