When David Dastmalchian says he’s “been working on a stream of dream projects for my inner comic book nerd”, he’s not exaggerating. Since making his movie debut 13 years ago in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight – he played Thomas Schiff, the Joker’s ill-fated henchman – the actor has built a CV any comic book nerd would be proud of. He played Kurt, an associate of Paul Rudd’s title character, in both Ant-Man movies and guest-starred in superhero series The Flash as the villainous Abra Kadabra. He also underscored his cult credentials with roles in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks revival (as Pit Boss Warrick) and Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 (he played Coco, a lab technician who meets a grisly end). Later this year we’ll see him in Villeneuve’s Dune remake, which he describes as “like nothing you’ve ever seen before”.
Though 44-year-old Dastmalchian has become a massively in-demand character actor, he describes his latest role, in director James Gunn’s rollicking superhero reboot The Suicide Squad, as “incredibly important” to his career. “It’s given me the opportunity to play a character who is in many ways so different from any character I’ve gotten to play before,” he says. “And you know, it was also great to work alongside and learn from some of the most accomplished actors in Hollywood right now. So I constantly had my mental notebook out and felt like I was learning so much.”
Speaking on the phone from Malta, where he’s shooting a horror film called Last Voyage of the Demeter with Straight Outta Compton star Corey Hawkins, Dastmalchian’s palpable enthusiasm for the DC blockbuster is infectious. On paper, his character could look like a kitsch distraction: he plays Abner Krill aka Polka-Dot Man, a previously obscure supervillain who spews polka dots from his body, then turns them into weapons. But thanks to Gunn’s decision to drill down into Krill’s mummy issues and Dastmalchian’s tremendously empathetic performance, Polka-Dot Man becomes unexpectedly touching. He is now a favourite character for many – the Internet awash with fan art and viral memes.
But when Gunn called Dastmalchian two years ago to offer him Polka-Dot Man, he was stumped. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe I’m getting offered an opportunity to work with James Gunn on a superhero film, and I’ve never heard of my character!'” he recalls. “As someone who’s really into comic books, I was so embarrassed about that. But James was like, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll learn. When I wrote him, I was imagining you in the role.’”
“I couldn’t believe I was going to work with James Gunn on a superhero film”
Dastmalchian’s initial bewilderment blossomed into excitement when he read Gunn’s script, which gave him an immediate personal connection with Krill. “Your readers may laugh and say this actor is being a pretentious idiot for saying how deeply personal he could go with this character,” he says with wry self-awareness. “But I would say [in response]: ‘No matter the genre or style of film that I’m working on – and yes, it may be a larger than life, bombastic, zany, crazy project – I always look at the work and find something I recognise.'”
Dastmalchian says two aspects of Polka Man’s psyche “instantly resonated” with him. “The first was his struggle with morbid depression, which I have battled the majority of my life,” he says. “I have been working actively on my mental wellbeing for the past 19 years, so thankfully I am now in a place where I can more readily access my baseline [for a performance].” Then, without being prompted, he expands on what his mental health struggle felt like. “In the past, I felt so plagued by my inner darkness, and by my feelings of shame, isolation and despair, that I attempted to take my life several times,” he says. Because Dastmalchian battled suicidal feelings in the past, he says he understood Polka Dot Man’s willingness to join The Suicide Squad, a task force of expendable prisoners who really put their lives on the line. “When he’s offered an opportunity to go on this mission, he’s grateful for it, because he’s finally going to get to end his suffering – and that’s a feeling I knew deeply,” Dastmalchian says.
Dastmalchian also related deeply to the stinging shame Polka-Dot Man feels because of his multicoloured skin, the result of a botched experiment initiated by his scientist mother. “Ironically, around the same time that I discovered comic books, which was in the third grade, these little spots started showing up on both of my knees, both of my elbows, and then around my mouth, eyes, knuckles and throughout my body,” he recalls. “And then I was told I have an autoimmune disorder called vitiligo in which my body destroys its own pigment. It means I’m incredibly vulnerable to the sun and I have these large white spots like a leopard all over my body.” Dastmalchian has now made peace with the condition, but he was bullied for looking different as a kid and says he felt “disgust” and a “sense of inadequacy” whenever he looked in the mirror. He channelled these incredibly painful memories into Polka-Dot Man’s profound awkwardness in his own skin.
Dastmalchian discusses his past traumas without pity or self-consciousness, but his sanguine attitude today only really makes sense when you delve a little deeper into his past. In 2018, he told The Hollywood Reporter he became a “daily drug user” in high school in an effort to self-medicate his “undiagnosed depression issues”. Later, while studying drama at Chicago’s DePaul University, he descended into heroin addiction despite impressing teachers with his acting ability. At his lowest ebb, before he sought treatment and completed a spell in rehab, Dastmalchian was homeless and living out of his car. For a time, he believed his chance at an acting career had passed him by, so when The Dark Knight gave him a foothold on Hollywood’s slippery ladder at the relatively advanced age of 31, he wasn’t about to squander it.
