David Dastmalchian has one of the most unique, interesting and memorable faces presently featured in film and television. He’s hugely popular with fans and entertainment writers alike because, in many ways, he’s one of us—a movie geek, a genre fanatic, an actor who never stops learning, and more recently, a writer whose two produced feature screenplays—2014’s Animals and recent release All Creatures Here Below (both directed by longtime creative partner Collin Schiffli)—are deeply personal, often disturbing and beautifully acted.
But around his self-generated projects (including an upcoming Dark Horse Comics series “Count Crowley: Reluctant Midnight Monster Hunter”), Dastmalchian has been appearing in some high-profile works, including the two Ant-Man films, The Dark Knight (his first feature), several films for director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Blade Runner 2049 and the upcoming Dune adaptation), the Netflix hit Bird Box, and the James Gunn-written/produced The Belko Experiment (he also has a role in Gunn’s upcoming The Suicide Squad movie). He’s popped up in superhero-based series like “Gotham” and “Flash” and has been the recurring menace Murdoc on “MacGyver.”
Dastmalchian moved to Chicago from Kansas to study acting at DePaul University’s Theatre School, and considers his deepest roots here, where he frequently comes back to work, as he did for his latest movie Teacher, which he shot on a quick break from Ant-Man and the Wasp. The film is having a one-night-only screening this Saturday, August 3, at the Logan Theater at 8:30pm, followed by a Q&A with first-time writer/director Adam Dick and some of the cast members, most of whom are Chicago actors.
Teacher stars Dastmalchian as high school educator James Lewis, who was bullied at school as a child and has carried the wounds of his youth with him into adulthood. Now existing in the wake of a failed marriage, James attempts to protect some of his students whom he’s sees being torment by bullies, an effort that triggers past trauma, causing him to make a series of bad decisions and challenge a wealthy parent played by the great Kevin Pollak. Teacher isn’t so much a film about bullying as it is about its lasting effects, and Dastmalchian’s powerful performance centers the film, even as his character slowly begins to fall to pieces.
I’ve known Dastmalchian for a number of years, but I believe this is the first time we’ve actually sat down for an interview, in which we cover a lot of ground about his career, his various creative outlets and how Teacher touched a nerve in him that made him determined to be a part of it. Enjoy our talk…
Give me a little history with you and Adam Dick, who I know is also from Chicago. Did you now each other from Chicago, or is that coincidence?
It’s such a small world in Chicago, so there was a lot of connectivity, but he sent me this really moving letter in an email and laid out his cause for why he wanted me to play this character, why he was making this film. It was a really personal and moving letter, so I then read the script. This all happened right as I was preparing to do Ant-Man and the Wasp, and I was concerned because basically when you do a film like that, they own your schedule for the four or five months of the production. But I’d also read the script for Ant-Man and the Wasp and knew that Kurt wasn’t going to be in a ton of the movie. And then I turned on my TV and saw that man who I won’t even mention just bullying people in front of a giant crowd of screaming, read-hatted, angry-faced people who were laughing and cheering on this unforgivable, inhumane, unprincipled, vulgar behavior, and I’m like “How did we get here?” And I had this flashback to being in seventh grade and this boy holding me down on a mat in gym class and a group of people standing around and laughing, and the coach was in the corner sitting there with a smirky grin on his face, and I was like “I’m doing this fucking movie.”
It was insane, Steve. I was with my wife and kids, and we’re in Atlanta to start shooting Ant-Man and the Wasp, and then we had a schedule in place for Teacher [in Chicago]. I had also co-written a short play with this talented young writer in Chicago named Aisha June for Collaboraction festival. I’m not kidding you, I flew back to Chicago at 7pm; I had an apartment downtown in Chicago, but I didn’t have a chance to stop at the apartment. I went straight to the Goodman Theatre, where I met Aisha backstage, and we had about two hours to prepare and go over our final blocking, which we’d been rehearsing through Skype. We went on stage and performed this play we’d written together. I went back to my apartment, slept for five hours, and started principle photography on Teacher. And Adam and his amazing team made it work, and not only that, they were able to get Kevin Pollak and these other amazing Chicago actors. Yeah, dude, it was crazy
I’ve seen films about bullying before. What hit me about this one that I haven’t really seen before is the way it understands the lasting impact of bullying, how it carries down through generations. At one point, he becomes what he has beheld.
