How David Dastmalchian faced down his real-life demons for The Boogeyman
In Stephen King adaptation The Boogeyman, Air star Chris Messina plays a psychiatrist and widower with two children whose life is terrifyingly altered by a visitor. That unexpected arrival is Lester Billings, played by David Dastmalchian, who describes the man as "even more lost, more pained."
"With Lester comes a story that's not only going to change this family's life but is going to introduce a materialized horror the likes of which the people in this film — and I think audiences — have really never seen before," warns Dastmalchian, 47.
The Boogeyman (out June 2) is among several upcoming 2023 films to feature the Kansas-raised actor, who has a yet-to-be-announced role in Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer (out July 21) and portrays a Polish sailor in the Dracula tale The Last Voyage of the Demeter (out Aug. 18). But it's this horror endeavor that frightened him the most.
Dastmalchian grew up reading King and was already familiar with the author's film-inspiring short story "The Boogeyman" from its inclusion in the 1978 collection Night Shift. "I've got it dog-eared on my shelf," he tells EW over Zoom from his book- and comic-filled home office. "Every story I know backwards and forwards."
Patti Perret/20th Century Studios David Dastmalchian stars in 'The Boogeyman' as Lester Billings
Even so, Dastmalchian initially turned down the offer to play Billings in The Boogeyman, which is directed by hot Brit horror talent Rob Savage (2020's Host). "It was really hard for me to think about going into Lester's reality," the actor explains. "In fact, it scared the s--- out of me."
Speaking candidly, he says, "I'm someone who nearly took my life a number of times and that's a theme which this story plays with. So, I actually said, 'I don't think I can do this,' the first couple of times they came round. Then I thought a lot about what Stephen King means to me, and I thought about this director, Rob, and what his vision meant, because we met and talked. And then I said, 'Okay, let's see what happens.' And it was hard, man. It was really hard."
Savage, for one, is very grateful that Dastmalchian changed his mind. "He brought a vulnerability and a nervy unpredictability to the role of Lester Billings, a celebrated King character that could have veered into caricature in the wrong hands," says the filmmaker. "David is one of the most thoughtful, collaborative, and committed actors I've ever worked with. This might be an unrealistic career goal, but I want him to be in every movie I ever make."
It would seem as though other directors feel the same way. This year alone, Dastmalchian has voiced the character Veb in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania and played suspected serial killer Albert DeSalvo in Hulu film The Boston Strangler, on top of his previously mentioned credits. The horror lover also plans on co-hosting this year's Fangoria Chainsaw Awards, the magazine's annual celebration of the genre, which premieres on Shudder May 21. Meanwhile, he continues to write his comic book, Count Crowley: Reluctant Midnight Monster Hunter, which he says "explores all the issues that really matter to me, including addiction and mental wellness, while set in the world of late-night horror hosts and monsters."
Dastmalchian, who lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two children, counts himself lucky: "I can't believe my life," he adds.
warner bros. David Dastmalchian in 'The Dark Knight'
That life has not always been rosy for the actor, who suffers from bouts of severe depression and began using drugs in high school to self-medicate. After graduating, Dastmalchian moved to Chicago and enrolled in DePaul University's theater program but succumbed to heroin addiction in the course of his studies and wound up homeless. He eventually entered a psychiatric facility, followed by rehab, and started working low-paid jobs while he took roles on the stage. Half a decade into his recovery, he got the chance to audition for Nolan's second Batman film, 2008's The Dark Knight, which was shooting in Chicago.
"In 2007, I was five years clean and sober," he says. "I was doing theater for free basically in Chicago and working as a telemarketer. I got the opportunity to audition for this film based upon one of my favorite characters of all time." Nolan was impressed enough by the unknown actor to cast him as an unhinged henchman of Heath Ledger's Joker named Thomas Schiff.
"One of the greatest filmmakers of all time looked at me and said, 'Yeah, you. Come be a part of this,'" recalls Dastmalchian, still amazed. "My last day of filming The Dark Knight, I remember I walked past the alley where I used to sleep when I was homeless and struggling with my addiction. That experience, my very first time of being on the set of a movie, changed my life in every way you can possibly imagine."
Years later, Dastmalchian gets another call from Nolan, this time for the star-studded Oppenheimer, a biopic starring Cillian Murphy as physicist and so-called "father of the atomic bomb" J. Robert Oppenheimer. "I didn't even think he remembered me. I didn't even think he would know who I was," Dastmalchian remarks of Nolan. "It turns out I was wrong, and he gave me an opportunity to come and play in his incredible creative space, with some of the best actors of our time, all of whom treated me so kindly, and welcomed me, and made me feel like I belonged. Which was humbling because I don't ever feel like I belong, especially when you're amongst the ranks of artists like Robert Downey Jr. and Cillian Murphy and all of these amazing artists."
