The last slew of years have made David Dastmalchian a household name in the world of fandom. The realms of horror, science-fiction, and all of those in-between have become Dastmalchian’s home sweet home. Ever since his feature acting debut in The Dark Knight, the actor has been on an upward trajectory of success. Besides dipping his toes in both notable Marvel and DC projects (The Ant-Man films, Gotham, and The Flash), the actor is now also a full-fledged screenwriter and comic writer. The first collection of his comics, Count Crowley: Reluctant Midnight Monster Hunter, was just released in trade paperback this June by Dark Horse. A massive achievement on its own, though 2020 originally had more in store for Dastmalchian.
The actor has recently been making waves with his involvement in both James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad and Denis Villeneuve’s Dune. Two blockbusters with their own respective followings that have also had plans diminished by the ongoing pandemic. Dune was originally supposed to release this year, and along with the upcoming DC extravaganza, the films have had to resort to other methods in terms of marketing. So in addition to celebrating Count Crowley, Dastmalchian would have had much more to share about these two significant roles, both with the potential to be absolute scene stealers.
Though in the time of the ongoing pandemic, bigger issues have been on Dastmalchian’s agenda. A known advocate for mental health and social justice, Dastmalchian has been using his platform as an artist to spread awareness of the upcoming election. With the film industry still in a sort of limbo, along with the harsh realities of the world, things have been better, to say the least. But all seemed bright when sitting down with Dastmalchian for an exclusive interview. We talk his journey as an artist, collaboration process with directors like James Gunn and Denis Villeneuve, and he gives key messages to fellow creatives in lockdown.
Your schedule pre-pandemic was looking to be quite packed with promoting The Suicide Squad, Dune, and much more. These type of projects are blessed with communities of fans that are looking for some type of escapism, especially in times like today. Has this played into your lockdown in any way?
DD: It’s really hard right now to look at what’s happening in the United States. Like last night I just happened to watch some of this really ridiculous Trump interview. I’m sure you saw, where he claimed the existence of shadow organizations and stuff like that. You know, it’s really scary to see caravans of people in trucks with guns driving around, I never imagined we would see this place. So if we ever needed superheroes, science-fiction, and great storytelling to help us process this, it’s very useful. As you said, having a community of fellow film lovers and comic-book lovers. For me, I have friends that are into gaming, comics, and horror – ways that we can try and escape together. I do weekly Zoom D&D games. That really helps me.
You’re very vocal about politics on social media. Now, these are actions that we don’t always see used in a responsible manner from people in positions of influence.
DD: I mean, it’s the best thing we can do and we have to stick together. We have to help educate. We have to try and stay positive. I realized that on social media, if I post, you know, who I think people should vote for or who I think people should be careful or wary of, or if I criticize – that’s my right and I should exercise that right as often as I feel necessary – but I’m feeling the best way for me to be useful with the small platform or small reach that I have is by doing, I guess you would call it like a contest I did where anybody who is a first-time voter and registers to vote, if they sent me the screengrab of their voter registration, I’ve been sending out Count Crowley limited edition enamel pins, just as like a thank you.
If I can at least hopefully get some young people out there that share similar interests as me, like comic-books, movies, etc, and get them more active than me when I was 18. I didn’t really care or care to know much about the electoral process when I was 18. Now it’s like if we got half, even two-thirds of eligible 18 to 20-year-old voters out to actually vote, we could help change the world. I really believe that young people right now have such amazing power. They’re really informed, they’re really progressive, and they really understand the importance of equality, justice, and humanity. They understand that lives are more important than profits. They understand that equality is more important than privilege. And I see a lot of young people who are willing to stand up for that.
