Very little casting is done in Chicago when big studio movies shoot here. Not significant roles, where the camera lingers on a person for more than a moment. It's a strange phenomenon considering the deep bench of acting talent in town, but every so often there are exceptions. I remember watching 2008's "The Dark Knight" and realizing that weaselly guy who Aaron Eckhart was threatening over the ledge of a skyscraper was a Chicago actor. I knew the face. It's a distinctive face, one that belongs to David Dastmalchian. Haven't seen much of it on local stages since.
That's because after the Batman movie (his first big break, credited as "Joker's Thug") Dastmalchian moved to New York and then Los Angeles. He's aware that his last name is a mouthful; his website is drolly called davidwhat.com and it offers a handy pronunciation guide (dast-mol-chin).
Five years after he left, Dastmalchian is back in town through the end of the month shooting "Animals," of which he is writer, producer and co-star. "It's about a homeless young couple struggling with addiction," he said as we walked through the Uptown neighborhood where much of the film takes place. "They spend their day hustling and scamming to keep ahead of their addiction. At night they tell each other stories to escape into the fantasy of the life that they dream for themselves." The film's budget, he said, is "well below $200,000."
Dastmalchian also has a featured role in the new Jake Gyllenhaal-Hugh Jackman child abduction thriller "Prisoners," which opens Sept. 20 on a wave of good notices at the Toronto International Film Festival. I knew Dastmalchian was in town but wasn't aware of his involvement in the studio pic until I saw a clip last week on David Letterman.
"That aired the night before we started the first day of shooting ('Animals')," he said. "I was so exhausted, I was laying in bed and not even checking my phone to see why people were texting. And it was random people who I hadn't talked to in ages."
He plays a milquetoast-like yet creepy suspect in a crime investigated by Gyllenhaal. Reaction to the clip on Letterman: "My sister was like, 'You're terrifying.'" Like Michael Shannon, Dastmalchian has that kind of face. In repose it can look intense. "I'll see a little kid and be like, 'Aw man, I hope I don't scare them.'" That dark stare, however, belies his puckish sense of humor. He makes for good company. By his own admission, that was not always the case.
"Animals" is loosely based on his personal experiences with addiction, which began in high school. "Since I was a teenager I was a daily something — pot, drinking, something." Growing up in Kansas he played center for his high school football team and managed to keep things together. He planned to continue playing in college. "There were some Division II schools that were interested, and that was kind of my ticket to go to school."
A push from his drama and speech teachers led him to audition for theater schools instead. "I thought only rich kids get to do that. And they said I should at least try out. And I ended up getting accepted and a really good scholarship to go to the theater school at DePaul. And it totally changed the course of my life."
The scholarship didn't cover rent and books. "So I took a leave of absence and I took a bus with my last 50 bucks up to Seattle because I had read in the back of comic books: 'Work in Alaska, make a $1,000 a week.' And I thought, why not? I always wanted a Hemingway life experience.
"I spent the next year working in Alaska and made a (expletive) ton of money. We were fishing for salmon, pollock, whiting. It's real rough and amazing and life-changing. And at that time, I could still maintain (the drug habit). If I had to get stuff in Seattle I could, or if there were pills I could take on the boat, I was fine. I was like, 'Look at me, everything's OK.'"
He stayed in Chicago after graduation and became immersed in the local theater scene for about a year. "I had found myself to be an incredibly high-functioning full-time addict" by that point, he said. He was a daily heroin user. "And that whole situation — as much as an individual can tell themselves that they have it under control — eventually spiraled out of control. I went from being someone with a promising career and life ahead of him, and then I spent several years kind of on the outskirts of society, for lack of a better term."
I asked how he afforded his habit. "Eventually I couldn't, and I was having to shoplift on a daily basis, or find any number of hustles, scams, grifts that I could put together because eventually your family has to cut you off, your friends have to cut you off and you're ashamed to even see people when you're off sleeping in a car. At that point I left acting. I was just so ashamed." Much of that experience was channeled into the script for "Animals."
Ten years ago he began turning things around, little by little. "It wasn't even about being an actor again. It was: I want a (crummy) little apartment with a futon and (crummy) box of pizza that I can heat up and watch videos on a VCR. That was my goal." But theater opportunities began resurfacing anyway, including shows at Writers' Theater. He booked commercials. And then came the "Dark Knight" role and the move to LA.
Despite his West Coast mailing address, Dastmalchian remains entrenched in Chicago and intends to do more work here. He gestured to the neighborhood around us, with its oddball collection of loiterers and college students and the dentally challenged. "You can't shoot any other place that would look or feel like this does.
"And the talent here. I was in Beverly Hills meeting with a finance guy and he was like, 'How, on your small budget, are you going to fly out all these people from LA?' And I was like, 'Aside from me and maybe one or two other people, we're going to cast it all out of Chicago.' And he was like, 'Is that a good idea?'" Dastmalchian walked away from the meeting shaking his head.
It's been a busy few weeks professionally, but also personally — he and his fiancee recently eloped.
"We snuck away to the courthouse two Fridays ago, put on dress clothes, got married, got some crazy footage of it with this crazy judge in the basement of Cook County (courthouse), took some pictures — and by noon she was thrifting (for the film) and I was dealing with a locations representative."
"Prisoners" opens in theaters Sept. 20.
What kind of home movies were kids making before YouTube came along? Local improvisers Irene Marquette and Andrew Tisher have been collecting submissions for their "VHS Dreams, Teens on Screens" film festival, dedicated to all things pre-digital and "made when you were a kid... behind the camera or at least a kid as the main creative force." The screening will include early filmmaking attempts by performers from iO, Annoyance, Second City and College Humor. Wednesday at Upstairs Gallery. Go to facebook.com/TheCurioShow.
The Short Story Showcase at Chicago Filmmakers this year features three Chicago indies that explore what happens "when introverted individuals come face-to-face with their biggest fears." The lineup includes "Poor Perception" (a shy girl and her first day of college), "I'm Not a Hacker" (antisocial IT guy doesn't fit in) and "Crossing the Lake" (will a guy living at home with mom ever move on?). Saturday at Chicago Filmmakers. Go to chicagofilmmakers.org.
Chicago theater actor Carrie Coon has been cast in David Fincher's adaptation of the Gillian Flynn novel "Gone Girl" as Ben Affleck's twin sister. Over the summer Coon also landed a role on the HBO pilot for "The Leftovers," based on the book of the same name by Tom Perrotta. Earlier this year Coon (who is engaged to Tracy Letts) was nominated for a Tony Award for her role as Honey in the Steppenwolf's Broadway transfer of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
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