Fifteen years ago, David Dastmalchian was living in a car he stationed off Shawnee Mission Parkway. He had abandoned a promising career in acting because of a crippling addiction to heroin.
“There is a quality of selfishness that is associated with an individual when they are in the depths of addiction,” Dastmalchian says. “They will do anything, say anything, hurt anyone to satiate their need. The interesting thing about that is underneath they’re not selfish people — it’s almost like a demonic possession.”
But that selfishness turned to hope and ultimately redemption.
After five years of enduring this illicit lifestyle, the Kansas City-raised actor got clean. He then wrote a screenplay inspired by his experiences called “Animals.”
Now Dastmalchian is starring in that movie, which opens nationally on Friday and has already earned him a special Courage in Storytelling award at the South by Southwest Film Festival. He will attend premiere screenings at both the Glenwood Arts and the Tivoli.
“There’s not much that happened onscreen that I wasn’t present for in some way or another,” he says. “I was a full-time heroin addict. I lived in a car. I was hospitalized. Much of the film draws from my personal experiences or observations, but it’s fictional. All the characters are fictional.”
In “Animals,” Dastmalchian plays the clever and resourceful Jude. Together with his equally drug-dependent girlfriend, Bobbie (Kim Shaw), the couple pull scams to pay for their escalating habit while based in a car parked outside Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo.
“There’s a very on-the-nose metaphorical association between our characters and creatures who live inside a 12-by-14-foot enclosure,” he says of the film’s title.
Yet he’s quick to point out that the gritty circumstances the two leads experience in “Animals” shouldn’t detract from the core message of the picture, which is directed by his frequent collaborator Collin Schiffli.
“This isn’t a film about addiction or recovery. It’s a film about love,” he says.
With his jet-black hair and piercing gaze, the versatile Dastmalchian has steadily established a niche in Hollywood.
The Shawnee Mission South graduate landed his breakthrough role in 2008 as one of the Joker’s gang in “The Dark Knight.”
“(Director) Christopher Nolan disarmed me with his calmness, his sense of humor. He made me feel very comfortable going from performing in a theater for 125 people to being on the set of this $200 million film,” he says.
The actor went on to portray a shadowy psychopath in the Oscar-nominated “Prisoners” and turns up on television in shows such as “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and “Almost Human.” But this summer he’s poised for his highest-profile role yet in the Marvel superhero adventure “Ant-Man.”
Despite the secrecy connected with the coming comic book blockbusters, Dastmalchian reveals he portrays Kurt, “someone with a troubled past and a set of skills that could be used for bad. But they have the potential to be used for good as well, which is a wonderful theme that runs through this film.”
The highlight of the “Ant-Man” shoot was working with fellow Overland Park actor Paul Rudd, who stars as the titular hero.
“Coming from KC, he’s one of those guys you look at and say, ‘Wow, he did it!’ He’s a huge movie star and just an incredible human being. And he loves Kansas City more than anybody I know,” says Dastmalchian, who shares most of his scenes with Rudd.
They worked on the film together for five months, a chunk of which was during the Royals’ World Series run. They bonded over baseball and all things Kansas City-related.
“We’d kid each other on set with all these old KC references: ‘Pogo’s. The York Steakhouse at Oak Park Mall,’” he recalls. “We’d drop favorite memories about KC all the time.”
Dastmalchian was born in Pennsylvania and moved to Kansas when he was a year old. Growing up near 101st and Quivira, he attended Oak Park Elementary and Indian Woods before heading to Shawnee Mission South. At 6 feet tall and 230 pounds, he played defensive lineman efficiently enough to pursue a college football scholarship. He also fostered his love of music by singing in bands and getting caught up in KC’s burgeoning alt-rock scene of the early 1990s.
One of his bands featured members who would go on to be in The Life and Times. That relationship continues in “Animals,” in which a record store clerk can be seen wearing the popular KC group’s distinctive T-shirt.
“David has the natural ability to make the viewer feel what he’s feeling without trying too hard,” says Allen Epley, singer-guitarist of The Life and Times. “He has an actor’s face that translates information effortlessly and tells the story silently.”
Epley’s trio makes an appearance on the “Animals” soundtrack with a song called “Day One” that he describes as “an ode to dysfunction, obsession and unrequited love.”
Dastmalchian’s plans to play football were usurped by the acting bug. He earned a scholarship to Chicago’s prestigious Theater School at DePaul University. As his performing skills increased, so did his drug use.
“I was what they call a ‘high-functioning addict.’ I was in school full time while working overnight jobs. My problem was in total secret,” he says.
He graduated from DePaul with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1999. He also graduated to nonstop heroin use. Eventually he began living in his car, often commuting between Kansas City and Chicago depending on the availability of money and drugs.
Then came the hospital stays — some of which were forced — that lasted until 2002.
“I had an awakening,” the actor says. “My perspective shifted, and I was able to get outside of myself for a full, clear view. It pushed me to the darkest of depressions. At the same time, although my family and my friends had tough-loved me and cut me off, they had never given up on me.”
Now living in Los Angeles, he’s married, has a young son and is enjoying the greatest success of his career.
The lessons found in “Animals” are those he embraces every day.
Dastmalchian says, “You cannot give up on people.”
“Animals” opens Friday in Kansas City. Actor David Dastmalchian will be on hand for a question-and-answer session after the 7:15 p.m., Saturday , May 16, showing at the Glenwood Arts, 3707 W. 95th St., and the 7:15 p.m. Sunday, May 17, screening at Tivoli Cinemas in Westport.