Catching Up With Guillermo Díaz

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For some of us Guillermo Díaz will always be Scarface from Half Baked, quitting his job with the most memorable, epic, NSFW line ever. Die-hard Chappelle’s Show fans will forever remember him as one of the “managers” from PopCopy. And then there was that one time he played the funniest guy to ever build a human trafficking tunnel between the United States and Mexico—Guillermo García Gómez from Weeds. Díaz is one of those actors who gets inextricably linked to his characters, which is why it’s hard to be believe that the guy playing Huck on ABC’s Scandal (another pivotal role that he’s taken on with fantastic aplomb) is a pretty sweet guy over the phone. Though it should be said that even while playing this deeply troubled, former CIA operative (who really, really enjoys torturing people), a little bit of that Díaz humor occasionally makes its way through. And for this, Huck is a favorite among Scandal fans and self-proclaimed Gladiators the world over. In the middle of shooting upcoming episodes for season three, which picks back up on Thursday, February 27, Paste caught up with Díaz to talk about his early start in Hollywood, the genius of Shonda Rhimes, and that one scene where he pulled Katie Lowes’s tooth out.

Paste: So, a few weeks back I found myself watching the movie Fresh, and I nearly fell out when I saw you posted up against the wall in that one scene.
Díaz: (laughs) Wow! Yeah, that was the first movie that I booked!

Paste: If I can take you back to 1994 for a minute, I wonder if you can talk a little about some of your expectations back then when your career was just starting out.
Díaz: Well, I did a show back when I was in high school—so I was about 17—and it was the first time I was on stage. I never even thought about being an actor before that, but after that experience, I knew it was what I wanted to do. From that point on, I kind of pursued it on my own, and I never really thought about it much. I just loved acting, and I just wanted to act in whatever capacity I could. So I did a lot of background work, and I worked on plays, and I joined a theatre company called the Labyrinth, which Philip Seymour Hoffman was a part of, along with all of these other great actors.

Fresh was maybe the third audition that I had after I got an agent, so I was crazy excited when I booked it. And I was going to Baruch College in [New York] during that time. But once I got Fresh—and then I did another movie called Party Girl—I dropped out because I was doing what I wanted to do. I wanted to act, and college was just something to fall back on. It’s been quite a roller coaster ride since then. It’s been awesome.

Paste: Now, I was also excited to see that you grew up in Washington Heights. I lived in Inwood for a summer.
Díaz: Oh, no way!

Paste: Yes, it’s still one of my favorite places. When I was there, the population was basically 100% Dominican, but your family is Cuban, right?
Díaz: Yes, but when we lived there it was just like you said—it was predominantly Dominican. I think we were the only Cuban family in the building. I remember we would walk from Inwood over that bridge to the Bronx where my school was. So a lot of my friends lived in Inwood and I hung out there a lot and made some great memories, too.

Paste: It’s a great place, but I know everything wasn’t always sweet for you growing up there. There’s a documentary about the Egyptian revolution called The Square, and I remember the director talking about humor as a defense mechanism in certain cultures. One common thread that I see in your work is humor, even when the humor is shrouded in some kind of darkness like with Guillermo from Weeds or Huck. So I was wondering if you could say the same for yourself, if comedy is something you can attribute to your experiences living Uptown.
Díaz: Absolutely. I remember the few friends that I did have—I don’t wanna sound like a nerd (laughs), but I wasn’t that popular though I had a few close friends. And I just remember always laughing. No matter what was going on, we were always cracking jokes! I was named Class Clown in the high school yearbook, so I was always turning to comedy and laughter to heal and to get me through things. It would kind of start off as a nervous thing—like “Ha ha ha, you’re not really stealing my watch,” or “Ha ha ha you’re not really mugging me” (laughs), but then it did help to heal. And I love to laugh.

I connect to humor really deeply, so I feel really comfortable just being in funny projects. With Huck there’s a little humor in there. It’s mostly somber and kind of sad, but once in a while you’ll see him crack something. But there’s a tinge of humor there. And like you said, with Guillermo humor was always underlying everything he did.

Paste: I’m in the middle of watching Stonewall right now.
Díaz: Oh, no way!

Paste: And I remember when I first started watching Scandal, I still saw you as Guillermo. And now seeing you play this drag queen, I realize it’s impossible to pin you down as an artist. I know you said you went into this just wanting to act, but was it ever your intention to have this really colorful career?
Díaz: My hopes were that I was going to be cast in all sorts of different projects. Young, old, warriors, everything. But then reality kicks in and you just start acting, and of course for the bulk of my career I was playing mostly thugs and murderers, and all of these stereotypical characters. At a certain point, I felt like I was paying my dues and playing these characters just so I could get to this point where I can play different types of people.

Paste: Sure.
Díaz: I’m drawn to the not-so-perfect character. Maybe because of the way I grew up in this kind of perfect, happy home—well, you know it wasn’t perfect, and there was a lot of shit going on in the ’80s. I went through a lot in the Heights, but I’m drawn to the emotionally crippled and socially awkward characters. I find them so much more interesting than the run-of-the-mill character that you see on television, and I think I’ve had the chance to play [these interesting roles] so many times. In Stonewall, I was a drag queen, and now I’m playing Huck, who is such a complex character with so many layers, so I couldn’t ask for more. I’m just so thankful that Shonda and so many others took a chance on me to play these roles.

