There may be no more hilariously inspired character on television than What We Do in the Shadows’ Colin Robinson—a bald, bespectacled, blandly dressed dullard who’s actually an “energy vampire” that drains his victims by literally boring them to death.
Living in a Staten Island house with three traditional ancient bloodsuckers—Kayvan Novak’s Nandor the Relentless, Matt Berry’s Laszlo Cravensworth, and Natasia Demetriou’s Nadja of Antipaxos—Robinson is the odd man out, a new-world loser who’s the sort of tiresomely annoying drone that’s instantly recognizable to anyone who’s ever worked in an office. Monumentally lackluster, he’s a unique spin on the age-old vampiric archetype, a creature of consuming weariness whose every banal utterance is apt to put one to sleep, make one roll their eyes and groan, or flee in desperate search of alternate company. He’s the absurdly undead, and as embodied by star Mark Proksch, he’s the highlight of FX’s hit comedy—a figure so clever and amusing that it’s difficult to believe no one thought him up before.
Thus, it was with great sadness that Colin Robinson perished at the end of What We Do in the Shadows’ third season—only to then thankfully get another shot at life when a baby Colin Robinson crawled out of the deceased’s chest cavity, boasting the exact same face as its predecessor. An unexpected turn of events, to be sure, and one that pays immense dividends in Season 4, which partly focuses on Laszlo’s efforts to raise this monstrous tyke and, in the process, figure out if he’s destined to become as unbearably monotonous as Colin Robinson. For Proksch, it’s about as bizarre as comedic opportunities get, given that the show’s newest episodes feature his head CGI’d onto the body of a young singing-and-dancing child. Nonetheless, the 43-year-old veteran of The Office, Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington’s On Cinema and Better Call Saul makes the most of it, delivering what stands as easily the strangest—and most humorous—2022 TV performance to date.
It’s further confirmation that few do bizarre awkwardness better, and on the eve of the show’s recent premiere, we chatted with him about all things baby Colin Robinson, his fondness for eccentric weirdos, and whether he’ll ever reprise his role as the yo-yo master who terrorized Midwest TV stations a decade ago.
First, what do we call your new character? Colin? Baby Colin? Or do we go with Laszlo’s preferred “Boy?”
To me, he’s still just Colin Robinson. In whatever form, he’s always still going to be Colin Robinson. But he definitely goes through his stages this season, from baby Colin Robinson to toddler Colin Robinson and so forth. He’s a very fast-growing boy, is kind of how we put it. And with that, it doesn’t mean the intelligence is also growing at the same rate [laughs].
What was it like seeing your head transplanted onto a child’s torso? Surreal? Amusing? Nightmarish? And does processing that image get any easier?
No, I think it becomes creepier with each watch. It’s very disturbing. I mean, seeing a bald head on any child is disconcerting. I saw it relatively recently—just about a month ago, I was doing some more green screen for the episodes and I finally caught a glimpse of what it is going to look like—and I couldn’t get through a lot of my takes because I would have to match the movements to some of the shots, and whenever a glimpse of my face would come up on the baby or the toddler, I would just roar with laughter. It’s so unnerving to see yourself in that form.
What is the logistical process like?
We kind of threw every tool in the book at it. Sometimes I would be on set, sometimes I would be on Zoom or I would be told to record my voice for this or that so the cast could react against me, and then there were times where we just did it on green screen. The real trick is, how do you incorporate improvisation into those moments that, if I hadn’t participated in live, would have just locked that scene and not allowed me to do any improvisations? I improvise quite a bit on the show so that was one of my early concerns—was not being able to do that. I think we addressed it pretty well and figured out what scenes and lines I would want to go off of and, with that in mind, we put that into the process we were dealing with.
This season often pairs you with Matt Berry, whose Laszlo is the opposite of Colin. How do you develop a back-and-forth dynamic and figure out how to play off each other if you aren’t on set? Do you discuss ahead of time how you might improvise a given moment?
Matt doesn’t improvise as much as some of the others in the cast, so when we’re together, we’ll talk about it and say, should we do something here or there? Matt always has ideas and stuff, of course. With that in mind, we’ll approach a scene in a couple of different ways. We always get the lines down first and then jump off from there, so with baby Colin, for the Matt stuff, for the most part he just said the lines as-is, if I’m correct, and then I did some improvisation off that in the green screen process. Or they would leave a little extra space in the shot for me to be able to come in and do something there.
How did you prepare to play this young version of Colin?
As an actor, you’re terrified when you’re told that you’re going to be turned into a baby. That’s usually the death knell of a character—or even a show. So, I was kind of concerned about that early on. I didn’t voice that concern, of course; that would be rude. But I also told myself, well, if any show can do it, it’s this show. We’re basically a cartoon, and anything can fly. You really can’t jump the shark, per se, as far as storyline is concerned, because it’s all clown town. And if any writers could pull it off, it’d be Paul Simms and his writer’s room.
So, the reluctance and concern subsided pretty quickly. Then we got into the nuts and bolts of how we should do the performance. Do you raise your voice? Do you talk baby talk in a way? Paul sent some audio of his children talking very excitedly about stuff that they’re into, and that helped me a little bit. And I have nieces and nephews that I stole some mannerisms from. Then we just started playing with it pretty early on, before the season started, and honing it. My one request was not to make baby Colin cute in his lines and his delivery. Early on when he’s a baby, it’s hard to avoid that. But once he becomes a toddler, I just didn’t want him to be one of the Olsen twins on Full House, saying the adorable, cute baby stuff. I wanted him to be kind of gross and annoying—early glimpses of his annoyance.
