Name a major comic-book film franchise and, odds are, actor David Dastmalchian is part of it. “The Dark Knight”? Dastmalchian’s first film role, playing one of the Joker’s thugs. The Marvel Cinematic Universe? He’s had a recurring part in Peyton Reed’s “Ant-Man” features from the start, playing superhero Scott Lang’s crime-loving pal Kurt. He’s even made the jump to TV, thanks to recurring roles on Fox’s “Gotham” prequel series and The CW’s “The Flash.” Soon, he’ll voice his MCU part in Disney+’s ambitious “What If?” animated series.
Next up: his beefiest superhero role yet, starring in James Gunn’s “The Suicide Squad” as the haunted Polka-Dot Man, whose awkward “powers” — throwing toxic polka-dots at people — mask a dark backstory befitting Dastmalchian’s dramatic chops. No one is more amused than Dastmalchian about the impact superhero movies have had on his career, especially as a kid who grew up obsessed with comic books.
“I’ve spent so much time invested in genre and sci-fi and the world of comic books, and I believe that they are a space in which deeper questions can be explored,” Dastmalchian said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “That being said, I’m not powerful enough and I don’t know enough people to be able to be like, ‘That’s what I’m going to do.’ I think I just kept throwing my energy that way, just like I threw my energy at the fact that there was nothing I wanted more when I moved to Hollywood than to work with the Muppets, be a James Bond villain, and work with David Lynch.” (He’s already landed one out of three, thanks to a role in “Twin Peaks: The Return,” but consider this a formal plea to Hollywood to ready the Muppets and Bond roles ASAP.)
Still, Dastmalchian is often surprised about the twists of his career. Picture this: he’s in Scotland in early 2019, there to promote an indie he wrote and starred in (“All Creatures Here Below”) at the Glasgow Film Festival, and reeling from an offer to co-star in Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” adaptation. “My head is spinning,” he said. “I’m trying to figure out my life. I don’t understand what’s happening. I get a message from James Gunn that says, “I WANT YOU to be in ‘The Suicide Squad.'”
Dastmalchian hopped on the phone with Gunn at 1AM Scotland time. One question persisted: Who was he going to play? Surely a comic book devotee like Dastmalchian would be familiar with whichever classic DC bad guy Gunn had in mind. “I am very familiar with so much of the DC canon, and I know the DC villains so well, and he’s like, ‘I want you to be Abner Krill, Polka-Dot Man,'” Dastmalchian recalled. “I was so embarrassed. And I’m like, ‘James, I’m so sorry. I don’t know anything about him.’ He’s like, ‘Don’t worry, don’t worry. I want you to read the script and let me know how you feel.'”
Gunn sent Dastmalchian the script as soon as the pair got off the phone, and the actor stayed up all night reading it. “I was jumping up and down. I was crying. I was yelling,” Dastmalchian said. “I was so moved by what I read, and I was so moved by the thought that he would imagine me getting to bring to life a character that beautifully created. James told me that when he was writing the character, he just saw me in his place.” (And, no worries about not knowing Polka-Dot Man, Gunn essentially retrofitted a minor character into something much bigger and bolder.)
Ask why Dastmalchian captivated him and Gunn offers a pair of stories: First, there was the Kyle MacLachlan thing. A few years ago, Gunn and Dastmalchian and some other pals put together a video for a friend’s bachelor party that included redoing scenes from David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet.” Dastmalchian stepped up to play MacLachlan’s character, Jeffrey Beaumont, and Gunn was mesmerized.
“There was something about him on screen, I’m like, ‘Oh my God, he looks so cool. He’s so interesting to look at as a camera subject and I want to photograph him,'” Gunn said. A few years later, Dastmalchian was cast in Greg McLean’s horror film “The Belko Experiment,” which Gunn wrote and produced, marking the first time the pair formally worked together.
