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Dune's David Dastmalchian On Working With Denis Villeneuve, Playing Polka-Dot Man, And More - Exclusive Interview

David Dastmalchian has made a huge impression in showbiz since his piercing debut as the Joker's henchman Thomas Schiff in director Christopher Nolan's 2012 masterpiece "The Dark Knight," but 2021 has taken the actor to a whole new level. After years of winning performances in such comic book movie properties as "Ant-Man" and its sequel for the MCU — and guest turns on "Gotham" and "The Flash" for DC television — Dastmalchian joined filmmaker James Gunn's family of supervillains in DC's "The Suicide Squad."

Playing the tortured antihero Polka-Dot Man, Dastmalchian — who drew on his own real-life struggles — not only won acclaim from critics but earned the admiration of fans who identified with the plight of polka-dot-wielding Abner Krill. Even Dastmalchian's cat, Bubblegum (full name Abner Bubblegum Polka-Dot Cat) is being celebrated on the actor's Instagram page, where the feline dresses in her own Polka-Dot Man-like costume. It makes sense: Dastmalchian rescued the cat while "The Suicide Squad" was filming in Panama.

Dastmalchian's final film chapter for 2021 has just been written with the long-awaited theatrical debut of director Denis Villeneuve's futuristic sci-fi thriller "Dune." A big-screen adaption of Frank Herbert's classic novel of the same name, "Dune" covers the first half of the author's magnum opus. The film follows the path of Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), a young man forced to face his destiny after the noble House Atreides takes stewardship of Arrakis, a desert planet rich with "spice" — a substance that, among other things, powers interstellar travel. House Atreides, however, is being targeted for termination by House Harkonnen, a brutal regime that ruled over Arrakis and mined spice for 80 years prior to the nobles' arrival.

Dastmalchian stars in "Dune" as Piter de Vries, the cruel Mentat (a human with computer capabilities) who serves the malevolent Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård). In an exclusive interview with Looper, Dastmalchian discussed his work with Villeneuve — who cast Dastmalchian in his prior films "Prisoners" and "Blade Runner 2049" — his comic book movie work, and more.

Perpetual praise for Polka-Dot Man

Congratulations on the outpouring of love from fans, thanking you for being so honest and open about how Polka-Dot Man was a reflection of your own life in "The Suicide Squad." Is that something that you ever could have anticipated prior to the film coming out?

No way, no way. I feel like just the opportunity to get a chance to play a character like that was such a gift. And I never imagined that people would respond so strongly. It is such a gift and I continue to be blown away every day by the outpouring of support for the movie, and for the performance. And also, the fan art! I feel really lucky. It's just such a gift.

You finally must be relieved that "Dune" is seeing the light of day after COVID delays. Look, given the—

Did you see? They just broke the news, I think in the time since our call started, that they're going to do a "Dune: Part Two" for sure. It's been made official!


I'm so happy for Denis, Timothée and Zendaya, and all these incredible artists. I'm so grateful that I got to be a part of Denis' vision for "Dune: Part One." I think it's a true masterpiece. It's just such a special film, and I'm so lucky I get to be a part of it.

Hopping aboard the Villeneuve rollercoaster

I'm wondering because there was such of a long delay for "Dune" to come out, did you look at your role and say, "Gosh, I want to go back and tinker with this"? Was that ever a consideration for you or Denis?

Well, I feel like the opportunity to reimagine or tell a story like that and take it to the places that he wanted to, I was just always along for the ride. So I don't know. I was in it from the inside looking out. I just felt like I was there for such short amount of time. I climbed on board this rollercoaster that I didn't know where it was going, other than I had gotten a chance to read his script and see what his vision was for "Dune," which was so specific and so particular to his vision of the world. And I think it's so true to Frank Herbert's source material in the novel that I was so excited, but it's one of my favorite things about working with Denis.

But you climb on board his rollercoaster, and you don't know where he's going to take you, but you do know it's going to be somewhere dark, somewhere scary, somewhere that's going to make you have to really challenge yourself. And yet you feel completely safe doing so, because he'd throw himself on the tracks to save you. He'll throw himself before a speeding train to save for you, so you're willing to jump in front of the train yourself. Does that make sense?


