What a time for David Dastmalchian. For starters, we’ll soon see him as Polka-Dot Man in The Suicide Squad. What was once an obscure comic book character may soon be, thanks to James Gunn and the actor, a character we won’t soon forget. Dastmalchian is also in the adaptation of one of the most celebrated science fiction novels of all time, Dune. It’s the actor’s third collaboration with filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, who previously cast him in Prisoners and Blade Runner 2049.
Plus, the actor recently finished writing a script for a horror movie he sounds jazzed about. Genre is his jam, having grownup with horror movies and comic books. He even wrote a Dark Horse Comic, Count Crowley: Reluctant Midnight Monster Hunter, which was a dream come true for him. Dastmalchian is making big impressions on the screen, but he’s also making them on the page with two personal dramas he wrote: All Creatures Here Below and Animals.
Recently, the actor talked to us about the year he’s having, his past roles, how David Lynch changed his life, and one suggestion he has for anyone after they read this interview.
Your comic, Count Crowley: Reluctant Midnight Monster Hunter, that is a great read. Will we see more of it?
Thank you so much. Thank you. I’m so proud of Count Crowley, and the pandemic affected many more important things than my comic book. But sadly, as the pandemic started and everything kind of shut down, so did Count Crowley. And so, thankfully the fanbase continues to seem to grow. I keep hearing from people and I’m so proud of what we did with those first four issues, that I am really praying every day that enough of the trade does well enough. I’ve got stories for years that I want to tell from Jerri’s journey into becoming an appointed monster hunter. So thanks, man. That means a lot.
It’s a good balance of tongue-in-cheek and real personal issues.
I realized that one of the things you wanted to talk about with me today is my work and my career. And something about Count Crowley, I’m not overstating the fact that it really is truly my proudest achievement as a storyteller. And I have a number of achievements that I’m incredibly proud of as a storyteller. I’ve been able to work with some of the best directors in cinema, I’ve been a part of some incredible film and television projects, I’ve made my own small films like Animals and All Creatures Here Below. But one of the things that as a kid of genre, and as someone who grew up just addicted to horror, sci-fi and comic books, I dreamt of spending a lifetime somehow involved in that world, whether it was just as a reader, collector and fan, or as I’ve been so lucky to discover myself, as a creative. One thing I never realized or recognized was how much the issues that I wrestle with could become a part of the stories that I was yearning to tell through genre.
It’s no secret that I had near death struggles with addiction and mental illness. I feel that the human experience is riddled with a lot of challenges that feel at times hopelessly impossible to overcome. And so, a lot of those ideas and questions that I have about what it means to be a person and why we have to struggle with these things, I have been able to explore through the world of genre. And I feel so lucky, because now as an actor, I’m going to be a part of some of the biggest movies ever made. They’re about to come out, as people are returning to the cinema, and they wrestle with huge ideas that are super important. It’s a really cool moment for me personally, so I’m glad that we’re having this conversation.
Likewise. You were inspired by Friday Night Creature features growing up, right? That influenced the comic as well?
Growing up in Kansas City, our creature feature was Crematia Mortem’s Friday Nightmare. She had this incredible show on our local Fox affiliate, TV 41. I would sneak downstairs to watch it. I grew up in a pretty religious household and horror movies were definitely not celebrated, nor were comic books or sci-fi in my house. So for me, that was the secret of pleasure that I was glued to the screen. And that’s how I learned about everything from some of my favorite actors, the Lon Chaneys and Peter Cushings of the world, to Universal, Hammer and past films.
Crematia Mortem, she’s a friend to this day now. I’ve become friends with Roberta Solomon, and she’s actually a fan of Count Crowley. I am in her fan club, and now she’s in the Count Crowley fan club. It’s one of the many incredible gifts of this career that I’ve been able to have, that I’ve gotten to become friends with somebody that I’d been a fan of for so long.
That’s great. How does your love of comic books influence how you play a character like Polka-Dot Man, or even your role in The Dark Knight? Can the art inspire how you play a role?
There’s something about the combination of the tonal quality that you can take away from the art that brought characters to life and obviously the writing, the voices of these characters. My very first time in a film was working as a goon for the Joker. When you’re Joker’s thug, and you’re someone who’s spent your life reading Batman comics and understands the Joker, then it really influences and shapes the way that you move your face, the way that you use your voice, the way that you think about the world. And just as much like the bright vibrancy of when I was really cracking into the Hank Pym stories.
My introduction to the Avengers was Avengers 249. It was the first comic book I actually ever bought, but I quickly got on the West Coast Avengers train when I was a kid and I started collecting comic books. And the brightness, the humor, the color of that influenced the way that I approached bringing Kurt to life in the Ant-Man movies.