That’s the horror of it. Absolutely, and there is something of a fun ride in this as far as the thriller aspect of the script, like seeing this individual twist to the point of breaking; it’s scary. It’s a horror-thriller. It was interesting for me because we have to choose how to confront monsters in our own life and how we are going to battle them. And the way my character does that is completely misguided, but it was really fun as an actor to go there, because I wanted to see what that would look like and how slow of a burn I could make it. Luckily, Adam was encouraging of that because I really wanted to keep it as long as possible and hopefully the audience would get nervous and the tension would build, and I didn’t have to really lose it until he couldn’t take it anymore.
Even the semantics are fascinating to me because the word “bully” doesn’t carry the same connotation that “abuser” does. These are abusers and abuse victims. When you combine the mentality of an abuser and unchecked, unbridled toxic privilege, and you’ve got a really dangerous situation on your hands. I think that you take James and his mental unbalance and emotion instability, his alcoholism, and we’re getting ready for some really bad shit to go down.
There’s a great pealing back of the truth about your character and this kid who is the primary abuser, and these reveals that I wasn’t even expecting. That was a nice touch.
I love that. That was really smart of Adam. He put himself into this in a really brave way. Adam has acknowledged that bullying and abuse is something he had to tolerate and survive in his youth. I did for a while, too. I had one particular year in the seventh grade that was really bad. And there were also moments, when I looked back to prepare for this, back in ninth grade when I remember being part of a group that was bullying to a couple of people and trying to think about where my anger was coming from and why that was occurring it. Interestingly for me, it was a really wonderful teacher and coach who caught us doing it one time, and the way he spoke to us about it and the way he forced us to put ourselves in this other person’s shoes, it caused me to really get an awareness that changed me. And that person and I ended up becoming friends, and we still are. Obviously, the school in this film doesn’t handle things properly, and James doesn’t either; nobody does in this movie [laughs], and there are consequences.
Let me ask you about working with someone like Kevin Pollak. It’s almost not fair how good he is at everything he does—from stand-up and acting to interviewing people on his podcast for years. And he’s required to really run the gamut in this film in terms of the personalities he puts on. What do you learn from working with a guy like him?
So much. I had met Kevin briefly. We both participate in this really wonderful charity back in Kansas City called Big Slick, which raises funds for Children’s Mercy Hospital. I knew that I liked him as a person immediately. I’ve always been a fan of his work; I loved watching him do everything from stand-up specials to talk shows to seeing him in feature films from A Few Good Men to The Usual Suspects. And I was like “Man, that guy can do everything.” What was amazing is that, I come from a school of acting, and it’s in my Chicago theater background that is intensely technically driven, so doing these really challenging emotional and combative scenes that require a lot of physical and mental chess is approached skillfully and in a technical manner.
Kevin has such insane control of his faculties that he’s able to do so many different things with his voice and eyes and body. When you’re working together, it’s like getting to play chess with a master, and then between takes, because he has such a great handle on his gifts, we just had a lovely time as well. You know what it’s like on a film set; you have hours to just get to talk, and I learned and continue to learn a lot from Kevin. He’s a good human being, and it’s always a pleasure when you meet someone who you really look up to and they’re an artist who’s really successful, the fact that they’re a good human being is the cherry on top.
Every time I see you in a role, something always strikes me: the way that you wear your hair informs us so much about whoever your character might be. Occasionally it’s a wig, but usually it’s not. How involved do you get in figuring that part of it out?
I am very involved, dude. And it’s so fun. I’m involve in the sense that I allow it to inform the character. With Teacher, it was a challenge because I had to maintain the long hair on top that I had, because I was shooting Ant-Man and the Wasp simultaneously, so I had to have the long hair for the pompadour, so I couldn’t have it as short as I might have liked for James. But that ended up being blessing in disguise, because I was able to have this controlled look with gels and give him this saucer on his head because James is awkward, he doesn’t have the best style. His glasses and coat are ill-fitting, and he works really hard to make his hair perfect, and as he becomes unhinged, it just falls apart. So that was cool.
