Exclusive Interview: David Dastmalchian Talks The Suicide Squad, Dune And The Dark Knight

Since making his feature film debut in The Dark Knight, David Dastmalchian has gained a well-deserved reputation as one of the most interesting character actors working today, and his story is just as fascinating. Having conquered a life-threatening heroin addiction, he's been steadily rising up the Hollywood ranks since first gaining attention as the troubled Thomas Schiff in Christopher Nolan's modern classic.

Since making his feature film debut in The Dark Knight, David Dastmalchian has gained a well-deserved reputation as one of the most interesting character actors working today, and his story is just as fascinating. Having conquered a life-threatening heroin addiction, he’s been steadily rising up the Hollywood ranks since first gaining attention as the troubled Thomas Schiff in Christopher Nolan’s modern classic.

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These days, Dastmalchian is a regular fixture of the comic book genre, having played Kurt in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Ant-Man franchise and guest starred on television as Gotham‘s Dwight Pollard and The Flash‘s Abra Kadabra. This year, the 43 year-old voices both Calendar Man and the Penguin in two-part animated epic Batman: The Long Halloween, and suits up as Polka-Dot Man in James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad before re-teaming with his Prisoners and Blade Runner 2049 director Denis Villenueve for sci-fi epic Dune.

In an exclusive interview with We Got This Covered, we spoke to Dastmalchian about getting his big break on The Dark Knight, his upcoming pair of Warner Bros. blockbusters, his burgeoning career as a screenwriter that’s seen him pen acclaimed dramas Animals and All Creatures Here Below, and his future as with the MCU, which you can check out below.

After everything that’s happened in the last eighteen months, it must be exciting to have such a huge few months coming up with Batman: The Long Halloween, The Suicide Squad and Dune all on the way?

David Dastmalchian: It is, it’s hard to describe, to be honest. If you think about it, you know, eighteen-plus months ago… My life, I had just wrapped The Suicide Squad, I felt we were about six to seven months away from the release of both Dune and The Suicide Squad, and life was just moving in this really acceleratingly exciting direction, and then the world stopped. This terrifying experience that we’re still grappling with, and this nearly debilitating upheaval took place in the United States. And I was hunkered down with my family, watching it happen around me, and as we all know, we’ve moved into better places.

The problems are not solved, and the ailments are not cured, but we have absolutely moved into a better place in so many regards thanks to the real life superheroes that are out among our society in the form of the scientists, the doctors, the volunteers, the researchers, the benefactors, the politicians, the numerous people that have helped us get to where we are today. And now, for me to get to be a part of films that are going to entertain and transport people, for many of whom will be the first time they’ve gone into a cinema in almost two years, it’s emotional. It’s deeply humbling, and I’m just so grateful that all of these experiences, which to me two years ago, to me were selfishly all of these dreams come true from my point of view, and the world is so different now after what we’ve been through.

So I’m just in a state of awe that in a matter of weeks, people are going to be able to go into the cinema and sit down to watch this incredible achievement that James Gunn has made in The Suicide Squad, and just a few short months after that, they’re going to sit down again in the sacred holy space that is the cinema, and they’re going to be transported in a way they’ve never experienced with Denis Villenueve’s Dune. Which is going to be, in my opinion, a piece of cinema history. So I’m feeling a lot of gratitude right now.

You’ve played six different DC characters, and one from Marvel, in the space of thirteen years, as well as writing your own series, as a lifelong comic book fan you must be thrilled that they keep asking you back for projects in a genre you clearly love so much?

David Dastmalchian: It’s so bizarre when I think about the fact that not only do I get to be an actor and work in film and television, because that is the dream in and of itself, to actually be a working actor when you’ve trained, and you’ve come from the stage, and you’ve dreamed of being a working actor. The fact I get to do that is massive, right? Then, I get to be a part of the manifestation of these incredible stories based in the history of comic books, which I have loved my whole life, and brought to both film and television is like otherworldly, man.

