David Dastmalchian is one of those rare performers in the film business who can stake claim to something not many of his acting counterparts can: Not only has he been a part of both the Marvel and DC movie universes, he’s effectively been preparing all his life to help bring their stories to life as a lifelong comic book fan.
“As an actor, you try to absorb and feel the tone of the material as best you can, and I’ve always found that always comes from the director and the material itself,” Dastmalchian told me in a call this week from Los Angeles. “So I think knowledge of comic book mythology and the history of it has been helpful to me as an actor. Also, the directors of these films that I’ve worked on have had very strong visions, and have been very good about communicating and setting up the tone.”
Dastmalchian’s first big-screen gig, of course, came in a small but haunting role as Joker thug Thomas Schiff in Christopher Nolan’s 2008 DC blockbuster “The Dark Knight Rises.” On Friday, though, he’s on the side of the good guys helping Paul Rudd save the world in Peyton Reed’s “Ant-Man,” the latest installment in the expansive Marvel Universe that’s led to the assemblage of the Avengers.
Dastmalchian stars in “Ant-Man” as Kurt, a Russian computer hacker sporting an Elvis Presley-inspired pompadour who, along with Luis (Michael Pena) and Dave (T.I. Harris), joins forces with Scott Lang (Paul Rudd). Scott is an ex-con who has to resort to what he thinks will be a big score when his past as a burglar limits his options outside prison walls.
As it turns out, the score was actually set up by the mark, legendary scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), as a test to see if Scott would steal a specially designed suit that decreases his size down to that of ant, yet greatly increases his strength and makes him as resilient as a bullet. Dubbed “Ant-Man,” Scott and The Crew need to devise a heist — along with Hank and his estranged daughter, Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) — to break into the corporation he’s no longer in control of to steal a similar suit dubbed “Yellow Jacket.” Ant-Man must break into an ultra-secure facility and steal the suit, designed by Hank’s protégé, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), before the technology falls into the hands of the wrong people and puts the world in peril.
The irony for Dastmalchian in “Ant-Man” is that unlike his role in “The Dark Knight,” Kurt is not dark and twisted. It’s probably a good thing, since Dastmalchian has long been split on which comic book company has traditionally provided the best heroes and villains; and in the case of “Ant-Man,” he happens to be on the right side.
“My favorite villains were always the DC ones — I’ve said that to everybody, including Stan Lee,” Dastmalchian said. “But interestingly, my favorite superheroes were always on the Marvel side. The DC villains embody darkness — including the film that I got to be a part of — perfectly. On the other side, here in the Marvel world, Peyton has brought to life is a vibrancy and brightness in a very high-stakes adventure, which happens just the right amount of humor and irreverence. I feel like I’ve gotten the best of both worlds. In the Marvel movie I worked on, I got to be somebody playing for the hero, and in the DC one, I got to be on the side of the villain. It’s a dream.”
Dastmalchian’s involvement in “Ant-Man” has been interesting, since there was a period of time when he didn’t know if he’d be in the film despite being cast in January of 2014. The actor, who’s made indelible impressions in recent years with frightening roles on both film and television, said he was originally cast in “Ant-Man” by writer-director Edgar Wright, yet didn’t know where he stood when the filmmaker left the project and was replaced by Reed.
“My concern was that they were going to let go of me,” Dastmalchian said. “Of course, Paul was on-board, as well as Michael Douglas, and Evangline Lilly, because they’re movie stars. But when you’re an actor like me, there’s very few assurances when a situation like that comes up. When I tested during auditions, I want to say in the original script the crew had eight or nine guys, and they cast all of us.”
The uncertainty came on the heels of what Dastmalchian called a “crazy, awesome time” time for he and his wife, Eve. The couple’s son, Arlo, was born, and the actor/screenwriter’s deeply personal addiction drama, “Animals,” won a Special Jury Award at SXSW. Suddenly, Ant-Man’s Crew began undergoing some changes and Dastmalchian became a bit nervous.
“Originally, I was just going to sit around a month before ‘Ant-Man’ got started, but then I started to see that actors were leaving or being let go from the film — and they were all the guys from ‘The Crew,'” Dastmalchian recalled. “The script was being changed and I knew the crew dynamic was changing, as well as the number of people in it. But ultimately, I was very, very lucky that they kept me and Pena, and then T.I. came on board later, so we ended up with three of us.”
