David Dastmalchian wears many hats. An award-winning actor, writer, producer, and filmmaker and even comic book creator, he is best known for his ability to bring complex characters to life on screen. One of the finest character actors in recent times, Dastmalchian is undoubtedly one of the most in-demand talents in the entertainment industry today.
Originally from Kansas, he was discovered by Christopher Nolan nearly a decade ago. Making his silver screen debut in The Dark Knight, it served as a launchpad into film and television. Since then, Dastmalchian has been hand-picked for dynamic roles by critically acclaimed directors including David Lynch, Denis Villeneuve, two-time Cannes winner Michel Franco, Sam Taylor Johnson, and Susanne Bier (to name a few).
Thus far he’s lent his talents to films such as A Million Little Pieces, the Academy Award nominated feature Prisoners and Marvel’s Ant-Man film series. He’s also starred alongside Sandra Bullock in Netflix’s Birdbox and opposite Ryan Gosling in Blade Runner 2049. This year Dastmalchian will be heading to the DC Universe starring as the iconic Polka-Dot Man opposite Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman, John Cena, and Idris Elba in James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad.
The film follows super villains Harley Quinn, Bloodsport, Peacemaker, Polka-Dot Man, and a collection of nutty cons from Belle Reve prison who join the super-secret, super-shady Task Force X as they are dropped off on the remote, enemy-infused island of Corto Maltese.
Following his turn as Polka-Dot Man, Dastmalchian will also feature in Warner Bros’ upcoming blockbuster adaptation of Frank Herbert’s bestselling sci-fi novel Dune. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, he portrays the character of Piter De Vries opposite Timothée Chalamet, Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, and Dave Bautista.
In this exclusive interview, we uncover what keeps Dastmalchian busy. From lending his voice to portraying iconic comic book characters, to creating comics of his own and working alongside the best in entertainment industry and his extensive charity work, Dastmalchian offers an inside look at both his life and career….
Let’s start with your latest role – Polka-Dot Man. He’s not exactly a major DC Comics character, so what was your approach like for the role?
The way I approached Polka-Dot Man was to simply look at all of the clues and information and inspiration that James Gunn had very clearly given me in the script. When I first read it, I thought it was an incredibly beautifully written story and the character had a really wonderful and emotional arc. So, for me, I began the process less concerned with the comic book history and really home in on the incredibly well rounded character that James had created for me to play in this film.
Were there specific elements of the character you wanted to flesh out on screen?
One of the most important elements that I wanted to bring to light was the insecurity, and depression that I feel the character is dealing with. As a person who is on the outside looking in, that was important for me because I know how that feels. I know how it feels to be hopeless and to feel alone. Abner (Krill), that’s his real name, is someone that’s both tragic and sad, and yet very relatable.
What he is struggling with is pretty dark at times and I think that’s something that almost every human being can relate to. At some point in their life, they could have been insecure about their relationships, about their appearance or their job. Maybe a fear of taking a risk or trying something different. It’s something we’ve all wrestled with and dealt with, you know, and it’s definitely a really huge part of the character.
There’s been a lot of positive buzz about The Suicide Squad already, a lot of praise heaped on James Gunn’s script. How did it all come together during the filmmaking process?
The opportunity to make a James Gunn movie is something that I wish every actor has the chance to experience. There’s nothing like it, he is so wildly imaginative and brilliant in his vision. The whole process of preparing and then shooting the film – that alone was so creatively rewarding for me. It gave me so much inspiration just in the script that he wrote.
When we actually started filming the movie, he displayed this really contagious enthusiasm and excitement and energy for the work. It reminded me of that part of yourself that got so enraptured by cinema when you were a kid. James possesses that energy in his heart, and in everything that he does on set, so it’s really inspiring.
The trailer itself looks fun with everyone having a blast. Was it like that on set as well?
Man, we had like so much fun. There was a lot of shenanigans because it’s a long shoot. And it’s a very physical, emotional, and energy demanding process. Thankfully, James assembled this amazing team of artists, both behind the camera and in front of the camera. You spend a lot of time sitting around with these great actors like Daniela Melchior, Idris Elba, Joel Kinnaman and Margot Robbie and so many more people who are so fun to be around.
We made each other laugh and there was also a lot of generosity amongst the cast as well, to the point where we were all really fighting to give it our best. There was a great deal of support from each other. We definitely had a lot of fun, and at the end of the day, I hope that James had fun too. He seemed like he did although he’s very serious when he works. He’s very focused, but he seemed to be laughing and enjoying some of the things that he was creating. And it was really cool to watch his face sometimes. It felt like watching a kid opening his birthday presents.
Have you seen the finished film already?
I have seen the masterpiece, and it’s so wild, dope and fun but at the same time it’s also really beautiful. The film itself is very funny, which was something I wasn’t quite expecting. Then again because it’s a James Gunn film, he’s always going to bring all that irreverent humour and all of that diversity of humour, and all of that rock’n’roll energy. He is so great at conjuring all these elements and putting it into this really fantastical high-stakes war film. Because that’s what it feels like – a war film.
You’ve got both The Suicide Squad and Dune out this year. What was the process like transitioning between both projects and characters?
I actually went and did Dune in Budapest first, then I flew to North Carolina where I was shooting a television series for Hulu called Reprisal. In that show, I played a very different character named Johnson. Then I had to go straight to Atlanta, where we started filming The Suicide Squad. So you could say, for many reasons, 2019 felt like one of the most frantic years of my life.