And then, on top of all that to have had Dark Horse Comics, which is one of my favorite publishers, say to me that they wanted to make Count Crowley into an actual comic and see this happen, has been one of the greatest experiences of my life. And I don’t know why I’ve been able to be so lucky, and I don’t take a moment of it for granted, and I want to give people the best experience possible throughout these characters and stories that are so beloved. And so, I just thank every single person that’s given me these opportunities. I don’t know why it’s happened like this, but I’m not trying to question it, because it’s a bit surreal if I’m being honest.

As far as film debuts go, The Dark Knight isn’t a bad place to do it. That must have been a daunting experience, especially in one of the most pivotal scenes in the entire movie?

David Dastmalchian: Yeah. I mean, at that point I had gotten clean and sober from a nearly deadly battle with heroin addiction in 2002, and then in 2005 I had finally gotten the courage with the support of my friends to get back on stage, and I was performing quite a bit of theater. But at that point, I was doing it mostly for free because I just loved getting on stage again because it was my passion. And then, to all of a sudden find myself standing on the set of a Hollywood film that’s being directed by one of the greatest filmmakers of all-time, Christopher Nolan, just standing there inviting me to be a part of this film that ultimately changed movies… There is no doubt that The Dark Knight and the entire trilogy changed the way we look at films. But in particular, that movie, that I got to be a part of, really changed the way that people viewed what movies can do.

And I’ll tell you, I was standing on LaSalle in downtown Chicago, my first day of filming. And I was only a few blocks away from the Graham Crackers comic shop, which is where I would go to buy my comic books. And I was standing by the alley where I used to sleep in a car when I was a homeless junkie, and I was all of a sudden in the midst of this massive production, and I was standing next to the Joker. The real-life Joker! The embodiment of the character I had adored since I was a kid, and I felt like I was living a dream. I felt like I was in heaven, and at the end of the day, I just got to go home and I got to keep living. And I realized, ‘Oh my god, this is really happening’. And I’ve felt that way ever since.

Based on the footage, it looks like you had a blast on The Suicide Squad. Were you encouraged to put your own stamp on the character as much as possible?

David Dastmalchian: Absolutely. When James Gunn brings you into his creative vortex, he wants nothing less than 100% of you, so when he told me he wanted me to play Abner Krill… First of all, I was embarrassed. Because I think I know everything there is to know about comic books, and comic book heroes, and I didn’t know anything about Abner or the Polka-Dot Man. Then I read his script and I saw the dark, troubled, insecure, very depressed man who’s riddled with insecurity, and I immediately understood that feeling. Because I’ve been there more times than I care to admit, and I think many of us have been to that place. And what James wanted from we was really unrelated, and having nothing to do with my fandom or my deep love of comic books and comic book culture.

What he wanted from me was to be myself within Abner, and allow myself to be as vulnerable as possible when thinking about, you know, the sense of otherness that Abner experiences. He’s such an outsider, he’s such a loner, he’s such a mocked person, that James really wanted me to, I think, as authentically as possible embody those feelings, and I was honored to do it. It was hard, it was very scary, it was embarrassing at times, but it was ultimately one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve been able to have as an actor.

The Suicide Squad has an impressive ensemble, was it easy to get along with everyone and establish the dynamic that’s on show in the trailers and promo spots?

David Dastmalchian: Thankfully, the camaraderie and the bond that was formed between the cast happened instantaneously, and that is no small feat. I give a great deal of the credit to James Gunn, again, because I feel he knows how to assemble teams of creative people in a way that the process, which is so difficult, can be conducive to creative freedom. So, from the first table read from day one of meeting this cast, I was blown away by how kind, generous and ultimately hilarious all of them were. We spent so much time laughing, that at points you would of thought we were making a straight up comedy, because there was immediately a shared sense of humor, dark sense of humor, we all shared.