Zade Rosenthal/Disney David Dastmalchian in 'Ant-Man'
While it is unlikely that the famously detail-obsessed Nolan would have forgotten Dastmalchian, the director had plenty of chances to be reminded of his talents. In the years between The Dark Knight and Oppenheimer, the actor appeared in a slew of big screen projects, including the first two Ant-Man movies, playing Scott Lang's associate Kurt; three films directed by Denis Villeneuve (2013's Prisoners, 2017's Blade Runner 2049, 2021's Dune); and 2021's James Gunn-directed The Suicide Squad, playing the obscure supervillain Polka-Dot Man. It was while shooting the latter that Dastmalchian came across the cute-as-a-button cat who is crawling all over the actor as we talk.
"This is Bubblegum," he says. "We were in the streets of Panama, and this little beautiful cat just kept coming up to us, wanting love, and so now I've got her, and she's part of my family. I tell you what, these last couple of years were really tough with the pandemic, and I lost both of my parents, and we had a lot of difficult times, and it's amazing the magic that a cat can bring to your life. Bubblegum helped me through a lot of my grief-processing."
Warner Bros. / Courtesy Everett Collection David Dastmalchian in 'The Suicide Squad'
As has probably become clear by now, Dastmalchian is happy to talk about his mental health issues. The actor is keen to promote the idea that such transparency is a good thing.
"There's so much stigma around that stuff," he says today. "I'm just a character actor, I'm not some movie star, I don't have some massive platform with billions of fans. But whenever I get the opportunity, [I say that] the reality [is] we have to get rid of these f---ing stigmas, we have to talk to each other about this stuff. We're not allowed to be as vulnerable as we need to be, to be healthy, to live the lives that we're capable of living. I think we're getting somewhere, but there's so far to go."
Dastmalchian's description of himself as a "character actor" is accurate. While he played the male lead in 2014's Animals, a semi-autobiographical drama about heroin addicts which he also wrote, nearly all his onscreen appearances have been in supporting roles. Not that you'll hear the actor complaining about that.
"Every character's important, every role's important," he says. "I know it's an old cliché, but I did learn that in Chicago theater, when I was only getting to be, say, Montano in Othello. You know, you've got two scenes to try and actually help propel a story. As a character actor, as someone who's always looked up to the John Cazales and the Peter Lorres of cinema history, I want to be like a slingshot to the movies, you know what I mean? I want to be a guy that helps shoot things forward."
Michael Kovac/Getty Images David Dastmalchian
Dastmalchian is thrilled to have found life working in the horror genre and talks excitedly about his role in The Last Voyage of the Demeter, which is adapted from a chapter in Bram Stoker's original novel Dracula and takes place on a ship transporting the vampire-Count to Britain.
"As a horror hound, as a monster kid, Dracula was by far one of my favorite books growing up," he says. "The story of the Demeter, to me, it felt like Ridley Scott's Alien on board a merchant ship in the 1800s. It's great storytelling. It was a hard shoot, the hardest I've ever done. Took a lot out of me physically, because I had to learn how to be a sailor, I had to learn Polish, but thank god I got to be a part of it."
Dastmalchian is similarly enthusiastic about yet another horror film on which he recently worked, Late Night With the Devil. The currently undated movie is directed by Australian brothers Cameron and Colin Cairnes, and gifts the actor another lead role as a late-night talk show host whose attempt to boost his ratings leads to horrifying consequences.
"His show is going to be cancelled because Johnny Carson is blowing him away, so he does in one night all this stuff, trying to save his show, and crosses some lines ethically," he says.
Late Night With the Devil recently won the Audience Award at the horror movie-showcasing Overlook Festival. The film also got a severed-thumbs up on Twitter from Stephen King who described the movie as, "absolutely brilliant. I couldn't take my eyes off it." The author would have equally good things to say about The Boogeyman.
"Stephen King sent a personal email to our director telling him how much he loved The Boogeyman, which is such a badge of honor for me," says Dastmalchian. "Then, he tweeted that he had gotten to see a secret cut of Late Night With the Devil and he wrote this glowing review of that. So, at the moment, I'm having a surreal horror hound transcendence. Stephen King seems to have liked two of the things that I helped make this year and that right there feels like the kind of thing that makes me go, 'Oh! Okay, I can retire.'"
"Although," he adds, "I'll never retire."
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