“As an actor, you’re terrified when you’re told that you’re going to be turned into a baby.”
The big initial question about the character is whether he’s really Colin Robinson or a new life form that has the potential to develop into a different person. How much of that was discussed early on, and do you think Colin’s—and energy vampires’—backstory and mythology should be revealed? Or is the mystery central to the humor?
The nature-versus-nurture theme was a big through-line for the writers when they were approaching the story. It’s interesting to see which way Colin will fall. Laszlo is kind of a dumb windbag, and so how much do you want the nurturing to be from that character [laughs], as opposed to Guillermo (Harvey Guillén), who’s a little more down-to-Earth and loving and caring? It is a high-wire act that the writers executed perfectly, without going into any spoilers.
The mythology is really interesting, and that’s been in my head since day one. We’re kind of laying the tracks for what the mythology of an energy vampire will be going forward. When Jemaine [Clement, the show’s creator] brought the character to life, I don’t know how much he was thinking of in terms of hard and fast rules. There are very specific rules for vampires that have been laid out for 150 years, and so it’s exciting to know that we’re breaking new ground and we don’t have to follow any specific rules. Because of that, I think the character has really caught on well. Everyone knows what a bloodsucking vampire is, and what they can and can’t do, and what can kill them. But no one knows that with an energy vampire, and I think that is part of the excitement of the character.
Do you get approached by a lot of fans who can relate to Colin Robinson?
It’s always one of two types of people. There are the people that come up to you and say, I know an energy vampire, we have one at our office. I certainly can relate to that one. And then there are the people that come up—almost in a mother confessor-type situation—and say, people have always told me that I’m an energy vampire [laughs]. Why they want to confess that to me, I have no idea, because I certainly hope I don’t make the character look cool [laughs]. It’s certainly not my intention to make people aspire to be an energy vampire. But it’s always those two types of people that I tend to interact with.
Maybe they’re looking for a friend.
Yeah, exactly. They’re looking for a friend, or they want you to know that they have terrible, terrible social skills.
You’ve done a lot of work on On Cinema with Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington, which is more spontaneous than What We Do in the Shadows. Do you prefer one type of comedy—freewheeling versus scripted?
On Cinema is a bit of a unicorn when it comes to TV in that we don’t have set scripts at all. There’s an outline, and then we just jump in and start playing our characters and see where that takes us, as opposed to a scripted show like Shadows. I love being able to do On Cinema because there is absolutely no pressure on any of us. All we have to do is make ourselves laugh, and if we make ourselves laugh, we know that fans will come to it because they’ve been doing it for years. So, there’s no preparation; the less preparation of the Mark character I play on On Cinema, the better. Because in the On Cinema world, Mark Proksch is this out-of-work figure who wants to be an actor but clearly doesn’t have any talent or skill set to achieve that and has fallen in with these two other losers who are toxically co-dependent, so I can just show up and play a really dumbed-down version of myself. That’s really fun.
Whereas on Shadows, I’m clearly portraying a character that is someone else’s idea, and I needed to make sure, especially early on, that I was executing it exactly how the creator wanted that done. As the seasons have gone on, it’s obviously become more of my property, creatively-speaking, and so that pressure has lifted a little bit. But there’s still the fact that I’m in an ensemble, and I have to hit all of my marks and cues and perform it to the liking of the creators and the writers and the network.
You also had a recurring spot on Better Call Saul, whose star Bob Odenkirk began as a sketch comedian before transitioning into more dramatic fare. Do you see yourself ever doing likewise, by branching out into more non-comedic work?
I love doing comedy. I think that’s where my talent lies. That said, I wouldn’t be averse to taking on a dramatic role. I have no interest in being seen as the intellectual comedian who wants to show their sensitive side. I couldn’t care less about that, and I think that’s a trap that a lot of comedians fall into—the sad clown. They want to show that, oh, I understand the complexities of life, just like everyone else. Jerry Lewis going on to make a very serious movie about a clown and concentration camps—I have no interest in any of that stuff,. I like hard comedy and I like that world, and I personally don’t feel the need to try to show that I’m anything but a comedian.
Still, you wouldn’t object if someone offered you an action franchise like they did Odenkirk (with Nobody)?
Oh, of course not! I’m just not going to create it myself [laughs]. You know, Vince [Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul] always said that he thinks some of the best dramatic actors come from comedy. And you do see that. I think that can certainly be the case. I’m just not going to write it for myself anytime soon.
Lastly, any chance Kenny “K-Strass” Strasser may reappear, be it in the Midwest or elsewhere? Or at this point, have you become too notable to get away with that?
I think K-Strass has become too notable to get away with that [laughs], especially among the local television news folk. Yeah, I don’t think you’ll see K-Strass again. But there could be other things that I work on in the future that are in the same vein.
Do people ever ask you to show off your yo-yo skills? Do you carry one around just in case?
Mercifully, no. I am not a yo-yoist, and I don’t particularly like yo-yoing, so no, they don’t force me to humiliate myself in front of them…too often.