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Matt Berry on Why Making What We Do in the Shadows Was ‘Terrifying’

Photo: Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images

Since the debut of the definitive mockumentary on the secret life of centuries-old vampires, the 2014 horror-comedy What We Do in the Shadows, New Zealand comedy treasures Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement have shown admirable commitment to expanding their bone-dry world of silly vampire jokes into a mini empire. Coming on the heels of the first spinoff, last year’s New Zealand television show Wellington Paranormal, and the persistent rumors of a sequel called We’re Wolves, their TV adaptation of What We Do in the Shadows premieres on FX March 27.

With the same creative team behind the movie (many of the episodes are directed or written by Waititi and Clement, and some are directed by former Shadows familiar Jackie Van Beek), the show sets up a similar world with a different cast of vampires, preening and arguing for the presumably exhausted documentary team filming their hijinks. This time the vamps are living in an elegantly crumbling Staten Island manse, and their coven includes foppish dandy Lazlo and the tempting Nadja, who are in a long-term open relationship; Nandor the Relentless and his officious human familiar Guillermo; and the inspired creation of an “energy” vampire, khaki-clad day-walker Colin Robinson. While the main cast is a murderer’s row of comic actors who mostly cut their teeth on English television — plus the ascendant Beanie Feldstein, of Lady Bird and Booksmart — the most recognizable face for a particular strain of U.K.-besotted comedy nerd is that of Matt Berry, who plays Lazlo.

For the past decade and a half, Berry has been stealing scenes in shows like Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace and The IT Crowd, appearing in his own sketch show called Snuff Box, and writing and acting in his creation about a middle-aged actor, Toast of London, which netted him a BAFTA for best male comedy actor in 2015. If anything can be considered a comic trademark, it’s Berry’s voice — plummy and unforgettable, a knighted foghorn that’s fallen on hard times and is trying to get you in the sack; much of his hilarity stems from the mismatch between his vocal elegance and his actual persona. Naturally, he’s found success as a voice-over artist, most recently appearing in Netflix’s Disenchantment, and he’s also a talented musician, making legitimately good psychedelic rock (not to mention all of the music for Snuff Box and Toast of London).

Vulture recently spoke to Berry — who’s deep in the process of working on Channel 4/IFC’s Victorian detective-comedy series Year of the Rabbit — to find out how What We Do in the Shadows tapped into his deepest fears, and how Netflix has changed the trajectory of the once-cult comedian.

How did you get involved in Shadows?
I did a film with Jemaine [Clement] two or three years ago [An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn], and when we were working on that he said, “I’m thinking of doing a vampire series based on the vampire film I did. Do you want to be in it?” That’s literally it. It was as quick and simple as that, and we made the pilot in Los Angeles and filmed the rest in Toronto [as a stand-in for Staten Island].

What kind of freedom did you have to create your character?
I started from the beginning and tried not to pay any attention to the film. I treated this as a completely new job with a new set of characters in a new scenario. It was exciting for all of us that it was different.

How did you and the other actors keep a straight face? Did you end up doing a lot of takes?
There’s a lot of takes. We shot all the time, it was quite an intense shoot, so that helped for the lack of breaking. You just didn’t know your ass from your elbow. You already have jet lag and it’s four in the morning.

So you were shooting vampire hours, in this case?
We started scenes at four in the morning, or even later than that — or earlier than that — which was something to get used to, but you get on with it. The hours are a lot different in the U.K. There, you shoot from seven in the morning until seven at night and then everyone goes home.

What’s it like to do the wirework that makes you fly as a vampire?
Wirework is terrifying. It’s terrifying because I’m afraid of heights, and you have to look like you’re not, when you’re a vampire. There’s no reason why a vampire would be afraid of heights, much like a bird wouldn’t be afraid of heights. So that’s the veil of acting, because one minute you’re standing on the floor and then, within two or three seconds, you’re 50 feet in the air.

In one case, we were next to a building, so you can really feel how high up you are, and then you have to do your lines and look as if everything is completely normal. That was hard for me.

How did Lazlo’s costumes help with the role?
Well, they were kind of heavy. But very useful when it’s outside and it’s cold. Big capes and cloaks. They really come into their own when it’s snowing and minus-four degrees.

What was it like developing a comedic rhythm with the other vampire cast members?
I hadn’t worked with Kayvan [Novak] before, that’s the weird thing. We’d been in comedy in the U.K. but our paths had never crossed. At last they did, and it was a real joy, because it took going to the other side of the world to work with him. It’s an odd thing, what causes you to work with people. It’s the same thing with Natasia [Demetriou] — she’s fantastic in what she does. But they’re two people I never worked with in the U.K.

What’s it like having such a distinctive voice?
I don’t hear it the same way as you do. It’s something that I’ve always had, and I would exaggerate it with friends when I was at college. It kind of went from there, and it’s basically taking the piss out of actors that I would’ve worked with or seen when I was much younger, especially stage actors who did TV work and over-projected. That’s where it came from, and now it’s turned out to be hilarious.

When did you know that you could make people laugh?
I don’t know. You do what makes you laugh. I draw from the most pompous people, who are the people that make me laugh the most. My father’s not pompous, but he says ridiculous things, and I base things on him and somebody who has no sense of humor whatsoever. They’re the people that have made me laugh. If somebody has no sense of humor, I think that’s a great place to start for British comedy, in terms of your character.

Tell me more about winning the BAFTA. The photos of you with the award are really joyful.
People always say this, but it’s true for me when I say that I absolutely did not expect to win. [Toast of London] had been described by most critics as “cult,” and as we all know, no one votes for the cult option, let alone the performer from the cult option. When my name was read out, I was in complete shock. I had prepared nothing and therefore walked onto a stage in front of a full theater — not to mention a live BBC broadcast — with nothing to say. I immediately went into some kind of automatic mode and gathered the necessary reserve power to thank most of the people I needed to. My only interest was to thank my family, which I did, so job done. It was an honor and I’m still incredibly thankful and feel incredibly lucky.

What’s your favorite vampire?
That would easily be Christopher Lee, with Nosferatu running a close second. I’ve always been a huge Hammer Horror fan, so Lee’s portrayal would’ve been the first and most potent I saw. I missed out completely on the recent teen-vampire genre, as I was probably either looking for my keys, working, or in the pub.

Now that shows like The IT Crowd and Toast are on Netflix, do you feel like less of a secret?
The only difference is that someone from somewhere that you never expected has seen you and wants to know if you’d like to be involved with something else. When Toast got on Netflix, I noticed a difference. It was something I thought that only myself and a few people would find funny, and suddenly it’s on a very large platform. Now it kind of belongs to everyone. The shows I do, you can see them everywhere now.

What are you working on next?
A show called Year of the Rabbit, which is a Victorian detectives thing that I’ve co-written for Channel 4. I did that a week after finishing Shadows. Now I’m in the edits for it. I’ve gone from being 700 years old to 200 years old.

I have to get this Rabbit thing done. It’s like when you work on something that isn’t quite finished, you can’t think of anything else. All I can think about is Victorian London until it’s finished, and then when it’s done, I’ll go on holiday and not think about it.

Matt Berry on Why What We Do in the Shadows Was ‘Terrifying’