Whenever an actor is interviewed regarding their work in a superhero film, the first question they're asked is usually something along the lines of, "Did you read comics as a kid?" Sometimes they say yes, sometimes they say no. Either way, it's unlikely they're full-on comic book fanatics. In the case of David Dastmalchian, it's clear he's as passionate about comic books as he is about his career as an actor and writer. One needs look no further than his appearance on the Avengers: Endgame red carpet for proof of his bona fide geek credentials, in the form of a Beyonder name drop.
Dastmalchian (pronounced Da-Small-Chin) looks back on his career like it's some kind of magical dream. His first film role was a small but immediately memorable turn as a crazed henchman of the Joker in The Dark Knight, and he's since gone on to star in a variety of comics-related media, from Kurt in Ant-Man and its sequel, to television roles in The Flash and Gotham, to say nothing of his sterling résumé outside of comic adaptations (Blade Runner 2049, Bird Box, Prisoners). He's also slated to be part of James Gunn's highly anticipated Suicide Squad film for Warner Bros.
In addition to acting, David Dastmalchian is an accomplished writer of feature films. His first film as writer, Animals, made waves and won prizes at SXSW 2014, and now he's back with a new movie. Dastmalchian wrote and stars in All Creatures Here Below, a film as heartfelt as it is disturbingly unsettling. A dramatic thriller about a couple on the run from the law while confronting their irrepressible demons, All Creatures Here Below is the type of introspectively provocative movie that challenges the audience's sensibilities while telling a completely believable story about troubled people. The film reunites Dastmalchian with his Animals director, Collin Schiffli.
We spoke to David Dastmalchian about his career in the movies and his love of comics. Then, we dove deep into his writing process for All Creatures Here Below, which co-stars another MCU mainstay, Karen Gillan, an actor best known for her work as Nebula in the Guardians of the Galaxy series.
You must feel like you're living your dream. Your comic book credentials are legit. I was watching you on the Avengers: Endgame red carpet and you were talking about The Beyonder and the Secret Wars storyline, and you were fantastic on Kevin Smith's podcast.
Thanks, man! I think there are a lot of people who are currently working in front of and behind the camera, and you would be amazed how many of those people are such lifelong comic book devotees. I do feel lucky, blessed, and grateful every day. So much of the professional work I've been able to do has allowed me to channel my love of acting and telling stories into plots and characters who have grown out of some of my favorite stories ever told. It's just really... There's a lot of different metaphors you could draw. It's like if someone dedicated their life to reading Shakespeare and then you get to stand onstage at the Globe. Or it's like if you're the most die-hard Royals fan, and all of a sudden, you're standing on the pitcher's mound at Kauffman Stadium. I don't know what metaphor works best, but it's hard to describe. So many of the people who are doing so many great things in the genres are the biggest fans. Bigger fans than I am. I thought I was the biggest fan there was, but then, having a conversation with Payton Reed or Kevin Feige or James Gunn, or any of these masters, you realize, oh my gosh, it's in their DNA.
I love that you mentioned James Gunn. He's bridging the worlds, because he's doing Suicide Squad before he's coming back home to do Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. But then, if one looks at your work, you've been jumping across both sides for years! The Dark Knight was your first movie... That's nuts!
It's funny, I just parked my car downstairs in front of the office to come up and do this interview. I was running really fast because I was stuck in traffic, and I was running late, so I told the guy who got my car, "I'm sorry, where should I park? What should I do?" And he says, "Heeeeeeey, Mister Joker's Friend!" (laughs) It was pretty awesome.
I feel like you've broken some kind of law. You've been in The Dark Knight, and Ant-Man, and The Flash, and Gotham. I mean...
That is a lot! That's super surreal to me. First of all, I think The Dark Knight, in and of itself is one of the best movies ever made. For my first opportunity to be in a film to be that particular film, and to be working with my favorite characters ever created, that was... I'm eleven years away from that experience, but I still get giddy when I think about it. Giddy isn't even the right word. I still feel my pulse rate rising when I think back to that first moment, walking into that meeting when I got to read for the director. And now, to be standing there last night (at the Avengers: Endgame world premiere) after this film, getting to congratulate the Russos and getting to see all these actors and people, and I just think, it's surreal. It's really surreal.