And you gotta keep in mind, too, like I was in awe. I’m standing there meeting people like Peter Capaldi for the first time, or Margot Robbie, or Idris Elba, so many of these other actors who I look up to and admire so much, and every single one of them had no ego. They just wanted to make the best movie possible. And they were so fun. We spent a lot of time outside of filming just doing game nights, hanging out, carving pumpkins at one point, it was just an incredible experience.

You’ve done some sci-fi before, but nothing quite on the scale of Dune. Was it daunting tackling something like that, which a lot of people have claimed to be un-filmable?

David Dastmalchian: Well, first of all the novel, Frank Herbert’s Dune, is one of the great works of lit from the past half a century, and the mastery of his writing style is such that every character and every interaction is looked at while you’re reading the book from a complete 360 degree vantage point. There are no one-dimensional or single-dimensional characters in the world of Dune. So when I heard that Denis Villenueve was going to be bringing this film to life I said, ‘Aha! That is the perfect person to make this movie’. Because I know Denis personally, and I’ve been able to work with him creatively, I also know his deep, deep passion for the source material, that he’s been wanting to make this movie his whole life, and that he’s been dreaming of it in his imagination, which is one of the most magical imaginations that’s probably ever existed in all of humanity.

So the stakes were intensely high for me to step in and come and play a character that is, for all intents and purposes, a kind of sociopathic high, high functioning savant. It was terrifying, you know? I’m aware as I show up for my first day of work that I’m gonna be doing scenes with people like Stellan Skarsgard or Charlotte Rampling or Dave Bautista, and that I’m going to be in a film with all of these incredible actors. Like, oh my god, the list is too insane to even begin to list. So I was very scared, but thankfully Denis just gave me so much love and comfort when making the film that I really felt comfortable taking risks and making a big swing with this character.

Art director Tom Brown has described Dune as having the potential to be this generation’s The Lord of the Rings, is that a comparison you agree with having worked on the movie?

David Dastmalchian: I think it’s a fantastic comparison. Because, you know, Tolkien adaptations into the masterpiece that was The Lord of the Rings was something that those of us who loved the books, and then went to see the films, were so grateful for. So I believe the people who are devoted to the source material, which is Frank Herbert’s Dune, the people who adore the book are going to be so grateful when they see this film adaptation, that Denis made it. Because it’s going to, I really believe, satisfy the fans of the book, while at the same time those of the audience who have no familiarity with Dune, and don’t even know what Dune is, are going to walk in and experience a movie that’s going to rock them to the core. It’s going to blow their minds. There’s never been a film like this. There will never be another film like this in cinema history. So I think that all of this epic action, adventure, the drama, the mind-blowing visual effects, are going to just really blow their minds. I think it’s going to be incredible.

You’ve appeared in some broad, studio-driven movies and TV shows, but plenty of smaller or stranger projects, and you’ve written a couple of you own screenplays as well. Is there a one for me/one for them sort of mentality at play?

David Dastmalchian: You know, in truth the two hands feed another so well. So, when I go and make one of my independent projects, like a film… Say like All Creatures Here Below, which we shot on a shoestring budget in the middle of Kansan in a scorching hot summer. I was able to make that film, but I was also influenced and got so much support because of the bigger budget studio films that I’d made before.

And a lot of artists, I think, look at filmmaking that way. I mean, look at someone like Karen Gillan, who starred in All Creatures Here Below. She writes and directs her own films as well, she goes and does things like The Party’s Just Beginning [Gillan wrote and directed the the 2018 dramatic comedy]. I found a lot of kindred spirits, and we go from making these big films, and we learn so much, you know? I learned so much. I learned so many tricks. I get so much inspiration from these directors on big sets. From being around Peyton Reed, James Gunn, Denis Villenueve, and seeing what they do, to making my own smaller projects.

