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What We Do in the Shadows Jackie Daytona Episode Oral History

Its disappointingly rare for the best shows on television to get the awards love they deserve. But thankfully, that very thing is happening for one of the funniest comedies of the year — What We Do in the Shadows. Altogether, the FX vampire mockumentary has earned eight Emmy nominations, including a writing nomination for its most innovative, bizarre, and silliest Season 2 episode, “On the Run” — probably better known as the Jackie Daytona episode.

Written by Stefani Robinson, “On the Run” almost feels like a television throwback in its ridiculousness. Laszlo (Matt Berry) is confronted by an old landlord who demands that he pay back the rent he owes. Instead of relenting, Laszlo immediately takes the nuclear option, running away to Pennsylvania and donning the disguise of a small town bartender named Jackie Daytona. What follows is one of the oddest and most comedically satisfying fusions of supernatural and sports tropes ever brought to screen.

In advance of this September’s Emmy Awards, Robinson, Berry, and costume designer Amanda Neale talked to Decider about how this masterful episode came to be, and how they were able to secure their big guest star: Mark Hamill.

It was showrunner Jemaine Clement who first came up with the idea of devoting an episode to Laszlo being on the run. But “On the Road” writer Stefani Robinson was the one who subverted this premise, turning it into a comedic masterpiece.

Stefani Robinson: Jemaine really wanted — in the early productions of this idea — his idea of Laszlo almost being The Fugitive. Like, the Harrison Ford-y, drenched in water. We talked about The Fugitive a lot. … Wouldn’t it be funny if this guy is gonna keep running and running and running? He had to hide in all these crazy locations and potentially become different people.

But what was really funny to me was what if we make it seem like it’s going to be that, but then he’s just in one place and never leaves? Forget about the chase. There was something about subverting that expectation. I don’t know if we really really built up that expectation. But in my mind there’s just something so funny about thinking that it was going to be something larger than it is. And then it’s the smallest stakes possible, just volleyball and a talent show. The most small town-y Friday Night Lights feeling story that probably makes no sense in the morals of the show, but we do it anyway.

I think it’s the constant dilemma that these creatures are dealing with throughout the show. “We could have done all these amazing things. We could go and do big crazy things, but we’re choosing not to. Or we get too distracted, too bored by ourselves.”

As soon as Robinson completed her outline, costume designer Amanda Neale stepped in to start working on looks, given the change in setting from Staten Island, to Pennsylvania.

Amanda Neale: I started prepping that episode from the very first day of my prep. The interesting things with costumes, it’s the first time we’ve gone out of our dimension.

The working environment of Pennsylvania and making it feel realistic without playing on caricatural types of middle America is always a fine balance. Especially coming from New Zealand, where I’ve never been to Pennsylvania. It’s having this believability attached to it so that you would never question the environment. We did a bit of research of universities, high schools, just genuine aesthetics so that we’d have a realistic tone of placing Jackie Daytona in that style of Pennsylvania. That’s one of my favorite lines, his confusion with Pennsylvania [and Transylvania]. It’s all so bloody funny.

WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS
Photo: FX

The real star of the episode, though, is Laszlo’s alter ego, a regular “Yankee Doodle Dandy” by the name of Jackie Daytona. Laszlo dons this new persona and runs away in an attempt to avoid paying back money he owes to a vampire named Jim. It was Robinson’s idea to make Laszlo’s “disguise” a toothpick and a pair of jeans.

Robinson: It made me laugh. I was sitting at home alone, writing the script. What if he just puts no effort into a disguise, but it works anyways? He’s just so lazy about it, but it’s a foolproof disguise.

Also, part of me too wanted to see Laszlo as Laszlo in this bar. I was kind of resistant to putting too big of a disguise on him that distracted from why Matt Berry is so good or why that character in particular is so good. You do want to see that aristocratic British man sitting out in a small town Pennsylvania bar, giving out beer that he can’t even drink. … It feels lazy for the character, which is also funny. But it also opens up the world a little bit, or makes it feel like you’re still connected to Laszlo in a way.

Matt Berry: He thinks he’s doing an accent, but he’s not. That’s the joke … In the read-through, I read him as an American … I just did it because I’m often asked to do my own accent. I don’t get the chance to do other accents. So I thought, “Great, here’s my chance. I can do something else.” And then it’s like, “No, no, no. We want you normal.”

Neale: Especially as a costume designer, I try to regard myself as ego-less. The fact that a toothpick has outshone anything that I could have fit for that episode for costume, it’s like, “Well, we’ll default to the toothpick. That’s the scene-stealer.”

The difficulty was trying to maintain [Laszlo’s] true sense of self in a vampiric form, but give him a modern twist of city-being, make him realistic with our contemporary environment. The mixed scarf, that was a given. And then it was just finding a waistcoat and a pair of jeans that set the tone for his bartender uniform. It was really subtle, you couldn’t probably tell. There was always a black waistcoat and a purple waistcoat, depending on how supportive he was with the volleyball team.

