writer / Koko Ntuen
photographer + stylist / Kristy Benjamin
David Dastmalchian is looking for a babysitter. It’s a sunny Wednesday afternoon in West Hollywood, and he is on his cell ten feet behind his publicist, talking into the phone with a domestic tone while simultaneously smiling at us in a “sorry this will just be a minute” type of way. His perfect teeth are not the first thing I notice about him of course. He is staggeringly tall, pale with beautiful dark features and incredibly handsome. Handsome in that weird quirky boy in high school that makes you laugh, introduces you to records that you will cherish for life, and has all the type of underlying problems that make him impossible not to fall in love with.
My projections of him aren’t that far from the truth. In critically acclaimed Animals (2014) a semi-biopic of David’s past, he portrays Jude, a heroin user living out of his car with his girlfriend, hustling their way through days of seediness and concrete on the Chicago streets in order to fulfill their heartbreaking addiction. David wrote, produced and starred in this film, cementing his star power and ability to navigate Hollywood beyond his acting abilities. The movie shows a realistic depiction of addiction that makes it human.
Aside from Animals, Dastmalchian’s work in the industry has been versatile, poised and consistently incredible. David moved from Kansas to Chicago to pursue acting at The Theatre School at DePaul University, while there he was somewhat of a wunderkind, proving his theatrical chops on stage before landing his debut film role in blockbuster hit The Dark Knight. From there, his acting resume has soared, and he has become a critics’ darling with roles in Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners,The Employer, 2012’s Girls Will Be Girls, Saving Lincoln and this summer’s blockbuster Ant-Man. David has an ability to make small roles bigger than they seem. He breathes a new life into them with a magnetic force; reviews for movies that might not even have his name on the poster often mention him as a main attraction when reviewing the film. Dastmalchian will be appearing in Michel Franco’s Chronic alongside Tim Roth, Albert Arizza’s much anticipated Malware, as well a string of other projects that are getting him ready to become a household name.
During my time spent with David, he is both charming and incredibly hilarious, as we navigate Melrose from apartment enclave to Golden Apple Comics, where the cooler than thou staff try to act as low-key as possible while giving away being starstruck with their eyes. He has the ability to leave a room and leave everyone in his attendance wanting more or at least another conversation in the nearby future. When he talks about his wife, his eyes sparkle. He sings her praises, showing us his silver skull wedding ring and telling us the love story behind it. When he talks about the couple’s child, everyone melts. Funny, intelligent and a lover of comics, what is not to love about David? We have a feeling that there were be plenty of fan clubs with the same motto soon.
From Animals to Ant-Man is such a broad transition, how did you get in the character head space to act in a blockbuster?
I always feel like the building blocks for putting together a character kind of come from the same process for me. It’s a continually evolving process that changes from job to job. Animals is a really specific type of project, where I had the benefit of years of pre-production and development and having had written the script, as well as a deep personal history of some of the struggles the character Jude faces. When it came to Ant-Man, I was not very familiar with computer technology and the life of being a computer hacker or a tech criminal, like my character Kurt is. But I prepared for them. I found a way with both characters to connect with the other people in the script. I want my characters to grow from the beginning to the end of a film. Even though these movies are so different, I feel like both of these characters do that.
Do you ever feel like you have to compromise
artistically when you are a part of a blockbuster production, especially since you are coming from a theatre, indie, writing background?
You know, I’ve been really fortunate. I’ve never felt that I have been pushed to compromise neither my choices as an actor nor instincts as an actor. I will say that I’ve just been incredibly fortunate and blessed to continue to get casted in projects that are directed and populated by artists that are very collaborative. I mean from Chris Nolan to Peyton Reed to any one of the number of incredible directors I’ve been able to work with, I always feel like my choices have been really well cultivated, guided and shaped. I’ve been very, very fortunate.
Animals is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen.
Was it hard reliving any moments from your past when you got into character, and when you were writing the film?
Wow, thank you for that. I’m so proud of this movie, I’m so incredibly grateful for the people that made it, especially Collin Schiffli, our director. I believe the film that he made, shot, edited and designed is a better film than the screenplay was a script. So I feel so lucky and blessed that something I wrote grew into something even better as a film, that’s your dream as a writer.
