It's hard to imagine someone in Iraq during the early '90s more evil than Saddam Hussein, but there was... his eldest son Uday. His psychotic antics and hard partying ways became legendary in the Middle East during the lead up to the Gulf War making him not as powerful as his father, but certainly more feared. Then with war with the U.S. on the horizon, Uday did something his father was legendary for, he brought on a "fiday" or body double. The lucky one chosen? His old schoolmate, Latif Yahia.
In a tour-de-force performance that many are calling Tony Montana in the Middle East, Dominic Cooper plays both Uday Hussein and Latif Yahia in Lee Tamahori's 'The Devil's Double.' Loosely based on Yahia's book of the same title, the film recounts Latif's entrance into the Hussein regime and witnessing Uday's insanity that included trolling the streets looking for underage girls and ripping out the intestines of one Saddam aid who teased him.
Moviefone sat down with Cooper to talk about his transformation from British heartthrob to Middle Eastern madman (which included him donning false teeth and speaking in a high pitch voice), the magic done in post production to seamlessly place him as Uday and Latif in the same shots and his more glamorous roles as Howard Stark in 'Captain America' and vampire Henry Sturges in the much buzzed about adaptation of 'Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.'
Moviefone: While promoting this movie you've said that to play Uday Hussein you had to find something you could relate to about him, what was that?
Dominic Cooper: I think it was important to understand the psychology because I couldn't comprehend it. I couldn't fathom how this madman operated, lived with himself, behaved toward other human beings. So I had to go back and ask why did this person behave like this. What was in his psychological makeup that made him this screwed up? And it becomes obvious; his father is an evil dictatorial monster himself who I think ignored Uday or his capabilities to take his reign of power. He would give him menial jobs like look after the TV station, so that lack of respect from his father led to Uday becoming desperate to be noticed by a man who is not all powerful in just his life but the rest of the country.
And I also think that his father exposed him to scenes of absolute brutality and torture when he was a young, young boy, so that's going to screw with anyone's mind. Uday loved his mother dearly and hated the way his father treated her. So those things there gave me a sense of the man. Now that doesn't excuse it, it doesn't make what he did right, but gave me something to work off of.
The script had been making the rounds in Hollywood for a while. How did it get to you?
I did a fare bit of chasing, I must say. As with all these kinds of independent projects, directors and actors are attached all the time, then drop out and others come on. It had been around for a while, and there was a different director and an actor attached when I got it, but having read it I was so stunned by the story and the situation and the conflict. So I prodded and poked for about five months to find out what was going on with [the project].
I don't know what it was, it was something within me, I guess the audacity of thinking that I could play a dictator's son from Iraq, I don't know what it was that made me think I could do that. I knew that region, I used to go to Jordan a lot, so I was interested in the culture and the people and their humor, so maybe that was something that preempted it. But then suddenly they said, "Yes, they do want you to come in and audition." It was amazing.
Some actors tend to not go all out in an audition, I would imagine for this kind of part you really needed to wow Lee Tamahori.
Oh, I went full out. I had to. I had to make two distinct characters in that audition to convince Lee, who probably had only seen me dancing on rocks singing ABBA music. But we were both so much in the same frame of mind about it and what the film should be. We can't make this into a detailed historical account of events and actually the most important thing to do is to make sure the audience can always decipher between the two men. The illusion is never broken, the audience must always be aware who they are watching at any given moment. And I think that that was the key. And then we both worked on how we could develop these characters.
Yes, I got an essence of who Uday was in my research and my reading and the images I had of him, and yes, I met Latif for hours the first day. Completely compelling and let me ask anything and was very open and very giving, but I realized we weren't doing a biopic and I could take the character anywhere.
How much motivation was there to play a character that was different from who you played in 'Mamma Mia!' or 'The History Boys'?
I didn't really think of it like that. I'm very pleased and I hope it does. Anything to prove that you can do various characters, that's where I seek my enjoyment. To inhabit different people and take risks. But it was never structured like I'm going to take this part because it will achieve that. All I went on was that this was a compelling story and what an opportunity to play two roles, I want to get in on this. [Laughs]
Talk about how you'd shoot a scene. Would you have to focus on a spot on the wall and imagine you were talking to someone?
There were several different ways in which to do it. And we slowly worked out what was best and what was best for me in whatever environment we were shooting in. When we started I asked to play Uday first, if possible. He was usually the diving force of the scene and he'd create the geography of the scene, he's so sporadic and spontaneous, so that established the movement. We'd shoot on a motion controlled camera with a digitized memory so after I'd do Uday I'd immediately do Latif and the Uday footage would be outlined so later in post-production, Uday would be layered in opposite Latif. That's how we did the majority of the shoot. But then it became very difficult if the characters touched or held one another which is when we'd use a double and change the face [to mine] in post.
After watching this do you think Americans will feel differently about the Gulf War and what Iraqis had to go through under the Hussein regime?
This wasn't made to be political, but for me when watching it, like many Americans and Brits, this was so relevant to our recent history and we were always aware of it, but we felt very removed from it outside of our armies being injured or killed. I was scared of it as a kid growing up yet I couldn't make out what it was. So finding out about the intricacies of the regime, the inner workings and this gangster-led country, that was eye-opening. And I think people have the misapprehension that people were living in the desert in tents but [Iraq] was fully functional and had fantastic education and the arts, hospitals. So that was interesting and it's interesting to see how hideous that family really was.
I just wanted to finish up by taking about your other projects. You're in 'Captain America: The First Avenger' playing Howard Stark. I had read that you based Howard on how Robert Downey, Jr. plays Tony. Is that true?
Not that close, but more his swagger and style and the impression of what that family stands for.
Has there been any talk of you playing Howard in the next 'Iron Man' or even appearing in 'The Avengers'?
No. But you never know. I'm very honored to be part of the Marvel family.
You're also in 'My Week With Marilyn' playing famous photographer Milton Greene. How convincing is Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe?
I think she's going to be remarkable. Marilyn is such an incredible, iconic figure but people know so little about her. If you ask a generation below me they probably haven't seen any of her films but they know her.
What can you tell me about 'Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter'?
We're done with filming but I haven't seen anything from it yet. But everything about that film for me is exciting. The action sequences and Tim Burton producing. The references to slavery during that period mixed with vampires... how could it not work?
(Images courtesy of Lionsgate and Paramount.)