It's amazing. I could talk to you about comics and comic book movies all day, but we've gotta get to your new movie, All Creatures Here Below. This is the second film you've written. Your first film, Animals, was inspired by events from your past. What was the inspiration, the catalyst, behind this one?
For All Creatures Here Below, I had been thinking about this plot for many years. There was a plot that I had in mind that was a modern kind of exploration of some of my favorite storytelling that I was inspired by from John Steinbeck, but in the modern world. And also, some of my favorite films, like Badlands and Raising Arizona. So, I had this plot that I was always drawn to. I don't know if I "liked" it; it scared me. But I was drawn to it. And I would think about it all the time. I would think about this plot, but for me, writing is a really really hard thing. Even when I have a plot that I think is interesting and could maybe tell an engaging story, if I don't have a purpose or a big question behind writing it out, they tend to kind of feel, I guess "flat" is the best way to describe it. I've written dozens of scripts, plays, screenplays, stories... A lot of times, the inspiration behind it is a plot that I've concocted that I think is really interesting, but once I write it, if there's not some underlying question that I'm not wrestling with myself, I feel my writing isn't as interesting. It needs to be interesting for people to want to make a movie out of it, or a play out of it.
You surely found that on this script...
Around 2015, four years ago, there was a kind of apocalyptic or seismic revelation within my family, about some really dark, long-buried, long-avoided, covered-up abuse that had taken place. The way that came to the surface, and the way that it affected people who I love and myself, personally, and that whole idea of, like, the wounds of childhood and the way that they manifest, and the way that they can haunt us, that is what lit the true fire on the fuse. Then, I sat down and started writing, and that's what I needed to go forward with writing the script and making this movie.
When you get a personal connection, that's what triggers a rush of creativity?
I wish I had the ability to be one of those writers who comes up with amazing ideas. They're given a book or a comic book or even just an idea, and they can run with it and craft a story. I don't have that. I don't know how many scripts I'll be able to write in my lifetime, but the only time I seem to concoct anything that's interesting or that people really respond to is when it both involves a plot that I've been thinking about for a long time, and when it includes either a really important question that I'm wrestling with about my human experience, or a theme that I think is really important. I'm kind of wary of putting it this way, but to me, it makes sense: I feel like, whenever I write a film, it's a kind of propaganda for ideas or principles that I believe in, and so there's this underlying principle that I try to abide by in my life that is about the power of love. I try to infuse that into things I write, even if they're really dark or difficult to watch. I feel like those are the only things I've written that anybody seemed to think was good! (laughs)
Like Animals, All Creatures Here Below is directed by Collin Schiffli...
Yes. Collin Schiffli. Which is funny, because my character's name in The Dark Knight was Thomas Schiff. I had just shot The Dark Knight in Chicago; I was a theater actor, and Collin was at Columbia College Chicago film school, and he had just seen The Dark Knight, and he's a HUGE sci-fi comic book blockbuster movie fan. He asked me if I would do his student short film, and I did. We became very good friends working on his little thesis project for his film school. We moved out to L.A. around the same time, around 2010, and we just both have so much in common with out sensibilities about storytelling and the importance of keeping the audience engaged, and the fact that the audience is the most important part of the filmmaking process. We started making little horror short films and sci-fi short films and things together, because, when we first got here, we were just trying to make ends meet and work. When we weren't working, we were bored, so we kept trying to make our own stuff, and that rolled into making features together.
Tell me about collaborating with someone like Collin, as a writer. Both of your movies feel like they're so intensely personal, that you have things that you want to say; do you ever butt heads to get your message across?
Luckily, because we're such close friends, Collin gets a lot of where I'm coming from. So I just feel really safe, in that I know he's going to take care with the material at hand. So that's a really good thing. I think trying to do these films which are so intensely personal, and which require so much of your life force, it would be tricky to do that someone you didn't really trust like a best friend or a family member. Collin is like part of our family. I mean, he's been living with us; my kids call him Uncle Collin! He's been living with us for a year now, because he's prepping the next movie we're going to go make. You know, of course there are creative conflicts and we have butted heads a couple of times, but it's always been for the greater good of the film at hand. But even when we've had our greatest disputes, we work through it, work it out, and shake and keep going forward.
You definitely seem like you've got a good thing going with your relationship with Collin.
