The Devil's Double - Dominic Cooper interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
DOMINIC Cooper talks about some of the challenges of playing two roles in The Devil’s Double and the difficulty of finding some humanity in a character – Uday Hussein – that he despised.
He also reflects on some of the film’s violence and why some of the real life exploits of his character were too extreme to show and on his own career and why these roles could be a game changer.
Q. Did you take two salaries from this film?
Dominic Cooper: I did! [laughs] No.
Q. It must have been daunting going into it, though, being confronted with two roles?
Dominic Cooper: Yeah, it was daunting but I think I’d been so positively active about getting the role and wanting it that by the time I did have it I was so excited about doing it and made sure that there was rehearsal time to make two very separated characters. I mean, it was daunting, the whole idea of it was daunting, but from the moment I knew I was doing it, because I’d read it and because I’d actively chased it, I felt like there’s no point being scared now, you’ve got to dive in and do what you can.
And I felt very confident and safe within what we’d come up with and how [director Lee Tamahori] perceived the project and I think I had confidence in the fact that we weren’t making something – it wasn’t going to be a political statement, it wasn’t going to be a biographically detailed account of events. I wasn’t studying these two guys and then mimicking them or making a carbon copy of them, I was gaining an essence of who these people were and then I was creating two different characters, really. And that reassured me and made it less daunting.
Q. So, what was the biggest challenge of finding the characters?
Dominic Cooper: One of the main problems that arose was playing somebody that ultimately I despised – I could see no redeeming features about him and the more I unearthed about him, I was repulsed by him. Technically, it was going to be challenging – to act in a space when you don’t have someone to react and respond to and therefore develop a scene with. And to keep our hero interesting… having worked out this rather cartoonish, ludicrous – although compelling, entertaining – disgusting figure, it was then important to keep the solid hero in the piece equally as interesting.
Q. You say no redeeming features, but a lot of actors will say that even when they’re playing Hitler, they’ve got to find something. Was there really nothing about Uday at all?
Dominic Cooper: I thought: “Well, let’s make him a child…” A lost kind of little boy and I thought: “So what are his relationships? What has he experienced? Why is he like this?” I needed to find out something so I could look through the eyes of the man and get under the skin of him and inhabit him and be him and try and find where that bile and aggression and pure hatred towards the rest of humanity comes from, so I just thought about his relationship with his father, having this all-powerful figure in his life who is all-powerful to the rest of the world and how Saddam, I don’t think, paid him any real attention and actually thought he was a bit of a moron, really.
He didn’t give him any huge responsibility within the regime, he certainly didn’t want to hand him the reigns of power after he stepped down and I think that’s humiliating to someone of that culture… to not step into the shoes as an eldest son of your father’s. That gave me some indication of some pent-up related aggression towards a domineering father and his love of his mother gave him a sort of essence of humanity and his hating his father’s treatment of his mother. And his exposure to scenes of horrific violence and torture when he was a young man, which Latif says happened to him. His father would show him films of torture when he was four, so those kind of ideas, in that vein I then found something that I could kind of… or at least gave me some indication of a human being, which was not what I was getting from researching his crazed antics, really.
Q. You said you were sporadically going between the two characters. Was that difficult? Were you given a bit of time to snap between the two?
Dominic Cooper: Yeah, not really, no. Literally, the logistics of how it worked technically were, we would film a scene, first of all, and if they were both in the scene, you’d film something on a motion-control camera that ran on a track and had a moving head so that it could replicate its moves exactly and therefore I’d do Uday once, do that move and then I’d run off, change and step in as Latif and the camera would repeat the move and then you could paste the two images over one another and the two figures were in that. And that became difficult when there was any contact between the two because it wouldn’t work, if that makes sense, so therefore we had to use head replacement whenever they contacted one another, so that’s the basics of how that worked.
What that meant was that I’d always ask to be Uday first, because he was more exhausting and it took more energy to be him and he was more dynamic within the scene and he was often the creator of the architecture of the scene – how it worked, how it played out. Because I didn’t know what Latif was going to do yet, I mean, you don’t know until you’re on set and you’ve worked it out, so I’d often play that without knowing how Latif was yet reacting or where he’d be and I was having to guess that there and then.
