How 'The Dark Knight' Gave an Actor a Brighter Life
David Dastmalchian is trying to keep it together.
He's wearing a police uniform, but he doesn't quite know why. He's supposed to act like he's been shot, but he doesn't quite know why. What the young actor does know: He's just been ushered onto the streets of Chicago, where Christopher Nolan is staging one of the most ambitious scenes in his secretive Batman sequel The Dark Knight. A producer tells Dastmalchian that he and his boss (the Joker) have dressed up like police officers, and Dastmalchian's character is about to be interrogated by Aaron Eckhart, a genuine movie star and intimidating guy to boot. His job, Dastmalchian learns, is to intimidate Eckhart back — without using a single line of dialogue.
Heat Vision breakdown
"How am I going to intimidate him back?" Dastmalchian asks himself, trying not to panic. He quickly flips through the scant sides he's been given, and sees that there's a line of dialogue later in the movie establishing that his character, Thomas Schiff, is a paranoid schizophrenic. He seizes upon that, deciding that this is a guy who, no matter how much he might want to speak, can only manage to laugh. Dastmalchian is visibly shaking now as he looks around the set and sees everyone is there: Eckhart, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Gary Oldman, thousands of extras. He's put into the back of an ambulance for his scene, and waits.
Soon, a figure is cutting across the crowd and making a line for the ambulance, projecting confidence and calm. Nolan is serious, and has a specific language he speaks to different members of his cast and crew, seemingly knowing what each of them needs to hear. With Dastmalchian, he's gentle and encouraging, perhaps sensing the young actor is a soldier who's about to fall apart on the battlefield. The director lightens the mood with a few jokes only the two of them can hear.
Then Eckhart comes storming in as Harvey Dent, demanding to know what Dastmalchian knows about the Joker. Dastmalchian laughs, but says nothing. There's a hole cut in the side of the ambulance, and Nolan is right there, coaching Dastmalchian from the sidelines in between takes, calling him a thespian.
A few days later, the actor finds himself taking a coffee and cigarette break with Heath Ledger, who though they just met, took time to teach him how to handle a rifle for the film's 21-gun salute. Ledger is friendlier than you'd expect from a star of that caliber, the kind of guy who talks to everyone on set.
It's all a surreal enough experience for an actor working on his first film. What makes it more surreal is that just a few years earlier, struggles with drug addiction left Dastmalchian homeless, estranged from friends and family, and living out of his car, sometimes parked just feet away from where Ledger is standing.
In the years since The Dark Knight opened (it turns 10 on July 18), Dastmalchian has played a disturbed murder suspect (Prisoners) and a police lab technician (Blade Runner 2049) for Denis Villeneuve. He worked with idol David Lynch on the 2017 revival of Twin Peaks. And he is currently in theaters with Marvel Studios' Ant-Man and the Wasp, which sees him reprise his role as Kurt, a Russian ex-con and friend to Paul Rudd's Scott Lang/Ant-Man.
Chatting with the actor in his L.A. home a few days before Ant-Man and the Wasp opens, it's easy to think this career and life were always meant to be. Mementos from his small but memorable roles line his walls. His 4-year-old son, Arlo, wanders upstairs to the actor's office to check out Dad's action figures. Dastmalchian's wife, artist Evelyn Leigh, and infant daughter, Pennie, make cameos before a family snack outing. It all feels as friendly and as inviting as the actor.
But a few years ago, things weren't so comfortable. As evidence, he calls to his wife to ask how much money they had in the bank when their son was born (Ant-Man would help change that).
"$400," she calls back, without having to think about it.
Like me, Dastmalchian is from Overland Park, Kansas. As with all notable people from my hometown (hello, Paul Rudd, Rob Riggle and Jason Sudeikis), I feel an affinity for the actor. He graduated from Shawnee Mission South High School in 1994, a decade before I did. We bought comics from the same shop. We can reference the same comfortingly unhip strip malls. We know some of the same teachers. But the wholesome Kansas I experienced was different for him, he explains after handing me a mug of coffee in his kitchen and sitting down in front of a plate of cupcakes.
"I had been a daily drug user during high school to deal with undiagnosed depression issues," he says. "It's not like people knew what I was up to."
It was a secret no one seemed to suspect of the well-liked kid whom former drama teacher Mark Swezey recalls as being comfortable both on the football team and at drama rehearsals. "He was very popular and was very active in the theater program," says Swezey. "He had a great singing voice and loved playing character roles."
