A familiar tale: balancing culture and entertainment

The Otter Cross Cultural Center (OC3) hosted a virtual panel featuring actor Harvey Guillen on On Oct. 29. Guillen stars on the FX show “What We Do In the Shadows.” His character Guillermo De La Cruz  is a familiar (servant) to a misfit group of vampires and a hopeful future vampire. Guillen shares a cultural background with his character – both are Mexican American. Though Guillermo’s culture is important, it’s not a punchline of the show which many appreciate.

The production crew made buñuelos for one scene, which is a sugary snack common throughout Latin America. However, they made buñuelos typical of El Salvador. 

“I couldn’t live with myself if there was a pile of the wrong buñelos behind me,” Guillen said. So he donned an apron, got some flour tortillas, cinnamon, sugar, oil and made them himself. 

“We’re all learning here,” Guillen said.

His journey of being cast for “What We Do In the Shadows” is one of good connections, a chance encounter and immeasurable talent and charm. Guillen went out one night with his sister and some friends. At the end of the night, one of his new friends told him that he was really funny and wanted him to try out for a show that her fiancé was working on. Guillen agreed and reached out to the casting company. 

When Guillen arrived at the audition, he was notified that the casting director was in London. The staff in the office agreed to audition him. Though the character was originally written to be about 20 years older than Guillen, he styled himself in that unique, Guillermo look to try to make it work. Wearing a sweater vest, poked-out glasses, hair parted down the middle and a five o’clock shadow created with a sponge, Guillen was ready for his close up. 

Weeks later, Guillen got a call from a very long international number. He ignored it several times, until his sister insisted he answer. On the other side of the call was Taika Waititi and Jemain Clement, the creators of “What We Do In the Shadows.” They said he was perfect and offered him the position, without even testing him with the other actors. Guillen was in shock. 

Guillen spoke of his culture and the moments as a child when he realized he was different from other children. He realized he wanted to be an actor at 6 years old after having seen the film “Annie.” He (mistakenly) told his mother that he wanted to be an orphan, just like Annie. After a bit of shock she corrected him, informing him that the children were actors portraying orphans. So Guillen course corrected and his mother informed him that this line of work “Es para niños ricos.” This translates to “That’s for rich kids.” 

A few weeks later, his friend from school notified him of an improv class for children. He begged his mother to let him sign up for it. She didn’t say no, instead telling him that if he could find his own way, he could do anything he wanted to. This idea had a profound effect on him. Guillen needed to figure out a way to make that money, which at six years old was not an easy feat. 

“There’s no such thing as allowance, growing up in a Mexican household,” Guillen said.

Guillen learned about the magic of recycling bottles and cans to earn money. He worked digging through trash cans and stealing recyclables from Quinceañeras for two months to earn enough money for the Improv class. In the end, he was successful.

Guillen laughed as he recalled that most of the acting was the children “crawling around making animal noises.” He collected recyclables for two years in order to pay for his Improv classes.

Guillen questioned if the hard work was worth it. He recognized that what he wanted to do requires hard work and he obliged. His mother’s words remained in the back of his mind and he worked tirelessly to make his dreams become reality. As a child, he was very bubbly.  He took theatre classes in high school where he began developing his style as an actor. Unfortunately, he came across a teacher who was very dismissive and toxic. He suggested that Guillen stick to theatre acting because it was “more forgiving.” 

When Guillen informed him that he wanted to branch out to film and television, the teacher commented “when pigs fly.” For a moment, this caused Guillen to doubt himself. Ultimately, he realized that no one was going to care about his dream like he did. The teacher’s words added fuel to his fire and gave him more drive to seek out acting opportunities. 

Guillen advised people that it’s no one’s place to tell someone else what is attainable or not. Now that Guillen has landed several acting credits to his name, he wishes to tell that teacher “oink oink, b***h.” 

“Statistically, I shouldn’t even be there,” Guillen said. “I should be working a job I hate.” 

Everything in his life has led Guillen to this point. He struggled for a while and had moments where he was not able to find agents or get cast in roles. His agent once told him to try out for “Fat Guy #1”. 

“You couldn’t even name him,” Guillen said. “He’s a human being and you couldn’t even name him? That’s just bad writing.” 

He was always an imaginative child. “As an abstract thinker, my imagination was my only escape,” Guillen said.

From the beginning, Guillen lived his authentic self. This was not lost on the other children. He recalls one instance of cruelty where another child told him “We’re not playing with you because you’re a mariposa (butterfly).” 

The children recognized there was something unique about him and they ostracized Guillen for it. He always knew he was different but being that young, he couldn’t recognize that he was queer. That moment led to the other children chanting “mariposa,” and throwing rocks at him.

 “What’s wrong with being a mariposa,” Guillen’s mother said. “Some people just can’t be around things that are pretty.” 

Those words had a chilling effect on the Zoom participants, as the chat flooded with positive messages thanking him for sharing this story. 

“Children will listen and you have to be very careful,” Guillen said of that experience.

 He reminds us that in 2020, we shouldn’t have to be reminding people that Black lives matter. He concedes that though it’s difficult to try to reshape the way older generations see the world “we have to accept it and start fresh.” 

“The time has come, it’s no longer enough to be not racist,” Guillen said. “It’s time to be anti-racist.” 

Guillen says that everyone’s stories are valid and worthy of being told  and if you’re not seeing yourself represented, create things for yourself. “A lot of roles weren’t being written for me,” Guillen said. “I had to take power into my own hands.” 

Guillen wants people to scream their power, to overshadow the hatred and to lead with love. This event had a great impact on the attendees and folks were sharing affirming words with Guillen and with each other. 

“It’s within all of us to be vocal and to yell love,” Guillen said.

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