To be honest with you, yes, obviously there’s so much history for me personally as David Dastmalchian in the world of addiction and homelessness and heroin, but remember that Jude and Bobby, and any other person in the film are characters that I created and are there for amalgams of personal history and also the liberty I had as a fiction writer. There’s a million pounds of truths and heartaches in that film, and there’s very little that you see these characters experiencing on screen that I did not personally experience one way or another. But I felt so safe working with Collin, Kim [Shaw] who plays Bobby, and with the entire company that was there with me everyday. It was a small company, cast and crew. They were my family. My wife was there; my best friends were there. We were all surrounded.
Collin’s preparation was so diligent, he had done such a wonderful and technical preparatory process to get ready to shoot that there was never this need to just throw me in a historically, emotional volatile scenario just to get a good reaction out of me. It was much more methodically and well thought out. That’s the art of filmmaking. That’s what makes Collin such a great director. There is a skill that comes with preparation and manufacturing moments. It doesn’t matter what I, David, am feeling in the moment as an actor, what matters is what the audience is experiencing when they’re watching the film. If they’re believing, it doesn’t matter if I have to hold my head a certain way so he can get the best shot of light on me through a reflection of a rear view mirror. That’s the magic of movies. It was an incredibly safe place for me to act in.
Were any scenes in Animals direct references from your past?
I would say there was definitely a moment in the film- I don’t want to give anything away, but when I’m playing Jude, I’m really considering doing the lowest thing that you can see Jude do, which was a certain type of stick up, and I’ll leave it at that. Hopefully people can go see the film and they’ll see what I’m talking about.
Once, I did find myself one day sitting in Lincoln Park in Chicago, where the film is set, actually considering what the worst thing I could do to be able to get money faster, because I was not able to keep up. It was at the point where the bottom had not only dropped out, but I had dropped out with it, and I was at the bottom of a very deep hellish well. There’s many moments, I shoplifted CDs, the way that my character does in the film, and I lived in the car like my character does. I stalked around the Lincoln Park Zoo as my character does in the film. There’s a scene with the police on the West Side, a really ugly interaction with two vice cops, that was a scene that I literally took almost word-for-word from what really happened to me, including one officer putting on a pair of leather gloves which he called his “beat down” gloves before giving it to me pretty bad.
What is the most challenging part when considering new scripts?
For me now it’s a really complicated process. Theres this whole system that goes into our decision, I say our because my team includes myself, my wife, my agent, my manager and my collaborators. A lot of decisions are based on criteria that includes first and foremost; Is this a script that I respond to? Is there a character in it that I respond to? If I respond incredibly to it, what am I willing to do to be a part of it? Sometimes that includes taking little to no money and sacrificing time that I don’t have. Also now that I’m a father, I want to continue to produce my own projects. Certain times I have to consider, is this a project that I think I can do a good job in? And if so, is there a payday thats going to make it worth while? Who is involved? I really don’t care about who the film maker is or whether they’ve made a famous film or not. I want to look at their short films, their music videos, stuff that they’ve done before, so I can get a sense of who I’m about to go spend my time with. My time, all of our time, everyone whose time is on Earth and elsewhere, has so little of it. I mean these lives are so short, and the way that we spend our time is so important, and I think you have to be really open to possibility, but you also have to be a really strong advocate for yourself and where you’re going to put your time and your energy.
How was the audition for Ant-Man?
It was insane! It was lengthy, yes. I auditioned in January of 2014 for Sarah Finn Casting Office, she and her casting associates. They brought me back for Edgar Wright who was the director at that time. I was wearing a big beard I thought at that time fit my character, and I wore the wardrobe I thought fit my character, and I had the dialect that I thought would be fitting for my character, because this character was a role I normally would not be considered for, so I was very cognizant of that. I was very excited about the chance I was getting to go in and play a character I never had gotten to play before, and so I really went for it. After my second audition, which was for Edgar Wright, I was informed a few weeks after that I was going to be testing for the film, which is when you go to the studio, being Marvel’s studio at Disney, and actually filming a scene with people who’ve already been casted. At that point, it was Paul Rudd as Ant-Man. I went to my screen-test. The first one was canceled, I left SXSW early, where I was promoting Animals, to go to screen test and they canceled! Oh my goodness. For the rescheduled test, I flew back on my day off from working on a show for the BBC Worldwide in Vancouver called The Intruders. Mind you, my wife is 8 months, 4 weeks, 9 days pregnant, so she’s about to have a baby. I did a camera test with Paul Rudd, Michael Peña and a bunch of other actors and Edgar. I found out soon after I was getting offered for the role, and we signed contracts, then Edgar left the film! Then I had to go through a whole other waiting process to see if Peyton Reed, who ultimately directed the film, wanted me to be a part of his vision for the film, because the script changed and his vision took over, and thankfully I was included.
