In Wednesday’s episode of What We Do in the Shadows, “On the Run,” the happy-go-lucky Staten Island vampire Laszlo Cravensworth encounters an old nemesis, Jim the Vampire, played by special guest star Mark Hamill. Rather than face off against Jim, Laszlo decides to ditch town and build a new identity as Jackie Daytona, a volleyball-loving bartender in a small Pennsylvania town.
What We Do in the Shadows has been great since it debuted on FX last year, but “On the Run” is a particular high point for the show — goofy and fast-paced and absolutely hilarious. Laszlo’s Jackie Daytona outfit consists only of a pair of jeans and a toothpick, but Jim the Vampire doesn’t recognize him at all. Eventually, after the disguise finally fails, Laszlo and Jim come to an agreement over their shared love of girl’s volleyball and a mutual admiration of Big Mouth Billy Bass.
Hamill tells Vulture that he’s been a fan of Shadows (and the 2014 movie that inspired it), so he was excited and a little nervous about the role. The show’s creators had no such reservations. Stefani Robinson, an executive producer who also wrote this episode, explained that Hamill was perfect for the role. “After writing The Vampire,” she told Vulture, “it became immediately clear that we needed an actor who could play both the comedy and the heavy, theatrical drama of the character. Mark Hamill immediately came to mind. He is a master at what he does, and has done for his entire career. It was an honor just to have him read the script.”
Hamill spoke to us shortly before “On the Run” aired, and he was especially happy to talk about why he’s such a huge fan of this goofy, great vampire comedy. “I thought I’d be playing a meter reader, or a next door neighbor, or someone at the Department of Motor Vehicles,” he said. “When I found out that they wanted to play The Vampire, I just flipped out.”
I enjoyed the episode so much. I’ve spent too much of the last few days yelling “Jackie Daytona!” at random moments.
Ha! It’s such a great new identity for him. It’s so absurd, not recognizing him because he’s in jeans and has a toothpick. It’s just sublime silliness. To commit to that, and to play it like it’s drama, is just so satisfying. I’ve been doing that all my life. There were moments in Star Wars that were just so ridiculous, but we just played it like it was Hamlet.
There’s something especially great about playing something this silly as though it’s Hamlet. The silliest part may be at the end when you fall to your knees after you realize your Big Mouth Billy Bass has broken.
Oh, yes! Well, obviously, he’s not the brightest tool in the box. That he would not recognize the Billy Bass thing. That’s what’s so wonderful and so ridiculous about it all!
How did you come to this role?
I became a huge fan of the movie. My son suggested we watch it, I said, “What is that?” and he said, “It’s a reality show about vampires.” Which, that alone had me hooked. I loved the movie. I knew that Taika [Waititi] and Jemaine [Clement] were behind the scenes for the series, but I sort of lowered expectations because I said, “Well, they’re not in it, it’s not probably as good,” so I was unprepared for how great it was. All the new characters, the addition of an energy vampire concept, which I had never heard before, it was so brilliant. Everybody has had energy vampires in their lives.
I always get nervous about shows I like, because I find something I really love and it gets canceled. So I tweeted about it several times, trying to get my followers to give it a try. Apparently that’s what put me on their radar, and the next thing I know they asked me to come on the show. I thought I’d be playing a meter reader, or a next door neighbor, or someone at the Department of Motor Vehicles. When I found out that they wanted to play what was called in the script The Vampire, I just flipped out, I couldn’t wait.
So he was called The Vampire in the script? Not Jim the Vampire?
[Laughs] It’s the magnificent with the mundane! Here you have this exotic vampire with great gravitas — the robes and the flowing hair and all that — and his name is Jim! It’s like Life of Brian. Stefani Robinson wrote this and Yana Gorskaya directed it, and it was a joy. I think part of [why they kept his name as The Vampire] was to have it be a surprise. When Laszlo calls me by name and I turn and say, “How did you know my name?” and he says, “It’s right there on your business card,” it’s just nutty! And then to see me coaching the girls’ volleyball team, and the back of my jacket reads “Jim Coach,” it’s just so wonderfully absurd.
I’m curious about the wig. Did they test a few different options?