Paste: I asked Darby Stanchfield [Abby Whelan on Scandal] this question and now I have to ask you. So many people remember their first time watching Scandal, and for many of us it resulted in a binge-watch. What stood out to you most during your first reading of the script?
Díaz: My initial reaction was a kind of confusion because the character was originally described as a much older man, and I didn’t understand why they wanted to see me for it. My agent was like, “Well, just go in. They know you.” I read the script. I thought it was really great, and there was a lot of buzz about it, but I didn’t feel completely connected to it. And then when I walked in the room and I read for Shonda [Rhimes], something happened in the room and for the first time I felt connected to the material and to the characters. I just remember looking at Shonda right after I did my audition, and our eyes kind of locked for a little longer than normal, and I felt like, “Okay, I think this is it.” It just felt right.

It’s just been such a special, rare experience for me. All of the people who are involved are amazing. Especially Kerry Washington, who is such a gracious, intelligent, wonderful person and actor. To have her as our leader on the show has been such a treat. I’m just waiting for that bubble to burst. It’s been such a great ride! It feels too good to be true! (laughs)

Paste: No, I think you guys have a ways to go. I mean, everyone’s still as obsessed with the show as they were in the beginning. And, strangely enough, I think the break has helped. Come Thursday night we’re all just going to be freaking out. We could tiptoe around this, but the reality is, you’re Olivia Pope’s favorite. I really started to see this in season two when she was breaking up with Edison. There was that episode when she was in bed for days, and you came in and told her you could take care of it. It was a great scene between you two. And then there was the “Seven Fifty-Two” episode. What is it about your relationship with her that’s so special, as compared with the other Gladiators?
Díaz: Well, in the episode you just mentioned, she says to Huck that everyone always talks about how Olivia has saved them, but in fact Huck is the one who has saved Olivia. So I think they have this special quality because they kind of saved each other. And it’s so great when you see them in scenes together. There’s a really special quality to those moments—it’s almost dream-like. It’s very odd but beautiful.

Paste: Another relationship that I absolutely love on Scandal is the one between Cyrus and James. And, like a lot of people, I especially love Cyrus’ character. Shonda Rhimes recently accepted a Diversity Award for the work she does on her shows and I know she made some comments about being both disappointed that such an award still exists and honored to receive the award. But I’ve always been impressed with the fact that she wrote Cyrus to be this vicious political animal—this villain—who also happens to be gay. You’ve been in this industry for so long, and you’ve tackled the subject of performing gay characters and being out in Hollywood. What changes have you seen over the years in the portrayal of gay men and women on television?
Díaz: There’s more of us! There are more gay characters on television. That’s a huge step forward. And I think there are a lot more realistic gay characters on television. When I was growing up, we didn’t have Will & Grace. The one gay character was Monroe from Too Close For Comfort—and he wasn’t even gay! At least they didn’t say he was. Same with Mr. Furley from Three’s Company. You know, these were the characters that people would always make fun of.

And there are gay people in the industry all over the place! Producers and directors, and they’re starting to create a lot more. And in turn you get more realistic gay characters, and it’s refreshing. It’s about time.

Paste: Absolutely. Now, I read that the “YOLO” episode was shot on Halloween, which is hilarious. One thing that was great about your performance in that epic scene with Quinn is that you made YOLO cool again! It had not been cool for a really long time, and you brought it back.
Díaz: (laughs) Thanks.

Paste: I know that was a tough scene to shoot, especially for Katie Lowes. Now this might be a weird question but—tell me the truth—was there any part of you that kind of enjoyed it?
Díaz: Oh, absolutely! A whole bunch of me actually enjoyed it (laughs). It was scary, and it was exhilarating at the same time. When we had the table read—and I’m sure you know we don’t get the scripts before—so we’re reading them cold for the first time. When I opened that script and saw that I had that two, three page monologue—agh! Just saying Shonda’s words, they just flow from your mouth so beautiful, and as an actor you just can’t ask for better. And knowing that I was gonna play the scene with Katie, who is really a close friend of mine outside of the show—I just knew we were gonna have so much fun with this. We just kept telling each other, “We’re gonna kill it. We’re gonna kill it.”

Paste: You definitely did.
Díaz: Thank you. It was a blast. It’s fun to get lost in the sort of crazy head space of Huck. I kind of go into a trance sometimes, especially when I have monologues like that, and it just feels really good. It’s very satisfying as an actor.

Paste: Everyone’s favorite part was the moment you licked Quinn’s face. I was on my couch, squirming, and screaming, and everything. Was any of that improvised?
Díaz: No! That was all Shonda! Everything I did in that episode was in the script.

Paste: Wow. She’s good. She’s really, really good.
Díaz: Yes. You don’t find yourself wanting to improvise anything with her work at all. Because it’s all there. Usually when you want to ad lib or improvise it’s because there’s something missing; something’s not working and you want to make it more believable. But that’s never the case with Scandal, which is amazing.

Paste: Now Darby told me that this season we’re going to see Harrison’s storyline expand a little more and that Mellie gets into some hot water. Can you give me any other hints as to what we might expect from the spring premiere and the rest of season three?
Díaz: There are going to be a couple of really exciting scenes between Olivia and Huck coming up regarding the torture with Quinn. I think it’s going to be in the episode after the premiere.

Paste: You’re going to have some serious explaining to do.
Díaz: Yeah, exactly.

Paste: I’ve been trying to hold the fangirl at bay, but I’m just a huge fan of your work. Thank you for this.
Díaz: Thank you so much. That’s so, so sweet. It was so fun talking to you!

Shannon M. Houston is a New York-based freelance writer, regular contributor to Paste, and occasional contributor to the human race via little squishy babies. You can follow her on Twitter