I’ve been so lucky, and it started in my days in theater. I would would prepare with these hair artists who would come to me with these ideas and put them on me. It happened with All Creatures Down Below; I’ll never forget that I walked in and saw that wardrobe had laid out these clothes for me, and I was like “Oh, I don’t like this at all. It won’t work.” And then we were trying to figure out my hair because as you know, my hair has to kind of match Karen [Gillan’s], and then I put on the costume and got my hair cut and looked in the mirror, and I was like “I’ll be damned. There he fucking is. That’s it.” I owe a lot to artists like that.
Let me ask you about this fairly recently announcement about your Count Crowley comic book that you’ve written and will be released by Dark Horse Comics. That’s so exciting.
Dude, oh my god. I’m twitching still, and we’re working on some more marketing stuff right now, and Dark Horse is letting me be a part of everything. They are so creatively supportive. I know it sounds weird, but I’ve been so incredibly so blessed with so many professional opportunities over the last 10 years or so that I’ve been doing this—really since The Dark Knight—I’ve been able to work in film and television and be a part of storytelling. But I never saw this coming; it’s really hard to describe how I feel about it.
I don’t know if you read this anywhere, but I had imagined this as a television show since I was a kid, and I had this idea that monsters had infiltrated society and the mythology about monsters is all wrong. And there’s this horror host that uses that as a cover to fight the monsters. But I never really dove into the writing of it because I thought it was just a cool idea. But what is it really about, because I can’t write much unless I have a question I’m trying to ask, so I wrestled with it. And then I became a grownup and I dealt with addiction and what addiction means to me, and why we as humans sabotage ourselves, whether that addiction is unhealthy behavior with alcohol or drugs or unhealthy relationships or food or shopping or whatever. I’m so fascinated about why we circumvent our own happiness and why we sabotage our own success in life.
And then I started looking around me and was like “Jesus, there are monsters in plain site. I’m looking at my TV, pulling my hair out, screaming at the top of my lungs, and no one seems to be able to do anything about it.” So it all came together when I thought “What if this woman doesn’t want to be a horror host. She actually wants to be able to exposure people to the news, but her alcoholism is so bad, she can’t get a job, so her brother puts her on the creature feature, and she finds out that the guy she replaced, who was a local horror host who was actually a hero and was battling monsters, who are spewing fake news and controlling what we think we know about them, like you can’t kill the way we’ve been told we can. So she’s figuring out where her predecessor has gone and she’s dealing with the misogyny of the early 1980s, trying to be the first female monster hunter, but she’s not approved.
It all finally came together and made sense to me, and I was introduced to the Dark Horse folks, and they said we want to develop this and the sky’s the limit. We don’t know where it can go, but they said they wanted to make a comic book, which I never imagined that I’d get to create something like this. I can’t wait for you to see it. Everything about it is perfect. My artist even made me…I wanted those old-school advertisement you’d find in comics, like for army men. He integrated that into the layout. It’s like all of my life’s reams have all come true.
I know that you’re pals with Swengoolie, and you’ve been on his show a few times. Did he factor into this character at all?
In Kansas City as a kid, I grew up watching TV every Friday night—my parents were very religious, so I used to sneak downstairs after bedtime and watch Crematia’x Friday Nightmare. She has a creature feature in Kansas City, and Crematia Mortem was our host. She had a little bit of Elvira, a little bit of Vampira, but she was her own thing. She was so awesome and introduced me to all of my early favorite actors—Karloff and Vincent Price and all the Hammer Horror and Universal movies and all the B movies. Her and my local comic shop introduced me to all of my passions. So I used to write short stories about her and come up with all of these ideas about her, and she was probably my first crush. And then I moved to Chicago to study at the Theater School, and I turned on my TV one afternoon and saw Swengoolie, and was like “I love this guy.” And now that I’m doing this comic book, I’m already asking both of them “You guys have to please be in my comic book. Let me bring you in to play characters whenever we get to make the Count Crowley movie or TV show.” I want Rich and Roberta to be a part of it.
What are you doing right now?
I’m in North Carolina shooting this show called “Reprisal” for Hulu, which you’re going to love; it’s so awesome. It’s like Blue Velvet meets Tarantino. And there’s no IP; it doesn’t come from anything; it’s its own creation. It reminds me of a rockabilly “Game of Thrones.” But I’l be back in Chicago; I’ve go a lot of plans.
Best of luck with this, David.
Thank you and thanks for making time for this today.
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