A sense of purpose

David Dastmalchian on finding humanity in dark places and All Creatures Here Below

by Jennie Kermode

David Dastmalchian with Karen Gillan in All Creatures Here Below
David Dastmalchian with Karen Gillan in All Creatures Here Below

A road movie following a troubled young couple with a stolen baby, All Creatures Here Below is a difficult watch but a powerful film that deals with subject matter many filmmakers are afraid to touch. It features a terrific performance from David Dastmalchian, one of those actors you’ve almost certainly watched on multiple occasions (he’s been in the likes of Prisoners, Ant-Man, Blade Runner 2049 and Netflix hit Bird Box, as well as Gotham and Twin Peaks) but who tends to bury himself so deeply in character that you might not have noticed him Soon he’ll be appearing as Polka-Dot Man in The Suicide Squad, but in this film he’s doing something very different. As Gensan, both boyfriend and carer to Karen Gillan’s emotionally vulnerable Ruby, he delivers the sort of work that ought to be winning awards – if a small, independent film like this can get enough notice.

By the time we talk, I have spent seven months trying to track him down. He’s pleased that I managed it and we laugh about how ridiculously complicated it was, especially as he was just a few miles away from me during part of that time, visiting the Glasgow Film Festival. I ask him if he had a good time there.

On the road
On the road

“It was amazing,” he says. “I loved it. I was in a really crazy schedule at the time that I went there and as soon as I got to Glasgow the people from the fest met me at the airport and for three days I felt like I was one of the festival family. It was really lovely. We all hung out and watched movies together. I saw some incredible films there and my film got to screen which was pretty awesome.”

It went down very well with the audience, from what I heard.

“Yeah. It’s a tricky film. You have to have a lot of hope as a filmmaker when you make something like this, that people will be willing to stay on board with the characters until they get to know more about them because from the get-go these are characters that don’t let anybody into their lives, let alone an audience. In the beginning it’s hard to get into their space with them and I felt to grateful because when we watched it in Glasgow and in the screenings we’ve had so far at festivals, generally – not everybody, but generally – people stayed through and stayed with the film. I’ve had some walkouts. I know the film has some really difficult subject matter and I understand completely, you know? Some people have left or have been kind of upset with us but I think the ones who stick through to the end, I hope that we achieved something that reflects the depth of love between these characters.”

Was that part of what drew him to develop the film in the first place?

“I resisted the film in the first place. I had a plot idea in my head about a couple who try and make a family and go on the run. The plot itself I had in my head for many years, thinking about films and books that I really admire, Coen brother films and Terrence Malick and thinking about books like the work of John Steinbeck. But the plot wasn’t enough to scare me into sitting down and writing it.”

That changed, he said, with a bombshell revelation within his own family about child abuse. It was something he knew about, he says, but had mentally blocked off.

“When it came out and I thought about the struggle that these characters are going through, I felt like I had a purpose, to kind of ask questions about why these horrible things happen to people. That’s why I started to really write it. That’s what forced me, I think, to get the laptop open and start typing, and then it all poured out of me in about a day.”

Baby makes three
Baby makes three

In his career he has often played difficult characters whom audiences might initially dislike, and brought humanity to them. I ask if that was something he wanted to achieve in this case, as an actor.

“Something that I discovered early in my training – I went through a fantastic theatre conservatory in Chicago canned the Theatre School DePaul University and it was basically like a hundred-year-old institution of theatre training, and some of the first tests that I ever drilled into as an actor, even back as far as high school, included everything from Peter Shaffer’s work to Tennessee Williams, and I was working with some of the more prolific contemporary writers, doing scene work from writers like Naomi Wallace – I was just happening to continue to get cast as, or be drawn to, characters that were either the ‘villain’ or the instigator of the dark manifestations within the plays. In doing that, if I didn’t want to just twirl my moustache and flare my nostrils and try and be scary, I wanted to dig in and figure out what could make an audience person care enough to keep watching even the person who we might traditionally call the villain.

“I felt like I was given so much amazing encouragement and training from teachers in the theatre community and then also directors. I’ve just been really lucky. I’ve worked with so many directors who have pushed me and encouraged me, nurtured me to find something that the audience can hopefully relate to within characters.”

He’s turned in a lot of impressive supporting performances over the years. In this film, although he’s technically playing a lead, he has to suppress emotion a lot because of the way that Gensan is protecting Ruby. Did that require a similar approach?