So I appreciate you saying that! I’m trying my best. I understand, of course, some people are wary of speaking out. I feel like right now customers, because that’s ultimately what my viewers are – people who buy my comic-book or whatever – they’re my customers. If I have to run the risk of losing some customers because I have to speak out, then I would rather lose some customers or whatever you want to call them. I don’t know if I have fans, I guess people who like my work, but if I have to lose that, and then 20 years from now, my kids can look back on my social media and say, “Well, Dad, at least was using it.” Then I’ll feel like I made the right choice. But it’s a scary time. You should see some of the hatred that I have received. It’s disturbing. I don’t read the DMs because they’re just… there are some nice ones, I’m sure. But also, there’s some hatred.
People don’t usually realize that politics are naturally ingrained in almost every piece of media, especially fiction. The comic-book projects you’ve been involved in have not been shy about these topics for example.
DD: To be honest with you, like when I went to see Ant-Man and the Wasp, I was so proud of that film for so many reasons. For one, I think it’s a super fun, awesome experience. Totally original movie. I love the first Ant-Man. I thought Ant-Man and the Wasp was a big step forward. And it was a movie that every person, I don’t care what political party, I don’t care what belief system they’re from, every person could relate to the power of family, both birth family, stepfamily, and found family, as you saw with Ghost and her relationships. Even if she was technically the ‘villain’ of our film, she was still a totally relatable character.
It also showed the very clear effects of ripping families apart. That character had been torn apart from her family when she was a kid. You saw her pain, and without ever being overtly political in any way, the movie sent such an important message during the summer that it came out – when we were kind of in the height of the national discourse about like, “Is it okay to separate a young child from their parent because they are trying to immigrate to our country? Do we believe putting them in cages?” Count Crowley is a very political comic-book. Although I don’t think anyone who reads it feels like I’m trying to beat them over the head with my political views, but I absolutely believe that you can use monsters to shine a light on a lot of ideas.
There is totally a way to do it without beating people over the head. Finding commonality, that’s the power of storytelling. When somebody who sees the world differently than me, or who is afraid of other kinds of people, or who thinks negatively, or who is ill-informed, or believes uneducated ideas about groups of people can go to the movie theater and put themselves in someone else’s shoes for an hour and a half or two hours, and hopefully walk out with their heart just a little bit more warmed to the reality that we’re actually all the same.
Speaking of commonality and communal experiences, you can say that we’ve been kind of “robbed” of them this year. Again, many of which had originally been in your plans with promoting your upcoming work.
DD: Well, it’s been taken away from us. There’s been mourning that we are going through. For me, this summer was probably personally and professionally, one of the biggest, most exciting summers I would have ever had. I was so excited about the surprises I was going to share at San Diego Comic-Con and New York Comic-Con. Also, all the movies that were about to come out this summer that I was so excited to get my family and friends together to go see. We have to collectively acknowledge and give ourselves permission to mourn that, because that’s what many of us like, it’s one of the things we really live for, you know?
If not for the pandemic, and like you briefly just touched upon, we would have probably gotten the first look at The Suicide Squad and Dune at San Diego Comic-Con. Even though they’ve been promoted virtually, the reactions online have felt just as loud.
DD: Yeah! I hope soon that we’re able to get back to large crowd gatherings. Obviously, I can’t wait until we can gather again in San Diego, New York, or Chicago. I can’t wait to go back to Rose City in Portland, which was a huge experience for me last year promoting Count Crowley. There are so many great conventions. I mean, I’m a guy that for years was on the other side of the convention table. And now as an actor and comic creator, I get to have been on both sides of the table. I love both sides equally. In fact, I think I love being on the fan side a little bit more because I have a lot more freedom to just roam around and I’m a collector. So I like to go as well for buying purposes and making new friends who help me find the things I’m looking for. It’s all a really great experience.
We’re curious as to how you first joined The Suicide Squad because you’re obviously a Marvel alum and also have a history with director James Gunn. Did that come into play when being cast?
