David Dastmalchian: 'It's a miracle I'm alive' says 'The Suicide Squad' and 'Dune' star
David Dastmalchian is having a pretty great year. After cultivating an enviable IMDB page full of bit-parts in some of your favourite comic book movies (Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight was his first feature credit), he finally got chance to show his superhero stripes — or more accurately, spots — a few weeks back as the delightfully self-depreciating Polka-Dot Man in James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad.
Last week, Venice Film Festival audiences saw him reteam with his Prisoners and Blade Runner 2049 director Denis Villeneuve for a third time in the long-delayed and already critically acclaimed Dune, while on Disney+ you’ll soon find him voicing his quiffed con-man character Kurt from Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man movies in an upcoming episode of Marvel’s animated series What If.
Off-screen, things are just as bright. The comic book he created, Count Crowley, has proven so popular it’s getting a second run, and you only need to take a quick look online to see the social love for Polka-Dot Man has reached cult-favourite fever-peak (his recent adoption of Polka-Dot Cat certainly helped).
When we finally catch up with him, it’s during a rare moment of downtime. He’s in Malta, half-way through shooting André Øvredal’s Last Voyage of the Demeter, a story-within-a-story taken from Bram Stoker’s Dracula following the OG vampire’s bloody trek from Transylvania to Victorian London. The past few months have been the most hectic and transformative of Dastmalchian’s life so far — and he’s the first to admit: it’s all been a bit nuts.
“It’s a miracle I’m here, it’s a miracle I’m alive and it’s a miracle I’m doing what I do for a living,” he tells us, more than a hint of humble sincerity in his voice. “I technically shouldn’t even be alive, let alone have the career and family I have. I don’t know,” he ponders, “I’m just really lucky.”
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He’s not wrong. Carving out a successful Hollywood career is hard enough but Dastmalchian has also endured his own share of personal problems too. Raised in Kansas, the 44-year-old was in high school when he identified drama as a possible career route but it wasn’t long before his demons finally caught up with him.
“As a young boy I loved the arts, theatre and cinema and especially loved things that made your pulse race. I got a scholarship to train at the DePaul Theatre School in Chicago when I was 18 and realised this was truly my calling but really quickly I realised I had never dealt with the psychiatric and emotional issues I was struggling with,” admits Dastmalchian.
“I started self medicating in high school but in college I really got into opiates and lost several years of my life to being a full-time addict. My entire acting dreams all went by the wayside and I spent a number of years thinking that acting wasn’t in the cards for me anymore.”
Thankfully, support and a strong foundation brought him back from the brink. “Thanks to the love and encouragement of friends I got back on stage, which led me to getting cast in more plays and commercials and then I landed my first role.” And what a role it was.
Appearing as the Joker’s troubled henchman Thomas Schiff in a small-yet-crucial element of 2008’s The Dark Knight perfectly showcased the dark vulnerability that Dastmalchian has long carried with him just below the surface. “To have Christoper Nolan choose you for a really neat little role in a Batman film? I need help with the lexicon of better words than ‘miracle’ but that’s the one that keeps making sense to me.”
As a die-hard comic geek, Dastmalchian’s big break battling Bruce Wayne — and subsequent journey though Marvel’s Ant Man universe — has quite literally been the realisation of a lifelong dream. In fact, he can still remember exactly where he was when his fascination with the super powered first took hold.
“I walked into a convenience store when I was in third grade and saw The Avengers 249 on a spinning rack and pleaded with my dad to buy it for me,” he smiles, sharing a key childhood memory. “My family was not the family that you asked for the toy in the window because you were not going to get it - but it happened. I got that Avengers 249, kept it, traced it and was fascinated with all the different characters.”
Dastmalchian’s Avengers experience led him to local Kansas haunt Clint’s Books where he lost hours (and plenty of lawn mowing money) browsing the racks. “I found not only a place of solace and belonging but this wonderful outlet for my imagination that really resonated. Those hours spent roaming through the back-issues at Clint’s, hunting out obscure characters and horror comics, were such a special experience,” he adds fondly. “It’s this incredible experience that I’ve continued to indulge into my 40s.”
With this in mind, you can imagine how he must’ve felt stepping foot onto Nolan’s Chicago-based Gotham set. “My first day was my first time walking into a hair and make-up trailer and it seemed like every actor who was in the movie was in there that day,” he remembers.