“Shame, isolation and despair led me to attempt to take my life several times”
Though Dastmalchian singles out the two films he wrote as a source of pride – 2014’s Animals, which drew on his experiences of addiction, and 2018’s twisty crime drama All Creatures Here Below – he says that “getting the mental health treatment I needed is my greatest accomplishment, and my sobriety of 19 years is a huge part of that.” After a short pause, he continues: “But I’m still working at it, you know, there’s no victory flags or anything like that. It’s a daily journey, but I will say this: I could sit here with you now and you could drink two bottles of wine in front of me and I wouldn’t feel any desire to join you. I have many friends who smoke pot and it’s not difficult for me to be with them socially because I don’t have the desire. But if that [lack of desire] changed tomorrow, I know exactly what meeting I need to get to and who I need to contact to make sure I’m gonna be OK.”
Dastmalchian also credits his mental health journey with giving him the “tools” to navigate Hollywood’s choppy waters. ” It’s such a fun, silly, beautiful, artistic journey that I’m on, but oh man, the business side of it,” he says with a sigh. He’s always looking ahead to future acting jobs, but says his wife Evelyn, with whom he has two kids, helps him to appreciate the moment. “I’ve learned that it’s important to take inventory and give yourself credit when you achieve a goal,” he says. “She creates time for us to celebrate our accomplishments in a way that makes me feel really good about myself. And that’s because she knows that as soon as we close a deal, I’m already getting frustrated if the next one isn’t immediately ready to go.”
Dastmalchian’s snowballing success – close to 70 acting credits since The Dark Knight in 2008 – is even more impressive when you consider how he did it: without a high-powered Hollywood agent or manager. Until earlier this summer, when he signed with LA-based Atlas Entertainment, Dastmalchian handled the business side of his career himself with just a lawyer and publicist to grease the wheels. “For the last four years, I had a public email address through which casting directors could contact me if they were interested in either offering me a role or having me audition,” he explains. “And then I would just look at the material and go, ‘Wow, this is awesome’ or ‘You know, this isn’t the right thing for me right now.'” If he did end up getting cast in a project, he would simply loop in the studio with his lawyer to hammer out the particulars.
It sounds as though Dastmalchian was comfortable conducting his career as a lone wolf, but he tacitly acknowledges that signing with Atlas is a step up. “It’s funny,” he says. “People think: ‘Oh, you’ve done all these big projects – I bet every agent or manager in Hollywood wants you.’ But that definitely wasn’t the truth of it all. [My career] was just kind of working out and going well, and then I had an amazing couple of meetings with [Atlas boss] Chuck Roven, who produced both The Dark Knight and The Suicide Squad. He and his team were clearly passionately committed to the things I said that I wanted to achieve, and so we just recently started working together.” Dastmalchian says it’s “a weird transition” for him to relinquish control in this way, but adds that he’s “very excited” for the next phase of his career.
This next phase includes a high-profile role in Villeneuve’s feverishly anticipated remake of Dune, a big-budget sci-fi epic based on Frank Herbert’s classic 1965 novel. Dastmalchian can’t say too much about the Timothée Chalamet-led movie ahead of its premiere at the Venice Film Festival on September 3, but ever the consummate professional, he delivers an ambiguous but tantalising sales pitch. “The scope and magnitude of this film is like nothing you’ve ever seen before,” he says. “And yet it has this ability to immediately hone in on the details of the story through the performances. In my opinion, it balances these extremes in a way that I’ve never seen done before. And I really hope everybody goes to see it in IMAX.”
However, he is able to talk a little more about his Dune character, Piter De Vries, a so-called ‘mentat’ who has been trained to use his brain like a computer for forbidden purposes. Dastmalchian spent time researching the behaviour of sociopaths to give himself a handle on this seriously sadistic role, which he describes as “one of the most challenging” he’s ever taken on. “There’s endless calculation going on in [Piter’s] mind about how to undermine his opponent in any circumstance without any concern for their wellbeing, humanity, feelings or any pain or suffering that he may inflict in the achievement of his goal,” he says. “He’s a human being, but he’s also a twisted mentat. And so for him, if anything, there’s a sort of curiosity in the pain and suffering that his work might inflict. It’s unnerving and haunting to take that on. It’s terrifying.”
It sounds like an uncommonly intense role, but it’s clear by now that Dastmalchian likes rising to a challenge. His journey from recovering heroin addict to thriving Hollywood actor – one with an enviably zen attitude – speaks to that. “You know, I have so many goals that I’m not even close to achieving,” he says at the end of the interview, “and I’m going to work really hard to get there.” Given his current career trajectory, it would be pretty idiotic to doubt him.