Interview: Actor David Dastmalchian on His Remarkable Film ‘Animals’

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Average: 5 (1 vote) Paul Rudd is a champion of smaller and more personal films – I’m thinking ‘Prince Avalanche’ and ‘They Came Together’ – did you ever get a chance to talk about choices he’s made in his career, and how that has affected him as a performer?

Dastmalchian: We didn’t talk about that specifically. We did talk about the indie films he’s done, because I’m just a fan. Paul loves to tell stories, he loves to entertain people, and that goes for the biggest projects all the way down to the more risky and smaller films. The big highlight for me, and this just happened the other day. He came up to me and said, ‘I just saw the ‘Animals’ trailer, and it was great!’ That’s a perfect example of the type of guy he is. You’ve done a lot of stage work. Given your brand reputation as sort of a darker character, which role would people be surprised to learn you’ve played on stage, and how are the elements of that character part of your performance personality?

Dastmalchian: I will go with Tom Wingfield in ‘The Glass Menagerie.’ He’s pretty dark, but it gave me a moment because it was a role I never thought I’d have an opportunity to play. I used to think I knew where I ‘fit’ with my type, but that was something outside of it.

Maybe a better example would be some of the family theater I’ve done, for a friend of mine who recruits high level people to do theater presentations for different social and economic levels. It’s a ‘Shakespeare for Children’ series, and it’s as if you put Shakespeare in a blender and combined it with ‘Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.’ And I played this version of Claudius in ‘Hamlet’ which was like Russell Brand with a beauty mark, and a tee-shirt that read ‘Proud to be Awesome.’ [laughs] Speaking of brand personality, what do you find strange about this point in your career as far as ‘selling yourself as a brand.’ To borrow a phrase from ‘A Chorus Line,’ are some of those branding circumstances ‘a picture of a person you don’t know’?

Dastmalchian: [Laughs] That’s my job, man! I’m an entertainer, and I love that part of it. I am whoever you need be to be. From the path to the writer, the producer and the director, I am whoever they need me to be. It’s about where you need me to be the character, how you need be to be the character, and how efficiently you need me to be the character. That is the wonderful part of being an actor.

I’m at a place right where I’m trying to just do the best I can with the audition opportunities I have. Especially when it’s material I connect to, because people are starting to give me opportunities I hadn’t had before, and ‘Ant-Man’ is an another example of that phenomenon. The ‘brand,’ in a strange way, can create itself as well.

David Dastmalchian
David Dastmalchian in ‘The Dark Knight’
Photo credit: Warner Home Video Your first film role was famously in ‘The Dark Knight,’ Tell us about the audition process, and how did the role propel you to other opportunities?

Dastmalchian: I was doing ‘Othello’ at the Writer’s Theater in Glencoe, Illinois. It was really a dream production. Just at the time I sat down for the table read of that play, I auditioned for ‘The Dark Knight’ for the role of the Joker’s henchman at the bank robbing scene, in the beginning of the film. I was called back to the director [Christopher Nolan], and he was quiet and kind, and I read the dialogue. And that was that, I went back to rehearsals for the play.

I read in the newspaper a couple weeks later that they’d already shot the bank heist scene, and I was kind of devastated, because I’d been a comic book fan all my life and The Joker was a favorite. I just licked my wounds, and went back to my project, and worked on it for the next four months. So it was a situation where they called you back?

Dastmalchian: Yeah, the show had closed, and I was in that working actor situation where I didn’t know what my next project or paycheck would be. I was sitting on my futon in my little apartment in Uptown in Chicago, and the call came. My agent said, ‘Do you have a passport?’ And I said, ‘no, why?’ And it came back that ‘the Batman people have a role they want you for, as somebody who works for The Joker, but you’ll need a passport because you’re probably going to do pickup shots in London.’

I didn’t walk, I sprinted to the post office, tears of joy in my eyes. [laughs] I went to somebody I knew who worked there, and asked, ‘how do I get a passport in the fastest way possible?’ She figured it out for me, and I had to borrow 50 bucks from a friend to process it, but the rest is cinema history. That’s one of the greatest getting-the-part stories I’ve ever heard!

Dastmalchian: Yeah, and man they were so secretive. I didn’t know what I was doing all the way up to the costume fittings. Chris just trusted me, with a wonderful role. I love the sleight-of-hand in story telling, where the audience finds out the character is doing one thing, and turns out to be the other. I’m very grateful to say that my first film was ‘The Dark Knight.’ In the modern film world, it’s like being in ‘Casablanca.’

Dastmalchian: When I got home, after working around Heath Ledger for a couple weeks, I said – somewhat fatalistically – ‘I just spent a couple weeks with James Dean’ – because he was that cool, he was that magnanimous, and so goddamn sweet. For instance, I had no idea how to handle one of the rifles I had to use, and he spent all this time teaching me how to use it, while in The Joker get up. I just wanted to touch him while he was in character, as he was just talking about about bands and music. What is ironic to me, is that you knew that pain he seemed to keep a secret.

Dastmalchian: Yeah, and I usually have a great radar for it. I’ve been on the el, and looked over and thought, ‘there is a user.’ With Heath, I even joked that when I heard he got The Joker role, that it was ‘really bad casting.’ He replied, ‘Me too!’ [laughs] Then I asked him whether he was having fun. And he simply said, ‘I’m having the time of my life.’ Thanks for telling that beautiful story. So finally, if you were basing another film on your life, post addiction, what element of that character would you like to show the world, to honestly communicate who you are today?

Dastmalchian: It would be the most boring movie to any audience right now. [laughs] But to me, I would watch it around the clock. I’m in a state of bliss right now – as I work with my heroes, from the best of indie films to the biggest of studio films, and I’m spending all of my time with my wife, who has taught me the true meaning of love. My wife has never had a cigarette, or a drink, but completely understands me. ‘Animals’ is about love, with addiction in the background, and I hope the audience sees it primarily as a love story.

Because I spend everyday with my wife, and she is the greatest gift I’ve ever gotten in my life, next to my son. As an actor, I have the incredible gift of time. I get to write again, as I go from meetings to being with my family at the park. We can be together, and they are my rock. We’ve been everywhere this year, and it’s been awesome. So yes, that movie would be boring to anyone else but me, but I love it.

The Gene Siskel Film Center – 164 North State Street, Chicago – Presents “Animals” on May 22nd, 2015, with appearances by David Dastmalchian and director Collin Schiffli. Click here for details and ticket purchasing information. “Animals” features David Dastmalchian, Kim Shaw and John Heard, with a limited release throughout the country. See local listings for theaters and show times. Written by David Dastmalchian. Directed by Collin Schiffli. Rated “R” senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Writer, Editorial Coordinator

© 2015 Patrick McDonald,

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