DD: The way that I got to be a part of the film was just a pure gift. James has been a big gift in my life. He is a very dear friend. He’s one of my best friends. He’s also somebody that I can really lean on and go to because he’s one of the wisest people I know. I have never taken that friendship for granted. Now, he is obviously one of the most talented and successful filmmakers of our time. We have never really talked much about work. We talk when we hang out, it’s more about life or maybe we’ll talk about other movies and things like that. So when he told me that he had me in mind for this character in the film, it was such a great gift.
He is just such a fantastic director. I had previously gotten the chance to be in a film that he wrote, which was The Belko Experiment. It was such a fantastic experience because it was populated with many of the James Gunn family. It’s almost like a theater company. This incredible circle of people around him who are just such awesome humans, but also super talented. And it’s not just that, of course, you have super talented writers and directors, but also people who aren’t even in our industry, unique individuals who are just cool people.
So getting to ever be around something that he has a hand in is a gift. As an actor I’ve been given so many gifts, there is no way that I would do justice to the journey of being an actor without acknowledging the fact that luck, faith, or good fortunate – however you like to look at it – has shown its light. That goes all the way back to my first feature film role in The Dark Night. These sequences of just life-changing acting experiences where I not only get to play really complex and wonderful roles, but I get to work with such incredible people. And I get to be a part of things that for me, as somebody who loves the material so much and who is born and bred on comics, sci-fi, and horror, I’ve just been given so many gifts.
I do believe that I’ve worked very hard to hone my skills and talent, but you can’t discount the fact that I’ve also just been really fortunate. So, anybody who is reading this who is out there struggling, hustling, and trying to make it happen, I will just say that for the many years that I wasn’t making any money doing this, or the many years that I was struggling to get myself together. I had to go through a long battle to get clean and sober, and I had to go through a long battle to get my mental health in a good place. I also spent many years without agents, managers, or anybody else advocating for me and just submitting myself to every short film, music video, experimental projects that I could. I wrote down my goals every single day. I still write down my goals for the month and the year. I worked my butt off, but I also got lucky and very blessed with some amazing friends.
To move on, you could say that you have a similar relationship with director Denis Villeneuve. A modern visionary, you have starred in his previous films and play a notable role in Dune. Can you speak on your relationship with him?
DD: I auditioned for Denis’ film Prisoners in 2013, when I was working very hard and struggling to find my footing in this path of working in film and television that I had been dreaming about for so long. At that moment, I actually was preparing to go make the independently financed, very small budget feature film that I wrote called Animals. I had just pretty much gotten everything we needed together to go make Animals. Fortunately, I then got cast in Prisoners because it’s so much for me as a person being on that set and seeing the way that Denis worked – being inspired by the way he made his film. Just getting to be around that energy and the incredible cast and incredible artists that he surrounds himself with.
I then left Prisoners and pretty much went straight into Animals. I was so inspired by what I had just seen in the way that Denis worked. And I didn’t direct Animals, my friend Collin Schiffli directed, but I produced, acted in, and wrote it. I helped do a lot of the jobs on it. So being in the presence of Denis and getting to know and work so intimately with him, because Bob Taylor was such a challenging character to portray. Not only in the way that I knew he needed to be, but in the way that Denis wanted him to be portrayed. We formed a great friendship and we’ve been friends ever since. I’m very lucky that when he went to make Blade Runner 2049, he also wanted me to be a part of that film.
I was just so moved and so grateful. There are so many talented actors and there are so many amazing people in the world that to get an opportunity to not only twice, but now three times get to be on set with Denis and be a part of his vision, it’s going back to that word again, it’s such a true gift in my life. He is also one of my favorite human beings. With Dune, I get to play Piter De Vries who is a character that I had been familiar with from previous iterations of the film, but I’m also a massive fan of Frank Herbert’s novel. The character very much frightened me in how to approach the playing of it.
For anybody reading this who is familiar with the mythology of Herbert’s Dune or those who are going to dive into it and go see this film, there are these really fascinating beings called Mentats. They are humans that have been bred and raised to do high functioning, computational data processing. They are like human computers. So knowing that and figuring out a way to find myself in that world, it scared me. Then when I got there… I can’t wait for everybody to see the costume and makeup design. Every single element in the way that this character was constructed was so informative for me.
