David Dastmalchian’s name might not be familiar to you, but his angular face, deep soulful eyes and jet black hair probably are. He only had a small role, but you might remember his distinctive face from The Dark Knight. He played the Joker’s wild-eyed henchman Thomas Schiff and in one of his biggest scenes, he’s interrogated by Harvey Dent who holds a gun to his head and flips a coin.
“Heads you get to keep your head. Tails, not so lucky.”
Dastmalchian’s reaction is equal parts relief, fear and defiance. His eyes seem to plead with Harvey Dent to stop. This was his first film.
He’s among a small club of actors who have been in films and shows based on comic books from both Marvel and DC: Ant-Man, The Dark Knight and TV shows like Gotham and The Flash. He compares Marvel and DC like this:
“In the Marvel Universe, I found my favorite heroes. In the DC universe I found my favorite villains.”
Ant-Man and The Wasp reunites Dastmalchian with his crew from the first movie: Paul Rudd, Michael Peña and T.I. But Dastmalchian, like many of the characters he plays has a interesting backstory. He got his start working as a theater actor in Chicago. He’s also an accomplished screenwriter with his film Animals receiving a Special Jury Prize at the SXSW Film Festival. He wrote the upcoming film All Creatures Here Below and stars in it with Karen Gillian, who plays Nebula in.
I got to talk with Dastmalchian about, Christopher Nolan, writing indie films and bonding with T.I. over fatherhood.
Q: You have the rare distinction to be an actor who has been in both the Marvel Universe and the DC Universe (Nolan Universe). What are the similarities and differences?
There’s all kind of differences. The first comics I started reading were Detective Comics [DC] which had a dark and gritty nature. In third grade, I started my first collection — the West Coast Avengers — which were just amazing characters. And then, I got into The Avengers. You get these brighter colors, stories where you’re dealing with a lot more supernatural and cosmic elements than you get in say the Detective Comics Universe. In the Marvel Universe, I found my favorite heroes. In the DC universe I found my favorite villains.
I’ve been so blessed and fortunate to be apart of Christopher Nolan’s journey in the Batman universe with The Dark Knight. I played a character who was in league with the Joker who is one of the greatest villains ever. Nolan captured the tone, the grittiness and the visceral nature of Frank Miller’s world. And don’t forget how important the The Long Halloween was to that film, too. He brought that perfectly to the screen.
That was 2008 and that launched me. Then, I came out to Los Angeles with that one credit under my belt. And so when I got to be a part of Ant-Man I just freaked out!
What’s been happening these last ten years in the Marvel Cinematic Universe [MCU] is cinema history. What Kevin Feige and the entire team at Marvel Studios have done is to bring to life the same tone and energy and feelings I got when I first started reading Marvel comics.
And to get nerdy about Ant-Man: Hank Pym was one of the members of the West Coast Avengers that I was reading. And oh man, he was one of my favorite characters. He was such a crazy, weird, interesting, and unique human that had this incredible mind and access to this incredible tech and particles that had supernatural abilities. But he was just a guy and I cannot believe I get to be a part of telling the story. It’s the Scott Lange story obviously, but Hank Pym’s a major part of it.
The movie has Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, Laurence Fishburne and Michelle Pfeiffer. But what’s it like performing with T.I.?
I love working with T.I. but I was unaware of his importance in the world of music and culture before we started working together. When I got cast and found out who the rest of the cast was going to be, I said to my wife, “Oh it looks like I have a lot of scenes with Paul Rudd, Michael Peña and T.I.” And she was so excited about T.I. It was just one Google search and I’m like: My gosh, I’m about to be working with a legend.
T.I. is incredibly prolific. He has three cell phones — one for each of his businesses. He’s got the music thing, the writing thing, then the acting thing.
One of the things that I love about T.I. — our trailers were next to one another — was he always had a full house cause his family was with him all the time. I try to bring my family whenever I go, too. It was really fun getting to bond with a legend of hip-hop and entertainment and just hangout like a couple of dads.
I see you have a background in theater, specifically in Chicago. I’m curious, what attracted you there instead of LA or New York?
I grew up in Kansas, and then I got an opportunity to study acting at the Theatre School at DePaul University. So I moved to Chicago and that was my first real formal training. It was such an immersive experience.
When I finished school, I actually had a couple of years that — this is public knowledge — but I struggled. I had a difficult battle with addiction and got clean in 2002. I was very afraid of getting back into acting. But all I could think about and dream about was starting a career as an actor.
Luckily friends who I had known from the theater scene encouraged me to get back on stage. I got cast in some really wonderful shows. I worked with Shattered Globe Theatre, Writer’s Theater and all these amazing theaters in Chicago. I was doing a production of Othello at Writer’s Theater and I had an opportunity to audition for The Dark Knight which at that time had a secret title.
I went into a cattle call and everyone was reading the scene for the opening bank heist. The casting director, John Papsidera, had me come back in the next day. I got to meet Christopher Nolan in a small room and I read this scene of fake sides for him. I thought I didn’t get the role. I was devastated.
I went back and had an amazing time working on the production of Othello. And then in July, right on my birthday actually, I got the call that I was going to be a part of the film. They never would tell me what I was going to do. They just said you’re going to be a Joker’s thug and you need to be able to travel to London for some of the scene shoots. My life has never been the same since, man.
I can’t even imagine. And by the way, I saw that production of Othello. A pal of mine, LaShawn Banks went on for Othello.
Get out of here! Come on! Are you pulling my leg?
I am not and my friend Josh Schmidt did the sound design.
Stop it. That is so awesome, man. And I love, LaShawn. And then Josh Schmidt our sound designer, I mean he’s gone on to do incredible things. That guy’s got musicals out the wazoo.
Yes he has. I’ve known Josh for too long. How does your theater background prepare you for a role like Kurt in Ant-Man?
Part of the joy of what I get to do is becoming the character. The tools and techniques that I learned from theater are no different. The only thing really different is when it comes to performing. All my preparation is the same. But instead of a performance surrounded by a 100 or 500 seats in a theatre, you just have to remember that it’s as if you’ve got one audience member. And they’re sitting a few feet away from you beside the camera. So there’s no need to project anything whatsoever. Depending on the positioning of the camera, and what kind of lens they’re using and the way the director wants the shot to work, you might actually even pull it back a couple clicks.
Besides acting, you’re also a writer?
When I was still waiting to see if I had the courage to get back into acting, writing was my main creative outlet. I wrote the screenplay for a film called Animals, which I made with my good friend Collin Schiffli. That came out in 2015. We premiered at SXSW and won the Jury Prize for Courage and Storytelling. It was bought by Oscilloscope Labs.
I wrote All Creatures Here Below a film inspired by a lot of personal things that I had been dealing with in my life. It takes place mostly where I’m from in Kansas. We shot that over a year ago now. It stars the incredible Karen Gillan who delivered, I’m telling you, one of the best performances I’ve seen. I’m so excited for people to see what she did with this.
But that film is currently in the process of finding out — hopefully — that we’re in a festival or that we’re going be landing with a distribution company. I’m checking my phone hourly to see what updates are coming on that.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with me about Ant-Man?
I’m really proud to be a part of this film. If there’s anyone that could out-geek me or out-comic book me in moments on set, it was Peyton Reed. He has crafted a film about the importance of family and how that’s a value we all share no matter where we are socially or politically. And he does it in a way that takes us on a thrilling, fun, exciting adventure. As a nerd, and as someone who’s a fan of what’s happening with the MCU, the explorations of the quantum realm are something that I think are going to really blow people’s minds.
: In the perfect order, of course.
: It’s full of humor, happiness and father-daughter love.