I think that the one can always help strengthen the other. So I hope that I will, for the rest of my career, continue to get to go back and forth between the world of independent cinema and the world of studio cinema. And by the way, speaking of earlier in the conversation we were talking about theater, I think that part of the learning that I want to do as an actor, it would be important for me to get back to the stage at some point in the near future. So I’m really hoping I get the chance to do that soon.

You’ve worked on some big projects with big directors like Christopher Nolan, Peyton Reed, Denis Villenueve and James Gunn. Does that help you as both an actor and a filmmaker even though you’re working on a much larger scale than the projects you’ve written yourself?

David Dastmalchian: It helps me immeasurably, because those directors that I’ve been able to be so fortunate to work with, they’re not behaving in a way when you’re on set with them that the work was any different than if we were in a black box theater trying to mount a production of a Harold Pinter play. They approach the work with as much, artistry, imagination and discovery as you can possibly imagine. So I learned so much, and I take so much as a storyteller.

And one of the things that they all seek and demand for their vision is that they’re trying to conjure is authenticity, and real human, and true emotional and psychological reflection, because stories that take place in space, or stories with supernatural beings, or stories that take place with characters that have superpowers, does not negate the fact that those characters, those people, they’re part of the adventures they’re embarking on.

The struggles they’re trying to overcome are meaningless if there isn’t authentic human emotion at the core of it all, if there aren’t real things that we can’t grab onto and see a bit of ourselves in when we’re sitting in that movie theater with the popcorn in our laps. And I think that I’ve learned from all the directors that I’ve worked with no matter the circumstances. Getting to my deepest and innermost state of honest authenticity is always the best way to connect with an audience.

Working on The Suicide Squad and Dune, not quite back-to-back but within the same time frame, has that encouraged you to write a script of your own on a much bigger canvas than your previous screenplays?

David Dastmalchian: That’s a great question, and thanks for asking it, and yes it has. I will say that I was able to continue to really hone in, and even though I’d written it before I made these films, I’m a relentless re-writer. So I’ve been rewriting a screenplay which we’re going to go and make this year, which is a dramatic horror film called Hide Your Eyes, and we started to hone in on the script once I finished the year of filming I did, when I was working on The Suicide Squad and Dune.

So all of the things that  learned from those experiences have found their way into this project, and it is a bigger project that is going to require some visual magic that I have not attempted before yet as a writer. And I like to think that I’m just getting started. I think that stories that frighten me, stories that I’m intimidated to commit to the pen on the page, they’re the ones that are most worthy. And to me, the ones that end up being the most compelling. So I have a lot of projects that I’m excited to be putting together, but the next one up is Hide Your Eyes. And it’s definitely bigger, and going to require more than anything I’ve done yet.

You’ve been listed as part of the What If…? Animated series, and you mentioned you’re in Europe, does that have anything to do with Ant-Man 3?

David Dastmalchian: I am currently in Berlin. It does not have anything to do with Ant-Man 3. I am on a secret project at the moment, that I will be allowed to talk about shortly [Dastmalchian has since been announced for Dracula spinoff Last Voyage of the Demeter]. But I am insanely grateful that I get to be part of the What If…? series from Marvel. I don’t know if you read the comics when you were a kid, but for me, the What If…? comics were always really fun. And I love the idea of the ultimate thread in the universe where these stories exist and are getting told. I can’t say anything about the What If…? that I get to be a part of, but I will say that it’s gonna life people’s lids. It’s gonna be really, really cool

Who would win in a fight between Calendar Man or Polka-Dot Man, and why?

Well I’m very sorry to say for poor Julian Day, but it would be the last page of the calendar if Abner were to unload on him. Polka-Dot Man would win gauntlets down, polka-dots down. No questions. Sorry, Julian, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles. Yeah, I think about these things to be honest, I love these things! Who would win in a battle?

That concludes our interview with David Dastmalchian. Batman: The Long Halloween, Part One is now available on digital and Blu-Ray, with Part Two coming on July 27th. The Suicide Squad and Dune both premiere in theaters and on HBO Max on August 6th and October 22nd, respectively.

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