Interview: In Late Night With the Devil, David Dastmalchain Steps Into a Leading Role, Bringing His Chicago Acting Chops With Him

David Dastmalchian is a journeyman actor whose visibility and popularity have been on the rise since his role as Thomas Schiff in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (which made his recent appearance as William Borden in Nolan’s Oppenheimer all the more sweet). Although he spent years honing his craft as a part of the Chicago theater scene (especially at Shattered Globe Theatre), most people recognize him from playing Kurt in the first two Ant-Man movies, as well as Polka-Dot Man in James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad. He's also shown up in key roles in three films by Denis Villeneuve: Prisoners, Blade Runner 2049, and Dune: Part One. Basically, any time a filmmaker needs a guy who makes everyone feel a bit on edge, Dastmalchian gets the call. In 2023 alone, aside from Oppenheimer, he appeared in Boston Strangler, The Boogeyman, and The Last Voyage of the Demeter.

He’s also dabbled in writing in recent years, starting with his semi-autobiographical film Animals, a very honest look at a couple living with drug addiction; and the disturbing family drama All Creatures Here Below, co-starring Karen Gillan. And last but not least, his fantastic writing work on his horror comic series Count Crowley, published by Dark Horse Comics, is currently in its third volume.

With all of these wondrous credits under his belt, nothing quite prepared me for what he accomplishes with his latest film, Late Night with the Devil. Featuring a rare lead role for Dastmalchian (playing fictional 1970s late-night talk show host Jack Delroy), the film presents itself in a found-footage style, the supposedly rediscovered master tapes of the Halloween 1977 episode in which Delroy interviews a parapsychologist (Laura Gordon) and the subject of her recent book, a teen girl (Ingrid Torelli) who was the sole survivor of a Satanic church’s mass suicide. Aside from being convincing as a found-footage film, the film also deals with Delroy’s grief at losing his wife to cancer a year earlier, skeptics of the paranormal, and the very real chance that the ratings of this episode will decide the future of the show. The film is written, directed, and edited by Australian siblings Cameron and Colin Cairnes, and spares nothing in terms of the scares or gore.

I got a chance to sit down with Dastmalchian when he was in town last October for Late Night with the Devil’s Chicago premiere at the Chicago International Film Festival, during which we walked through his detailed creation of the Jack Delroy character, the lengths the filmmakers went to re-create the look and feel of a ’70s variety show, and so much more. Please enjoy our extended conversation. Editor's Note: this interview contains spoilers.

Late Night with the Devil opens in select theaters, including the Music Box Theatre and AMC River East, this Friday.

LATE NIGHT WITH THE DEVIL. Image Courtesy of IFC Films.

In recent months, you created the Count Crowley comic book about a TV horror movie host, you hosted the Fangoria award show in character as Dr. Fearless, and now you have Jack Delroy. So in addition to being a horror aficionado, you’ve become a professional master of ceremonies. Is this something that has fascinated you for a while, or is it a new obsession?

So, I grew up in Kansas City obsessed with Crematia Mortem, who was our Friday night creature-feature hostess. Then I come to Chicago, where Svengoolie becomes my heart and soul. And then I just dove in. Since I was a kid, I’ve loved the late-night talk show hosts; I was big into Letterman when I was a kid. I thought he was the best. I think that with my Dr. Fearless character, I’m able to create a persona that is probably not unlike when a lot of these characters get to put on the makeup and cape and be goofy. Not to the level of artistry of the likes of Gregg Turkington or Neil Hamburger, but I think about the gift of getting to slip into another persona and let my valve release. It’s kind of awesome, and I want to do it more, so yes, I love to start to find a place for myself in that space.

Let’s back up a bit and find out how Colin and Cameron approached you with this story.

This is really important, because I know a lot of people who read your stuff are filmmakers or aspiring filmmakers. If you’re trying to get your film made, it’s so hard to get bigger budgets for your first, second, even third films. The script is the thing; you have to write every line, justify it, give your heart, really put your own fears and things that scare you the most into your scripts, so that it will really mean something when you ask that of your characters. I believe Colin and Cameron did that, but in front of that, the amount of time that these guys spent dedicating themselves to understanding the tonal vision of the kind of film they wanted to make, they were able to express, because they spent countless hours chiseling away at what this film was and what it needed to look like.

They built this gorgeous pdf look-book; it looked like microfiche of an old TV Guide from the 1970s, and they diligently photoshopped my face into old newspaper articles and TV Guides. They did that in a way that was so impressive to me that when Roy Lee, who is a producer on the film and a friend of mine, accompanied the script with the look-book, and truly, it’s hard to get me to read a script, and I started looking at the look-book first, and that immediately got my blood pumping and got me excited, and then I had to read the script.

