Sure, his most high-profile characters to date are as creepy as hell, but in reality, veteran actor David Dastmalchian is one of the coolest cats you could ever hope to chat with in an interview.
I sensed a cool vibe mere moments into a recent phone conversation with Dastmalchian, who is fresh off another unnerving performance as the tech-savvy serial killer Simon on a recent episode of FOX's hit sci-fi series Almost Human. It's the second major project Dastmalchian been featured in the past four months, beginning with a pivotal supporting role opposite Jake Gyllenhaal in director Denis Villeneuve's spellbinding crime thriller Prisoners.
And before that, of course, Dastmalchian was exposed to millions of movie fans worldwide in a small but mesmerizing turn as the Joker's thug, Thomas Schiff, in Christopher Nolan's 2008 Batman epic The Dark Knight.
Dastmalchian in "Almost Human" (Series)
Born and raised in Kansas, Dastmalchian says he developed an obsession with horror movies in his youth, when he stayed up late Friday nights to watch Creature Features with local host Crematia Mortem on Channel 41 in Kansas City. Schooled in the dark wonderment of Universal Studio's monster movies and Hammer Horror, Dastmalchian without question feels some sinister seeds were planted in his mind for future portrayals. The rest fell into place when he picked his profession.
"For the actor's quest, or whatever you want to call it, to make a life path out of it you have to be a little bit insane to do that," Dastmalchian said, laughing.
After graduation, Dastmalchian moved from Kansas to Chicago to study theater, and also did a year in New York. And while he made his big move to Los Angeles in 2010, Chicago will always have an special place in Dastmalchian's heart because it's where he secured his Dark Knight role.
The scenes won't be hard for fans to recall. Dastmalchian is the imposter honor guardsman standing next to Heath Ledger's makeup-less Joker before they attempt to assassinate Gotham's mayor (Nestor Carbonell) at the public funeral of Commissioner Loeb (Colin McFarlane). After he's captured by District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and interrogated in an ambulance, we next find the future Two-Face threatening to shoot Dastmalchian's character in the head until Batman (Christian Bale) steps in.
While his screen time is short in The Dark Knight, Dastmalchian is still allowed enough time to make you feel his character's presence in your bones. It's almost as if there's a level of possession involved that messes with your mind.
Dastmalchian in "The Dark Knight"
"I really have to credit the amazing writing, which gave me really good justification for what I was doing," Dastmalchian said. "I've always thought in The Dark Knight that I was playing a role where I was hypnotized by somebody. If the character is mentally ill or disturbed, you can't just go, 'Well, I'm going to play crazy.' You have to find something you can latch on to. You have to find your own narrative for it. For the role, I felt I should be playing somebody completely under control, doing something I didn't necessarily want be doing."
As frightening as Ledger was on film as the Joker, Dastmalchian says the actor was the complete opposite.
"They had a double of him in the same uniform if he didn't want to be there during the marching scenes, but he totally just hung out," Dastmalchian recalled. "He stayed around the set and talked with me for a couple days. He was so sweet, generous and had a really had funny sense of humor. One thing that you didn't see in the film is an orchestrated honor guard scene with rifle spinning. Before that, I had never done any work as an actor where I used a large firearm. I was practicing by myself and was really nervous, and I'll never forget how he came over and talked with me about learning how to use a gun when he was on The Patriot, and he me taught me some things. I felt so fortunate just for that short window of time just to work with him."
Dastmalchian in "Prisoners"
Dastmalchian made waves again this past fall playing Bob Taylor in Prisoners as a mentally disturbed man suspected of kidnapping two young girls. The interesting thing is (spoiler alert if you haven't yet seen the film), Taylor isn't all that he seems. He comes off as a very creepy, unnerving individual who could lead anybody to reasonably believe that he's easily capable of committing such a horrific crime, until he's identified on the other end of the spectrum an earlier victim of the real kidnapper. It's the sort of tragic role that few actors ever get to realize.
"Those are the best characters to play, man. I love that," Dastmalchian says. "It would be really hard for me to play villainy for the sake of villainy. I don't think that's real. I don't think that's interesting."
Dastmalchian says despite the notoriety he's earned for playing disturbing characters, he's not afraid of being typecast. But if filmmakers and fans want to see him in that light, he's okay with that, because it just gives him more chances to prove everything else he has.
"You can't worry about it. I'm happy that I get a chance to play these roles that are so complicated and fascinating, and if that's all I get to do for the rest of my career, that's great," Dastmalchian says. "As an actor, of course, you want to play everything that you want to possibly play, and there are things on the horizon where I'm getting to do some roles that are quite different. But I don't have the fear of typecasting. Even in the audiences' eyes, even if I play a role that they would want to call a 'villain' or a 'creepy guy,' I just don't look at them like that. I look at them as people who are just different. I'm thrilled that people think I have a particular strength of going to that kind of place."
The striking commonality between his roles in The Dark Knight, Prisoners and Almost Human is that they're roles that could be based on real people – and that's why Dastmalchian believes audiences are so freaked out by them.