'The Suicide Squad' Star David Dastmalchian Thought About Universal Monsters "Every Day" While Filming [Interview]
David Dastmalchian grew up watching monster movies. The comic book-loving kid from Kansas loved Hammer films and Universal Monster movies, and those films about sympathetic creatures connected with him. In The Suicide Squad, he plays Polka-Dot Man, a role cut from the same cloth, a character with more pain than power.
The character is funny, too, but there’s just as much pathos as laughs from Abner Krill. “That’s what people aren’t going to see coming,” the actor told us. “What’s so cool is I think people are going to be lured out to the movie theater because it’s a James Gunn film and because they’ve seen the trailers, so they know like the spectacle is going to be huge. And then all of a sudden, when they least expect, James is going to sneak up and break your heart.”
During a Zoom call, the actor told us about his experience playing the heartbreaking character, and how the role fulfilled a lifelong dream.
You’re influenced by actors like Lon Chaney and Peter Cushing. With Abner, were you thinking about Universal monsters at all on set?
Every day. I’ll never forget the first time I got to go to a makeup test with all the artists from Legacy Effects, James, our whole camera team. I’m standing there on the stages at Pinewood in the full Polka-Dot Man experience. I had to choke back tears basically because it’s like this lifetime dreaming about getting to inhabit a character that is built so powerfully and artistically by design elements, makeup elements, and then to bring all of that to life through a performance, it was insane.
Being a part of this movie combined so many lifelong dreams for me that it’s hard to quantify. It goes from like, oh, it’s one of the most kick-ass comic book-inspired scripts ever written in films ever made. And then this character that’s totally the underdog and misunderstood and totally quirky and weird. And then you add the elements of the way that I got to perform it. And it just was like, wow, that was everything I ever wanted from watching Lon Chaney as a kid.
Just like Chaney’s iconic roles, Abner is living with a lot of pain. How’d you want to communicate that physically?
Carrying around that kind of physical and psychic burden that Abner lives with, that was informed first and foremost by James’ script. In the dialogue alone, that was all I needed to know about Abner and how I believed he would walk through the world, which is shoulders slumped, head hung in shame and pain. And then you add on this ridiculous attempt at a villain costume that he had constructed for himself, which kind of bags a little bit and kind of is so aesthetically cool, but at the same time, ridiculous and embarrassing.
And then finally, when you’re there on set, James is the kind of director who’s going to give you guidance in ways that to me are the most informative, and that’s usually in bodywork. So for example, sometimes James would help me to stop moving my body and just breathe and allow the sorrow of existing as Abner to really fill my chest, my eyes. Reminding me to just be still and allow who I am as an individual who has struggled with insecurity and depression and a lot of similarities actually between myself and Abner.
A great example is that there’s a moment in which Abner is trying to communicate with these people that he’s on this journey with and he’s trying to tell them something really personal and it’s really hard. It was a hard day for me as an actor and James at one point came to me, put his arm around my shoulder, and just gave me the specific physical direction of gestures that he wanted me to try with my foot and my hip. I did it.
We’re standing there in the middle of the jungle, which is on the stages of Pinewood in these insane sets that he created. And I did this thing, I kind of dug my toe in the sand the way he wanted me to. I kind of looked at the ground and all of a sudden I felt like a 12-year-old standing there facing all the bullies in gym class again. I was like, oh my God. It helps to be in the hands of a genius.
You do get to show Abner free and loose with that dance sequence, right?
What a neat moment too, for him, for all of us, anybody that’s ever felt like an outsider or a loner, who doesn’t have people to be their friend. And all of a sudden he’s got these friends, if you will, they’re toasting together. Colonel Flag is playing with my hair and Rat Catcher’s dancing with me and how awesome, you know? It was still freeing. It was so fun.
How’d you feel when you got to shout, “I’m a superhero!”?
Well, imagine your whole life you’ve been collecting comic books. Your whole life, you’ve been obsessed with obscure villains and especially DC villains. Then you get cast in this movie with one of the masters of modern filmmaking James Gunn, going to direct you in, and we’re going to make this movie. And that scene, we shot in Panama at the very, very end of, I think a six-month production schedule is August, September, October, November, December, June. So that day, that line, that moment, I felt like I had been building to, been driving to my whole life. And the day that it arrived, I was really scared.
Then, I was very at peace and feeling really great. I knew the movie we were making was something very special. I was feeling really great about where I felt like James had gotten me with Abner, but I knew how important that moment was to the character’s arc.
It was a day that it was just me and Idris, kind of working together. I had a minute where I felt, I don’t know, I was scared and James came out to me and there are hundreds of people standing around with cameras and gear and everything. And we just had this really small, quiet conversation as two collaborators, two friends. An actor and a director that I trust so much. And he said some things to me that just helped me rise to the challenge.
How much backstory did you create for Abner?
Well, I’m in Berlin right now, as we speak. If I was in LA, I would have my book to show you, but I did create a book as I prepared for the work. I did think a lot about, how did I get to starting point A? Like, how did I get to Belreave, like what all led to that moment?
Now there are moments in the script where I talk about kind of who I am, why I am, and where I am. But that still leaves room for, filling in all those fun blanks, which we actors love to do. And James loves to do because he knows that world so well. I would have conversations with him about it.
If he hadn’t maybe been so insecure, so broken, so lost emotionally and psychologically, perhaps life and the path would have just been so different. I think that no matter how powerful someone is, no matter how much power someone wields, someone can literally be walking around with the power to detonate every nuclear bomb on the planet, if that person is riddled with insecurity and pain, and there’s a broken child living within them, then all that power is useless. And in fact, it can actually turn to bad. So I guess people will have to watch the movie to see if Abner’s power gets turned to good or bad.
Do you always write books for your characters?
I do it every time. I love that stuff. I do it with every role. It was pretty extensive. I do just sketching, artwork. I write down ideas. And then I tried my best to mine as much as I could from the DC Canon. And a funny story that I might’ve told you the last time we did…
You did not know Polka-Dot Man beforehand, right?
Yeah, that was so wild to me to have James Gunn say, I want you to be a member of the suicide squad and you’re going to be adding Abner Krill, Polka-Dot Man, Mr. Polka-Dot himself. I’m sitting there and being like, I know everything about comics. Now, I don’t know shit. I don’t know anything about Polka-Dot Man.
It was a fun, deep dive for me. He appears a dozen times tops throughout the Canon of DC, like in comics from 1963 or 67 was his first appearance. And then you jump through a couple of decades and then you get into like the nineties when he was in like Gotham City PD, and you see him at his lowest of lows.
He faces some really bad fates in the comics. All that stuff was informative, but I still felt like I had tons of room to invent and create my own stuff. And as you know, James also took a lot of creative license in adding his own vision and spin on these characters, which was super helpful. As you know, in the film, there’s a reference to Star Labs, which I think is a really important element in the world of DC. I love getting to think about all the different things that grew out of Star Laboratories, you know?
I have to ask, what’s the story behind the Polka-Dot Cat?
So when we were filming, our insanely talented and amazing costume designer, Judy Ana, they had made this suit, this Polka-Dot Man suit, and gave it to me. Because while we were in Panama, I fell in love with a homeless street cat, who I ultimately ended up adopting. Now a member of my family, Bubblegum, Abner Bubblegum Polka-Dot cat does really not hate the costume. I know a lot of pets don’t like the costumes, but Bubblegum seems to really like being a member the of family. I feel like she’s just like my daughter and my son, because they absolutely call themselves polka-dot boy and polka-dot girl. They’re convinced that they’re part of now the polka-dot family.
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