Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

David Dastmalchian Details His Emotional Transformation Into Polka-Dot Man In The Suicide Squad - Exclusive Interview

More than a decade after his memorable supporting turn in Christopher Nolan's superhero blockbuster "The Dark Knight," David Dastmalchian is back in the DC movie universe with "The Suicide Squad," and he couldn't be more thrilled. After all, Dastmalchian is a lifelong comic book fan, plus the film teams him with his longtime friend and colleague, "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1" and "Vol. 2" writer-director James Gunn.

In "The Suicide Squad," which opens in theaters and streams exclusively on HBO Max August 6, Dastmalchian plays Abner Krill — aka Polka-Dot Man — one of several imprisoned supervillains reluctantly recruited to join the Suicide Squad, which has been rebranded Task Force X. Orchestrated by the program's ruthless director Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) and led by Col. Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), the task force has been given the deadly mission to take down a dictatorship on the Latin American island of Corto Maltese, where the military experiment known as Project Starfish is about to wreak havoc on the world.

Like the team members in the 2016 film "Suicide Squad," each member of the new Black Ops mission — including Bloodsport (Idris Elba), Peacemaker (John Cena), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Ratcatcher II (Daniela Melchior), and King Shark (voice of Sylvester Stallone) — has a very particular set of lethal skills. Polka-Dot Man, the victim of a failed experiment by his scientist mother, is infected with an inter-dimensional virus that produces polka-dot-colored discs under his skin that can be used to obliterate any living object or structure.

"The Suicide Squad" marks Dastmalchian's fourth comic book role since playing the Joker's (Heath Ledger) menacing henchman in "The Dark Knight." In 2015, he played Kurt, one of Scott Lang's (Paul Rudd) crew of ex-convict buddies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe's "Ant-Man," and reprised the role in the film's 2018 sequel. In 2017, Dastmalchian ventured into the DC television realm, playing Dwight Pollard (who raises a vicious crime lord from the dead) on Fox's "Gotham"; later that year, he portrayed the futuristic villain Abra Kadabra on the CW's "The Flash."

In an exclusive interview with Looper, Dastmalchian detailed what he brought to the role of his tragic character in "The Suicide Squad," discussed his work with Gunn and his co-stars, and revealed future projects he has in the works — including an update on his comic book "Count Crowley: Reluctant Midnight Monster Hunter."

Family is first to David Dastmalchian

Hey! How are you, David?

I'm doing well, man. It's 7:30 in Berlin. The sun is still up. I'm walking in my neighborhood because it's bedtime for my kids, and they can be a little loud and rowdy at the place where we're staying at the time. I thought it would be a little quieter if I came outside.

Well, I've always loved that about you, David — how the family comes with you everywhere you go.

I can't do it any other way. And because of COVID, the challenges for this one were very strenuous and I was really stressed about it. But I said, "I've got to figure out how to make this work." And here we are. We've spent the entire summer in Berlin. I've been filming a movie that I absolutely love, and my family has gotten to be here, and they have so many adventures every step of the way. It's just such a wonderful, awesome experience.

Is that "Last Voyage of the Demeter"?

Yes. It's based on a chapter from Bram Stoker's "Dracula," during which a schooner, a charter ship, carried all of Dracula's property, and Dracula himself, from Carpathia to London. And that's what the film is inspired by. And it is going to be something special, man. André Øvredal is directing and the cast is phenomenal, and I'm just having the best time.

The Suicide Squad's Dirty Dozen similarities

It sounds so original — as is "The Suicide Squad." There is definitely room for more originality in films, and not only that, originality within established properties. There are so many nooks and crannies to properties that people don't seem to access, but you certainly have a knack for getting involved with projects that are original.

