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David Dastmalchian is closing out the biggest year of his career, one that has been both fulfilling, challenging and, at times, heartbreaking. In August, Dastmalchian rose to a new level of prominence thanks to his breakout performance as The Polka-Dot Man in The Suicide Squad, and now less than three months later, he is back on the big screen with Dune, the sweeping epic from frequent collaborator Denis Villeneuve, who cast Dasmatlchian as the villainous Piter De Vries, a human-computer and right-hand man of the monstrous Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard).
Dune represents a full-circle moment for Dastmalchian, who was preparing for the film’s London premiere when he spoke to The Hollywood Reporter by phone on Oct. 11. Fourteen years earlier to the day, he was in London to film his first feature, The Dark Knight. While that was his big break, he struggled to find footing in Hollywood in the years after the 2008 hit until Villeneuve cast him in a small but pivotal role in Prisoners (2013). Filmmakers who subsequently worked with Dastmalchian, such as Ant-Man director Peyton Reed, have cited that role specifically as showing them the actor’s range.
Despite the success, it’s been a challenging year, with Dastmalchian losing his mother in the summer of 2020 and his father on Oct. 10, just days before Dune’s London premiere. In a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter, the actor reflects on his collaborations with Villeneuve, which also include Blade Runner 2049, and how he made peace with his father before his passing.
You have a long relationship with Denis. At this point, what happens when he wants you in a movie? Does he call you? Send you an email?
For Blade Runner 2049 it was an email, not long before production began. I tried every which way possible to get an audition for the film and I just ran into all obstacles. I had just kind of given up on that. I was about to start shooting All Creatures Here Below [an indie feature he wrote and stars in]. I had been presented with an opportunity to do a television show that I didn’t really want to give years of my life to, but it was a really big paycheck and I was really struggling. I was like, “I really feel like I should be making All Creatures Here Below instead of the TV show.” I remember needing to make my decision and I was wanting to just say, “Let’s forget the TV show and let’s make All Creatures Here Below,” which paid me literally maybe $5,000. Then I got this email from Denis that said, “David, I killed you in Prisoners and I’d like to bring you into the future and kill you in the year 2049.” That was the sign I needed to keep trusting my instincts.
What happened with Dune?
Then I knew he was making Dune, but I didn’t know if there was any place in that world for me. I didn’t know anything. One day I was in my kitchen in Los Angeles and I got a call from a number I didn’t recognize. It was Denis. He told me that he wanted me to play Piter. He said he was going to send me the script. I said, “I already know the answer is yes.” I’ll follow him into the fire. He said, “I’ll send you the script. I think you should read it.” I said, “I’m in.” Even though I was so excited by the script that I got to read, it couldn’t prepare me for what happened when I walked onto his sets and saw the stages that he and Patrice [Vermette, production designer] had constructed. When you say your jaw dropped, my whole jaw fell off my face. It was constructed with such love and care and attention to detail.
How involved was Denis in helping you craft your character? Does he give specific notes?
By the time I arrived, the look of Piter had been determined. I would be utterly remiss if I didn’t give recognition to Donald Mowat, who is the hair and makeup designer. His vision for what Piter looked like was stunning. I’d read the book. I loved the book. I’d seen the previous film many, many years ago. When I read Denis’ script, I decided I was going to look at the book again for more inspiration, but I didn’t want to look at any previous films. My gut instinct about Piter was this: I felt that he was the hybrid of HAL 9000, Bib Fortuna and Toht [Ronald Lacey’s character in Raiders of the Lost Ark]. That was the character I was creating. Then I got to Budapest and we did a makeup test where Donald and his team put me into the Piter makeup and it was so freaking amazing and terrifying. And then I got to go do a fitting for my costume. It was beyond my wildest dreams. It was this S&M-y, hellish, demonic-cult-like attire. It felt so perfect. I was blown away. I think Jacqueline West and Bob Morgan, who did the costumes — had as equally fantastic of an experience collaborating with Denis as every artist gets to have.
What happens on day one filming for you?
You want to offer Denis nothing but the biggest, most daring swing you’ve got inside of you. I’ll say, day one, I went for that and I really felt a strong inclination for where I wanted Piter to go. I was definitely close but I wasn’t exactly there. Denis helped me in the way he always does, which is he comes in, and he sculpts and he shapes and he helps me to take away the habits, tricks or safeguards that I create for myself that I can lean upon when I get into more risky territory as an actor. He just kept peeling those away and allowing me to find myself within his vision. I felt like by the end of our first day working he got me where we ended up going with the character.
What stars were you working with that day?