When I got on set, he just always gave me all the clues, all the encouragement, all of the support I needed in really finding this character. He’s a hard character to play, but I loved playing him. People are fans of science-fiction to be quite honest and I don’t know many people that don’t love good sci-fi, but even if people aren’t huge on the genre, it’s going to be one of those films people will walk out of and their jaws will be on the floor. They are going to say, “I’ve never seen anything like that before, cinema needs this right now.”
Going off what you’ve seen from Dune, if you could tease the hungry moviegoers at home with more, what would you add?
DD: Whether a person is a fan of science-fiction or not, going to see Dune will be an experience that they will remember for the rest of their lives. I really believe that. Denis is creating something that is going to leave their jaws on the ground but in a really wonderful way. It explores a lot of the important issues that we as human beings are grappling and wrestling with. The importance of our environment and how does our environment affect our society? Classism and how does classism affect our society? Tribalism, separatism, racism, gender politics, you name it – it’s all woven into the deeper questions of Dune. But at the same time, that’s not what you’re thinking about. You’re going on this insane adventure with this incredible young man and his family, as he goes on a quest to not only discover who he is, but to save his people and to do what’s right. I just can’t wait for people to see it!
Your character Piter De Vries was also portrayed on screen by the legendary Brad Dourif. Does something like that intimidate you in any way as an actor?
DD: Of course, I have seen the previous iterations, but once I got the role, I did not look back at that. Personally, I felt like it might inhibit me from the choices and discoveries I needed to make because this is an entirely new film. So I dove back into the novel. And I love it so much. I ended up re-reading it twice over the last two years. It’s just such a fantastic book. When I would have questions about inspiration, motivation, tone, I would just email Denis and ask. Ultimately, my job as an actor is to serve the vision of my director, that at the end of the day is my job.
It’s really important for me to dig into if I have a screenplay, if there’s source material to the screenplay, if there’s anything else that informs the screenplay, like dig into it as deeply as I possibly can – make as many choices and feel true to my gut as possible about who this character is. Thankfully again, from the novel, there was a ton of data I could pull. Then you show up and have to allow the director to shape that into what he or she needs it to be for their vision. That’s really important to me, making sure that I can bring the best of my abilities to help fulfill the director’s vision.
It’s funny you say that because I know so many people that are reading the book for the first time in preparation, rather than watching previous film adaptations, which are great in their own right don’t get me wrong.
DD: I love that! I hope so many people will read or rediscover Herbert. It makes me really happy too with comics ever since the Marvel boom that started, gosh, over 10 years ago now. I am a frequent visitor to comic shops and I noticed as both Marvel and DC, everybody started to really kick up the notch on the films that they were creating for audiences. I was seeing so many more young people. There was a moment where I would go into comic shops and I felt like it was only guys and girls my age or older, and all of a sudden the young people, they started discovering comics again or for the first time. A lot of that comes from masterfully done cinematic adaptations of these characters. So I think the same thing will hopefully happen with Dune where once people see Denis’ brilliant vision, they’re going to want to dive into the source material. It happened with Harry Potter. It happens with a lot of things where people who didn’t have the book, they got it because they loved the movie so much.
To bring us home, I can imagine since the start of lockdown that you’ve been writing a lot?
DD: Yes, I have! Unfortunately, everything in a great sense has been kind of put on hold and smaller titles, like the comic-book I write, were just kind of put on hiatus. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t have faith, that I don’t love and believe in this story. So I’ve definitely been creating stories and future plots for the world of Count Crowley, which is hands down my proudest achievement as a storyteller. The way it’s come together and now in trade paperback, I’m so proud of it. And yet, we literally just scratch the surface when we’re in those first four issues in that trade.