His teachers convinced him he could make a living as an actor, and he moved to Chicago to enroll in DePaul University's theater program, where he was a good student, but fell into heroin use. After graduation, the bottom fell out and he ended up living out of cars in Chicago; Seattle; and Kansas City, Kansas, before his family helped him get into a psychiatric facility, followed by a rehab clinic and, finally, a halfway house.
He got a job as an assistant manager at a Long John Silver's, and just wanted enough money to afford a futon, some comics and a TV to watch movies. Most importantly, he wanted to repair the damage he'd done to his relationships with his friends and family.
"Acting — all that was done for me," he says.
A few short years later, he'd be in a small room, auditioning for director Nolan.
When he showed up to the audition, there were about 100 guys there hoping to be cast as a Joker's henchman in the now-iconic opening scene to The Dark Knight. Every one of them must have spent all night rehearsing lines like, "He thinks he's getting a cut of this? He's crazy." It was 2007 and Dastmalchian had been back in Chicago a year, acting on stage and working day jobs as a telemarketer and movie theater usher. He'd also landed some commercials for Cingular Wireless, which got him pulled from line and introduced to casting director John Papsidera, who advised him to focus his performance in his eyes. That's where Nolan would be looking.
He came back the next morning, and was ushered into a small room with Nolan, who was seated a few feet away and holding a small camera. The actor went into his performance.
"I was so nervous, and then he said, 'That was good. I want you to try it again, but this time you are on speed, you are really amped up. Try it up,' " recalls Dastmalchian. "So I did, but still trying to keep it all here [in the eyes]. I tried my best not to use my face or body to telegraph anything. I did it again and then he said, 'Well done. Thank you.' and we shook hands and I left."
He thought he had the part in the bag, but a week later he read the scene had been shot, without him.
Dastmalchian made peace with losing the part. He had Mondays off from a production of Othello, and he'd spend them at the barricades of the movie production, watching The Dark Knight film, straining to catch a glimpse of Ledger, Bale or Nolan. Four months went by, and Othello's run ended. Dastmalchian planned to return to his job as a telemarketer, but true to comic book form, nothing is really dead — even a seemingly failed audition.
In July 2007, Dastmalchian got word that he'd been cast in The Dark Knight.
Dastmalchian is about to tell me about those days on set when Arlo comes over to ask for a cupcake. The actor promises that if he's good, he can have one later. Seeing the pair together, it seems like of course this man was always meant to be a father. But he never thought so.
On the set of The Dark Knight, Ledger once broached the subject of family.
"It was at a time in my life where the fact that I could get a career back or a career at all was very difficult to fathom, let alone the reality that perhaps someday I could become a parent," Dastmalchian says. "Heath said to me, 'Do you want to have kids?' and I said, 'I'm terrified of the idea. I don't think I'll ever be ready,' and he says a great thing. 'You'll never think you are ready, and then it's going to happen, and you'll find out how ready you were.' That didn't make sense to me at the time."
He filmed in Chicago for a few days, and Warner Bros. eventually flew Dastmalchian to London, where he was needed for just one scene, but was placed on hold for weeks. He'd wake up in a hotel room with a bathroom bigger than his studio apartment, and await the call letting him know if he was working that day or not. Finally, he gets the call.
Like the last time, Eckhart would be roughing him up, but this time Harvey Dent would be holding a gun to his head.
"Once again, I'm terrified, shaking. Now I have some lines to deliver and I'm going to have a gun in my face and Aaron Eckhart is incredibly intense and I at this point think he does not like me, because we have had no real conversations and the way Aaron was looking at me across the set, [it's like], 'That guy does not like me,' " says Dastmalchian.
The scene could have been shot anywhere, but Nolan wanted the moment that Dent starts to show his dark side — holding a gun to the head of a paranoid schizophrenic — to be echoed later in the film when Two-Face threatens the life of Commissioner Gordon's son. In the world of the film, those moments take place in two different locations, but they were shot in the same spot, giving the scenes a slight visual echo.
"That gun pushed so hard into my head, and I could feel myself pushing back," says Dastmalchian, who would have a welt on his head for weeks afterward.
The scene had another challenge as well. Dastmalchian knows Batman will be appearing, making it hard for the lifelong comic book fan in him to stay in character.
"I'm in this chair. Christian was getting warmed up to my right," he says, getting quiet now, as though he's speaking of something holy. "I never looked at him. I never looked at him. So that we could capture that moment for me, the first time seeing him. I'll never forget it. My eyes went from the bottom of the cape all the way up to the cowl and just like, 'Wow.' It was amazing. Truly amazing."
In his upstairs office, Dastmalchian keeps folders dedicated to all of his characters. He shows me the one for The Dark Knight, full of Chicago newspaper clippings and fake script pages he was given to preserve secrecy during the audition process.
