“I suppose there’s an anger in all of us. Some hidden rage that you keep at bay,” says actor Dominic Cooper, peering through his Ray Ban shades. “It’s a terrifying place to go to, and I’ve since made sure I’ve never went to that place again.”
In The Devil’s Double, opening Friday, Cooper channeled that inner madness to play Uday Hussein, the playboy son of Saddam with a penchant for iron maidens, rape, and murder. It’s a riveting and revolting performance made even more compelling by the fact that he also plays Uday’s unwilling body double—and foil—Latif Yahia. It has some critics dropping the word “Oscar” in late July.
Compact, dapper, and dimpled, with a pair of seductive wide-set eyes, Cooper doesn’t look a day over 23, let alone 33. He could easily be mistaken for Mila Kunis’ brother. That he’s catching fire only now, playing both his first lead role in The Devil’s Double and the Howard Hughes-y inventor Howard Stark in Captain America (while being linked to everything from Al Pacino’s John Gotti film to Tony Gilroy’s Bourne franchise reboot), is largely due to typecasting—and a bit of bad luck.
Cooper grew up in the London suburbs and attended the same primary school as his close family friend Jude Law, who recently made headlines for suing News of the World for allegedly hacking his phone. “It’s so shambolic and kind of revolting,” says Cooper. “Unfortunately, if they tapped me they wouldn’t have found anything remotely interesting apart from discussions about plumbing.”
After a series of bit parts in TV and film—e.g. "Constable #3" in the 2001 Johnny Depp film From Hell—Cooper worked as an assistant editor on various projects, including one for the popular television-commercial director Daniel Kleinman, who then cast Cooper in a commercial for Durex condoms that saw him sprinting through Prague followed by a group of men in sperm suits.
“It sounds ridiculous being in a Durex commercial, but it was a really cool concept, and I think it won several awards,” says Cooper, before adding, “It’s still deeply embarrassing, though.”
Since the TV and film roles weren’t coming easy for him, he took to the stage, first in the Royal National Theatre’s adaptation of His Dark Materials, and then in the Tony Award–winning play The History Boys, which he performed off and on from 2004 to 2006. He then appeared in Starter for 10, a delightful coming-of-age romantic comedy centered on the British game show University Challenge. Despite a talented young cast, including James McAvoy and Rebecca Hall, it collected less than $2 million in total box office. While his costars went on to bigger projects, Cooper was relegated to the role of the playboy in period films like The Duchess and An Education, or as the hunky love interest in Mamma Mia! and Tamara Drewe.
“People become very opinionated about what you can do or where your talents lie. You want to say, ‘Look, I could always do this stuff,’” says Cooper. “I think it’s harder to step into films every so often with one line here or there, give it your all, and try to create a believable, three-dimensional character. It’s more nerve-racking.”
Cooper won’t have that problem anymore after The Devil’s Double. He plays Saddam’s sadistic eldest son, Uday, as well as his school classmate, Latif Yahia, whom he forces to transform into his doppelganger fiday (translation: “bullet-catcher”). Uday is the male id gone haywire—a cackling, infantile psychopath who brandishes golden AK-47s, rapes underage schoolgirls, and brutally tortures his country’s Olympic athletes. In one particularly gruesome scene, he disembowels his father’s friend with a carving knife.
To conjure enough anger for the role, Cooper imagined an incident years ago when he saw one of his older brothers being bullied. “I reacted irresponsibly and wrongly to a situation that didn’t need me to react in that way,” he says. “I saw rage.” He even tried watching Dead Ringers, in which Jeremy Irons plays a pair of Machiavellian brothers, but that didn’t help much. What most helped him occupy Uday’s demented psyche was a pair of prosthetic teeth, transforming him from the handsome Latif into the hyena-like Uday. “I must say, I’ve never known anything like it,” he says. “As soon as I put those teeth in, my face changed, then my whole body language changed, and then I entered the head space. It was a really good mechanism for getting into who that person was.”
While Uday is a monster, Latif has a conscience, and it’s up to Cooper to snap between the two. In order to portray the two characters at once—with a rumored budget of just $15 million—director Lee Tamahori had to get creative. Because he could use digital head-replacement technology—similar to that implemented with the Winklevii in The Social Network—in only a few short scenes, Tamahori used a motion-controlled camera and had Cooper act opposite another actor who was instructed to give a neutral performance. At times, Cooper listened to an earpiece of the Uday performance he’d just given, and reacted to it as the more even-keeled Latif. “It was chaotic, and everyone’s input was used to try and work out the best way to achieve this illusion,” says Cooper.
While the film is based on Latif’s true story, The Devil’s Double isn’t a historical account of the Hussein household by any stretch of the imagination. For that, you’ll have to check out HBO’s House of Saddam. Tamahori and Cooper purposely set out to make a decadent gangster film, and it’s been marketed as such: with an entirely gold poster of Cooper’s Uday sitting in a throne and clenching an AK-47. Some critics have even cleverly labeled it Scarface of Arabia.
“The regime is dead, and we don’t really know what these people were like in their day-to-day lives,” says Cooper. “We’re manipulating a story and using it to our advantage with a lot of dramatic license to make an intriguing story about a gangster family that was in power of a country.”
The film even features a very risqué sex scene between Cooper and his love interest in the film, played by the fetching French actress Ludivine Sagnier. While Cooper has engaged in onscreen lovemaking before—most notably with Keira Knightley in The Duchess—the scene in Double was his raciest one yet, and the most awkward.
“It’s not a sexy environment unless you get off on lots of strange, hairy camera crew sitting around a bed watching,” he says with a chuckle. “It’s very technical, but anyone who says it’s completely horrifying is lying. You’re still lying in bed all day, and in anyone’s opinion, that’s a good way to work.”
Like the Latif character he portrays, Cooper experienced his own crisis of duality—only his was in the media, when he found himself depicted as a cad following his breakup with actress Amanda Seyfried, whom he met on the set of Mamma Mia!
“Did I break up with her?” he says with a laugh. "I was quite let down by that. I didn’t know how much damage [it would cause] or whether people even cared." He pauses. “You never know really what anyone thinks about you—that’s why all my closest friends are ones I’ve had since my schooling days when I was 5. And I surround myself with people who I trust and who know me.”