My first day, I worked with Dave Bautista, who has become a great friend of mine. We were friends on social media and we had texted and spoken a few times through our phones because we have very close mutual friends, like James Gunn, like Karen Gillan. I had always heard about what an amazing human he was and then I got to be on set with him and he was such an incredibly, kind, loving guy. His performance as Beast Rabban, it makes your hair stand on end. I was so impressed with his skills an an actor and his commitment to the role. I said to Denis, “This guy is incredible!” He’s like, “I know, I know, right?”
What is your memory of seeing Stellan Skarsgard as the Baron for the first time?
The first scene we did together was in the steam room. It’s me, Stellan, Dave and these incredible background artists who played slaves of the Baron. Here’s Stellan Skarsgard, an actor I’ve been fascinated with. The first time I latched on to him as somebody I looked up to was when I saw Breaking the Waves when I was in theater training and I had gone to the cinema. Since then I’ve tracked every single thing he’s done. We met. He was in his Baron manifestation, which is grotesque. It’s horrifying. It’s so overwhelmingly intimidating and yet through all of that incredible prosthetic and design, his eyes and his voice are the most powerful part of his performance. He just scared the crap of me. It was awesome. The first time we really interacted, I can just hear his voice, because he’s so enveloped in the steam of the scene, and he couldn’t just go hang out in a cast chair. It wasn’t like we were just sitting their chit-chatting. All of a sudden he’s rising out of this steam and I get my first look at him and it was terrifying.
It sounds similar to your time on The Dark Knight, when the first time you saw Christian Bale in his Batman suit was actually captured on film, with you in character.
Exactly! And it’s really cool, being here. It’s Oct. 11, 2021. On Oct. 11, 2007 I was here in London, filming The Dark Knight at the Battersea Power Station, working for my first time on a feature film, with Christopher Nolan and looking at the Batman in person. It’s crazy for me. It’s been now 14 years. It changed my life. How would I possibly know that 14 years later I’d be in London, getting ready to get to the premiere of Dune directed by Denis Villeneuve. It’s insane.
It’s a really intense time for me. It was a really intense summer shooting the last film that I finished [Last Voyage of the Demeter], which was an incredibly grueling and draining shoot.
And I lost my dad last night. He passed back in Kansas and he was in the final stages of dementia.
I’m so sorry to hear that.
I had a really strained relationship with my dad growing up. One of the things I really struggled with the most was feeling like he was so critical of me and hard to please. I wondered if I’d ever earned his approval. Thankfully I reached a place in my life where I knew I never needed that. I didn’t need anyone’s approval. I only needed the approval of myself and the joy I got out of doing the things I would do with my life, and hopefully just the love and support of my family.
I was looking today at the last text that my dad sent me and I believe he had read the article that you wrote, and he said “David, you have no idea how much I enjoy … in tears after reading about you, I’m so proud of you, which leads to tears of joy. Very, very proud of you. Love you very much. Keep up the great work. Love, your dad.”
In reality, I’d come to realize how proud he was of me in these years and how proud of me he was since I got clean and sober. It’s really kind of beautiful getting to be here and do this. Both of my parents gone within a year. It’s insane when you think about it. I’m having such incredible experiences. Life is providing me with so many blessings, so many gifts. I get to be in a James Gunn film. I get to be in Dune and work with Denis Villeneuve. I get to travel the world and do these incredible things and I think on the outside, it really is from the inside as well, a beautiful and joy-filled experience. It’s also been so hard.
Right, you lost your mom last year, too.
I can’t believe it. I’ve learned to live life on life’s terms. That sucks sometimes, but it’s freeing when you can get to that place. That’s also the kind of storytelling and art that I want to make. I want to be a part of telling stories that don’t shy away from that stuff. It is hard being a human being sometimes. Sometimes it’s really fun. Sometimes it just sucks. It is all of the things.
And certainly, working with Denis has helped you in that goal.
Denis has made such an impact on cinema because he has that imagination of a Spielberg, he’s got that artistry of a Kubrick. But he has that rare courage to mine really deep into the dark corners of this experience.
Although it’s a challenging time for you, you have a lot of positives in your life, including a famous cat. How is she?
Bubblegum! Bubblegum now has a huge attitude. No, Bubblegum is the sweetest, most loving and affectionate cat I’ve ever known. And it’s so funny that my little kitty cat became an Internet celebrity and she has no clue. She just loves her snacks. She really likes getting dressed up, so I’m hoping I can play more characters as well. Maybe I’ll have to find a Piter costume for her. (Laughs.) My next cat, I’ll get a hairless cat and then that cat can be Piter de Vries.
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