Berry: I just had to say the stuff wrong. It’s kind of like the Spaghetti Westerns. That was Italians trying to do American slang, and getting it wrong. But at the same time, creating something completely new and funny. It’s not meant to be funny in the Spaghetti Westerns, but it is. Because it’s like, “You stupid, son-of-a!” Stuff that people don’t say.

There was a joke that I have with Stefani. I can’t remember whether it made it into it, but I always say major league. Because I know no one says that anymore. So I always used to say, “He’s a major league piece of work” or something like that. There’s a lot of those things that I find very funny, Brits getting it slightly wrong.

Berry’s biggest obstacle wasn’t doing an episode mostly without his co-stars, or working opposite the episode’s superstar guest… It was learning how to become a convincing bartender. 

Berry: I spent a few afternoons with a cocktail man. I don’t know what their official name is — cocktailier? It isn’t that, but it’ll do. So I spent a few afternoons with this cocktailier, and he was great. He slowed it all down for me, did it all in slow motion so I didn’t make a pig’s ear of it. And I got it after a couple of afternoons. But I think anyone could have done it. I’m not saying it was anything fancy, what I did. It just kind of had to look like you’d done it before.

What We Do in the Shadows
Photo: FX

Another left-field aspect of the episode that helped make it unforgettable has to do with the object of Laszlo’s newfound obsession: a high school women’s volleyball team. That bit of random hilarity also came from Robinson.

Robinson: The idea of a sports team seemed to make sense in the context of this world we wanted to explore, like in that Friday Night Lights-y small town, steel belt, red-blooded Americans. We’ve gotta have a sports team. But football seemed too easy.

There’s something about a girls’ volleyball team that felt like — and no disrespect to female volleyball players, because they’re very powerful people — but it is one of those things that just felt a little bit off in a way that seemed comedically satisfying to me. The sports that are contact heavy — wrestling or football — I feel like maybe on paper those makes more sense for someone like Laszlo to be excited about. The danger of it, and the contact. It feels more like war. It’s very aggressive. I think there was something funny about volleyball, which just felt it was antithetical to what Laszlo the Vampire might be excited about.

Neale: With our amazing extras supervisor and my assistant designer, we bought all of the American apparel. We had to create three volleyball teams, a practice uniform, and a mascot. All of that came from the states. … The mascot was brilliant. The extra that we put in the uniform was so excited. It was kind of like, “Calm down. … You can’t outshine our superstar.”

That superstar was Mark Hamill. The A-list actor took on the guest role of Jim, a vampire who once rented an apartment to Laszlo and is hellbent on getting the money he’s owed.

Robinson: After the first season, [Mark Hamill] tweeted about the show, that he enjoyed it. At the time it was just one of those cool little, “Oh my god! That’s awesome. Mark Hamill watches the show. How fucking incredible is that?”

It wasn’t until we were actually casting the episode and thinking about who we wanted to play Jim the Vampire where we were kind of like — “Well, who?” We wanted a bigger name and someone who could also be funny and menacing in the way that we needed Jim the Vampire to be. To be able to play the stupidity of Jim the Vampire in a way that was sweet, but also funny. Mark Hamill was one of those guys that kept popping up.

At least on my end, thinking to myself, I was like, “There’s no way that we’re getting Mark Hamill to do this. He’s a fan of the show, that’s it. We’re going to have to go to the list and find someone else, and be prepared for a back-up.” But Mark was in. He said yes. Read the script, and before we knew it, he was in Toronto. It was a surreal thing, to be able to walk on set and Mark Hamill in cool vampire makeup, reading a script.

Berry: I knew that I was doing something away from the house and away from the other cast. That’s all I knew. And they wound me up for a few weeks by telling me it would be with Brad Pitt. … Every day they came up with a different name: it would be Brad Pitt or Sean Connery or some crazy name. It was incredible when it was Mark Hamill. I would have never guessed that.

I didn’t believe it was him, either. Because it didn’t really look like him. And then it was clear that it was him. When I saw how much fuss everyone else was making around this man, I realized he wasn’t a supporting artist.

What We Do in the Shadows
Photo: FX

Because of Hamill’s status in pop culture, working alongside the actor presented its own set of challenges. 

Berry: I was very young when [Star Wars] came out, but by the time I knew what was what, it was embedded in the world. It was part of the culture. Ubiquitous, I suppose. So to act alongside someone like that, it’s kind of like acting with Jaws or with the Queen. I don’t know what to say to this person. This person’s from another planet — they’re on the TV. I’ve got no right to be here. That’s how it felt.