Once Reed started on the project, not only was Dastmalchian thrilled to discover that his new director had the same tastes as when it came to the Marvel Universe, but the sorts of filmmaking sensibilities to properly execute it.
“Peyton was made to make this movie. He’s as big if not bigger a comic book geek than I am, he loves the obscure characters like ‘Ant-Man.’ It’s a character he’s read and been devoted to for a very long time,” said Dastmalchian. “Plus, he has this real flair for bringing a good story to life, while utilizing action and comedic elements. So, as difficult as the starts and stops of the film process was, it ultimately all happened the way it was meant to be.”
One particular thing that Dastmalchian said he loved about working in the Marvel Universe was the involvement of talent on many different levels.
“Marvel is proof positive that the formula that massive kinds of collaboration can lead to effective filmmaking and really great story-telling because this is an all-hands-on-deck kind of process that the company has,” Dastmalchian observed. “The producers who have developed this sprawling cinematic universe have input on the film because they’re connecting the threads to the comic books that Stan Lee oversaw. He oversaw all of the different comic characters, even the ones he wasn’t writing or producing month to month.”
Once Dastmalchian settled into the role and was on-set, he got to experience things only a comic book-lover could dream of: hanging out with Lee, the Marvel icon and “Ant-Man’s” co-creator.
“Me, Rudd and one of our producers, Brad Winderbaum, would hang out in Stan’s trailer and just talk,” Dastmalchian marveled. “It was about 1987 when ‘Avengers’ No. 240 became the first comic book I ever bought. It was a from a spinning rack at a Seven Eleven in Kansas City, Kansas, and ultimately I’ve kept every comic book I’ve ever collected, including that one. It’s all tattered now, but I brought it to work and Stan signed it, ‘To my good friend Arlo,’ who is my son. I almost cried.”
Another legend Dastmalchian got to encounter, of course, was Douglas, who shares some screen time with The Crew. And while Dastmalchian is a professional who’s shared the screen with some pretty impressive talent, there was something about being on-set with Douglas that made his stomach gurgle.
“We only have a couple scenes together, which are very funny, but I am the least comfortable doing comedy,” Dastmalchian said. “I’m more comfortable with doing dramatic stuff, especially with the likes of Michael Douglas or Paul Rudd, for goodness sakes. It was very nerve-wracking, but Michael and I immediately hit it off. He’s a wonderful guy and the nerves went away pretty quickly. We talked a lot about Karl Malden (Douglas’ co-star on the classic TV drama ‘Streets of San Francisco’), who was a huge mentor to him, and to me, one of my all-time favorite actors. He’s right up there with the kind of actors I aspire to become. He had a reputation for propelling scenes and his scene partners. It was amazing to talk about Karl’s legacy and Michael’s amazing history.”
The bonus for Dastmalchian in “Ant-Man,” though, is that amid all the laughter, cool special effects and engaging action, tucked within is a poignant storyline about family. In two completely different circumstances, Hank and Scott are trying to reconnect with their daughters: Hope, fully-grown and angry at Hank over her childhood; and young Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson), holding out hope for Scott in the hope that he can go the straight and narrow so he can be a good dad to her.
“The thing I love about ‘Ant-Man’ is there’s a theme that runs throughout the whole movie, that even families that have been frayed, or have been through the ringer or have really been tested — ultimately love can win out,” Dastmalchian said. “That’s something that’s really special about ‘Ant-Man’ that I don’t think I’ve seen in other big superhero movies really be as intimate.”
While the fun of his experience of “Ant-Man” will soon end, you get the feeling that the warmth he got from the family angle of the film will always remain with him. After all, he’s living it every single day of his life.
“I don’t know how to properly put it. When you go home at night after being in a film like ‘Ant-Man,’ you can say, ‘It was incredibly satisfying,’ but then you’re just another guy walking down the sidewalk,” Dastmalchian said. “But then you see your wife holding your kid at the end of the block and get to go and be with the people you love. If you have someone that you can love and share the experience with, it’s all that matters, man. It really is.”
Dastmalchian will have many more film experiences to share — and very soon. He just finished filming the James Gunn-penned horror-thriller “The Belko Experiment,” and is prepping “All Creatures Here Below,” another film drama he wrote and will star in. Also coming out soon is the drama “Chronic,” in which Dastmalchian stars opposite Tim Roth.
Dastmalchian’s SXSW award-winning “Animals,” meanwhile, is streaming now and coming out on DVD Aug. 25.