Actor David Dastmalchian may be known for his roles in big-budget films – from The Dark Knight and The Suicide Squad to this summer’s Oppenheimer. But he’s the star of the upcoming indie production Late Night with the Devil, a found footage horror film about a fictional ‘70s talk show host whose personal and professional life are in free fall. In anticipation of the #ChiFilmFest screening of Late Night with the Devil, with David appearing in-person for a Q&A on Oct. 15, we chatted with him about this film, making indie projects, his roots as a Chicago-based actor, and more.
How did you get connected with this project, and what about it excited you?
How I got connected to the project was through the relationship that I have with my friend Roy Lee. Roy is a producer who I’ve admired for a long time and we’ve been circling projects together for a number of years. A few years ago Roy sent me the script for Late Night with the Devil along with the pitch deck that the Cairnes’ brothers had constructed for the film. I had never really seen anything like it. It looked like a TV guide from the 1970s but it was all structured around the world of Jack Gilroy’s “Night Owls” and the world of Late Night with the Devil. They had also used images of me in some of the photos and it just opened up my imagination to the world of this story. I was so excited when I started reading the script at the opportunity to get to play a character like this. It was a very, very easy yes for me.
What makes a late night talk show such a great fit for the plot of a horror film?
I think the setting of a late-night talk show is a really ripe atmosphere for a horror narrative because the tension, anxiety and pressure that comes with that form of entertainment is overwhelming. It’s something that people don’t think about when they’re watching the Late Show or The Tonight Show or whatever talk show that they enjoy. Although they’re seeing people telling jokes and doing interviews and musical performances, the behind the scenes atmosphere is absolutely high stakes and incredibly fraught with anxiety. I think there’s something about the entertainment industry in general that is just so utterly horrifying. There is so much value placed on strange things and so much pressure that people put upon themselves and it is thrust upon them. When they stand in the spotlight, I felt like this kind of pressure cooker reality was the most perfect recipe for the psychic turmoil that Jack Delroy was experiencing.
You’re known for roles in an array of big budget movies. What sticks out to you about making a smaller, independent film like this after working on larger-scale projects?
I’ve been so blessed to have a career that seems to straddle two sides of the film industry. I’ve worked with some incredible artists in the independence space and on the other side, I work with some masters of cinema in the studio space. One thing that binds all of these projects together is the vision of incredible artists who love making movies. Working under the challenges of independent film usually just comes down to really simple things. You have less time, you have less money, you have less resources, this, as all artists learned during their journeys, is often a gift. The constraints and pressures that come with obstructions generate decisions that enhance whatever it is that they’re trying to create. I’ll never forget being in Chicago and making our movie Animals with such a tiny, tiny budget and feeling absolutely empowered to be as creative as we wanted to be because we were surrounding ourselves with people who kept saying yes. I’ve been on massive giant studio pictures where the mentality of the director is exactly the same. People who are unafraid of the challenges and willing to use their imaginations can thrive in nearly every environment.
You were born in Pennsylvania and raised in Kansas, but your acting career seemed to take off in Chicago, especially with the local theater scene here. What makes Chicago a good place for up-and-coming actors?
Chicago isn’t a good place for up and coming actors, it’s the perfect place. Chicago, in my opinion, is the perfect place for anyone embarking on a journey in the arts. It’s a tough city. It’s a city that pushes you and stretches you and forces you to grow and learn both creative practices as well as survival practices. I feel like the community of artists in Chicago from music to theater to the fine arts of all different persuasions are still connected in so many different ways to the cinema community there. I was so very lucky to have trained at the DePaul Theater School. It’s one of the best places for actors to learn techniques, it was on the stages of the Chicago storefront theater community that I really cut my teeth and started to understand what it was. I’m still an ensemble member of Shattered Globe Theater and I’m still determined to get back on stage as many times as possible in Chicago. I wouldn’t have the film career that I enjoy today if it weren’t for Chicago.
Late Night with the Devil is screening at Chicago’s historic Music Box Theatre. Do you have any memories of notable films you’ve seen at the Music Box?
I love this question! This is wild for me. Not only have I always wanted to be a part of a film that was at the Chicago International Film Festival, but the Music Box Theatre is like a church to me. When I first got to Chicago I would open the Reader and see what was happening in the worlds of theater and movies. All the movies that I wanted to see were always playing at The Music Box. So many incredible screenings there ranging from art house masterpieces like Lynch and Linklater, all the way to appearances from artist who I admired like Crispin Glover. I’ll never forget seeing Run Lola Run at The Music Box. I had never seen a movie like that before. I was so honored and excited when the Chicago Film Critics Association showed my film Animals at The Music Box Theatre. When I walked up to the lobby and saw so many of my old Chicago friends and family waiting to see a movie that we’d made, it made my heart nearly burst. I can’t believe I’m going to get to come back to The Music Box and watch Late Night with the Devil with the Chicago audience. This is really a dream come true for me.
What about Chicago as a city do you think makes it such a singular and captivating setting for film and TV?
Chicago is such a perfect city to shoot cinema because it can look like so many things. It can feel classic, it can feel modern, it can feel timeless. There’s something about the architecture and the way the river snakes through the city. That always makes me feel like I could be in any American city. I could be in a futuristic city, I could even be a European city. I hope to make many more movies in Chicago and I think that the actors that work there, bring so much to the texture of the films that are shot there.
Get tickets now for Late Night with the Devil – David will be in attendance on Oct. 15 at the Music Box Theatre for a Q&A.