Interview: Actor David Dastmalchian on His Remarkable Film ‘Animals’

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CHICAGO – Sometimes you just need a break, that small window of opportunity to burst through and make the mark. Actor David Dastmalchian knows all about that phenomenon, as he produced and starred in his semi-autobiographical film “Animals,” and got the break of a lifetime landing a role in the film, “The Dark Knight.”

Dastmalchian is a consummate and enthusiastic gentleman, a performer who works hard, but has a humble and appealing attitude of gratitude. His star is ascending further this summer as he scored another role in a superhero epic, this time for Marvel Films, alongside Paul Rudd in “Ant-Man.” David Dastmalchian and director Collin Schiffli will also make a Chicago appearance this week (Friday, May 22nd, 2015) for the Chicago Opening Night screening of “Animals,” part of a limited nationwide release. Click here for details and ticket purchasing information for the Chicago screening.

David Dastmalchian
David Dastmalchian of ‘Animals’ at the 2014 Chicago Critics Film Festival
Photo credit: Joe Arce of Starstruck Foto for

Dastmalchian was raised in Kansas, but came to Chicago to study acting at The Theatre School at DePaul University. As he moved through a series of jobs after college, he also struggled with addiction (he’s now recovered), a period of life that is chronicled in the fictional screenplay of “Animals,” which he wrote and stars in. He relates the story of his break in “The Dark Knight” further down the interview (a must read), and talked to at length about the philosophy of his work, and his brilliant and rising career. ‘Animals’ is based in part on your own struggles with addiction. What physical or mental element of addiction did you want to communicate in the film, that you don’t think anyone else had thought about when portraying such characters?

David Dastmalchian: I think something that I wanted to bring to the screen was the potential for hope. I don’t think that has been portrayed before. We were aware, when we began the film, that the subject matter had been dealt with before, and was pretty well covered. As far as opiate or heroin addiction, it is said that in real life that odds are stacked against a heroin addict making a complete recovery, which I was told hundreds of times when I was trying to get clean.

It has been portrayed accurately in a number of films, that things don’t end well for the heroin addict, – in ‘Trainspotting’ and ‘Drugstore Cowboy,” for example. But in my case, I’m a happy ending. After that part of the battle in my life, I found a great deal of happiness, and found my way to a clean life. It was important for us to showcase that hope, but not in a way that it was one-meeting-and-then-clean. In any addiction, there is no easy bandage, and society is still trying to have a conversation on how we deal with this subject. So I wanted to tell a story of hope, and how people need each other to get better. Chicago was a more bitter backdrop in the circumstances of your character. Besides the neighborhoods that are like shooting galleries, what in your opinion are some of the hidden scars of the Windy City, that you and Collin tried to communicate in the film?

Dastmalchian: It’s interesting for me now, having been away from Chicago for a number of years, and having been away from the westside neighborhood that I generally bought drugs at in the late 1990s, to observe that maybe those scars are healing as those neighborhoods get better.

I drove Collin around to show him the locations at the time of the filming, including the spot where I primarily bought the drugs, and it was still there at that time. The area is a bubble. There is this beautiful and creeping gentrification of the West Loop, a bucolic suburb to the north and the UIC campus to the south. But the racial and economic divide of Chicago is still present, and still oppressive in that small area. You told me last year that your screenplay took many years to get right. How tight was the screenplay for ‘Animals’ at the time of production, and what adjustments were you and Collin making once the script was on its feet and actually being performed?

Dastmalchian: We were adjusting constantly. For me, I was still learning how to write screenplays. I entered the process understanding that learning curve. And I knew enough about movie sets to understand that openness is necessary on any given day. I wanted to make sure that Collin and everyone else associated with the production would understand that I wouldn’t be looming over them with a ‘golden crop,’ and guarding my precious words. [laughs]

When we first started rehearsing together, my instruction to everyone was there was no right way to say how the words in the script were. I told them to say it in the way that felt right for them. It was like I just laid out a map for everyone, and then allowed them to elevate the words in the direction that worked. As a writer, I get all the credit for ‘writing the screenplay,’ but when you watch the final film – based on the 72nd draft of my screenplay, by the way – it’s about the ideas that Collin and everyone else put into it.

