I'm Totally Fine Star Harvey Guillén Thinks We Could All Use An Escape [Exclusive Interview]

Harvey Guillén is like a great cleanup hitter. The bases are set, and then Guillén steps up to the plate and just makes the game better. In the case of "I'm Totally Fine," the "What We Do in the Shadows" star makes every second count in a role that amounts to maybe five minute of screen-time. Guillén plays a passionate DJ who has good tunes and molly and really wants to throw a set for two (Jillian Bell and Natalie Morales). 

Guillén brings a lot of levity to the film, which deals with the loss of a friend. Over the years, the actor has by all accounts been killing it on FX's "What We Do in the Shadows." He also starred in the best movie adaptation of a video game there is, "Werewolves Within." Guillén is now a reliably joyful presence in comedy, and as he told us in a recent interview, he seeks out that escapism not only for himself, but for audiences. 

'Oh, cool, there's a DJ while I shop for a vintage jacket'

What was your impression when you read this guy on the page?

I was excited. The whole thing came to be when I was on set for "Shadows” and ["I'm Totally Fine" producer] Kyle [Newacheck] was directing an episode. And he was just like, "Hey, man. I got this movie I'm doing. I think there's a part in it for you." And I was like, "Oh, really? Cool." I said, "What is he, or what does he play?" He was like, "Oh, he's a DJ." And I was like, "Oh. I never played a DJ before. Okay."

So that already was enticing to me, to play something different that I don't usually get to play. And then when I read the scene, I was like, "Oh, this is so fun and great," and the idea that he's basically DJing for a girl whose friend has passed away, who's not there, but she's talking to this friend who's not tangible and is no longer there. And he's like, "I want to show you my goods. I'm a really good DJ."

I think his whole goal is to get a residency in Vegas or Ibiza or something, and he can't let one audience member not hear how good he is. And so, he takes the opportunity. If he has to entice her with molly to let him play, then, by all means, let's do it.

Even with limited screen time, do you still think a lot about backstory or what this guy's up to on a Wednesday night?

Yeah. I feel like he started off as a DJ at parties, connecting to the auxiliary cord with his phone, and then somebody walked by and was like, "Cool jams" or something, and he's like, "Yeah?" And he just got really excited, like, "I'm really good at this," and then slowly started doing friends' birthday parties, or bar mitzvahs, or quinceañeras. And then people are like, "Yeah. Yeah, you're good." And then he gets more hyped, and he's like, "Yeah, this is my calling."

Then he goes and purchases a glow-up jacket because he wants people to really have a good time, and he knows what his audience is. His demo is definitely a young audience that probably is rolling on molly or something. He wants everyone to have the complete experience, so he provides the music and the light shows. He's everything at once.

Do you live in Los Angeles at the moment?

I do.

You meet a lot of DJs there. Were you drawing from certain personalities that you've met over the years?

I have a lot of friends who are DJs in L.A., and I just think about it all the time. It's like, "Yeah, L.A. needs so many DJs," because there's a DJ for everything. You go to a shop, or a boutique thrift store, and there's a DJ in there. And so they're like, "Oh, cool, there's a DJ while I shop for a vintage jacket."

I think everyone, at one point or another, might think they can be a DJ. Everyone thinks that their music or their taste in music is so good. "It's just because you just haven't heard my list, you haven't heard my playlist." And so, I think everyone has gone through that stage. But I think he really is committed to it. So, Twisted is really like, "This is who I am. This is who I am, and this is what I'm meant to do."

I like to think that, shortly after that, he took that ride and dropped his demo to some exec, and they got him hooked up, and he's playing the summer festival in Ibiza.

Honestly, he seems like a sweet guy, too.

I think so, too. I think that, is he cutthroat [enough] to be a DJ and a top-notch DJ? I don't know. But I think that he is living in a head space where he believes himself, and he's going to go for it, and he's going to just do his best. Because that's all his mom ever asked him to do is just "Do your best, honey." I think he's going to do his best, and hopefully it gets him to the top. He knows he has the goods, and he believes in himself more than anyone. So, I like Twisted thinking that.

'It's playing Hot Potato with five other actors who never drop the ball'

Do you really enjoy these supporting roles where you have a finite amount of time and can make a big splash?

Yeah, for the film, I think it was a perfect splash of comedy. It's already a hilarious movie, but it's nice that this character is just bigger than life. So, [it's] nice to have a little sprinkle that takes us out of the seriousness of dealing with the death of a loved one. And for a quick second, it's like, "Yeah, just having a good time."

I think a lot of the characters that I tend to try to dive into are characters that help you escape, and are characters that, for whatever storytelling reason, they make you forget whatever you're going through for a little bit. Even with "Shadows," for 22 minutes, you can escape and just live in the silly world and vampires and flying and fairies and witches and the storylines. With this, the same thing: an escape. I think we could all use a little escape once in a while.

Agreed. After a few seasons of "What We Do in the Shadows," how does that show help sharpen your comedic timing and chops?

Yeah, I've always said it's like playing Hot Potato with five other actors who never drop the ball. You just play non-stop. Everyone is so good at their character and what they're doing that we've had scenes that were improvised that went on for like 20 minutes that you'll never see. They'll never see the light of day. You'll never see that footage because there's no way that would make it into the show. But the fact that we could go that long and not drop the ball and just improvise and keep going, keep going, keep going has been a testament to the show of how well it works and how, season after season, it just gets better.

The writers are so amazing that even if we just did a scripted version, the show is phenomenal. But the fact that we get the liberty to improvise with one another, it is like an improv troupe that just says, "Here we go. This is the scenario." And we get to do it every week and every day when we're filming. So yeah, it's been a great experience and a blessing.

"Werewolves Within" is the best video game adaptation to date and another ensemble story. The comedic timing in that is fantastic. Was everything very precise there?

Well, that one, the director Josh Ruben was the mastermind behind that. His vision was clear from the get-go. We had freedom to improvise a little bit, but the way that he angled and shot and cut away to things was the way that he had envisioned it. It was brilliant.

While you're shooting it, you're thinking, "Oh, why is this a close-up of the handwriting? Oh!" Because he knew exactly what pieces he needed to make the suspense, the comedy, and everything work. I credit that to him, obviously, and the cast was phenomenal as well. I've been very fortunate to work with some amazing actors, and that cast was — yeah, I think Forbes magazine voted it the best horror comedy of the year.

It's one of those movies that is great to revisit because if you just watch the background and see what an actor's doing, there's something hilarious you might've missed. 

There's never a dull moment. Everyone was always engaged in doing something. And that's very clever to notice that, because sometimes when you watch a film or when you watch a stage production, my biggest pet peeve is seeing someone in the chorus or someone who drops the character and they're out of it. They're no longer the center of attention, so their faces just drop, and [it's] like, "No, you're still there. You're supposed to be engaged. What is your character thinking, listening to the speech? What is your character doing while that is happening, or how do they pay attention?"

So yeah, good eye, because everyone on that cast was just never out of it. My favorite moment — so many, but George's character with knives in his hands, and the idea of that and the speech pattern that he had. Everyone was phenomenal. I have to go and say hi to everyone again.

"I'm Totally Fine" is now playing in limited release and available on VOD.