For British actor Dominic Cooper, his critically acclaimed performance in the intensely dramatic film “The Devil’s Double” has been a turning point. In the movie, which is based on a true story, Cooper plays two roles: Uday Hussein (the sadistic eldest son of tyrannical Iraq leader Saddam Hussein) and Latif Yahia, the army lieutenant who was forced to become Uday’s body double. Most of the film’s story is set in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The real Yahia, who was consulted for “The Devil’s Double” and has given the movie his approval, has called Cooper’s performance in the movie “brilliant.” And Cooper says that his experience making the film has changed him forever. In this interview, Cooper talked about why “The Devil’s Double” was a life-altering movie for him, as well as the importance of working with Yahia to bring authenticity to the project.
How did you get involved with “The Devil’s Double”?
It happens very rarely that your ears perk up about a certain project. I was just immediately drawn to it, so I was determined to see it, number one, and I was still hearing things about it that it was in place but it might not be happening. But I really chased it because I felt instinctively that it was very exciting subject matter, one which we all know a little bit about, and it’s very much in the recent past. But we don’t know enough about it — and that intrigued me. And I could immediately sort of visualize it as a film.
What did you know about Uday Hussein before you decided to portray him in a movie? And how would you describe the Uday Hussein character that you play in “The Devil’s Double”?
I have a very vague memory of him being around. And I remember him being mentioned. And I remember always being aware that Saddam [Hussein] had a son who was even more brutal than himself. There was always that impending doom that maybe this man [Uday Hussein] would be taking over [Saddam Hussein’s] regime. But beyond that, I knew very little about him.
And I think it’s quite dangerous for anyone to think that we’re doing a biopic. We don’t know enough about him, and what we do know is through word of mouth. We don’t know exactly who this person was. We have an idea of the things he got up to.
And it was one of the things I spoke at length to Lee [Tamahori, the director of “The Devil’s Double] and which I found very difficult to comprehend was how you can play a part and not feel any empathy towards a person. I despised the man. There was nothing I could see in him that I could latch on to and like.
He’s brutal. And I’m continually shocked … about his treatment [of people] and his lack of morals. He’s a playboy to the extreme, living in a world where he makes up the rules. There’s no authority stopping him from doing what on earth he likes.
He has limitless funds. He takes endless amounts of drugs. He drives whatever cars he wants to drive. He has access to absolutely anything without anyone telling him to stop.
How would you describe Latif Yahia?
There are scenes that are put in where he’s practicing speeches that he has to give to his soldiers, and he almost does a better job than Uday. He really transforms [into Uday Hussein], and he hates himself for it. I hope all these moments come across. But he finds something within himself to turn into this guy he despises. I suppose it’s his anger towards being in a situation that he doesn’t want to be in.
What was your approach to playing two characters in the same movie?
It’s been really interesting doing the scenes from both angles, from both points of view — and to see how they behave. It was a real learning curve to see how different characters behave towards one another, depending on the hierarchy and how much power and control that they have — and me playing one at the bottom end of the scale and one at the top. Whoever these two people are, I wanted to make them very clearly very different as much as possible.
Because it’s me, there’s only a certain amount that I can do, beyond changing myself physically. So it was finding something, a certain stillness about Latif, whereas there’s a more manic physicality about Uday. We worked with our voice coach about finding vocality for them both. Latif, I can speak to and talk to about who he is, but again, I thought it was quite dangerous to try and reproduce who he was. I wanted to know his back story. I wanted to know his feelings towards that particular time and what a hellish position he was forced into.
What was it like to work with Ludivine Sagnier, who plays Uday Hussein’s lover who ends up having an affair with Latif?
It was kind of done in chunks, this film, and Ludivine suddenly arrived, and the whole dynamic of the piece changed, because that was the section where there’s the remotest glimpse of affection and love and care. I thought she couldn’t have been more perfect for this role. Everything felt very light and very easy. She plays that role with complete ease, and that makes everyone else feel at ease around her. And we had some quite challenging scenes to do, some of which were quite violent, some of which were of a sexual nature. If you can get on with someone that well, it makes the experience easy and enjoyable.
How would you describe “The Devil’s Double” director Lee Tamahori?
He’s so hands-on. You rarely see it. He’s a director who’s next to the camera the whole time. He’s inches away from you. He’s helping you. His energy and force is there. I’ve never done anything like this.
And it’s raised the bar, in terms of everything — in terms of wanting to work with someone like Lee, in terms of a script that’s this dynamic. I now read scripts and say “Where’s the other character I’m playing in this?” I very much enjoyed working with him. I kind of knew from the moment I met him. I can’t imagine anyone else directing this film.
You consulted with the real Latif Yahia, and he came to visit the set while you were filming “The Devil’s Double.” What was all of that like?
He was very helpful because I could ask sneaky little questions that no one would ever have any idea about or know, apart from [Latif Yahia]. He could tell me little gestures and moments that I could incorporate into the character which were very helpful. It feels very supportive. It’s quite frightening at first because you think you want to get it right. It’s such a powerful story, you want to make sure it’s told in the right way.
For more info: “The Devil’s Double” website
RELATED LINKS ON joltleft.com:
Interview with Dominic Cooper for “An Education”
Interview with Dominic Cooper for “Tamara Drewe”
Interview with Dominic Cooper for “Captain America: The First Avenger”
“The Devil’s Double” news and reviews