Well, thank you. I'm so blessed. As you know, I mean, I adore and I love comic books, and I adore and I love horror films, and I adore and I love science fiction. And so, the fact that, as an actor, I've gotten to be a part of bringing to life these different characters and work with so many visionary directors. Here with "The Suicide Squad," I'm playing a villain — I mean, the term is supervillain, but I don't think that's the right term for Abner — who is Polka-Dot Man. He's kind of a super-depressed supervillain, I guess. I'm not sure what category he falls under. Super-geeky villain, maybe. Super-embarrassing villain. Getting to play Abner was just an honor and such a joy. And I love the way that James wrote the character. I love what he represents. And gosh, I'm so excited for people to go get to see it on a big screen and see all those giant polka dots flying at them.

And I think the term "anti-hero" enters the equation here, too, because these are guys that we can root for. And that's what I love about it. Yeah, they're bad guys in some respects, but they're going after worse guys. So, maybe that's the best way to look at it.

It's "The Dirty Dozen" with crazy characters with bizarre superpowers fighting giant intergalactic monstrosities. But at its heart, it is, and James has said this. It's very much inspired by that old concept of "The Dirty Dozen." You're going to take some real questionable folk and you're going to put them on a mission and they're going to do it or they're going to die.

David Dastmalchian first knew James Gunn's brother, Sean

Your history with James Gunn goes back to "The Belko Experiment," which he wrote the screenplay for. I don't know if you knew him prior to that or not but certainly your role in "The Belko Experiment" had to have had some sort of impact. Still, what other portrayals of yours led to your casting as Abner for "The Suicide Squad"? Or since he mined Polka-Dot Man because it was an obscure character, did he somehow have you in mind for doing the role?

James and I have known each other since about 2012. But his brother Sean [who has appeared in the "Guardians of the Galaxy" movies and "The Suicide Squad"], and I have known each other since the '90s. Sean and I both attended this theater school, DePaul University in Chicago. So, Sean was an actor who I really looked up to and I admired when I was a student, and then Sean and James went on to become very successful filmmakers. And when I moved to Los Angeles, I happened to meet James in 2012. We were talking about comic books the very first time we met. He was reading comic books the first time we met, and we just hit it off. And he said, "I think you know my brother." And I said, "Yeah, I've known Sean from college days, and blah, blah, blah."

And so, we stayed friends and then I became a part of the Marvel Universe with "Ant-Man," and I ran into James at a Marvel event. We hadn't seen each other in a while. And he said, "You'd be great for ... I'm producing a movie I wrote called 'The Belko Experiment.'" So, he got me involved with that. And then that was it. He's one of my best friends. He's one of the people I'm closest to, but it's a funny thing. We never talked about business much. We talk about movies, art and film, and comic books and fun stuff like that. But we never really talked about movies and I never imagined us working together. And, I mean, I hoped we would get to, but I didn't know how that would ever happen.

And then apparently while he was writing "The Suicide Squad," he told me that he was writing the character of Abner and he said he just saw me in his mind. And he wrote the role for me to perform. And he called me and said, "I want you to be a member of 'The Suicide Squad.'" And it was a call I'll never forget, and changed my life, man.

David Dastmalchian credits James Gunn for giving Polka-Dot Man a new life

Since you were a big comic book fan growing up, you've said you were embarrassed about not knowing who Polka-Dot Man was. But once you started learning about him, were you surprised how the character could have possibly languished in obscurity for so long? After all, what an interesting past your iteration of the Polka-Dot Man has. He's certainly motivated in strange ways by using "mommy issues" to conjure up his powers. I look at him and think, "Wow, this is a great character. A lot of people have missed the boat all these years not using him in the cinematic sense."

I agree, but here you've got to remember so much of that is James' own contribution. He picked the character that was, I think, voted "The Lamest Villain of all the Batman Villains." I believe he was on that list. And so James was like, "I'm going to not only make this character a member of the Suicide Squad, I'm going to do something interesting with him," because that's what James Gunn does. He's so gifted at making any character, every character, no matter how obscure, no matter how absurd, meaningful and heartfelt, and interesting. And so, he took what source material there was on Abner, the Polka-Dot Man. And by the way, there's not much. If you go back and you look at the comics, he first appeared in 1963. It was this over-the-top, absurd villain who was throwing these polka dot contraptions from his suit.

