Dominic Cooper proves the Devil is in the detail
The Primrose Hill actor reveals why he chose to play two roles in The Devil’s Double
�No longer the doe-eyed lover-boy in Mamma Mia! or the charming Danny in An Education, In The Devil’s Double, actor Dominic Cooper is unrecognisable. He plays both Saddam Hussein’s son, the decadent, depraved Uday, and Uday Hussein’s ‘fiday’ or body double.
Based on the true story of Latif Yahia, a young soldier forced into becoming a ‘fiday’, which translates roughly as ‘bullet catcher’, the film hinges on Cooper’s performance as both the psychotic and evil Uday and the decent, straight Latif, and a third role, as Latif impersonating Uday as his lookalike.
“You can’t ask for more in terms of the range it asks of you; to play two lead characters who are so utterly different, but who sort of meet in the middle and then merge,” says the actor, still a little dazed by having had to switch characters backwards and forwards on and off for 52 days while the film was being shot.
We meet in central London to chat. Smart, engaging and handsome, conservative in a blazer and tie, Cooper, 33, explains how he accessed the hateful emotions of the grotesque Uday.
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“The more I unearthed, the more I hated him. I despised the man. But you have to ask: Why is this person like this? You have to look at his relationship with his father, Saddam, who thought he was a bit of a moron and didn’t give him any powerful roles to play in the regime.
“Saddam showed him scenes of torture from the age of five. He was brutalised young. He watched Godfather films constantly and probably saw his life being played out as a film and with him as the gangster. Clearly there was plenty of inner turmoil and I wanted to find the lost child aspect of Uday.” (Uday Hussein died in 2003, aged 39, in a Special Forces Task Force gunfight.)
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For Cooper playing the more controlled Latif Yahia was easier, but not entirely without its problems. “It was daunting as he was so scarred physically and mentally. He had lost his family, his country, his life and when he spoke, it came in drips. His life was still very raw. But he would often slip me little gestures and movements that I could incorporate into the characters.”
To keep both roles apart depended on Cooper’s different vocal pitch level and various prosthetics, widening cheek-bones, hooking his nose, slipping in a tooth overbite and hairstyling.
“Because we had time constraints when shooting the film there was no time to sit back and think about the next scene. I would be very quickly changed by costume department into my next outfit and told to be the other guy.
“I had to really know each one of them, so I could suddenly inhabit their mindset on demand. It’s been a really interesting process.”
Cooper clearly had no reservation about playing such a despicable role. He auditioned for it and begged director Lee Tamahori (Once Were Warriors) for it.
“I don’t know why I thought I should be the one to play the Iraqi son of a dictator. It seemed totally compelling – that part of the world, those men. For a long time I had a girlfriend who was half-Jordanian so I used to go there quite a bit and it was really helpful to see how different their culture is from mine, from the Western world.
“I hadn’t studied about that part of the world or the war but I vividly remember hearing something about Uday when I was a child, somebody saying very seriously: ‘We mustn’t get rid of Saddam because then his son will take over and he’s much, much worse’.”
His childhood days were spent in Greenwich just hoping for a line on The Archers. (“Uday on The Archers,” he mulls. “Would he have his own farm? Would he be a man in tweeds?”)
That he now could go to any multiplex in London this week and see himself in both Captain America: The First Avenger (in which he plays eccentric inventor Howard Stark) and The Devil’s Double amuses him.
The youngest of three boys, his auctioneer father and nursery school teacher mother divorced when he was young, but he says it was fine and that he had a lovely childhood. “My family are fantastically supportive and proud and uninterfering.”
He went to a specialist arts school (Thomas Tallis School) where the drama teacher put him on the right track. He went straight into LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art) and from there to a play at the National directed by Nicholas Hytner, Mother Clap’s Molly House.
It wasn’t too long before he was cast in the play The History Boys which became an international success. He took the role of Dakin from the West End to Broadway and then on to celluloid. Soon the awards and nominations started to roll in.
Cooper now lives in Primrose Hill, two doors away from his best friend James Corden, currently on stage at the National Theatre in One Man, Two Guvnors, with whom he shared the National stage when they were starring in their neighbour, Alan Bennett’s History Boys. (Corden was Dakin’s portly classmate Timms.)
Cooper says they are always talking about doing another play together and would love it if Bennett wrote a play they could be in – clearly, he admits, they are now too old for the schoolboy parts he wrote in The History Boys.
n The Devil’s Double is in cinemas now.