Yeah! Thanks man. I've got another feature I've written that's, for the first time, in the hands of another director, and it's actually... It was weird, at first, to be talking to a director who wasn't Collin. But this incredible powerhouse director out of New York, actually, named Laura Moss, is going to be directing a feature that I wrote, called Hide Your Eyes. When I started working with her, Collin was helping me while we were putting together this movie, and it was funny; we'd joke around and I was like, "I'm cheating on you," but we have to keep going and growing. Collin's about to direct a movie that I didn't write. I actually read it a couple of years ago. My friends Andrew Barrer and Gabe Ferrari wrote this script called Die in a Gunfight, which is so cool. I read it, loved it, and brought it to Collin. He fell in love with it, so we've been putting that together for a couple of years now. It's going to start shooting this year, which is very exciting.
Are you acting in that?
Do you think you'll ever direct a film in the future, or are you fine sticking to writing and acting?
You know, I think that what it requires of a human to direct a film or a TV show or a play, it demands so much from you as a person. If you've got the talent, capability, skill, vision... I don't feel like I have that fire in me to direct. I think you have to have it. It's something that consumes you in a way that, for me, writing and acting consume me. I never felt that all-consuming desire to direct. I think the only way you can do something as crazy as directing would be if you were consumed by the need to do it. I don't foresee directing at this point in my future, but I do hope to just keep improving as both a writer and an actor. I love collaborating with directors. I love it as the writer that I am, and I love it as the actor that I am. I'm so lucky I've been able to collaborate with some of the best directors of all time. For that, I'm just so grateful.
You talked about All Creatures Here Below having John Steinbeck influences. The first thing I think about when I think of Steinbeck is people riding the rails. This does seem like a road movie, but in Steinbeck's era, people who rode the rails were looking for something better, a town where things will work out where they hadn't in the past. In All Creatures Here Below, we have people on the run who are forced to ride the rails because they're forced to ride the rails or else they'll get in trouble.
Yes. I think these are two people who have this dream for their lives, this hope of finding their place. In order to get to that better place, the character that I play, Gensan, realizes they're going to have to go home where their journey began to face the dragon they've been hiding from. If they can beat that dragon, they're going to be able to go to this place that they've only dreamed of. This place where things work out for them. This place where they actually have their wants and needs fulfilled. I think there's some element there that all of us can relate to. It's so weird, having just watched Karen Gillan last night, just tearing it up in the most incredible way in Avengers: Endgame as Nebula. And then I think about what she does in All Creatures Here Below, and this character that she conjured, that she manifested, it's really inspiring and powerful. It was kind of awe-inspiring to watch because she's crafted a character who is deeply innocent, deeply pure, longing for that place that they've always been denied, longing for the security they've never been given. And yet, there's also a really horrifying, dangerous glint in her eye, because she wants it so bad, we don't know what she's willing to do to get it.
Woah, you gave me chills.
I was sitting there last night, watching Endgame, and I saw how much this woman can make happen with her characters. I'm just so grateful that she chose to play Ruby in our movie.
She is amazing, and so are you!
Oh, get out of here. Oh, go on! Put it in an e-mail and send it to me! (laughs)
This is a movie I'm really glad I get to share to the Screen Rant reader.
One of the gifts of getting to work on big projects like Ant-Man is how you get an opportunity to connect with people on a new level. And yet, these tiny films, these smaller films, we don't have any kind of marketing budget or anything like that. There's no way to be blasting it out via commercials or billboards. It requires word of mouth and journalists engaged in talking about it.
It really is a pleasure for me. I think about my favorite MCU movies, and my favorite blockbuster movies, like The Dark Knight and Guardians of the Galaxy, especially Vol. 2, Ant-Man & The Wasp; they're these tentpole blockbusters that draw you in with their spectacle, but keep you invested with such an intimate sensibility from the filmmakers. They remind one of smaller movies that are so often overlooked, and I think it's an honor to be in a position where I can help spread the word.
Thanks, man, I really appreciate that, it means a lot.
Especially because, I'm sure you've heard this a million times, but that scene in The Dark Knight was you, David Dastmalchian, announcing your presence and being like, "I'm here! This is me!"
Hopefully, I can defeat Batman once and for all, someday!
Oh, are you saying you have a dream DC villain role you want to play?
I mean... I'm not going to "joke" around about it. (maniacal laughter)
All Creatures Here Below hits theaters and VOD on May 17.