He kidnapped Robin and then Batman ended up capturing him, I believe, but then he really doesn't show up again until the '90s with the Gotham City PD stories. At that point, he's just the joke of Gotham City. So all of Polka-Dot Man's appearances in the last few decades have been as kind of the butt of the joke. He's never been very intimidating, to say the least. So, James just went to town and used his brilliant imagination, and created a lot of the story and the character, and the depth that we get to see in the film. So, as much research as I did in looking back at the ways that Abner has appeared in the comics and other animated and video game appearances, the most important thing was just James' script, which is one of the best scripts I'd read. And it just blew me away. It was great.

Personal pain helped David Dastmalchian inform Polka-Dot Man

I don't know how much of an introvert or how timid Polka-Dot Man was in the comic books, but there's that one scene where Peacemaker calls you Norman Bates. And if not Norman, were there any past movie characters that helped you inform Abner in any sort of way?

Oh, lots. I mean, in his most deformed state, there is a John Merrick ["The Elephant Man"] quality, being bullied and abused the way that John Merrick was. There's something about characters out of David Cronenberg films who have these abilities and powers, like they can use in "Scanners" that seem to be out of their control and cause more damage than they can do any good. He's a bit of "The Fly" in that experiments were done that transformed him.

But all of my research, to be quite honest, was of myself. I mean, I just really did what James asked me to do, which was to allow my own self to be present as much as possible during the performance of Abner. Because I know what it's like to be morbidly depressed. I've wrestled with it, and I nearly lost my battle to depression, and thankfully that was years ago and now I'm in a much better place, but I definitely know what it feels like to want to die the way that Abner does. I know what it feels like to be embarrassed of your body. I have a skin condition called vitiligo, which is an autoimmune disorder which corrodes the pigmentation in my skin.

So, I have spots all over my body and my face, which I used to color pretty intensely. And now, I just started letting it go because I'm very much at peace with it. But when I was growing up, I was teased a lot with my spots and called "Polka Dots," and they had a lot of nicknames for it. So yeah, instead of really looking at too many other characters, it was about looking inward and trying to be myself as much as I could.

Well, hopefully, David — and I don't mean to make light of it — but hopefully now those people that teased you and called you "Polka Dots," you can now say, "Hey, Polka Dot this!"

[Laughs] I will say for sure, everybody who gave me grief for spending all of my lawn mowing money on comic books at Clint's Comics in Kansas City can kiss my comic book moviemaking butt now, because I have definitely turned that passion into a career!

Playing Polka-Dot Man gave David Dastmalchian his Lon Chaney moment

What's wonderful is that you really do feel for this character. That's something you don't get a lot of times with the superheroes, much less supervillains or anti-heroes. So, to feel for Abner in an emotional sort of way is incredible.

It is. It is such a gift. As you know, I'm a student of comic book movies and I've been in some of the best, most fun comic book movies of recent years ... But with Abner and with this particular film, I've just never seen anything like him before. And I'm so proud that I get to be a part of James' beautiful vision, because it's so unique. It's so special.

We haven't had access to too many behind-the-scenes photos of the film, but there is one where Abner has boils or lesions, which appear with polka dot colors. Was that done with practical makeup effects or CGI?

It was not. I'm glad you asked. Going back to my lifelong passion for horror, I always wanted to be Lon Chaney. Since I was a kid. I wanted to do that kind of work. When I went to work on this movie, I found out Legacy Effects was the company that was going to do the makeup for the polka dots and they applied it every day. One of them is my dear friend Greg Funk, who, if you saw the "Ant-Man" movies and you remember all the tattoos that my character had, Greg was my makeup artist and did all my tattoos. So then getting to be with Greg and have him do these incredible prosthetics — and Greg is a legend in makeup — was such a treat. Also, a new friend, my buddy Matt [Sprunger], who was Greg's partner in applying my makeup, helped out.