"It's been a long time since I've looked through this stuff," he tells me with a mixture of giddiness and reverence, pointing out a keepsake from the wrap party.
Dastmalchian was devastated when months after meeting him, he learned Ledger had died at 28 in January 2008. The film opened seven months later, and he found himself in awe of what Nolan and his team had created.
Life went on after The Dark Knight. He moved to New York to work in commercials, where he met his future wife. In 2010, he moved to Los Angeles, with a story many young and hungry actors might relate to, auditioning for unpaid student films and not always getting them and finally landing representation after begging a receptionist to slip his reel to her boss.
Years of hustling led him to a last-minute audition for Denis Villeneuve, an auteur who was on the verge of becoming another Nolan — Hollywood's go-to director for cerebral blockbusters.
"I got the sides and I loved this character. I didn't know the context, what the situation was, but the way the scene played out, I freaking loved it," Dastmalchian says of his first taste of what would become Prisoners, a thriller starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal about the search for two missing girls. "There were two scenes for the audition. I immediately grabbed stuff from my closet. 'I feel like this is what he looks like, this is what he sounds like. This is how he moves.' It's funny. In the script, he was described as a bigger guy, shaggy beard, very scraggly. I was like, 'No he's not. This guy looks like wallpaper. This guy blends in no matter where he goes."
Dastmalchian shows me his notebook for his character. It's full of mazes and notes from Villeneuve, who fought for the actor to be cast even though the studio hoped to land a bigger name to work opposite Gyllenhaal in key scenes. Like nearly every director he's worked with, the first thing Villeneuve wanted to know when he arrived on set was what it was like working with Nolan on The Dark Knight.
"David is a very creative and inventive actor," says Villeneuve of Dastmalchian. "He has the ability and finesse to bring several subtle and hidden nuances to a character, staying away from cliches. He's a chameleon, a born character actor."
Then they got to work in Georgia, creating the dark character of Bob Taylor, a man who was abducted as a boy and was changed forever. In one of the film's most visceral scenes, Taylor ends up in an interrogation room — holding a gun to his chin.
"Going that dark, there are very few people I could go to such a place with, and Denis made it totally safe, totally comfortable," Dastmalchian says.
That scene was particularly challenging for personal reasons.
"If you are a person who has at a certain point in your life attempted to take your own life, and then you are re-creating it for the element of storytelling, you have to know it's a justified moment and that it feels like it's part of telling a story," he explains. "Is it telling a story that you want to be a part of telling? All of that is going on, and I'm in the workshop of this master, and I felt totally safe going there. Doing the scene with Jake was a moment that will be a part of my career, and my personal memory, forever."
But in the meantime, Dastmalchian had been writing the script for Animals, a personal indie project partially inspired by his years living out of a car. Leigh, his then-fiancee, quit her day job (the couple's only source of steady income) to work for free as the art director on the film that was shot for under $200,000.
Animals would go on to earn praise for being a humanizing portrait of a couple (played by Dastmalchian and Kim Shaw) struggling with homelessness and addiction. Key moments of the film were to be shot at a state mental hospital, but at the last moment, the institution pulled out, and some of the film's financing had issues, two moves that threatened the entire project.
"I'm on the verge of a true nervous breakdown, the first one I've had in many years, but I was close," says Dastmalchian of that moment.
As the project's fate was in question, the writer-actor took his crew to visit the state hospital he'd been treated at 11 years earlier in 2002 in hopes of getting some inspiration.
"I'm scared, but I have everything to live for and I'm going to marry this woman. We might be broke, but it doesn't matter, because we are making this art. It's not like I've got kids," he remembers thinking. "And my phone rings and it's Eve and I'm getting emotional, because I'm about to pull up in front of Reed Hospital. And Eve is quiet."
Then he just knows. Evelyn was calling to say she's pregnant. Ledger's words from years earlier came back to him: "You'll never think you are ready, and then it's going to happen, and you'll find out how ready you were."
By the time they finished Animals, Prisoners has come out, and for the first time in his career, Dastmalchian was starting to feel industry heat. He was getting direct offers for roles. Animals won a special jury award (now hanging on his office wall) at the 2014 South by Southwest festival, and the next day he jetted back to L.A. to audition for Wright, who was finally getting passion project Ant-Man off the ground and liked Dastmalchian's performance in Prisoners.
It was a big deal for Dastmalchian, not only because it's Marvel, but because Wright thought he had the potential to play funny, not dark and disturbed. Soon he was in a room testing with about a dozen other guys, as well as Paul Rudd and Michael Pena, who already had roles. Rudd, not knowing he was speaking to a fellow Kansan, initially thought Dastmalchian was Russian, like his character, Kurt.