A lot of times, you learn from wardrobe and hair much more about your character than sometimes is even in the script. They had already decided on my wardrobe but the hair was up for grabs, and at first I thought [it should be] slicked-back, Bela Lugosi-style hair. The hair person showed me that blonde wig and I remember thinking, “I don’t think that’s really right.” I’m glad I tried it on. Just holding it, it was a mass of white hair. When she put it on and styled it, I thought, “Oh my gosh, it adds to the gravitas of the character.”
I noticed Jim likes to tuck his hair into his cape sometimes.
If I could go back, I would’ve pulled it out. But you know you can’t see yourself. It didn’t bother me, but had I known, I would’ve cleared it. When you have great hair, why not show it off?
What We Do in the Shadows often makes space for improv when it’s filming. Did you do much improv in the episode?
Well, Matt Berry has just incredible improv skill. That’s his background. He would unleash these lines and I’d be hearing them for the first time, usually terribly obscene. [Laughs.] I had to stay in character, because I personally found them funny but my character did not. I was going over the script while I was watching [the episode] to see where the cuts were, and there were some cuts in the scenes where improv lines I did were lost. [Hamill shifts into a vampire voice] “I see no reason for you to launch a scatalogical attack on me!” Because he kept talking about bathroom humor. The only improv I said that’s in there is “Don’t be afraid to draw blood!” when Jim was the volleyball coach. That was unscripted.
The script was perfect the way it was, but their attitude is much like Matt’s. They give you the freedom to say the line, but phrase it in a way you find more suitable. But like I say, the script was so good I didn’t have to do much of that.
There’s no chance you remember any of Matt Berry’s bathroom humor lines that got cut, do you?
Well, there’s one that didn’t get cut. [Jim the Vampire] is telling [Laszlo] that he didn’t pay his rent, and he said, “Oh yeah, I remember that place, in the bathroom I found a floater in the toilet.”
That was improv?
I don’t remember that in the script. But he would have two or three lined up, sometimes he’d take a pause and say one. Other times he’d do a second take and come up with something entirely new. He really keeps you on your toes because he’s wildly inventive. A great character — I love the contrasts in these characters. Nandor is so stately and pompous. Matt is really like a blue-collar working man, puncturing that pomposity. Natasha [Demetriou] as Nadja, and Mark [Proksch] as, are you kidding me, Colin Robinson? And Harvey [Guillén] as Guillermo? They’re each perfectly suited for their roles.
Like I say, I’m a big fan. To tell you the truth, I would be just as happy to remain in the audience, where you can enjoy yourself and relax. When you’re asked to be a part of it, you really have to bring the best you can to the table. There’s pressure. I was happy to do it.
What were you focused on making sure you got right?
You move so fast in television, I didn’t really have a discussion with Yana, the director, about how I was going to speak. So the first time I spoke [in a take] was the first time I used that Eastern European accent. I didn’t know how it would go down, I thought maybe she’d come over and say, “We’d rather have you do British,” or whatever. But I did my first scene and everyone was satisfied.
The only time I’ve ever played a vampire before was in a cartoon called Mina and the Count. You can find them on YouTube. I played the Count. And I always used the Bela Lugosi approach because he was the first Dracula I ever saw when I was a kid. I was just fascinated! I’d never heard anyone with that particular accent before. [Vampire voice] Listen to them, the children of the night! What music they make! [Normal voice] I thought, “where does this man come from?”
At the end of the episode, Jim the Vampire is living in this small Pennsylvania town and happily coaching the girls’ volleyball team. What will the rest of his life be like? Do you think he’ll stay there?
[Laughs] It’s interesting. He gets this second career as an assistant coach, and I thought it was very generous of Laszlo to provide that for him, but then at the end he realizes he’s been swindled once more, and his last words are “Cravensworth!!” It had a beginning, middle and end, and I’m happy to have done the one episode. Hopefully he can get over his anger at his trophy being mass-produced and not a rarity like he thought it was. He could be satisfied being the volleyball coach.
But when you think of the logic of it all, he is a vampire. What happens if they have a day game? You can’t really think it through logically, because we’re living in the absurd world of the Shadows.
I hadn’t thought about what would happen if they have a day game!
Yeah, and why he would have business cards printed that say “Jim the Vampire,” advertising that he’s a supernatural being? It makes no sense! But that’s why I think it’s just one of the freshest, most original shows on television, with a great ensemble cast. Every Wednesday it brightens my day when I go, “Oh there’s a new Shadows episode!”