Collin Schiffli, David Dastmalchian
Collin Schiffli (left) and David Dastmalchian on the set of ‘Animals’
Photo credit: Schiffli Films Was the expression of your film a sort of call for redemption, from all of the people you encountered during your actual addiction. Does Woody Allen’s assertion that ‘we do art because we can’t get it right in real life’ apply to your character of Jude, versus your real life of David?

Dastmalchian: Sure, definitely, that was part of it. In my real life journey, I’m actually much more Bobbie [the female character] then I was Jude. There were elements in my past that had an impact on the Jude you see on the screen, but there was also – as part of my personal arc with the situation – choices I had to make in my personal life that was closer to Bobbie.

If I achieve anything with this, it’s that an audience can sit there, and wonder about the guy they past on the sidewalk, who looks like Jude and Bobbie, or even worse. And when they walk out of the film, they well realize that these street people are brothers, sisters, sons and daughters. Everyone has the potential to be anything in the future, but it’s so easy to let them go, if they’re in a present addictive state. We need to find some way to reach out and grab them, and pull them back. There is redemption. There was such a long journey for ‘Animals’ from first tap on the keyboard for you in to the current release. In that long process, at what point did you and Collin find the most difficulty, and what advice would you give to young filmmakers to avoid that difficulty that you faced?

Dastmalchian: The first tap, as you indicated, was 2006. The most difficult point in the process is a tie, if I may. [laughs] I equate the whole process to a 20 round boxing match, there was never anything relatively easy in the process. One of those difficulties was financing, with no connections to movie stars or a highly commercial script. You have to deliver the goods, man. But that difficulty did turn out to be an necessary part of the evolution of the film.

We put together a business plan, just like we were opening a restaurant or starting a shop. We had read that Joel and Ethan Coen, when they made their film film ‘Blood Simple,’ that they went with a suitcase presentation to dentists, entrepreneurs and other small businessmen. We did it in a digital sense, with Collin putting together a beautiful pitch, and went out there soliciting. Financing ALWAYS seems to be ‘on the list.’ What was the other difficulty?

Dastmalchian: The other one is ‘jumping off the diving board.’ There is never a time in the production process where all the ducks are in a row. But you reach a certain time in the journey where you have to take a leap of faith, and start the cameras rolling. Without final money or everything in place, we set a date and started it going.

So my note to young filmmakers, when you’re out there pitching for money – we got told ‘no’ so many times – is to refine the pitch, look at our business plan, and listen to your potential investor feedback. We got to the point where we could sit across somebody at their kitchen table, and tell them what the movie was about, and why it was important to invest. The direct and honest way was the best, and it took a lot of pitches for it to start to click. It also forced us to ‘know’ what we eventually did, before one shot was done. The launch of ‘Ant-Man’ was not without controversy. How does a director switch [Edgar Wright to Peyton Reed] and the infamous ‘creative differences’ assertion affect a cast trying to get their feet wet in the complex world of superhero films?

Dastmalchian: I can only speak in my point of view – it’s totally selfish. I was worried that one director had cast me in the film, and the new director was going to let me go, because there was nothing contractually in place for a new director to keep me. I was good with the old director, I had auditioned for him, and I was looking forward to working with him. So when he left the picture, I was at the point where I just had my first child, I went from cloud nine to a bundle of nerves. I had a job, but there were other cast changes, so what was going to happen?

So I waited. I got the call that I was going down to Atlanta to meet up with him. It’s a funny story, because they told me I was going to ‘test,’ which I took to meant I was going to test for the role again with the new director. It gave me a stomach ache. [laughs] I get down there, and I’m sitting in this very nice office with Paul Rudd and the rest of the principals, the producers and new director. I realized it was for the camera tests, and it was a ‘welcome aboard’ moment. It was a weird way to realize that I finally, with 100 percent certainty, had the job.

David Dastmalchian
David Dastmalchian in a Promo for the Upcoming ‘Ant-Man’
Photo credit: Walt Disney Motion Picture Studios

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