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“How long to the point of no return?”
For David Dastmalchian, who grew up in Overland Park, the answer to the lyrical question is obvious. In terms of his career, this action blockbuster marks the point of no return. His memorable performance could pave the way for him to become a household name (one people may finally learn to pronounce correctly: “Dast-MAL-chee-in”).
The Shawnee Mission South graduate portrays the much-maligned bad guy Polka-Dot Man in the new follow-up by filmmaker James Gunn (“Guardians of the Galaxy”).
Gunn has insisted that the movie is not a sequel to 2016’s “Suicide Squad,” though some of that cast returns. And it’s not really a reboot.
The result is a hyper-violent and irreverently funny spin on the DC Comics series in which incarcerated supervillains do the bidding of a shadowy government agency in exchange for years off their sentence. Dastmalchian shares the screen with heavyweights such as Margot Robbie (as Harley Quinn), Idris Elba (Bloodsport), John Cena (Peacemaker) and Sylvester Stallone (voicing King Shark). It’s due in theaters and on HBO Max on Aug. 6.
The veteran actor is already well-known to fans of the DC universe (appearing in “The Dark Knight” and TV’s “Gotham” and “The Flash”) and Marvel (co-starring with another actor from Overland Park, Paul Rudd, in the “Ant-Man” movies). But he’s rarely landed a part as juicy as the one in “The Suicide Squad.”
And this despite the fact he plays what Gunn describes as a character previously considered “one of the dumbest ever.” Somehow they turn him into a tragic figure who provides many of the picture’s best moments.
Interviewed over Zoom while in Berlin, where he is shooting the horror movie “Last Voyage of the Demeter,” Dastmalchian is proud to be “filming on stages where ‘Metropolis’ was made,” he says.
He is also pleased to finally discuss “The Suicide Squad” after several years of having to deflect questions about its ultra-secret plot.
Q: In addition to your latest film, you’ve appeared in “Ant-Man,” “The Dark Knight,” “Gotham” and “The Flash,” to name a few. What’s been the most surprising thing about being so involved in the world of superheroes and supervillains?
A: That I am a part of it! That’s surprising. This kid who spent all of his lawn-mowing money at Clint’s Comics. This kid who lost himself in the pages of DC, Marvel, Dark Horse and otherwise is now getting to swim in the manifestation of these stories. All of it is really mind-boggling, and it just keeps getting better. Even if Polka-Dot Man is the last superhero property I get to be a part of, there have been so many now that it feels like I’ve won the lottery 17 times. It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t compute. I just like to believe that my years spent lost in the pages of comics and watching horror films gives me connectivity to the material that helps with the work.
Q: You’ve found success as an actor without losing your anonymity. Are you afraid “The Suicide Squad” might change that?
A: There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to let go of the ease with which my family and I can go to a Cinnabon or a Baskin-Robbins or Jack Stack Barbecue. I don’t know if any of my upcoming work could have an impact on that, but I suppose there’s the potential of things changing. People can have difficulty with boundaries — sometimes when you’re in a public space and they want a picture — and there’s difficulty with people reading social cues. You try your best to politely put out the energy of, “I’m spending time with my kids right now.”
I haven’t experienced that much, but I’ve been present and experienced it with friends of mine, like Kansas City’s very own vampire, Paul Rudd — the man who will perennially be 39 years old. I’m not comparing my career to Paul Rudd or saying that I’m going to be famous like Paul Rudd, but I’ve seen how people can pounce. I’ve always been grateful that I don’t have that.
I’m lucky in that I have a really great ninja who travels with me everywhere, and that’s my wife, Eve. Whenever anybody is a little weird or obtuse or boundary-crossing, she has no problem being the muscle of our family and chasing people off. She’s got that super-intense New York gaze that us Midwestern smiley types just don’t possess.
Q: What lessons did the filmmakers take from the previous “Suicide Squad”?
A: I don’t know if they took any lessons, to be quite honest. I feel like James’ vision for “The Suicide Squad” was just to make a movie that was true to his idea of what the Suicide Squad is, which is inspired so dramatically by the John Ostrander run (of the comic). As far as I know, it was not a conversation of like, “Here’s this film that was made. Now what am I doing differently or what have I learned?” They were seemingly open to a whole new soft reboot, where he could pick and choose which characters he wanted. There was no commitment to any kind of terminal connectivity as far as I know.
James is just a massive student of cinema in general. Every film he makes, he tries to push himself further than he’s ever gone before. Like the visual spectacle is off the charts, bonkers, bananas, crazy. The humor, because of the (R) rating, is allowed to go far into darkly humorous and violent places. Through all of that, James does what he does best, which is to create characters that you end up caring about even if you think they’re ridiculous.
Q: Is there a performance in this movie that particularly impressed you?