Robinson: It was completely intimidating. There were multiple points where he came up to me with questions about the script. At one point, I said, “Mark, you can do whatever you want.” And he got mad at me! He has every right to get mad at me because it’s my job to be able to help him. But I meant it as a compliment, like, “You can do whatever you want because you are so incredibly talented and smart. You’re a legend.” But he got mad at me. He was like, “You need to earn your money!” I was like, “You know what, you are correct. I will give you notes.”

Hamill, true to his reputation as a legendary actor, fully committed to his guest starring role. According to Robinson, he went all in on Jim the Vampire, directly inspiring some of the character’s funnier and more memorable bits. 

Robinson: As we are with a lot of the bigger guest star characters on our show, we don’t necessarily give specifics as far as how an actor wants to play the character, what accent they’re going to be using. … Mark came in, he had some kind of choice with his voice, which I think was so perfect. It’s not what we’ve seen on the show yet, in terms of vampires. This older, regal, more of a throwback to the Dracula type of vampire. That was the choice that he made. Then we built into that character more with Tamara [Harrod], our key hair stylist, and with Amanda Neale, our costume designer. Amanda had this great, insane, blood-red cape and robe.

Neale: Because Mark Hamill was cast later in the piece, he arrived the day before we shot. So that’s the thing — with a lot of the design, I’ve become masterful in the kimono-style tailoring. One shape fits all. We had general measurements the day before we shot and the repeatable garments. How can we do some tailoring that doesn’t make it look like Luke Skywalker while still following the traditional forms of vampire fashion or style?

Mark, due to his own notoriety, if you like, his strength, character, and professionalism — he needed to have a sense of old school vampire. That’s why the color palette was really quite straightforward. It was black, gold, and blood red. … The DP at first was like, “We should get rid of the cloak for the stunts, just in case it doesn’t obscure the rig.” I’m like, “We can’t take him out of the cloak! He’ll lose his strength in character if it’s the case.” It’s all about movement, like trying to put the fire out at the end with his cape. The thing I love about Mark is he came in with such enthusiasm for the character and for the show. He was such a pleasure to work with and so accommodating.

That dedication translated to Hamill’s performance. Several times throughout production Berry tried to shake the actor out of his character through his ridiculous, improvisational lines. But Hamill rarely strayed from Jim.

Berry: We had some face off between each other, we’d done it twice. I remember the third time, I thought, “Right. I’ll see how he deals with this.” And I can’t remember what I said, but if I could I still wouldn’t be able to tell you. It was something that made his hair stand on end. But he was a great sport. He picked up the baton and gave me as good back. That’s all that you want. You want other performers to be present and into it like you are.

The crucifix (battle scene with pool cues) was in the script. The face-to-face lightsaber one with the cues, I’m gonna say — because I can’t remember — but I think that happened naturally. And when it did, I couldn’t act. The eight-year-old in me came to the forward. Like, “What the hell am I doing here? What is this? I’m now standing in front of Luke Skywalker and we’re doing that.” Yeah, it was too much for me, that moment.

What We Do in the Shadows
Photo: FX

Berry and Robinson weren’t the only ones to get a fanboy moment. Since she knew he was a fan of the show as well as the original movie, Amanda Neale included a surprise especially for Mark Hamill.

Neale: The thing I know about Mark is he loves to collect memorabilia from films. I gave him a ring that Jemaine, in the film, that’s part of his character. … He loved wearing it, because it was a special amulet to help his character.

It was supposed to be a gift. I know that the production gave him a parting gift for his commitment to the show. But I didn’t get the opportunity to give him the ring personally. I do regret that. But the ring will live on. At the end of the day, it was Vladislav’s ring.

Shortly after “One the Run” aired, the episode took off. Search interest for the name “Jackie Daytona” spiked when the episode first premiered in mid-May and has been high ever since. It’s even earned the ultimate endorsement of a beloved episode: a ton of unofficial Jackie Daytona merchandise on Etsy. That’s in addition to Outstanding Writing for Comedy Emmy nomination, of course. 

Berry: I was lucky to be surrounded with such brilliant people — Mark Hamill and the writing and the costumes. So it’s hard to screw it up. Learning the bottle stuff was probably the most difficult.

Robinson: It was super surprising. I feel happy and feel kind over-the-moon about it. I’m so glad that this show is getting recognized.

There is still a chance that Hamill may wear Vladislav’s ring once more. “On the Road” ends with Jim the Vampire learning that the Big Mouth Billy Bass Laszlo gave him to cover his debts isn’t antique at all, but actually very common. Jim’s feud with Laszlo isn’t over. And of course, Jackie Daytona will always live on.

Robinson: I will say that no one is totally gone from our show. … The door’s open for anyone and everyone to come back. I think we’re all very open to people who have died, finding ways to resurrect them. Characters we’ve seen in small or big parts coming back at any point in the show. That’s the fun of it. We are a comedy about supernatural beings. We always go out of our way to make sure that the world feels big, and that there is opportunity for these bigger characters to make a comeback — either immediately or down the line.

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