The makeup was designed by Shane Mahan and the rest of the team at Legacy Effects. These are the guys who do "Star Wars." They do all the Marvel movies. I mean, this is the dream for me as an actor. James really insisted on having his effects as practical as possible in the film to help us in performance, and also for the style of film that he wanted to make, so the makeup is completely done practically. That is latex and wires and lights. I mean, my face really would light up and I looked like a walking Christmas tree version of the Elephant Man at points. It was insane, and it was so cool. And the first time that I did the makeup, and I went down to do my camera tests with James, I had tears in my eyes. I was so excited because it was my Lon Chaney moment. That was a lifelong dream.

David Dastmalchian was wowed by The Suicide Squad's special effects, inspired by co-stars

When you go to throw the polka dots, there's some serious damage happening. Now, obviously, that's something you can only imagine seeing when you're filming it. How much of a wow factor was there when you watched the completed scenes for the first time?

Oh, such a wow factor. And when we were on set shooting, the production designer, Beth Mickel, and James built an entire jungle on the stages at Pinewood in Atlanta. And in that jungle set, there was the whole gorilla force encampment, where I totally blast down a lookout tower. And that stuff really was done practically, so I got to watch my polka dots bring down this tower. And then when some of the guys get kind of blown to bits by my polka dots, he had actors standing there and then parts of body parts were all over the place. It was so cool when we were shooting it. And then when I got to go finally see the film, seeing it all come to life on the screen, and with the actual polka dots ... Wow, man. So cool.

Many of your scenes are with Idris Elba, as well as Margot Robbie. I can't help but think they have to inform you as an actor in some sort of way. I mean, what were the most important things that Idris and Margot helped you realize about the craft that you might not have realized yourself before making the film?

Both of those actors, Idris Elba and Margot Robbie, are people who I have looked up to and admired their work for years now. So, something that blew me away about both of them that I feel like I learned and got to take away, as well as from other actors on the set who I have been a longtime fan of, like Joel Kinnaman and Peter Capaldi, was their professionalism. The ability to come to set every day with a positive attitude, willing to endure the physical discomfort of a hard shoot like this, having an amazing attitude and a great sense of humor, and being able to really treat everyone around them with the respect and the dignity that an ensemble needs. When you're making a film, any film, a small film to a big film like this, it is a collaboration.

You are an ensemble and James set a great tone for this by really gathering just some of the best people in the business for each of the different roles and departments. But at the same time, those big movie stars, the way that they brought the most can-do "We're going to do this" and "We're going to make this the best movie we can" attitude every day to work. It was so inspiring for the rest of us who really were looking up to them for inspiration and guidance.

David Dastmalchian loved how James Gunn broke Abner Krill out of his shell

Your scenes involve mayhem a lot of the time, but there's that wonderful scene of you on the dance floor where you get to unleash your inner John Travolta. It's a fun scene, but it's important, too. Much more important than people think because we're seeing Abner break out of his shell, getting that opportunity to break out in a way that he never has before.

Yeah. That was such a fun shoot, too. They repurposed a famous old strip club in Atlanta to become the club in Corto Maltese, and we were in there for a few days shooting. And I knew, based on James' script, how important it was to have this moment where Abner really feels for the first time, probably in his life, that he's connected with other people. And maybe, dare I say, even making some friendships, especially with Daniella, who plays Ratcatcher II and is so wonderful. We were having so much fun.

But then I knew I'm not a great dancer. I don't know how to dance. I didn't know how Abner would dance. James just turned the music up as loud as he possibly could and he just told me to let go, and let my body do whatever it was going to do. And I just went for it, man. It was so fun, and James was laughing, really laughing a lot. And I think that sequence looks really cool. Henry Braham, who's the cinematographer of the film, did such a fantastic job. But that in particular is such a cool-looking scene. I'm excited for people to see that on the big screen.