Gunn was on set during the film’s production in Colombia, and remembers the feelings Dastmalchian could inspire in complete strangers. One morning, Gunn and a Colombian friend were having breakfast, when Dastmalchian happened to walk by. Gunn called him over.
“He came in and he sat down and this woman started sobbing because she had a David Dastmalchian phobia from ‘Prisoners,'” Gunn said with a laugh, referring to the 2013 Denis Villeneuve thriller that featured Dastmalchian as a potential child killer. “I was laughing so hard, because I’m taking [mental] pictures of Dave kind of looking at her and her sobbing. They’re so funny. But there’s just something about him that has this haunted feel at times. All those things combined led me to create Polka-Dot Man and write the role for him basically. I knew that there was nobody that could do that like David.”
As silly as Polka-Dot Man might sound — he throws polka-dots at people? — Gunn’s script gives him the kind of depth and tragic backstory that fits neatly alongside with Dastmalchian’s other work, like “Animals” (which he wrote about his former heroin addiction) and “All Creatures Here Below” (which follows a down-on-their-luck couple who stumble into unexpected trauma). It’s all laced with Gunn’s trademark humor, but Dastmalchian was drawn to the real pain at the center of this seemingly wacky character.
“It would have been very easy for James to just make this ridiculous character the butt of the jokes and his worthlessness something to be mocked,” he said. “But fortunately it’s James Gunn, and he’s going to go as deep as he possibly can, and he did that with Abner. For me, for my survival, and why I’m able to sit here today and why I’m able to have the life that I do have is because I didn’t shelve or hide or bury the darkness that lives within me. I faced it, and I’ve learned to live with it and embrace it. I think Abner does that as well, even if it’s polka-dots.”
Dastmalchian isn’t kidding about exploring “deeper questions” in comic book films. “Abner is probably maybe one of the only people more willing to go on this journey because it is called the Suicide Squad, and he does believe he will probably die and he is ready to die at this point,” Dastmalchian said. “His humiliation, shame, and anguish over being who he is and the reasons for why he is who he is have led him to a place where he doesn’t even want to wake up tomorrow. I know that feeling all too well. I’m a survivor of suicide attempts and I’m someone who’s been working on my mental wellness actively for the better part of two decades now.”
The actor has always been candid about his struggles, and that emotional honesty makes his work thrilling to watch. But he’s the first person to point to the others around him who make that work possible, especially his directors.
“Getting to be on these films with someone like James or someone like Denis, who are both incredibly different filmmakers who make incredibly different films, but are both masters of what’s happening right now in contemporary cinema, that experience is so fulfilling to me as a human and as an actor,” he said. “But one of the reasons that their stories succeed as strongly as they do and mean so much to audiences the way that they do is because of the people that both James and Denis are. When I’m on their sets, I’m willing to give them everything I possibly can, because I trust them that much.”
Dastmalchian’s passion is infectious, and even a soft query about what fans might expect from “Dune” (his third outing with Villeneuve) is met with energy. “It is, in my opinion, a piece of historic cinema,” he said. “I do believe that I’ve never seen anything like it before. I don’t think I will ever see anything like it again. I think that it is an achievement that is going to leave audiences dumbfounded. It’s so amazing and I cannot wait for people to see it.”
So, what’s next after “The Suicide Squad” and “Dune” and the horror film he’s currently making in Berlin and the scripts he’s cooking up in his head and the, yes, comic book he wrote for Dark Horse (“Count Crowley: Reluctant Midnight Monster Hunter,” and it’s pure Dastmalchian)? More, as much as he can get.
“I’ll sleep when I’m dead and there’s no satisfaction,” the actor said. “I’m a kid who grew up spending all of my lawn-mowing money at the comic book shop. I pinch myself. I don’t pinch myself actually, because you know what? I don’t want to wake up. Fuck that. I don’t want to wake up if this is all a dream. It is too good of a dream.”
A Warner Bros. release, “The Suicide Squad” will be available in both theaters and streaming on HBO Max on Friday, August 6.