That said, truth of the matter is, I’ve never played two characters more different from one another. Whereas Abner is wracked with insecurity, Piter (De Vries) in Dune is incredibly confident in his faculties. For all intents and purposes, we could refer him as a human computer. He is exceptionally smart, calculative, and confident in his abilities and he’s got a very dark ambition as well. These characters are polar opposites and as an actor, it’s a joy for me to be granted an opportunity to play them.
You’ve worked with an impressive list of directors. How have each of them help you hone your craft on screen.
I’m telling you; I feel like the luckiest actor in the world. I have worked with so many talented, gifted visionary directors. Every single one that I’ve worked with, I’ve learned so much from. Each of them has their own unique way, but they all create an atmosphere of discovery and creativity on set that at its core, is rooted in kindness and generosity.
This is very important to me, and I am extremely blessed to constantly be in the hands of directors who have treated me with respect and dignity. I admit, I’m not a big fancy name, I’m a character actor but they have afforded me the room and space to create, which means the world to me.
Have they inspired you as a filmmaker?
I’ve always watched the directors I’ve been around with, and I’m blessed because they are all so talented and creative. They have inspired me to not only go out and write and create intelligent stories that are meaningful to me. I’ve gone on to make several independent films so far and I am working my way to make bigger films. It’s not just limited to film either, it also paved the way for me to create my own comic book, Count Crowley.
Its unbelievably inspiring watching these filmmakers work, especially knowing how much of their personal journey has been filtered into the stories that they’re telling. That itself is a huge lesson for me. It has thought me to not be afraid of wrestling my own demons and tackling difficult questions that have frightened me through my work. It’s allowed me to use all these captivating ideas and channel them somehow into the filmmaking process.
Touching on Count Crowley, how did this project with Dark Horse come about?
Count Crowley has been a passion project of mine for decades. I was dreaming about this reluctant Monster Hunter who had these demons to fight both personally and figuratively. I was young, and as the years went by, I wrestled with my own demons, in the form of addiction and anxiety and depression and insecurity. It made me realise that some of the monsters that we face in our lives aren’t just the ones that we see outside. Oftentimes the scary ones are those that lurk within.
By the grace of God, the incredible people at Dark Horse Comics said that they really loved the idea and they partnered me with this incredible team of people who helped me bring it to life. Every time I walk into a comic book shop, and I see this comic that I’ve created standing on the shelves with those vibrant colours, it makes me beam with pride. Honestly, it has been one of the greatest creative achievements of my entire life.
Obviously you’re a big comic book fan, so how does it feel being involved in all these comic book projects?
Again man, I am so blessed. These experiences that I’ve had, where I go to work and I’m standing there looking at Batman or when I’m in the recording booth giving my voice to the Calendar Man or Penguin (Batman: The Long Halloween). Or when I’m fighting against The Flash (as Abra Kadabra in The CW series) or when I’m running down the street next to Harley Quinn.
Every single time, there’s this nine or 12-year-old version of me who lives inside my heart that goes. “Holy crap, I can’t believe this is the life that you’re living!”. And I tell you, it fills me with so much gratitude. You and a lot of other people may not know this, but I’m an individual who has struggled, nearly to the point of death, with both depression and addiction. I’m someone that at one point, believed my life wasn’t worth living.
Thanks to the help of others and my willingness to get help and to reach out and ask people for help, and to do the work that is required of taking the journey of mental wellness, I now get to see these dreams come true. Frankly, it’s really like having a birthday party every time I go to work, and it’s been really exceptional. I’m just so thankful I thank God every day because I can’t believe that I get to have these experiences.
Is that one of the main reasons, you’re so actively involved with your charity work?
I think that giving back and doing charity is all part of the recovery process. Personally, continuing to give back, and finding ways to use whatever platforms or opportunities I have to raise the exposure of important organisations like Born to Act, The Big Slick and others that I care about fills my soul both creatively, spiritually, and personally. It’s really important for all of us to continue to find ways that we can help others, no matter how big or small. That’s when we really discover what this life is all about.
Don’t get me wrong, being in movies and getting to go to premieres and getting to do all these interviews is really awesome and it’s a great gift. But the reality is, it’s not as fulfilling as seeing the look in some kid’s face who’s getting treatment for a disease that their parents weren’t otherwise going to be able to afford if not for a place like Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City. Or seeing the look in the face of the actors of the theatre group that I work with, when they put on a show. That to me is, is really like what life is all about.
So of all the projects and roles you’ve been a part of. Which one has that special place in your heart for you personally?
Getting to write and perform the role in Animals, which we shot in Chicago in 2013. That is probably the one where I learned the most about myself and being able to push myself further than I ever thought possible. I love telling stories, it’s one of the greatest gifts next to being with my children and my wife. My favourite thing in the world is getting to tell people’s stories, and I believe that when stories are told at their highest level, the audience is reminded for even a fleeting moment, that they’re not alone in this life.
That’s one of the things that drives me, the most to be as earnest and authentic and convincing as possible when I’m bringing a character to life because I think that what the audience sees. And I like for them to feel like what they’re experiencing is something real, because it may light up something inside, which they may recognise about themselves.
Catch David Dastmalchian in The Suicide Squad, now playing in local cinemas and in Dune, in September.
(Main and featured image: JSquared)