The beginning of Villeneuve and Dastmalchian's collaboration

I love Denis' loyalty to you, beginning with "Prisoners." What a very complex and ultimately tragic role that you performed masterfully, man. How did you get on his radar to audition for the role in the first place? What was the decisive factor?

I think we should give a shoutout here — I like when we can give a shoutout in an interview. There is a casting director named Rich Delia. If you look at Rich's catalog of work now, you see what an incredibly prolific casting director he is. But back in 2012, Rich was an assistant working at the office of Kerry Barden and Paul Schnee, who are legendary casting directors. Now, when I got to LA in 2010, I did not have an agent. I met with some agencies and they all turned me down. I did not have a manager. I was eventually able to find my way to get an agent and a manager, but I did that mostly by going right into offices by myself and trying to drop off my materials. And I attended these workshops for actors that were led by directors, casting directors, agents, while Rich was doing a workshop where he was teaching people how to do audition skills. 

At the end of the workshop, he said to me, "I think you're very talented. I'm going to bring you in for something." And then a year went by. I never heard from him. And another chunk of time went by, and one day out of the blue, I got a call to come in to audition for this movie called "Prisoners." Rich had been hanging onto my name and he remembered me, and he thought I would be right for this role. And I got to go to an office in Santa Monica and I sat in the office at Barden and Schnee with them and I taped the audition and that was sent off to Denis — and whatever he saw in that audition, he decided that I was the right guy.

Prisoners freed Dastmalchian to explore the Hollywood map

A lot of people may assume the role of Thomas Schiff in "The Dark Knight" was a turning point in your career — and maybe your life in a way — since you got noticed in a big way for the first time. But I would tend to think that Bob Taylor from "Prisoners" — that was a true breakout role. Or do you think that "Prisoners" and "The Dark Knight" carry equal weight?

I believe both of those films and those roles had such monumental impact on my journey as an actor. They both changed the course of my life. Now for "Prisoners," I filmed that in January, February of 2013. At that point, me and [director] Collin Schiffli were getting ready to go make "Animals," which was a movie that I made zero money on. In fact, I went in the hole on it because I was barely making a living. So, the money I made from "Prisoners" helped kind of float me to be able to go make "Animals." My wife was able to quit her job as a bartender at the time to come and help us get the movie made. A bunch of my friends came and worked for next to nothing on the film. While we were filming "Animals" in Chicago, "Prisoners" came out in theaters. And in fact, on our one night off from filming "Animals," my wife, Eve, organized a group trip to the cinema to see "Prisoners." It was really a memorable night with the whole cast and crew of "Animals" going to see "Prisoners" together.

When I got back from filming "Animals," I had no money, and we had a bun in the oven. We had found out during the course of making "Animals" that Eve was pregnant with Arlo [the couple has since had another child, Pennie]. And because "Prisoners" had the impact that it did, I started getting calls from casting people not even to come in for auditions; it was just like I got a job offer as soon as I got back from Chicago making "Animals." I'll never forget. I got to go do a show called "Almost Human." I got to go do a show called "Intruders," and that provided visibility for me and my range as an actor.

Dastmalchian will be forever grateful for The Dark Knight

Looking back at "The Dark Knight" — How often do you reflect on that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? What was your biggest takeaway of working with Christopher Nolan and God bless him, Heath Ledger?

Every day. I think about that project every day. There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about the impact that film, and that experience, had on my life. I got to learn so much in such a short amount of time. I was only around Heath Ledger for just a couple of days, but I learned and was so inspired by the way he existed on set as an artist, as a person, his kindness, his gentleness of spirit, the way that he was invisible until it was time for him to be seen and when he was seen, he made the most of every moment he had as an actor.

As far as Christopher Nolan, I just, I'm in awe of him as a person, as a pioneer in film. I don't know. The fact that he thought I was the right person to be in his movie in such an interesting role. I feel so much gratitude towards him.