Then Lee would have to choose a particular take so that I could have an ear piece of my performance in my ear so that when I ran off and got back into Latif mode, I could just be reacting and responding to my dialogue in my ear. So, it was all about kind of remembering and then guessing or remembering where the eye-lines were, because if they’re out by a centimetre the whole scene didn’t work. So, I literally didn’t have a minute’s thought to prepare, apart from getting changed, which is where you’re getting poked and prodded and pulled and sort of spoken to. But it was a gift in a way, because again, you just didn’t have time to ponder too much upon it and again, I felt like I’d established the basics of who these men were. And then I was at liberty to do what I pleased and I discovered lots of things along the way…
Q. How much time did you get with the real Latif?
Dominic Cooper: I spent about five hours with him when I first got the part. But even in the audition, I spoke to Lee at length about the fact that we should just be creating two characters – I know that one is here and one existed and we could get as much information on him as we like. But I also knew that this wasn’t a biographical, detailed account of either man, and that I didn’t necessarily need to sit this man down and grill him about everything about his life. He’s a huge physical presence and he’s scarred, mentally and physically, from the incidents that have happened not too long ago – I mean, it’s not, if you think about it.
And it’s so hard for any of us to really understand what that means, to have your life – to lose your family and your home and to live through that nightmare. And I suddenly thought: “Well, I’ll sit with him and I’ll talk with him but I’ll just let him tell me about whatever he wants to talk to me about, really.” I just suddenly felt like it wasn’t my place to start scrutinising him. And he would tell me whatever he liked. What did he say to me first? The first thing he said to me was: “I know if I like somebody within the first 30 seconds of meeting them…” That was mildly terrifying!
Q. What does Latif think of the film?
Dominic Cooper: He loves it. I think he’s very proud of it. I think it’s very moving for him. I sat next to him in Berlin and watched it for the first time and it affected his breathing and he was very moved. You kind of remind yourself that he was reliving chunks of his life. But I just don’t know what it would be like to see your life playing out in front of you. It must be extraordinary.
Q. How does Latif describe Uday? Can he see any shred of humanity or struggle in him?
Dominic Cooper: No, he hates him. He hates him. He changed his life and ruined his life.
Q. The goriest scene, the murder at the ex-wife’s 60th birthday party, is actually worse in real life, isn’t it?
Dominic Cooper: You mean how he actually did it? Yeah. That’s a really good point. That was one of the occasions where we felt no one would believe it. What was it actually? An electric carving knife… That’s right… But it was too grotesque and we thought people wouldn’t believe it. I have removed myself from really kind of believing it. But when I see Latif I suddenly go back and have to remember that this guy [Uday] really existed. I’m glad you reminded me of that because there were moments that were too over the top to include and that was one of them. We had the carving knife and everything ready to do the scene. But we felt it was too ridiculous.
Q. How traumatic was it to occupy the mentality of someone like Uday? Was there a scene that was particularly difficult?
Dominic Cooper: I found the wedding scene really traumatic because it’s that complete abuse of power and actually seeing the happiest day of someone’s life being turned into the most despicably depressing day of one’s life, I found that really hard. But to be honest, I relished all the scenes – I know that sounds terrible when you’re playing such a despicable person – but I was so kind of obsessed with the technical side of it and how to get these two characters across. I was so engrossed in the whole process of it that I kind of took each scene and relished it and chatted with Lee at length about it and was just so excited about how on earth it was going to work. I mean, they were all difficult.
So, the difficulty of scenes really became more about the technicalities and the frustration of the technical side of it more than the emotional side of it. I was just playing a villain and a monster and I hated him but I was accessing his emotions on some level but it was thrilling to play him and to have that freedom in a space to go as manic as I pleased, because that’s what he was like, without anyone sort of slowing him down or stopping him because everyone feared him. He was all-powerful and it felt like that performing it as well and I feel like that was the right feeling to be experiencing.
Q. Have you kept the teeth?
Dominic Cooper: I have kept the teeth. Girls love ‘em [laughs].