Any time a director tells me about the contents of their look-book, I just say, “Let me see it.” I wish they would publish those.

I wish they would. It got me so pumped. I want a blu-ray bonus feature of the directors going through the look-book with commentary, because some things change so much. The Duffer Brothers look-book for Stranger Things, which had a different title at the time, is something that everybody looks at now and goes “Wow, that’s inspiring.”

You mentioned Letterman before and Carson’s name is dropped in the movie. That’s clearly not who you modeled Jack after. Who were some of the people you looked at for Jack?

All of them . When I got into serious consideration after talking to the guys, and I decided I really wanted to do this film and I had a few months before we shot this in Melbourne, Australia—I’m the only American in the cast, which is wild. The dialect work of these actors is phenomenal, truly. I would go to bed every night, and put Johnny Carson on YouTube, the monologues, also Dick Cavett, David Letterman, and I also dug into Phil Donahue, even Morton Downey Jr., because I felt like there was an element of Jack’s show, especially at the point where we get to know him in the movie, that is much more shock-sploitation. That was the stuff I was watching every night as I fell asleep.

No Jerry Springer?

I didn’t get into Springer, but here’s a really cool thing: when the guys asked me if I wanted any additional inspiration for my research. I said, sure, there was a guy who was the Johnny Carson of Australian named Don Lane, who was from Chicago, who was a radio personality in the states, but he went to Australia and became their biggest nighttime talk show host. In fact, his last show, David Bowie was in town having dinner, and he saw that it was Don’s last show—it was a live broadcast—and Bowie walked down the street and onto set and was his last interview.

If I were an actor in this role, the thing I’d be most scared of was delivering the monologue. Walk me through your process of getting that right. If you don’t get that right, we won’t buy the rest of the movie.

It was terrifying because it’s everything, Steve. It kept me up night, because after studying talk show hosts, even contemporary hosts, the opening monologue is everything, and it is this perfect hybrid of scripted jokes that they’re reading off of a teleprompter, with the lightning-quick improvisation. As an actor, you have to manufacture that sense of improvisation that is timed for consistency of filming. So how to make that work vocally, energetically, how to make certain line deliveries like I had memorized them as Jack, certain ones that felt like I was discovering them. This was the genius of Colin and Cameron and the trust they put in me, they just filmed the monologue is one long take, they brought in a full studio audience for me—or mostly full—including a lot of our crew, extras, etc., so they could give me that energy back.

They had a guy holding cue cards that didn’t have any of my lines on them. I was like “We’ve got the cue-card guy there. Why doesn’t he have my actual lines on them? ” And then I memorized the monologue the same way I would memorize a play for Chicago theater, and I came out, we did it, and the very first time, the drummer was working with me, giving me some good rolls. Then I would toss some jokes to my sidekick, and I could feel it. There was something going on between me and the audience that felt really fucking good. I think we did it maybe three times. It was scary as shit, even just trying to throw in gestures, and luckily the drummer was giving me sound, and I was like “This is what it needs to be, man!” It was great.

LATE NIGHT WITH THE DEVIL - Image courtesy of IFC Films

Jack’s unprocessed trauma is his downfall in the end, and it’s hinted at but not discussed much in the beginning of the film because he would never talk about it in the open; that’s the kind of guy he is. So how do you convey that without saying it?

That was everything to me. The Jack I was preparing is the Jack who’s home alone with his scotch, the Jack who has not processed the trauma of losing the love of his life, the witnessing of her debilitating illness, watching her decay in front of his eyes. The fact that he put his career in front of everything causes him deep down to blame himself for neglecting her. His sense of identity and self-worth is so wrapped up in his job, all of that, for me, to sit, as an actor preparing for a role, and allow to exist as something right under the surface of what is Jack, the public persona and charming host of a talk show, that was actor gold for me. And the way it can bubble through and pop up was stuff that I allowed to be discovered in scene work.

There were a few lines that I had known would be moments in which we would open a little bit of the tectonic plates and let some steam out so you can see something fucked up going on under there. But I always wanted to approach this film so that when it’s over, the audience can walk away and go “Did the devil just possess a TV show, or did a guy with unprocessed trauma just have a nervous breakdown on live television and kill a bunch of people?” Spoiler alert! And thankfully, the guys indulged the dramatic tendencies that I wanted to explore.

Did you give a lot thought to how Jack would react when the shit starts to hit the fan? Would he stay professional and stay the host?

