In a trailer parked behind a Northland hotel that could best be described as “shady,” David Dastmalchian relaxes while his makeup crew puts on the finishing touches before the cameras roll.
Filmmakers are in town this month shooting “All Creatures Here Below,” a drama written by and starring Dastmalchian.
The Overland Park native looks quite different than he did last year co-starring in the superhero hit “Ant-Man” or when he returned home to premiere “Animals,” a harrowing art-house favorite based on his years as a homeless heroin addict. His coal-black hair is now a brown buzz cut; his 6-foot frame noticeably beefier. He wears Converse sneakers and socks with tiger faces on them.
“I put these particular socks on because I really have to fight today,” he says of the upcoming demands of the motel scenes.
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But the most enduring physical change comes from the new tattoo on his right shoulder, the four-point crown of the Kansas City Royals logo. And it isn’t drawn on by a makeup artist.
“Not to be a fair-weather fan, but I got this last year,” Dastmalchian says of the championship season. “It wasn’t just because I love the Royals; I knew my character was from KC, and I wanted him to have a KC-centric tattoo. I honestly did it more for the movie.”
Therein lies the 39-year-old actor’s commitment to his craft. It’s also indicative of how he managed to persuade a director, producer, actors and crew with virtually no Kansas City connection to shoot 95 percent of the film in his hometown. Simply put, Dastmalchian has the power to make one a believer.
“I feel like this film is going to challenge audiences and ultimately move them,” he says.
It helped that the film received a $60,000 rebate from the new Kansas City Film Development Program, whose mission is to encourage local filmmaking. But Dastmalchian has also used this time to reconnect with his hometown and introduce his wife and son to his favorite old haunts.
“All Creatures Here Below,” which co-stars Karen Gillan (“Guardians of the Galaxy” and TV’s “Doctor Who”), could be called “a road movie, an outlaw couple movie or just a love story,” Dastmalchian says.
Not at all the “plot summary” posted on the film’s official IMDB page (since deleted).
“Did you see the one somebody put up there?” he asks. “It said: ‘All the creatures are below the earth. Karen Gillan plays a farmer protecting creatures from the pirates.’ ”
“Wow,” Dastmalchian exclaims. “I’d see that movie!”
In reality, he describes “All Creatures Here Below” as the story of a couple who “live under the cruel hammer of fate a hair’s breadth away from poverty.” One night in Los Angeles, they strike out and take things that have always been denied them. In doing so, they are forced to escape to their native KC, ultimately confronting the past they’ve been running from their whole lives.
“It’s about family the same way that ‘Animals’ was in how families can grow in the most unexpected places,” says the Shawnee Mission South graduate. “What family means can be redefined in an audience’s mind if they get an opportunity to step in the shoes of people they might not normally have a lot of compassion for.”
Filming completes here Monday, and then the squad heads to L.A. to finish the remaining 5 percent of the picture.
“The work David’s doing is flawless,” says producer Amy Greene Vines. “It’s breathtaking. He’s one of the most talented actors I’ve ever worked with.”
Greene Vines, along with “Animals” director Collin Schiffli, round out the trio who spearheaded the project. She actually attended Chicago’s DePaul University with Dastmalchian in the late ’90s (even appearing onstage with him), and they reconnected on the drama “Chronic,” which won best screenplay at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival.
A 17-year Hollywood veteran whose production credits include blockbusters such as “X-Men: First Class” and “A Good Day to Die Hard,” Greene Vines hopes to have her latest effort edited before the year is over. Her previous passion projects have screened at Cannes and Sundance, and she expects to take “All Creatures” to “the bigger festivals” such as Venice, Toronto and Berlin.
Meanwhile, Dastmalchian continues his rise as an in-demand performer on projects both indie and mammoth. His 2008 breakthrough as one of the Joker’s gang in “The Dark Knight” led to supporting roles in “Prisoners” and last year’s “Ant-Man,” in which he collaborated onscreen with fellow former Overland Park resident Paul Rudd.
Most recently, he has spent weeks in Budapest shooting the untitled “Blade Runner” sequel and working on the pilot of the equally cryptic “Twin Peaks” reboot.
Yet it’s his return to KC that has made the heftiest impact on the actor, especially considering how different his world has become in the interim.
“Fourteen years away from that life, in the years being clean, I’ve only come back here for a three-day weekend at Christmas. I never had a ton of time to explore the greater metro area. Coming back now with my own family, having confronted a lot of demons from my past, my eyes have been widened and my heart has been deepened by the love and appreciation for Kansas City,” he says.
He’s staying in the Crossroads while introducing wife Eve and young son Arlo to the city of his past … and his future.
“To be able to make the movie here and take on the most challenging role I’ve ever done, I’ve been kept afloat by so many awesome moments of discovery. Like taking my son to Antioch Park, where I used to go when I was a little boy. Or going to Shawnee Mission Theatre in the Park, where I first got on the big stage. That was Arlo’s first play he’s ever been to,” Dastmalchian says.
“This is my dream: I’m here in KC, with my family, making a movie.”
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”