"At that point, there are a lot more guys in our gang. There are all these different actors, many of whom I know and recognize. I'm so nervous," Dastmalchian recalls. "I was having a coffee and a doughnut and Paul and Edgar, they are feeling us all out and getting a vibe. Paul is so nice. He said 'Hey, man, that was really funny in there.' I was nervous, because I didn't think I was a funny person."
Days before Eve went into labor with their son, Dastmalchian got word from Wright that he'd made the cut. He was part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Arlo was born. They had $400 in the bank, and they were over the moon.
But soon after, behind-the-scenes drama on Ant-Man bled into their happy moment. Wright penned an email to let Dastmalchian know he had left the project, which was now in flux. Dastmalchian's manager called to say that guys from the gang were getting cut.
"If the gang had maybe six or seven members, they were whittling it down and down and down," says Dastmalchian. "And I couldn't get an answer and now I'm like, 'That $400 in that checking account is looking terrifying,' and I didn't know what to do."
The actor followed every news story about the Ant-Man shuffle until Peyton Reed signed on to take over. Fortunately, the filmmaker was familiar with Dastmalchian's work.
"I remember seeing him in The Dark Knight. 'Wow, look at that face,'" recalls Reed. "I remember thinking in The Dark Knight, this guy is like a young Harry Dean Stanton. He's got this cool look. Then in Prisoners, he's this bizarro character in that movie. He really stood out."
Reed summoned the actor down to Atlanta for what Dastmalchian believed was another audition.
"There's Paul and Evangeline [Lilly] and Michael [Douglas] and they put us in this office and all these executives are there and Peyton is there. I haven't talked to anybody. I've gotten off a plane and they do this presentation of the VFX and the helmet and the transformation. I'm sitting there, 'Where's my competition?'"
Finally, Reed cleared things up. This was actually a camera test to see how he'd look in costume; he'd been cast but nobody had told him.
"He's really versatile," says Reed. "Anything you give to David, he's going to knock out of the park and be this extra flavor."
So much of Dastmalchian's Hollywood experience has been trusting that during times of famine that a feast (or at least a good meal) was around the corner. So much of it has been cyclical, too; he lost The Dark Knight only to get it back. He lost Ant-Man only to get it back. He's been cast in blockbusters around the births of both his children (Ant-Man for Arlo and Blade Runner 2049 for Pennie).
He's continuing to balance what he calls the paying jobs (the blockbusters, the TV guest roles) with passion projects (the indie films that he writes). Before filming Ant-Man and the Wasp, he wrote and starred in All Creatures Here Below, directed by Animals filmmaker Collin Schiffli and starring fellow Marvel actor Karen Gillan, who shot the film between two of 2017's top-grossing movies, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. He's in the process of figuring out how the film will roll out to audiences.
Gillan plays a woman from Wyandotte County, Kansas, named Ruby, described as a holy fool type of character. Gillan says she was attracted to the role because it was the type of character rarely represented onscreen, and is someone removed from herself.
"The scenes between us were able to go anywhere because we both listened to each other and that took us to some weird and cool places," she says of acting opposite Dastmalchian. "Whenever I start a scene with David, no matter how many times we've already shot it, I genuinely don't know where we are going to end up. That's one of the most exciting things about acting. Going on a journey with another person."
Dastmalchian had long wondered what he'd say to Nolan if he saw him again.
"How do you thank the person that changed your life so profoundly and probably — I didn't even know if he remembered me," he recalls.
And then, a few months before Ant-Man and the Wasp hit theaters, it happened at a park in the San Fernando Valley.
"I was teaching Arlo to throw a ball. Just having a day of gratitude and I look up and it's so surreal. It was like the first time looking at Batman. I look up and there is Christopher Nolan and his wife, Emma [Thomas], just walking right by us in the park and looking down at me," he says. "We shake hands and I immediately was dumbstruck."
They talked about Dunkirk and Villeneuve, whom Dastmalchian was pleased to learn Nolan is a fan of. He thanked Nolan for helping give him the life he has today. Nolan made him feel like he'd been a welcome member of The Dark Knight team and that he'd done a good job with his scene in London.
"He told me a funny anecdote. He said he really liked the scene, but he said when we were shooting it, I was pushing my head against Aaron's gun and he was pushing the gun back," says the actor. "I remember for a few weeks after I had a big welt on my head and a little goose egg and black bruise. He said that was one of the moments the MPAA asked him to go back and he had to cut out the indent from the gun barrel on my head."
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