A: It’s such an exceptional ensemble for certain. But getting to see someone who’s never been in an American film, let alone an American giant studio film, and seeing what Daniela (Melchior) does with her portrayal of the Rat Catcher 2 was very impressive to me. She’s the youngest and least-experienced member of the cast. She’s a fish out of water in the fact there’s this Portuguese young talent dropped in the middle of a giant Hollywood studio picture in Atlanta and Panama. When I saw the performance on screen, I was doubly impressed. She’s become a really good friend. But it’s so cool to see all of these different actors who I look up to and love so much do their thing in person.
Q: James Gunn reportedly picked Polka-Dot Man because he was considered one of the dumbest supervillains ever. And yet, after watching the film, he is arguably the most interesting character in it. When did you know this character was going to be great?
A: James and I had been very close friends and yet never really talked about professional interaction, other than when he had me be a part of “The Belko Experiment,” a movie he wrote and produced but didn’t direct. But it was so out of the blue when I got that call from James. He knows how much I love comic books, and we both know how important they are to who we are as people.
So it was a very embarrassing moment for me when he said, “I want you to play the Polka-Dot Man in ‘The Suicide Squad.’” And I said, “I don’t know who that is.” He said, “Well, he’s arguably the lamest, dumbest villain in all of DC.” Then he gave me the script, and not only did I connect with Abner Krill (Polka-Dot Man’s real name) in a personal way for so many reasons, but the way James wrote him was so special and unique that I knew if I didn’t screw it up, we were going to do something really interesting.
Q: Polka-Dot Man has some big-time mommy issues in the film. What was your relationship like with your own mother?
A: I was very close to my mom (who died last year). She used to drive me to baseball practice at 3&2 and A11 parks. Then when I decided that I was going to take a break from sports in sixth grade, she said, “That’s fine, but you’re going to have to do something this summer.” So she drove me to auditions for Shawnee Mission Theatre in the Park, and she used to sit and wait for my rehearsals to end and take me to go get a slice at Original Pizza.
She didn’t always understand or even maybe love some of the darker stories that I wanted to tell. She didn’t really approve of my Fangoria magazine obsession. But she always had my back, and she wanted me to be me. I definitely wasn’t performing as much light or comedic fare as she would have liked. She used to say, “I wish you’d play a nice person sometimes because I think you’re a really nice person.”
On this journey of being an actor, there are so many moments where my life can be changed in a yes or no answer. And so many of those moments where I would get that phone call, I could then call her and she would listen. … I’m so sad I won’t get to have that phone call with her after she sees “The Suicide Squad.”
Q: Did you have anything to do with the Kansas song getting on the soundtrack?
A: I wish I could say I did. James just has killer taste in music. As a fellow Midwesterner — he is from outside of St. Louis — James has deep love for us in the Midwest and our roots. I don’t know if anybody could have any impact on him with the music. He’s so deeply invested in music, and it has such an impact on him as an artist. I would love to be able to give him a song at some point that he hasn’t heard before.
Q: You’ve also got Marvel’s “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” coming up in 2023. When is the last time you spoke with co-star Paul Rudd?
A: We just did a virtual Big Slick (Children’s Mercy charity event) a month ago, which still did really well. (In the “Virtually Talented” online show, Dastmalchian played games of hangman and maniacally danced wearing an “Ant-Man” flame suit.) I was so grateful to see how many people ponied up and kicked in because it’s so important, especially since the pandemic has jacked up so much of that stuff.
Paul did a couple of things for me over the course of the pandemic. It was a really hard year for all of us. He is the guy who without batting an eyelash would send a message or a text or a video that made a big difference. I really love that guy. He probably doesn’t even realize how much he brightened up the pandemic.
Q: “Dune” gets released in September (he plays twisted human computer Piter De Vries.) Any other projects you want to discuss?
A: I am so excited for the world to see “Dune”! Your eyeballs are gonna fall out of your head. It’s a piece of cinema history. And this film that I’m working on right now, I obviously can’t say much about it other than what’s probably been out in the universe. But the fact that I am working on a film taken directly from the pages of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” is something that is another one of these moments when I’m just pinching myself. This director, André Øvredal, did “The Autopsy of Jane Doe” and “Trollhunter.” He is so amazing. …
I also have a film that I wrote that is set in the Midwest called “Hide Your Eyes.” As for where it’s actually going to shoot, a lot of that depends on tax incentives. As much as I would like to be filming in Kansas City, that remains to be seen. … I wish I could come home and watch some of these movies that are coming out in Kansas City with my family there. But I’m sequestered in Europe for the time being.
Q: Do you fear that people will give you gifts of polka-dot clothing for the rest of your life?
A: I went shopping today in Berlin and got this handy little number (he holds up a polka-dot shirt with the tag still on it). Love it. I have polka-dot undies and socks from the amazing wardrobe team when I was shooting the movie. Who doesn’t love a good polka-dot? It’s a great pattern. I’m obviously a little more goth in style, but I can rock some polka-dots. Maybe polka-dots, sharks and rats are going to be all the rage in 2021.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”