“I always imagined that if I was in a vampire film, I would be the vampire,” David Dastmalchian says. He’s calling from Malta, during a short break in filming for Last Voyage of the Demeter, a horror film in which the actor plays the ill-fated first mate on a boat that turns out to be harboring Dracula. As casting director, his instincts are sound. Dastmalchian has a face straight out of German Expressionism, with wide, soulful eyes, dramatic brows, and a jagged swoop of jet-black hair. He’s best known for characters who are sinister, yet also vulnerable: a memorable turn as the Joker’s henchman in The Dark Knight, a murder suspect in Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners, a character known only as “Whistling Marauder” in Bird Box.
For Dastmalchian, who has been open about past struggles with heroin addiction and depression, his latest role has yet more personal resonance. In James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad, he plays Abner Krill, a.k.a. Polka-Dot Man, a misfit whose mother’s scientific experiments have left him with the dubious ability to control polka dots. (“I don’t like to kill people, but if I pretend they’re my mom, it’s easy,” he says.) Dastmalchian himself was diagnosed with vitiligo as a child, and his character’s struggles with the dots that emerge from his skin mirror his own youthful anxieties. It’s the standout performance in a movie with a lot of performances, and it sets off what should be a busy few months for the 44-year-old actor: Later this fall, Dastmalchian will reunite with Villeneuve to play the malevolent mystic Piter De Vries in Dune.
“It’s weird because I’m over here, making this movie, in a weird bubble for so many reasons,” Dastmalchian says from Malta. “And meanwhile, across the world, I’m a part of another film that’s opening. I’m having a strange experience, but it’s really lovely.” In conversion with Vulture, the actor spoke about battling imposter syndrome, the cat he adopted on The Suicide Squad set, and how he wishes his own mother could have seen him become Polka-Dot Man.
You and James Gunn go way back, and he wrote the part of Abner for you. At this stage in your career, does that happen often?
The last four years, it’s become much more of a thing. I don’t know if that’s because I’m such a specific type of individual. Although I like to think that I can disappear into any character, my face is a very specific look. My voice is particular. It’s such a miracle that people in the last several years have begun to think of me for something. I did a series a few years ago called Reprisal and the showrunner Josh Corbin, when he met me, was immediately like, “I had you in my book when I was developing this show.” And Denis, when he was sculpting his vision of Piter, I don’t know if he necessarily envisioned me for it, but when he called me to tell me he wanted me to be in the film, he seemed to think I was the right person. It’s weird. I used to hear about actors who got these offers out of the blue and I thought, Oh man, that must be nice. And I’m getting to experience that. It’s like winning the lottery as an actor.
Your first film role was in The Dark Knight. You’ve been in the MCU in the Ant-Man movies. And now you’re in this new phase of the DC movies with The Suicide Squad. Those are the three pillars of modern superhero cinema. Are you able to articulate the differences between what it’s like as an actor in each of those three?
Because I’m on the inside of those experiences, it’s only when I step back and see the projects in their totality that I can recognize the differences. As someone who’s on set, there’s much more in common than there is different. What they have in common is getting to be around people who are at the height of their game, for lack of a better term. People working both in front of and behind the camera who are stars of what they do. How wonderful that experience continues to be. It makes me go, Wow, it’s no wonder this person is a star. They’re just so incredibly good at what they do. And the passion and the childlike kind of imaginative commitment that every one of the creators behind these has had, I find very similar. Now obviously styles differ from person to person, but I find much more simpatico than different.
What about the process of making a gigantic superhero film? Has the scale of it changed in the past 15 years?
The craft techniques have evolved significantly. The Dark Knight was shot on film and it was a massive production. My first day on set, it felt like close to a thousand background actors, no joke. All of the police in uniform, all of the crowd standing by, all of the participants in the parade sequence, which was everyone from Gary Oldman to Maggie Gyllenhaal, to every other actor in the film basically. I was watching Chicago’s financial district basically being completely shut down so this massive movie could be made there. It was huge.
Going to Ant-Man, seeing them re-create San Francisco in Pinewood Studios in Atlanta, and then seeing them bring down an entire Pym Laboratories with a giant tank exploding out of a building, that was certainly something I’d never seen done before. This beautiful blending of digital and practical effects was really eye-opening. And humbling for me as an actor, like: My God, I feel so tiny. And then with James, what was really unique was his commitment to the number of practical effects. And all the techniques that have been learned from the shrinking of the camera — they could get in all the nooks and crannies while at the same time expanding the world. I mean, he built a full jungle on a stage. He built an entire beach outside of Pinewood Studios with a working ocean. That scale, I’d never experienced before.
You’ve spoken before about how on both The Dark Knight and The Suicide Squad, there were times where Chris Nolan and James Gunn could tell you were having an anxious moment, and were very good about putting their arm around you — literally or metaphorically — and getting you into a better place. Do those nerves ever go away, or are they part and parcel of the whole experience for you?