Dastmalchian is a lifelong fan of the Dune novel

Getting back to "Dune," how invested were you in the source material going into filming? You can't presume everybody reads a novel ahead of time. They might even want to separate what they know from the novel with the script. How invested were you going in?

Well, I'll say to anybody reading this, you do not need to read the novel "Dune" before you see the film, because Denis does such a magnificent job of bringing the story to life through film. I think once people see the movie and they fall in love with it, they're going to want to read the book just because it's going to change their lives as a movie. But the book, I'm a lifelong fan. I've read it three times. I think that it's an important piece of literature, not just sci-fi genre literature, it's an important piece of writing that examines characters in a way that most fiction does not almost in a James Joyce way.

It gives you these internal and 360-degree views of the characters that is very special. And it's just, it's a really important piece of work that I'm so glad that [production company] Legendary got behind Denis' vision and gave him the support that they did. [Producers] Mary Parent and Cale Boyter, and the rest of the people who supported Denis' vision, deserve a standing ovation because they took a big risk. And they've really made something that will go down in history.

Teaming with House Harkonnen

In "Dune," your scenes as Piter de Vries are primarily with Dave Bautista and Stellan Skarsgård. What did you take away from that experience? Because those are trippy scenes, man. I love those scenes. It must be something, again, that will forever be imprinted in a good way on your brain.

Well, I'm such a fan of both of those guys. So, when we got to get in the space and start playing together, it was amazing. But one of the things that impacted me the most was just stepping onto Denis' playground. The sets by Patrice Vermette, who had actually been our production designer on "Prisoners," were so eye-poppingly gorgeous, and detailed and expansive. Standing in the Baron's chamber, standing in the dining hall. All these moments were just, it was like I had stepped into another reality. And the artistry at play was mind-blowing, and it was just as mind-blowing to be there on set as it's been for me to sit in a cinema and watch it, projected on a giant screen.

Dastmalchian had additional Dune scenes that didn't make the final cut

At two and a half hours, "Dune" allows a lot of time for narrative and character depth. Did you film other scenes that you hope maybe will be restored if Denis does a director's cut?

Denis has already actually answered that. He said that what we're seeing is the director's cut, so I don't believe there ever will be any other versions of the film released. But there was a scene in which I was torturing a prisoner that didn't make it. Dave Bautista and I were in it and it was a very short scene, but I really enjoyed shooting that. There was also a scene between myself and Thufir Hawat, played by the great Steven McKinley Henderson, which unfortunately didn't make it into the final cut of the film.

That happens. There's a scene in "The Suicide Squad" that I thought was probably one of my favorite scenes I'd ever shot where Peter Capaldi — who played the Thinker — and I are stuck in the back of a van together. But you trust your filmmaker, you trust your leader, you trust your director, because they're the ones who know what they need and don't need. You have to believe that if it didn't make it in the film, it wasn't made to make it into the film. That's the beauty of the creation of the animal that is movies.

Introducing Polka-Dot Cat

Let's get back to where this conversation began with "The Suicide Squad." Your character, as you found out, was enormously popular. In a perfect world, if Polka-Dot Man could get a prequel series, what would you like it to focus on?

I think that interesting series would be about the origin story of Polka-Dot Cat and how Polka-Dot Man has a pet that is his only friend — who's a cat that actually has the same powers as him. And where is that cat? Why isn't she in the movie? Did something tragic happen to her? Did she move on to greener pastures? I would love to see that.

Well, I think that she lives with an actor named David Dastmalchian! One more thing: Is there any way you think James Gunn can sneak you into "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3"?

Well, I don't know. Kurt [from the "Ant-Man" movies] unfortunately was eaten by the zombies in "What if ...?"

But that's an alternate storyline, though, so—

You're right. That is. That's an alternate universe. I'll have to ask James. Perhaps there is an intergalactic computer system that needs hacking and I think we need to call on Kurt to show up and lend a hand.

"Dune" is playing in theaters and streaming exclusively on HBO Max through November 21.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.