CHICAGO — This summer David Dastmalchian joins a small group of actors who have appeared in films from each of the two big competing names in comic books, DC and Marvel.
“It’s like having the chance to play for the Cubs and the White Sox,” he said by phone last week from his home in Los Angeles, referring to his role in 2008’s “The Dark Knight” and his most recent in “Ant-Man,” which opened at No. 1 at the box office over the weekend, taking in nearly $60 million.
“‘The Dark Knight’ was the first time I was ever on a film set and it was terrifying,” Dastmalchian said. It was a small role, as one of Joker’s thugs, but it made an impression — in part because he has such a distinctive look.
Genial and talkative in real life, the DePaul University theater school alum is frequently cast as the creep or the merely maladjusted, notably in the 2013 Jake Gyllenhaal child abduction thriller “Prisoners.” It’s that face: When in repose, it can look like it’s harboring several lifetimes’ worth of malevolent thoughts.
A longtime Chicago theater actor before relocating to L.A., he was back in town two years ago to film his indie “Animals,” which was loosely inspired by his own past experiences with heroin addiction. Despite the subject matter, the film (which was in theaters earlier this year and is still available via streaming ) showcased a lighter side of the actor.
His role in “Ant-Man,” which stars Paul Rudd and goes strong on the comedy, takes that even further. He plays Kurt, a cheesy-looking computer hacker with a thick Russian accent and ridiculous Elvis sideburns who (along with Michael Pena and T.I.) becomes part of Rudd’s heist crew of endearingly idiotic problem-solvers.
When we caught up last week, Dastmalchian was headed to New York with his wife, Eve, and their 15-month-old son, Arlo, to visit in-laws. On the schedule: a trip to the multiplex with the family to see “Ant-Man” with a regular moviegoing crowd.
Our edited conversation reveals a not-so-surprising “Ant-Man” cameo, plus a new word invented by Dastmalchian himself.
Q: Have you ever done that before? Just gone and bought a ticket to see one of your movies with an audience?
A: I have a great Chicago story about that, actually. We were shooting “Animals” in Chicago at the same time “Prisoners” had all its premieres, so I wasn’t able to attend any of those. On one of our days off, Eve got the whole gang together and we went to the movie theater on Western near Diversey (Regal Cinemas City North). It was the first time I saw a frame of that film. You’ve seen the movie, right? It’s totally jacked up and I play a very dark character.
And I remember I came out of the theater and I went into the bathroom. I’m washing my hands, standing next to some guy who had also just come out of the theater, (starts laughing) and I swear it was the best double-take I’ll probably ever see in my life. He’s washing his hands, lost in thought, looks up and makes eye contact, looks back down at the sink and he turns pale! He looked like he was going to pass out and looked back up at me and we just had this long moment. And I just looked at him like, “Yeah.”
Q: You could go to a screening of “Ant-Man” and really make some kid’s day if you’re walking out and quote a line of yours in-character.
A: That would be really cool! When “The Dark Knight” came out, I never indulged in that. I don’t remember why, really. But in this case, I will gladly push my hair up with some hair spray and go hang out in the lobby (starts talking in his character’s Russian accent) playing video games and being like, “Hey, you guys, you like the film? Was good? You like? Kurt should be having his own film, yes?”
Q: Compare the DC vs. Marvel experience. They’re both massive films with big budgets and a lot of attention focused on them.
A: “The Dark Knight” happened really fast. I got the film, made sure I had a passport, because I had some days of shooting in London, and then I started.
With this, it was a long process. I auditioned for the casting director Sarah Finn, who does all the Marvel stuff. How often do you get an opportunity like that? So I went whole-hog and put on my best polyester shirt and pants and a chain, and I did my hair and worked on my accent with a friend of mine, Izzy.
Do you ever watch that show “Shameless”? She (Isidora Goreshter) plays the Russian prostitute, Svetlana. She’s a really good friend of mine out here and her parents are immigrants and they speak fluent Russian. We’re really good friends, our kids share the same sitter. So I would call her and be like, “Izzy, help me with the dialect.”
I had this idea that Kurt was born and raised in a town even further out than Siberia and he was just an amazing computer wizard who fell in with the wrong people. But he was obsessed with two things: “Saturday Night Fever” and Elvis Presley, hence the polyester shirts unbuttoned too far and the hair in that pompadour.