So I’m excited. I dream of that a lot, although it’s scary because you just don’t know what’s going to happen. Once business hopefully kicks up enough, if there is enough demand for it, then I can get back officially, but until then, I’m unofficially continuing to develop and write stories that I want to tell there. Then I also have a horror film that is a drama that I’m very proud of and very excited about. I’m a relentless re-writer of scripts. I’ve had two films made so far, Animals and All creatures Here Below, which both went through a pretty rigorous re-writing process. But this new film I’m writing, I’ve got this incredible director, her name is Erica Scoggins, and we’re on Zoom almost every day honing in on the mechanics of this because it is by genre.
I would define it as a horror film, but I want it to be a horror film that can shatter your heart and make you feel really deep, emotional things about these characters because it’s also a very character-driven plot. It’s very personal to me because it deals with a lot of the issues that I fear the most in my experience as a human, and also the things that I will wrestle with until the day I die, which include addiction, mental health, and mental illness. I’m very excited about that. I’m also working with some super talented artists, who I got to know through working on big feature films, who have been developing a series based on a world of Vampires that has not been touched yet.
If you can believe it, there are still Vampire stories that have not been told. And this one is so exciting. It’s been cool because I’ve been writing that, while at the same time, I’m dreaming up and imagining myself getting to act in that world. So writing gives me a great deal of opportunity to process the difficult, scary, and complicated feelings that I’m having about the state of the world, the pandemic, etc. Then I’m very blessed that I have the biggest gift that life has given me by far – work, art, and everything is wonderful – but the biggest most beautiful gift I’ve got is this incredible wife. Evelyn Leigh, she’s the superhero I guess that I never knew really existed on Earth. She’s been the person during this time who has just showed up every single day for me. We’re working together to raise these two kids, who thankfully are already kind of like comic and horror hounds, which is great!
It seems like you’ve been keeping yourself very busy! If you had any more insight to give struggling creatives in quarantine, besides keeping up with all of your work, would would you add?
DD: Two really important things. The first one: be your own advocate. No one’s going to campaign or fight harder for you than yourself. So you need to campaign for yourself. One of the best ways to do that is by surrounding yourself with people who support, encourage, lift you up, and who you can do the same for. It’s really important for people to take a look around themselves and think about who it is that they’re giving their time and energy to. So many of my ideas and so much of my productivity come from the people that I surround myself with and collaborate with. I think that’s really vital, really continue to make sure that you are keeping those people who love, support, encourage, and believe in you close as possible.
The second: writing down with a physical pen and paper and hanging it in your room, office, kitchen… your daily, weekly, monthly, and annual goals are vital. I have told this story many times, but when I moved to Los Angeles, I had three goals at the top of my life goal list: work with the Muppets, be a James Bond villain, and work with David Lynch. Then I would have my yearly, monthly, and weekly goals building to that. And a few years ago, I got the opportunity to work with David Lynch in his genius Twin Peaks series for Showtime. Getting to scratch that off the list was an incredibly empowering feeling. I know that having to stare at that every day was one of the things that really helped me.
I auditioned for a short film that one of Lynch’s casting people was casting and she didn’t cast me in that, but she ended up bringing me in for Twin Peaks several years later. If you’re reading this and you don’t think it’s possible – you think that student film, music video, or that thing that somebody’s asking you to do for free, if you think you’re too good for that, you think it’s not worth your time, then man, you better be doing something super productive and super important because you’ve got to just keep putting yourself out there.
That’s crazy. I love Twin Peaks and it was great to see you in that story. Crossing fingers that it doesn’t take much longer for the Muppets to come knocking!
DD: Thanks brother. They’re doing some fun stuff on Disney+ right now. And I’m always sending out the signal to the universe like, “Hey, Muppets I’m here!” I believe it was the very first film that I saw in a movie theater. They re-released The Muppet Movie in theaters when I was a kid and my friend’s mom took us to go see it. I remember thinking like, man, this is what it’s all about. And to this day I still watch it with my kids, we listen to it and watch it all the time.