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David Dastmalchian, Star of 'Animals,' Reflects on Addiction, Triumphs

 David Dastmalchian
David Dastmalchian
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Caleb Condit

UPTOWN — As an 18-year-old, screenwriter and actor David Dastmalchian spent a lot of time watching indie films at Lakeview's Music Box Theatre, his "favorite place in the world to see a movie."

He had moved from Kansas to study at DePaul's theater school with aspirations of being an actor — and brought with him a clandestine drug addiction that eventually took him to the brink of death years later.

Now in his mid 30s and 12 years sober, he's flying from his home in Los Angeles to visit the Music Box on May 15.

This time audiences will be watching his film "Animals," slated for a Chicago premiere after winning the SXSW Film Festival's Special Jury Award for Courage in Storytelling.

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SXSW 2014

Adeshina Emmanuel introduces us to David Dastmalchian:

The film was directed by Collin Schiffli and written by Dastmalchian, a former Uptown resident who also stars in the feature. He and Schiffli will participate in an audience Q&A after the screening.

"This is such an amazing moment for us to go back to Chicago and watch our film at the Music Box," Dastmalchian said Tuesday in a phone interview from L.A. "I just sent a message to Ric Addy at Shake Rattle and Read and some of my other friends from the old neighborhood," inviting them to see "Animals."

"Animals" will screen at the Music Box, 3733 N. Southport Ave., as part of the Chicago Critics Film Festival.

In the indie drama, much of which was shot in Uptown, Dastmalchian stars alongside actress Kim Shaw. They play a drug-addicted couple living somewhere between homelessness and their own fantasies. The couple spend their days hustling to sustain their addiction.

Come nightfall, they seek escape from their soiled reality through sharing imagined tales.

Dastmalchian said the film resonates strongly with anybody like him, "who has had addiction or extreme desperation touch their lives."

Eventually, the two ends of the candle meet

Dastmalchian honed his acting chops on the local theater scene while living in Uptown from 2001 to 2008 before moving to L.A. after his first big break, a role as one of the Joker's thugs in "The Dark Knight."

"Animals" is inspired by Dastmalchian's own encounters with addiction.

Those episodes began for him as a high-schooler hooked on opiates, and led to a life as a daily heroin user in his late college years and first few years after graduation.

"What happens with any addict is they trick themselves into thinking they can continue to live like that, and eventually the two ends of the candle will meet and everything melts down," he said. "I went from having an apartment and a future and career to living in a car and having to survive day to day just to keep my habit alive."

He hit rock bottom when a heroin overdose and other medical complications landed him in a hospital for a month. In the hospital, separated from the drug, he was able to take his first few steps toward sobriety.

Dastmalchian said he hasn't gotten high since 2002. His turnaround since then is both surreal and sublime, he said, between his wife giving birth to a boy earlier this month and the success of "Animals" at SXSW

"Life is filled with tragedy, with long patches of struggle and with, I think, beautiful bursts of joy and accomplishment," Dastmalchian said. "Blessed with those moments, you just try to relax as much as possible and focus on the little things, like the joy of changing your baby's diaper."

Plans of Returning to Uptown 'For a Bigger Movie'

Although "I was told 'no' 999 times" in the film industry," Dastmalchian said, "I got enough yeses that I am where I am today." With a chuckle, he added he's "excited to share ideas with people who wouldn't have answered the phone a couple years ago."

One idea is another film set in Uptown, with "a bigger-budget script than 'Animals'."

The unnamed project aims to tell the story of a Chicago woman who uncovers a mystery that "forces her to question her entire reality," said Dastmalchian, calling the work a blend of straight dramatic realism and fantasy.

He's been working on the script with Chicago theater director Jimmy McDermott, an old friend.

The duo is going to develop the script further over the next year, Dastmalchian said, and hopefully in the next two years he'll "be back in Uptown for a bigger movie."

"I can't wait to get back," he said.

He said he has "lots of friends in the area," including the owner of Sheridan Park Food and Liquor, who the actor said "used to advance me milk and eggs back when I was barely living paycheck to paycheck and getting on my feet."