With Polka-Dot Man, though, it all comes to a screeching halt. When James Gunn told me he wanted me to be a part of The Suicide Squad, first of all, I nearly fainted. Second of all, I nearly fainted again. Third of all, I was humiliatingly embarrassed to say, “James, I don’t know anything about Polka-Dot Man.” He laughed so hard, because he was like, “Don’t worry. It’s okay.” But I feel like someone that knows a lot about comics. And so, the fact that I really knew nothing about Abner Krill, and my mind was racing, going, “What is it? What does he do again? What is his thing?” And then I read James’ script, and it is such an incredible script.
The movie is so powerful, so bold. It’s a very brave and just insane film. It’s not like anything people have ever really seen before. And he pushes all the boundaries in every way you can imagine, visually, violently, comedically, emotionally. And so, I read the script, and I just fell deeply in love with Abner and the way that James brought him to life.
I went back and looked at the Abner of the comics past and the color and the tone of that. It really did influence and impact the way that I wanted to stand, the way that I wanted to carry my body. But with Abner in particular, most importantly was just what James had given me in the gift of his script.
Within the same year, I also went and filmed Dune under the magnificent guidance of the visionary, who is Denis Villeneuve. I got the opportunity to bring to life a character who I love from the Frank Herbert novel “Dune,” which is by far one of the greatest sci-fi novels ever written, in my opinion.
So the character, Piter de Vries, was always utterly fascinating and disturbing and a dark place to go. I took a great deal of inspiration from the book. But then when I read the script, I was like, “Oh, he’s right there.” And obviously being in the hands of someone like Denis, it was kind of a no brainer, just what he wanted him to look and move and feel like. Denis is very good at communicating those things.
One of the most passionate guys you’ll ever talk to.
Yeah, just such a deeply kind and generous human being. It’s interesting. Both of those men are, they’re very different. Their directing styles, their cinematic creations are so distinct and are so unique to them as individuals. But something that they both have in common, aside from being insanely talented, is they’re both deeply kind and deeply generous people. I think that’s what cracks the light through in their work. Because even if they’re working in really dark places, there’s always this light of humanity that can break through. And it’s important, if not vital, to making lasting cinema that means something beyond just a two-hour escape over the summer, you know?
As a performer, how do you stay true to the language of Herbert’s Dune?
The script is so true to the spirit of the novel, and there is an elevated sense of purpose and tone. It’s such grand science fiction storytelling, and it’s so mind-blowing visually. But then when you get down to the characters and the way they speak, you just have to approach it the way that you do with any character. And for me, finding that was very, very challenging. Because Piter is not like any human I’ve ever encountered before.
I guarantee you, any other character I’ve ever played, there are things about them, that they may be extreme, they may look wacky or have some kind of crazy power, but there’s always something I can latch onto and connect to a human being that I’ve either known for a part of my own personality that I’m familiar with, obviously, because it’s me.
With Piter, there’s that psychopathy that comes from being a twisted Mentat, that is frightening and disturbing. And to put myself in his mindset was hard. So to utter a language, because Piter’s brain operates at such a high level, he is for all intents and purposes, a human computer, speaking in the highly specific way in which the language would come out was actually … It made perfect sense. It seemed to really add a great deal to the character. It felt more like an assist than an obstacle, if that makes sense.
Speaking of language, you’ve delivered some of the finest in theater. You’ve performed in Sam Shepard and Tennessee Williams plays. How do you get to the spirit of their writings?
I’m so lucky, because I was really starting to work a lot in theater in Chicago at a moment when some of the directors and producers of those plays were willing to take a chance on an actor like myself. I was trying to make choices that felt the most authentic to me as a person, but which oftentimes fell outside of the norm when it came to the way these certain characters in these certain plays had been approached before.
I felt a great deal of responsibility when bringing to life, say, Tom Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. When I did it at Shattered Globe Theater in Chicago, I’d stand in front of that audience, and I’m getting to deliver some of the best dialogue ever written. And while at the same time, knowing that I can’t just recite these words eloquently. I owe it to Tennessee Williams, I owe it to the other artists involved in these productions, and I owe it to the audience, to allow those words to swim around as deep into the belly of my subconscious as possible, so that what came out and the reactions that I had vocally and with my body and my face were as authentic and as moving as possible for the audience, so that they experienced the kind of transformative power that Williams’ words can have on an observer.
