Why ‘What We Do in the Shadows’ Has One of the Best Acting Ensembles of 2020

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Photo Source: Russ Martin/FX

As we look back at 2020, we at Backstage have pinpointed the year’s best big- and small-screen ensemble work for your SAG Awards consideration and beyond. For more voting guides and roundups, we’ve got you covered here.

MAIN CAST: Matt Berry, Natasia Demetriou, Harvey Guillén, Kayvan Novak, Mark Proksch
CASTING BY: Gayle Keller
CREATED BY: Jemaine Clement
DISTRIBUTED BY: FX

What would happen if four vampires and their familiars lived on Staten Island? That’s the question FX’s mockumentary hit “What We Do in the Shadows” tries to answer as it follows the bumbling adventures of a pack of supernatural New York City residents.

The series, based on the 2014 film by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, explores how ancient vampires Nandor the Relentless (Kayvan Novak), Laszlo Cravensworth (Matt Berry), and Nadja (Natasia Demetriou), along with energy vampire Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch) and Nandor’s sweater-clad human familiar Guillermo de la Cruz (Harvey Guillén), get on in modern times. As you might imagine, this isn’t always the easiest of tasks for them. And believe it or not, “What We Do in the Shadows” is as much a hilarious comedy as it is a detailed portrait of the occult. How can you laugh at beings that are essentially feeding off of—and usually killing—innocent humans to survive? That’s where the show is a testament to the strength of its committed, tight-knit ensemble.

Over the course of the series’ two seasons, we as an audience have come to know each of these characters intimately—not only their personalities and quirks, but also their pasts and what led them to this unlikely home in the first place. You can’t help but care about these vamps as they attempt to survive in our world, whether its Nandor trying to lead the others, Laszlo and Nadja navigating their centuries-old marriage, or the group’s collective dislike for Colin, who, as an energy vampire, can feed off of them as easily as he can humans. The fundamental absurdity at the heart of “What We Do in the Shadows” doesn’t prevent us from buying into the characters’ everyday conflicts and problems.

Even when things get complicated in a potentially dangerous way—and they certainly do, as the series doesn’t shy away from harrowing action sequences—hilarity still ensues. How can you resist laughing as the loyal yet conflicted Guillermo, who, in his quest to one day become a bloodsucker himself, suddenly realizes he’s good at killing vampires as a descendant of Van Helsing? When he must dispatch assassins sent by the vampire council to kill Nandor and the others at the beginning of Season 2, Guillermo’s skills are on full display—as are Guillén’s scene-stealing abilities as an actor.

On top of it all, the mockumentary premise means that this is all apparently being recorded by a human documentary crew. Often, the characters have to warn their fellow vampires not to eat the crew; the way the camera moves to convey how the crew members are reacting to the horrors they witness adds a meta layer of humor. 

Each of the characters has their own adventures, from hiding from a rival to creating and training a new vampire. But it’s when the brilliant cast members are all in a scene together that “What We Do in the Shadows” truly shines. It all works because the actors are so good at playing off of each other; much of the show, in fact, is improvised. This makes their relationships feel even more real and draws us further in, no matter the ridiculousness of the situation. The ensemble is this show’s beating heart—even if most of the main characters don’t have one themselves.

This story originally appeared in the Jan. 20 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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Lisa Granshaw
Lisa Granshaw is an editor at Backstage.
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