Q. Was it a relief then to go to something like Captain America?
Dominic Cooper: No, I missed the challenge and the excitement of being in and amongst a film set every day and being part of the creative energy and the decision making and watching things unfold and change… to being on this suddenly very well oiled machine that was going to look incredible and be a fantastic movie. But you come in and you do your bit in the hope that you’re getting it right for the millions of fans that have already got ideas of who this character should be, which is terrifying… more daunting than playing the two guys. I had a fantastic time doing it. I was in awe of it… it was like a little kid’s dream to suddenly be flying a plane. Joe Johnston is incredible. Why I think that film looks so brilliant is this is someone’s interpretation of the future in the past and everything about it was kind of magical and worked and operated. There were little tiny engines that were functioning within another engine within a box that was never going to be seen by the camera in a million years, but had been built. I was like: “Wow, that’s incredible!” So, it was good and I loved it but it wasn’t the same experience. It was a very, very different working experience.
Q. How do you feel about awards talk for The Devil’s Double?
Dominic Cooper: It’s very, very nice that anyone would even mention it and I’m very careful with what I say about it. Your reaction can be taken in so many different ways… I don’t know, I love it… it’s very nice. But these things arise and come up and then they vanish. So, I don’t think there’s any point in thinking [about it] for a second longer than when it’s mentioned.
Q. But do you read a script like this and have a sense…
Dominic Cooper: Do you mean is it always in the back of your mind when you’re doing it?
Q. Possibly, yeah…
Dominic Cooper: Um, I just gave myself that question! What a horrible thought [laughs]! But it’s a good question. I think actors would lie if they didn’t say that when they took something on they wanted to do it incredibly well. Often, the opportunity doesn’t ever arise and it’s really hard to bring a great deal into a character. This was an opportunity to show two hopefully very different characters but I think it’s always best not to think about any of that stuff ever. But I think it would be a lie to say that actors don’t ever think about it. There’s always a joke about actors preparing their speeches and it’s never going to happen. I don’t know what I’m saying anymore…
Q. You were in two massive British hits of 2009 – Mamma Mia and An Education – so is this your way of striking out on your own and taking your career in a different direction?
Dominic Cooper: I never set out to do that or tried to find something that could do that. It just came along. I just loved the idea of doing this particular script. I thought it was a mesmerising story. But I suppose it is quite a good way of doing that now I look at it. I always say this but it’s true, people want to pigeon hole you. So, it’s exciting when you’re given the opportunity to do something very different. Most actors can… that’s what they do, they’re meant to inhabit different people and portray themselves in a completely different way and be believable. That’s the plan. So, to get the opportunity to do that is great.
Q. After playing such a monster, do you sigh a great sigh of relief and yearn to play an enchanting prince somewhere else? Or would you play someone similarly evil again?
Dominic Cooper: I don’t think it’s just about whether it’s evil… if the prince is very multi-layered and complex and has within it different levels of emotion and goes on a journey, then I’d love to play that person. But that’s all it’s about. I’ve been lucky that a lot of the roles have actually been people that existed and real-life people, which gives you automatically a huge amount of back story. Often that stuff, you’re having to create that yourself – you’re creating a past, a history and an identity for a character, and you can often misjudge it or make mistakes. You can often be unsure of your choices and when you’re not sure it’s not firm grounding upon which to create a character. So, when they’ve got their own back story it’s fantastic… you just look it up. You see: “OK, those were his parents…” Or: “I see, he thought like that and he behaved in that way.” It kind of does half the work for you really.
Q. You’re linked to two very big projects: Gotti and James Bond after Daniel Craig vacates the role. Can you confirm or deny?
Dominic Cooper: I haven’t made a deal [for Gotti]. I met the director last week.
Q. And Bond?
Dominic Cooper: [laughs] I haven’t heard about Bond but I love that! Where have we heard that information? Get that up and running quickly and put me at the head of it! Where’s that been said? When is Daniel going? When is he stepping down? [Looks excited]
The Devil’s Double is released in cinemas on Wednesday, August 10, 2011