A staple in the comic book genre, actor David Dastmalchian has hit the screen recently in DC’s The Suicide Squad and Marvel’s Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania. He’s appeared in offbeat comedies like Weird: The Al Yankovic Story and Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, sci-fi epics like Denis Villeneuve’s Dune and Blade Runner 2049, and later this year, Christopher Nolan’s drama Oppenheimer

His new film, Boston Strangler, takes yet another direction. Dastmalchian brings the true story of the 1960s Boston murders to life as Albert DeSalvo, the man ultimately convicted for the crimes. We sat down with Dastmalchian to discuss how he got into the role of DeSalvo and what it’s like to play such a wide range of characters on screen.

THS: Tell us how you first got involved with Boston Strangler. Were you familiar with the murders? Are you a big fan of true crime media?

David Dastmalchian: I do love true crime. I think it’s fascinating and I love the moment that we’re living in right now, where we have access to the internet so we can find all kinds of information, and we can get into debates and we can even sleuth things and solve crimes. We’ve seen crimes helped [being solved] by the bloggers. It’s actually a real thing. 

So that being said, I only had familiarity with this case with pop culture lore. I’d seen the 1960s film with Tony Curtis, but I didn’t know the story of these reporters, that’s for sure. I was unaware of the way in which the state of Massachusetts, and the law enforcement of Boston, just completely bumbled this case. And I was so rocked.

L: Albert DeSalvo, R: David Dastmalchian as DeSalvo in Boston Strangler.
L: Albert DeSalvo, R: David Dastmalchian as DeSalvo in Boston Strangler.

When I read the script and they asked me to play Albert DeSalvo… It was not an easy thing to say yes to, only because it’s a great deal of responsibility to play a person like that, who caused so much pain and inflicted so much damage on so many lives. But with Matt [Ruskin] involved with Lucky Chap and Scott-Free and 20th Century, all of these incredible people coming together to tell this story… I was honored that they thought I was capable of bringing something meaningful to the role.

THS: When you take on a role like this, where you’re playing a real person, do you go down the Wikipedia rabbit hole and read everything about them? Or do you prefer to stick strictly to what’s on the page for the character?

DD: I tried to get everything I could! There are these letters that Albert wrote. There are all kinds of accounts of people who knew Albert and could give firsthand descriptions of him. There was so much research done about him in the years since the murders. 

And also there’s some audio that exists that I was able to find. He has a very distinct, high-pitched, almost childlike voice, and I wanted to bring that to my performance, which is nerve-wracking because you also go, are people gonna think I’m just doing this to be weird? But Albert had a very odd manner of speech and I thought it was important to do that. 

THS: As an actor, how is it different portraying a character who’s a real person, versus adapting a comic book character or playing one originally created for the screen?

DD: To be totally honest, if I had my preference, I would probably be getting to play Veb from Quantumania. Because that is just being a little kid, the pure joy of my imagination which is my playground. So if I had my preference, I would do that every day.

Dastmalchian as Veb in the Ant-Man films.
Dastmalchian as Veb in the Ant-Man films.

But with a role like DeSalvo, it’s a great honor. It’s a great responsibility. I’m grateful that I get to do it, but it is hard. It is sad. It is scary. It’s terrifyingly intimidating. I am gonna be portraying a man who not only suffered and was so broken and alone, but who caused so much suffering, who caused so much pain, who harmed so many women. So it sucks, but it’s important and you gotta do it right. And thank God for Matt Ruskin and the amazing team around us who made sure that it was a safe space where we could be authentic and tell the story in a genuine way. 

And again, it’s not a story about watching murder. Yes, there are horrifying scenes in this film, and yes, you will probably be very scared at moments watching this film, but this is a film about women that refused to be silenced. This is a movie about women that would not stop digging for the truth. That’s important to me. If this was just a film about the exploitation of a serial killer, I wouldn’t be interested, but that’s not what anybody was trying to do with this.

THS: DeSalvo is someone who may or may not be lying at any given moment in Boston Strangler, to the other characters and to the audience. What’s it like walking that tightrope?

DD: Well, you have to make a choice. I have to make decisions about what I believe is true and what I don’t believe is true. So I did that. I don’t think it’s important for me to tell people after the fact, but I do think it’s important for me to make those decisions, which I did while we were filming.

It’s also important when you’re playing someone like Albert to know that the truth and reality to a mind like Albert DeSalvo is probably akin to what the truth and reality is to your average five year old who’s developmentally, socially, emotionally at about a kindergartner’s level. I mean, he saw the world through a very different lens than most of us do. You obviously see the world through a different lens if you’re so driven to cause so much pain and suffering. So that was tricky. It was hard. But that’s what I chose to do and I felt like that’s the most effective way for me to make choices and decisions as an actor, by knowing what I believe as a character and having a strong point of view, even if it’s fucking crazy.

THS: You’ve got a great range of projects this year, from the hilarious Veb in Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania to this very serious role of DeSalvo in Boston Strangler, and then coming up down the line Oppenheimer and Last Voyage of the Demeter. On a scale of serious – silly – scary, what roles do you gravitate towards or have a preference for?

DD: I mean, I love it all. I love acting so much. I love all different styles and kinds of characters and performances. So it depends on the day of the week. I’m a carousel. I gotta say, maybe because I get to do it so rarely, there is something so freeing and joyful about playing a role like Veb, who is just driven by curiosity and love.

But my opinions and feelings on that stuff changes. It’s just about the script, the material. I mean, one of the greatest roles I’ve ever gotten to bring to life is Abner Krill, aka Polka Dot Man [in The Suicide Squad]. It’s the script. James Gunn’s words created a character that, to me, checked all of the boxes. There was comedy, there was pathos. There was deep, deep introspection. There were all these wonderful genre elements. It’s just always the script. It’s the character, the script, the filmmaker, you know?

Dastmalchian as Polka Dot Man in The Suicide Squad.

THS: You have a unique perspective because you’re a writer as well as an actor. What kinds of things do you look for in a script that you carry over into acting?

DD: I write a comic series, Count Crowley. Currently she is an amateur midnight monster hunter. She previously was a reluctant midnight monster hunter. And my hero is a woman riddled with complexities and conflict. She struggles with addiction and self-loathing and depression and anxiety, just like I do. And yet she’s out to fight the monsters of the world. 

And I think it’s really interesting when your character is up against obstacles in the world that are just as difficult, or even less difficult, than the obstacles they’re facing within. I think it’s boring to see perfect people floating their way through fighting big monsters, because that’s just not interesting to me. I think when you see people who are trying to overcome their own struggles, fears, insecurities, and dilemmas, to be able to rise to the occasion, that feels like something I get.

THS: Besides Boston Strangler, is there anything you’re reading, watching, or listening to you want to recommend?

DD: I would love to recommend anybody who loves comics or horror to go pick up Count Crowley volume 2, “Amateur Midnight Monster Hunter.” And I’m currently listening to a podcast I love called “Uncanny Japan.” I think it’s amazing. Like everybody else, I’m watching The Last of Us and I’m just so blown away by the filmmaking and the performances that are going on in that. And there are a lot of great comic books out right now, too many to name. But go to your local comic shop and support brick and mortar comic shops.

Boston Strangler is streaming now on Hulu.