I had to give a lot of thought to that, and it was a wonderful paradox because you’re in shock and scared shitless, but at the same time, those feelings can be trumped by his need for validation. So the cameras are the constant reminder that when something wild happens, there are those big beautiful TV cameras watching. And I’m like “This really hurts, but it’s creating gold.” That’s drama, that’s like Shakespeare.

It’s not a found-footage film in the strictest sense; it’s a fake documentary. You say right up front, we have the master tapes of the show, and then this French documentary crew provided behind-the-scenes material. The behind-the-scenes Jack is a different guy; it’s shot differently because it’s not through those old-school TV cameras; it’s a different aspect ratio, I believe.

It is absolutely. It was shot totally verite, and the cinematographer had every planning shots that they worked out with the directors, which was great because you catch me getting ready in the mirror and interacting with props. We wanted it to feel like Network—chaotic, frenetic and very dangerous—that energy. I’ve never been part of a live television broadcast, but I have been on a lot of news shows behind the scenes, and you can feel that crazy energy. But it reminded me of being backstage at a play. I wanted that feeling you get when you’re backstage and you know you’ve got 30 seconds before everybody has to get back on after a full makeup change, all the drama that’s going to go on, and shooting that was really fun because usually we tried to get it in just one take, while doing weird blocking patterns, and you’ve got a guy walking by giving me a prop and another guy taking my cigarette. I knew that if we nailed it, it was going to be really fun, and they did a fantastic job.

Tell me about working with Laura and Ingrid as your two guests. They come in much later in the film, almost midpoint.

Both Laura and Ian, who is the debunker guest, were last-minute castings. Laura was originally supposed to play my wife in flashbacks, and then the actor who was going to play her character, Dr. June Ross Mitchell, refused to get vaccinated , and we shot this in the height of trying to navigate our safety. So Laura has no time, but is such a consummate actor, she’s so talented that she comes in and we rehearsed for a few days together, and she really put together this phenomenal character, and she had this really great bond with Ingrid, who is this sweet high school kid. I don’t believe she’d ever done anything before this film; she’s naturally so fantastic, and she would be babysitting my kids on the weekend. And then we’d go to work together, and she’d scare the shit out of me. She’d get in that creepy-ass makeup that you see her in in some of the quick flashes. We didn’t have trailers, just dressing rooms, and I’d walk by and she’d be humming to herself; she gave me the creeps, man .

Having it set in the 1970s, with the late-1960s, early-‘70s aesthetic, and using what appears to be all practical effects, as a true horror fan, that had to have thrilled you to no end.

It did. In fact, I’ve become very close to some of the people at Fangoria magazine, and they sent me a “Happy First Day of Filming” box, and I was handing out mugs and shirts and magazines to the makeup department, the effects team—they were all so excited. We took pictures for the folks at Fangoria. I’ve always been obsessed with practical effects and the power of the tangibility of helping actors in their performances, getting to interact with the grotesquery of gore. In this film, Colin and Cameron, as old-school horror nuts, wanted worms coming out of stomachs and blood squirting out of necks, and it is so much more cool when you’re performing to get to interact with that stuff.

This is one of only starring roles that you didn’t write. Do you like that pressure and being able to say “This is my show.”

Sure, yeah. It’s scary, and nothing is worth doing for me that isn’t a little bit scary, because I want to keep growing and I think I have a lot of terrain I need to cover as an actor to become the actor that I want to be. To do that, I think I need to keep pushing myself and challenging myself. This was certainly one of the biggest challenges I ever undertook, and not just because of the size of the role or the amount of pages that I had to process and work through. Like you said, that pressure of having to deliver charm and comedy and all of these things that I was afraid I might fall flat on.

And you not only have to deliver the monologue-style comedy, but there are moments of humor in the film that are a totally different kind of levity.

Thanks.

I always ask this of anyone with roots in the Chicago: what is the most Chicago thing about you?

This is embarrassing. The serious answer is my acting style; that’s it. And I’m very proud of that. I think a lot of people in the film world who say complimentary things about, for example, my work ethic, style and approach, risk taking, willingness to piss on stage is a Chicago thing, which never felt like it was done for shock value. I never saw it as self-destructive, but I did sometimes ask “How far can you push yourself to get the authenticity you need?”

The other thing is, I got to the hotel today and had pizza waiting for me—Chicago-style pizza all the way. In the car from O’Hare, heading to the hotel, trying to figure out how to get Baccino’s pizza. We’ve got a Gino’s East in LA now, all of them are my favorite—Pequod’s is fucking good. We’ve got one place in LA that serves kind of a Chicago-style pizza that I really like.

David, thank you so much and best of luck with this one. It’s so great.

Thanks for saying that. Your support has always meant so much over the years.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.