Name one other actor who has really captured the essence of Stan Lee’s Marvel universe.
You know, they’ve done such a good job with casting, I think. But if I’m going to pull out a really clutch example, from the Marvel Universe that we know and love now, I really feel like [Robert] Downey Jr. just nailed Tony Stark in Iron Man. Stan Lee’s universe and all the other great writers, illustrators, colorists, etc, for the past half a decade, half of a century, they brought to life these stories that were colorful, that were bright, that had a lot of humor, that had very high stakes. The heroes journeys and all the great stuff that we love. I read my comics every month, they kept me coming back every single month to read more. I really feel like Downey Jr. really nailed it. I also feel like Hugh Jackman just absolutely embodied Wolverine. I love what [Mark] Ruffalo did with his version of Banner and The Hulk, I feel like he really nails that wry kind of tone to it. It’s excellent. I was not a huge reader of the Guardians of the Galaxy, but I have to say that I felt Chris Pratt and that whole team on Guardians brought something right on screen that I felt every time I would read a Marvel comic book.
What are your favorite Marvel heroes?
My favorite Marvel heroes are the Moon Knight, I always felt like that was who I wanted to be when I grew up. He’s a fascinating character, very dark, almost similar to like a Batman of the Marvel Universe except that he does have some magical powers, because he’s connected to Konshu, this Egyptian God. I was also very into Morbius, Dr. Michael Morbius, who was the living vampire. He was a doctor, and he was infected with vampirism and battling his vampiric nature while also trying to do something good. Even though he and Spiderman fought many times, he’s actually a good guy, and he wanted to do something good with his life. The first series that I ever collected was the West Coast Avengers, which I would say included probably my first comic book crush when I was in the third grade. I don’t know, for some reason I thought that Tigra was really hot. That’s kind of gross now looking back at it, but I thought she was super hot. I also loved Mockingbird. Anyway…
What are your favorite indie graphic novel and comics?
Indie-wise, there are guys that cross the board back and forth between indie and mainstream, and I think that like Brian Wood is one of the best voices out there for that stuff. He wrote one of the better series I’ve ever read, I recommend anybody who hasn’t read it yet, go pick it up. If you’re looking for what indie comics can represent, theres a series called Local. It was a short-lived series, I think they did 12 or 13 of them but it really just nailed the tone of great storytelling and what comics can achieve when they’re not necessarily dealing with superheros. I am a big Daniel Clowes fan. I mean theres so much good indie comic stuff to be had, but I think that’s a really good starting point.
What’s the nicest way you ever asked a girl out?
I met this incredible girl while I was in New York for a very short time. I lived in New York for about a year, while I was shooting a really cool short film. It was like a zombie film set at fashion week, and we were shooting all around fashion week. One day, this incredibly hot, just drop-dead gorgeous girl was hanging around the set shooting behind the scenes pictures as a favor to the director, because they were friends. I really liked her
instantly, but I was just too nervous to ask her out. I guess it was obvious, because at the end of the day, she asked me for my phone, and she put her number in it. So I guess she kind of asked me out. When we finally did go on a date, I asked her out by calling and saying, “you like a good burger?” So we went for Dumont Burger in Williamsburg, and we had this incredible day together. She was getting her wisdom teeth pulled, and I sent her flowers. I’ve never done that before, sent somebody flowers, and I barely even know this girl except one date. I was falling for this girl really fast. At the end of the first date we had, I was coyly trying to figure out if I could get a kiss, and we were standing on Bedford Avenue, and I said to her trying to be gentlemanly, “if we weren’t in the middle of Bedford Avenue right now, I would totally kiss you,” and she denied me, laughed, got in a cab and took off back to her apartment in Queens. I was devastated.
Well, fast-forward 2-3 years later, we went on a date at the exact same spot in Williamsburg, Dumont Burger. We’re on Bedford Avenue, and I said to her, “you know if we weren’t standing in the middle of Bedford Avenue, I would ask you to marry me,” and she laughed and flipped her hair like she did when we were on our first date, like she was going to call a cab. Then I got down on my knees, and I pulled out a ring, and she almost fainted and she started crying. I said, “I mean it, will you marry me?” She said “yes.” And that’s how I got my wife to marry me. That’s the nicest way I think you can ask somebody to marry you. That’s a long answer to your question!