It’s an interesting question. I believe that the fear that I experience when I am stepping onto a stage is inspired by my insecurity that I’m not up to the challenge, and my exhilaration that I’m getting to do this. I think most of the people who do what I do battle the constant inner demons of imposter syndrome, wondering if you actually are the person most qualified for this opportunity. And what has been a consistent theme, when I am struggling to find my footing, is being comfortable with being scared. I don’t believe I would be able to deliver the work that I’m capable of if I was in the hands of a director who I didn’t feel completely safe going with into vulnerable and frightening places. When Denis and I made Prisoners together, I found myself often in the dark. And a wonderful thing about a director like Denis or these other masters is that they hold the light up for you. I mean, it’s a little embarrassing, to be honest. But if that’s how I have to work the rest of my career, if I’m so lucky as to continue to work with directors who can patiently help me get there, I think I’ll be okay.
The character of Abner is very much defined by his relationship with his mother. I know that in between shooting this movie, and it coming out, you lost your own mother. I’m curious how in this process you’ve been reflecting on your relationship with her.
Are you Barbara Walters, what are you doing? Yes. It’s been over a year, and it sucks. It really sucks. I wish that she could experience the movie. She always wanted me to play somebody that was more likable. She used to say to me, “You play so many scary characters and you’re so good at it, and I’m so proud of you and I love you, but I don’t think people know that you’re a nice boy.” And what I love about Abner is his breakthroughs are because he’s seeking a purpose for his pain. And I think a lot about how much I wish I could have sat in a theater with her. She had a really great laugh, and I can just hear the moments that she would have … I mean, her laugh was so great and loud, it embarrassed me sometimes. When I was doing The Glass Menagerie in Chicago, she came to the show. I remember her laughing and me being a little embarrassed because I could hear it from the stage. And I feel like with Suicide Squad, it would have been so amazing to have shared that with her, but … that’s life.
I’m sorry for putting you in that place.
No, I’m proud to talk about my mom and my relationship with her. The mourning process is so nonlinear. I think I feel great about everything and sometimes it just catches me off guard. But since the movie has been out, it’s been hard because I wasn’t able to make it to the premiere. I finally went the other day in Malta. I bought out all the tickets in the theater so I could take some of my friends from the movie here. And your question was what I kept thinking about, sitting there holding my wife’s hand. I was laughing a lot, but I definitely had some tears, and not in the sad moments in the film. It was in the funny moments where I was like, Oh man.
On a lighter note, you also adopted a cat you met on The Suicide Squad set.
Bubblegum. My baby. I miss her so fucking bad, dude. She’s back in L.A. because I just didn’t know what the living circumstances were going to be like in Malta as far as, would the housing be cool with a cat? And she’s already traveled from Panama to the U.S. and she didn’t seem to love intercontinental travel. So I think keeping her back home is fine, but I do miss her. She’s such a special cat. I’ve had cats for years. I lost my cat Amelie in 2018. I had her since 2002, right when I got clean; she was the cat that I got sober with. She fit in my shirt pocket when I first got her. Then she passed away, and we were on the lookout for a new cat. I kept having to travel for work, and I kept putting off, I think, the commitment to getting as close as I do get to pets. We would go to the shelter and then I’d get nervous and back out, like, “Guys I can’t do it.”
And I was in Panama and this incredible, beautiful cat kept coming up to the set, wanting to be petted and scratched. She was really hungry and really beat up. And I fell in love and now she’s mine. Well, she’s not mine, I’m hers. And when my mom died, the cat knew when to come sit in my lap and purr, and she knew when I needed to be left alone. My kids are so insanely rambunctious, and I love them to death, but my God, they had so much energy to expel during lockdown. And the cat was so patient with them, and would play chase with them. And she comes when you call her. It was amazing.
Rare is the cat who will do that.
I know. She’s never a “Fuck you” cat. I loved Amelie, but she was the most “Fuck you” cat I ever had. Anybody came near her, she was like, “Don’t even think about it.” But not Bubblegum. Her full name is Abner Bubblegum Polka-Dot Cat, but we just call her Bubblegum.
I saw that she got a little Polka-Dot Man costume.
Judianna [Makovsky], the costume designer of the film, and her team made it. It was making the rounds, I believe there was maybe a puppy at one point that was in the costume department that really didn’t take to it. When they found out that I had fallen in love with this cat and adopted her, had brought her home with me, they gave us the Polka-Dot suit. I wanted to try it once because I’m really not a dress-up-your-pet person — which is kind of not true, actually, when I think about it. I’ve taken a lot of pictures of my own pets. And we put her in it and she was totally feeling the vibe. And, yeah, she’s a wonderful cat that has totally done so much for me.