He’s a computer hacker, so I think in the original script they jokingly called him Count Hackula or something like that, which I took as a strong character description. In that script, the crew was made up of more than the three of us. If you included Paul, I think it was eight or nine guys.
Q: Edgar Wright wrote the original script and was supposed to direct. When he left the project, Peyton Reed came on as director with a script overhaul from Adam McKay and Paul Rudd. How did that affect things for you?
A: When the script went into revisions and they started lopping off characters, that was a difficult time for me. I had put off going after other work because “Ant-Man” was coming up. I thought I could just chill! And then we heard the script was changing and they were cutting roles. So I sat on pins and needles for about a month. When I heard Peyton had been hired I thought, “Oh my God, is he going to want to keep me?”
Then my manager called me and said, “Hey, you’re going down to Atlanta next week to do some tests, this is great news.” And I thought he meant: You get another shot to test for the role. And I was like, “God! Here I go again.”
Q: A test means another audition.
A: Apparently it means two things, because when I got there and was greeted by all the producers and the director and Paul and (star) Michael (Douglas), I realized we were doing camera tests. Like, costumes and hair and makeup. I had the part. And I was like, wow, I’m actually here. Paul Rudd luckily kept me around, because he was part of that decision-making process.
Q: What’s T.I. like? When someone is famous for being something other than an actor, I wonder if that makes things different.
A: He’s obviously a huge legend and icon in the hip-hop world. And a family man, as is Paul, as is Michael (Pena). All four of us have young or super-young kids, and that was something we could all bond over.
At one point Peyton was talking to T.I. like, “Man, you’ve got a book in the works, you’re album’s about to come out, you’re working on three other movies — how do you get it all done?” And T.I. is so cool, he’s like: “I delegate.”
Q: Does he have an entourage? He seems like a guy who would.
A: He absolutely does. He needs security because he does have fans who go crazy and chase him around. He’s so charismatic and subtle. I have a Chicago movie I’ve been writing and he would be ideal for the lead role, so I started talking to him about that and he seemed genuinely intrigued. We talk on the phone, so maybe we’ll make something happen. Who knows?
Q: Stan Lee has a brief cameo in the movie. Did you get to spend any time with him?
A: It was amazing! Peyton, who is a huge comics geek and knows I’m a huge comics geek, he said, “You’ve got to come down to set.” I brought the first comic that I ever bought with my own money when I was in third grade in a 7-Eleven in Kansas City, which was an Avengers. You can see the trace marks on it from when I tried to copy the cover, and it’s what ultimately led me to start collecting a whole bunch of different titles, including the West Coast Avengers, which Hank Pym (a character in “Ant-Man”) was a part of.
And then me and Paul and Paul’s assistant Thomas and our producer Brad Winderbaum, we all went and sat in Stan’s trailer and I got to ask him all sorts of questions. He talked about “Ant-Man” and how excited he was to finally see this character — he always felt they had a difficult time conveying “Ant-Man” well in the comic books because it took twice as many frames and it was difficult for the illustrators to continually jump back and forth between the micro world and the regular world and keep that engaging for a reader. But with a film, he was so excited to see how they would do it visually.
And then — the cherry on the cake on the icing on the incredible year of insane amazing things — we talked about the fact that I’ve kept all these thousands of comic books and I’m so afraid that the first time I go to show Arlo my collection he’s going to look at it and roll his eyes and be like, “OK, now teach me how to throw a curveball.” So Stan wrote: “To my good friend, Arlo. From Stan Lee” on the cover. I’m sitting here looking at it right now. It’s the coolest thing, whether Arlo likes it or not!
Q: The final scene sets up the story for another installment. Do you think your crew is along for that?
A: In my version it is! I haven’t had any conversations with anybody and I’m sure there are so many factors that go into that decision. I’ve seen the film a couple times now and it does add a great element to the hero’s journey. I think people really dig the Antourage.
Q: Hang on, “the Antourage”? Are you coining this?
A: Yeah! We were doing an interview, and because T.I. was in the “Entourage” movie this year, somebody said, “You just did ‘Entourage’ and now you’re doing ‘Ant-Man,’” and I jumped in (in a Chicago accent), “Yeah, he’s part of the Antourage,” and it got a good laugh so I’m sticking with it.