“It was a huge challenge... Even though this character is onscreen the most of anyone besides Ruby, I still feel like he’s a supporting character to Ruby’s journey. Every choice that I made, every decision that I made, I felt was based off of her need and my need to protect her. Putting up this big, manufactured, masculine, tough wall, this emotional barrier, this fortress if you will that Gensan has built in his lifetime, and the way that he represses and suppresses all of his emotions is to make Ruby feel safe and protected, to make himself feel safe and protected, but I think revealing any sense of fear or vulnerability or weakness, his fear is that it would cause Ruby to freak out and feel vulnerable.

Trying to make a family
Trying to make a family Photo: Samuel Goldwyn Films

“So it was all about her and that helped me so much because if e was just trying to put on some kind of dazzling peacock display as a masculine character I don’t know if I’d be able to find something interesting.”

Working with Karen Gillan in that role really helped as well, he says.

“Once we started shooting scenes and she would look at me with these eyes that were so vulnerable, so scared, so needing my protection, it did everything that I needed.”

He’s in almost every scene in the film and it’s intense throughout. Was it a gruelling shoot?

“Yes. To be honest it was gruelling for many reasons. Because I wrote the film and was dealing with all of the struggles of knowing everything that’s happening both behind the scenes and in front of the camera, the struggle of being back home – because I wrote the film in the same place where I grew up. There was the upside which was obviously that I love my family and my wife and my son were there with me – my daughter hadn’t been born yet – and we were in my childhood homeland which was comforting in one regard but horrifying and gruelling in the other because there’s all this emotional and historical darkness and baggage that comes with that.

“Everywhere you look is a reflection of some memory so there were many that are very, very good and I had a really wonderful childhood in many regards but there are also those that are horrific and haunting. And then the hours! Luckily Colin [Schiffli], our director, he’s so diligent in his preparation that even though we were on a tight budget and we didn’t have any of the luxuries of a regular film shoot, we moved rapidly because he knew exactly what he was trying to get and do. And then Karen, God, she just made the experience so wonderful because even on the hottest, longest, most gruelling days she was so full of energy, spirit, positivity, creativity and humour. She has an incredible sense of humour which, on those really difficult days, is like medicine for your soul.”

We talk about The Cloud, a film he made a few years ago which has been in limbo since. It’s another leading role, of which he’s had relatively few. Is it the size of a role that he looks for as an actor or is he more interested in playing interesting characters?

All Creatures Here Below poster
All Creatures Here Below poster Photo: Samuel Goldwyn Films

“Right now, as we speak, I’m preparing to head off to Budapest, Hungary, where I’ll be working on Denis Villeneuve’s new adaptation of Dune. I’m playing a really wonderful character in the film named Piter de Vries. He’s a member of the Harkonnen house and he is a mentat, which is kind of like a human computer. I’ve never played anything quite like him.

“Denis has cultivated and nurtured my acting in such an incredible way. I’m a thousand times over blessed that that man has chosen to include me in some of his films because I think he’s one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.”

He’ll also be working on a Hulu series called Reprisal, playing “a bizarre thug with a mysterious secret,” and says he’s really enjoyed preparing for both those parts.

“I’m one of those actors for whom the size of the role is much less important than the depth and the quality of the character. I’ve been so lucky that from small small roles to big roles I’m getting to play some incredible characters that are part of amazing productions.”

What are his ambitions for All Creatures Here Below at this stage? I was very glad when I heard that it was getting a cinema release.

“Yay!” he exclaims happily. “My ambition was to complete the film and to get it out there and now that it is, I am filled with a lot of feelings.”

We’re speaking on the 17th anniversary, to the day, of the last time he used drugs or alcohol, he says.

“The rewards of that journey have come in many ways, including that I have a family now and I have a life that I love with my work. It’s a huge reward that I get to do this work and so it’s kind of amazing to me that this film is going to be released the week after my 17th sobriety birthday and I am just as terrified as ever. You know this – you’ve seen the film. It’s an incredibly challenging watch and I feel a great deal of responsibility to everybody that’s going to watch the film and everybody who’s going to sit down and give me their eyes, their ears, their hearts, their minds for the hour and thirty minutes that the film lasts and they go on this journey with Ruby and Gensan. I feel a great deal of obligation to them and I feel a great deal of fear because I want them to find something valuable in the experience of watching this film.”

All Creatures Here Below opens in US cinemas on Friday 17 May.

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