And the exact same thing happened for me with Sam Shepherd. And the same thing happened to me with William Shakespeare and other great playwrights that I got the opportunity to bring to life. But with those two particular playwrights, both Sam Shepard and Tennessee Williams, not only were they and are they giant influences on me as a storyteller, but the sense of responsibility that I had to bring their words to license the most authentic way possible, pushed me nearly to the breaking point.
Both of those productions were incredibly rewarding and satisfying, but they were also challenging, to the point that I had to crawl home some nights from the theater. I have learned in the years since, for my acting, I have to continue to go to what is the equivalent of school. I want to be able to recreate and reproduce all of those emotions as authentically as possible night after night, take after take, scene after scene, day after day, without breaking, I came close on both of those productions to breaking. And thank goodness, I didn’t.
When did writing become an aspiration for you?
I’ve been writing since the sixth grade in a journal in some form or another. I always loved writing scary stories. I used to write my own Choose Your Own Adventures. I was a big fan of the Indiana Jones Choose Your Own Adventure books when I was a kid. And then that translated into my dream of creating comic books. And so, writing was always an important part of my life. Journaling and writing goals and just poetry and expressing myself through words privately was always something that was just something I really enjoy doing, and I felt compelled to.
When I got clean in 2002, I really had walked away from acting for several years. My addiction and mental illness was so extreme that I didn’t believe that I was going to live any longer, let alone ever act again. So when I did get a second lease at life and I got the opportunity to find a path of mental wellness and sobriety, I just didn’t think that acting was going to be in the cards for me again.
I poured all of my creative impulse and energy into writing, and I started to really study the craft of writing. I learned that, that’s exactly what it is. It’s a craft, and it requires a great deal of discipline and daily work and sacrifice. I started writing a short story, that evolved into a long outline, that evolved into what I thought was going to be a play, that then evolved into what became the feature screenplay for the first film that I wrote, which is called Animals.
I poured all of my own personal thoughts and feelings about relationships and love and addiction and the struggle with dependency, be it to drugs or other people. And thank God, people read it and really responded to it. I got the chance to make that film. And that’s yet another, right up there next to Count Crowley and All Creatures Here Below, one of those experiences that is something I’m the most proud of.
I know you’re someone who writes down your dreams and goals. What’s presently on that list, as far as writing goes?
Well, I am so grateful as a fan for the renaissance we’re experiencing and the world of horror and genre, thanks to visionaries from Jordan Peele, to Robert Eggers and so many others, who have just redefining what we can do with genre storytelling.
I am working very hard at the moment to bring to the screen a feature film that wrestles with addiction and mental illness, but is absolutely in the horror and genre space. It’s called Hide Your Eyes, and I have a genius director from the South, a wicked woman named Erica Scoggins, who is just awesome. We are putting together the film as we speak.
I have dreams of what I could do with Count Crowley. I want to tell you about so many other things that I can’t talk about yet, but I have some big visions for stories that I think could reach audiences in the mature sphere, when it comes to really deeply terrifying horror. I also think there’s a space that I could really thrive in and write for the whole gambit of audiences.
I have a seven and a four-year-old here, and they are some of the biggest monster fans I know. They are true, dyed-in-the-wool, monster kids. I want to write stories that they can enjoy. I spend a lot of time laying in bed at night, just dreaming. I’m trying to use every free minute I’ve got during the day to get them written down, while at the same time, being as fun and cool a dad as possible.
That sounds like a good day. One of the early goals you accomplished, which you had written down, was working with David Lynch. I have to ask, how did the reality compare to the dream in that instance?
It’s superseded the dream. Being in the presence of David Lynch changed my life. I watched an artist in their true element, getting to create every day and bring to life a story that he had worked so hard on and he knew backwards and forwards. He knew everyone’s lines, he knew every thing that was meant to happen. And yet at the same time, he was open to things happening that were never expected.
I wonder sometimes if he is truly a human being. There was something almost preternatural about him and being in his presence. He’s very kind, he’s very human. It’s not that he’s not brimming with humanity, but watching his creative process take place, it felt like I was sometimes observing a wizard. I’ll never forget it, and it was a great lesson for me as well in the power of manifesting our dreams.
I have big dreams and hopes and goals for my work as an actor. When I moved to Los Angeles, the three biggest ones that I had at the top of my board were to work with the Muppets, to become a James Bond villain, and to work with David Lynch. And I actually got to work with David Lynch. I dreamed of it. I just never thought it was actually going to really happen. It did.
I hope everybody who reads this will take a minute when they’re done and write something down on a piece of paper that they don’t think is possible, but that they dream about and commit to it, with that ink on the paper, and then hang it up above their desk, above their bed, above their mirror in the bathroom, and look at it every day. You can do it.
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