Going back to the obscurity of Polka-Dot Man and the character finally getting his just due with "The Suicide Squad." If you could play a lesser-known or maybe a completely obscure Marvel Comics character in the MCU, do you have any idea who that would be?

Oh, there's so many fantastic characters. I guess I don't know if people consider Grim Reaper obscure, but I love Grim Reaper. I always wanted to get to do something with M.O.D.O.K., but now it's awesome to see how incredible the new show is. I mean, Patton Oswalt could not be a better performer. He has been so great. I love that show so much. And if anybody out there hasn't seen it yet, you need to go watch "M.O.D.O.K." Yeah, there's a lot of good ones. Maybe the Goblin. Another one I always wanted to take a stab at is Morbius, but obviously, that's being made. I would love to do something in the Werewolf by Night world. Oh, man. A lot of good ones.

David Dastmalchian will soon star in Dune and What If ...?

I'm so glad that Denis Villeneuve has cast you again after "Prisoners" and "Blade Runner 2049" with "Dune." What can you tell me about your involvement in the film and your character, Piter De Vries?

I got to see the film on a big screen at Warner Bros. before I left for Berlin, and it is a piece of cinema history. You've never seen a film like it before, and you'll never see a film like it again. It really had a massive impact on my wife and me. We both got to see the film together. It's an achievement that is going to really change people's perspectives and opinions on the potential of what cinema can do. He really pushes all of the boundaries in this film and it's an incredible piece of work. I think that it's going to be a lasting film that people will watch for many, many years to come. And I'm so grateful to be a small part of it. I think that Denis is such a special human and such a gifted director, and he has such vision. And the fact that he's included me in his vision on some of his films is one of the great, great honors of my life.

You're listed among the voice cast of Marvel's new animated series "What If ...?" What can you tell me about your involvement with the series?

So, "What If ...?" the series is just like the comic book "What If ...?" by Marvel back in the day, in which they take existing superheroes and super teams, and they throw them into scenarios as if they're existing in an alternate universe. So, in the part of "What If ...?" that I get to be a part of, I am reprising my role of Kurt, who is one Scott Lang's sidekicks in the "Ant-Man" films. And I'm unfortunately not able to say much more than that, other than I'm reprising my role as Kurt. And when you guys see this episode, you are going to flip out. It is so cool.

Getting a Polka-Dot Man action figure helped David Dastmalchian realize another dream

Finally, I have to bring up the most important thing for us nerd brethren. This has been a long time coming for you: A Polka-Dot Man action figure. Am I wrong in thinking that this is the next best thing to an Oscar? I mean, you're immortalized in plastic now.

You can go to Walmart or Target or anywhere else, and there is a Polka-Dot Man action figure in a plastic package, the cardboard backing. And to me, that is like, "Wow." I feel like I can rest easy now, man. You can put that on my tombstone. "I was an action figure." It is huge. I collect action figures. I love action figures, and it's surreal. It's strange. My kids are now going to be able to take all their aggressions out on me in ways that they never imagined. I hate to see all the horrible things they're going to do to the Polka-Dot Man action figure. [Laughs] But it makes me very proud. And the little kid in me who used to dream about all kinds of fantastical adventures is very proud.

I'm looking forward to talking with you again for "Dune" coming up here in a few months, and then I want to find out more about what's coming up for the "Count Crowley: Reluctant Midnight Monster Hunter" comic books, too.

I'm shouting it from the mountaintops: "Count Crowley, Vol. II." We just got it announced. We're going to have new issues coming to your comic book store soon. If you haven't read it yet, get thee to thy local comic shop and get that book. I promise you if you don't love my writing, Lucas Ketner's art is well worth the price of admission.

"The Suicide Squad" opens in theaters and is streaming exclusively on HBO Max August 6.