“Gary Oldman, Christian Bale, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal… Heath [Ledger] was getting his make-up applied and playing some really cool music. I was really nervous, but he was incredibly warm, welcoming, generous and soft-spoken. He showed me how to use the rifle that I was going to be using in the film and we did some practice together.”
Following The Dark Knight’s release — and Ledger’s untimely death at just 28 — rumours soon swirled about the actor’s intense role-preparation and the toll it took on his health. However Dastmalchian assures us that Ledger’s work ethic knew its limitations: “Contrary to the urban legends that surrounded Heath’s performance as the Joker, when he was on set he wasn’t twisting himself into knots with some kind of maniacal method-acting bologna,” he tells us.
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“He was lovely, down-to-Earth and able to master his technique in such a way that he was also able to be polite, generous and kind to everybody around him. He was incredibly humble and when it was time to yell ‘action’ he could transform into one of the most terrifying characters we’ve ever seen on screen. That, to me, was so inspiring.”
Just a few years earlier, Dastmalchian had been in the same city but under much different circumstances, lost in a haze of addiction. The transition was stark. “I caught myself and thought: ‘I’m standing a foot away from the Joker,’” he says, recalling his time on set.
“The scars and make-up looked so real. It was a surreal experience. We were just a few blocks away from Graham Crackers Comics where I would do my comic shopping in Chicago and standing on a street with an alley where I had parked my car and slept in years past. All of a sudden, I’m standing in costume and in legion with the f***ing Joker,” laughs the star, still in disbelief. “If you went back to my bedroom in fifth grade and saw the giant Joker posters all over my walls, you’d be like ‘Wow, this kid is living his dream.’”
Dastmalchian’s DC debut led to a stint in Marvel’s Ant Man universe alongside Paul Rudd before he finally got chance to suit-up in this year’s slick anti-hero hit The Suicide Squad. How did it feel? “It’s such a gift,” he smiles, commenting on his time as self-vilifying supervillain Abner Krill AKA Polka Dot Man.
“I’m so grateful that I get to play a character who’s drawing on the mires of morbid depression and isolation who, throughout the course of his journey, gets to discover his tribe. And the thing that caused him so much pain, is actually something he can turn into a powerful and productive force.”
It’s hard not to see parallels between Abner and Dastmalchian’s own journey. Similar threads — depression, abuse and addiction — run throughout the two feature films he both penned and starred in: 2014’s Animals and 2018’s All Creatures Here Below.
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“We’re all haunted by feelings of isolation, loneliness and things that are inside - or outside - of us that we wish weren’t. When we’re able to jiu jitsu them into something empowering, it’s a gift.” The therapeutic process of repurposing his own pain into art has helped others is equally rewarding: “It’s an awesome feeling to know Animals or All Creatures have touched people’s hearts. Whenever I hear from someone, it’s incredible.”
From self-help to sand, we’ll next see Dastmalchian in this year’s most highly anticipated movie: Denis Villeneuve’s otherworldly epic Dune. So far, early reaction has been hotter than desert plain but what will audiences think when it hits screens next month?
“I’m so excited for people to experience it, especially on an IMAX screen,” he grins. “The way Denis and his team of artists are able to capture such an expansive universe yet at the same time hone in on the most beautiful, delicate and microscopic detail is visually, audibly and - through the performances - unlike anything people have seen before,” he teases. “It’s a film that begs to be seen on the largest screen possible.”
Back when he started out, Dastmalchian set himself three goals: work with David Lynch, work with the Muppets and become a Bond villain. In 2017, he ticked off one of those early-doors with a role in Lynch’s Twin Peaks sequel series and while the others remain, it’s hard not to wonder if the craziness of the past year has forced him to set new — even loftier — goals.
“I’ve only gotten to replace one and I’m going to keep it close to the vest,” he says cryptically, “but once I’d worked with David Lynch, I immediately wanted to do something with Dracula and now I’m making The Last Voage of the Demeter in f***ing Berlin and Malta with one of my favourite up-and-coming directors, André Øvredal.”
Clearly, the whirlwind of 2021 hasn’t stopped Dastmalchian from pinching himself every now and then: “I just cannot believe this is happening.”
The Suicide Squad is in cinemas now. Dune is released theatrically on 22 October 2021.