It's every serious actor's dream: You land the leading role in a gripping true story. It challenges you to play not one, but three versions of a character, but there's just one hiccup – that character is one of the most reviled men in modern history, Uday Hussein.
"Yeah, that is a little hitch," agreed Dominic Cooper, the actor in question, with a chuckle. In the new film The Devil's Double, which opened in select cities on Friday, Cooper not only plays Uday, the eldest son of Saddam Hussein, whose continual acts of amoral viciousness – including abduction, rape, torture and murder – made his father look reasonable by comparison.
He also plays Latif Yahia, a former Iraqi army lieutenant, who in 1987 was forced under threat of death – to him and his family – to serve as Uday's double, undergoing plastic surgery and extensive training to do so. As well, Cooper portrays a third "character," Yahia pretending to be Uday. (Yahia escaped from Iraq in 1991 and lives in Europe; Uday was killed in a shootout with U.S. forces in 2003.)
It's the kind of risky, showy role that, if successful, can spin an actor into a star. On a recent stop in Toronto, it was clear that Cooper, 33, is ready for the ride. Dressed in a sharp, close-fitting suit, his curly black hair neatly cropped, he draped himself over a hotel sofa in a pose that would have been languid, had his energy not been on full alert.
Matinee-idol handsome, with the kind of large, dark eyes that can only be described as "burning," Cooper is a trained stage actor, a frequent West End presence in his native England. But his film roles have been mostly in ensembles ( The History Boys, An Education) or lighter fare ( Tamara Drewe, Captain America: The First Avenger). His most widely seen performance, as Amanda Seyfried's fiancé in Mamma Mia!, was largely wordless – and he had to dance in swim fins.
"I don't know what on earth made me think that I ever could do this film, or should do it," Cooper said about The Devil's Double. He read the script and book, loved them, and acknowledged, "What an opportunity for an actor." Then he Googled photos of Uday. "I went, 'God, I actually look quite like him,' " Cooper said. "Maybe it was that."
For research, Cooper spent a full day with Yahia, whom he called "scarred, mentally and physically. He's wonderfully open and generous, but his life was ruined. He doesn't sleep. He found it really hard breathing when he watched the film."
Cooper also read just enough about Uday to "find some way into his psychological makeup," he said. "I'm not one of those actors who go, 'I must like my character.' I need to know a background, and I need to know the reasons why he's doing what he's doing. But the more I researched Uday, the more I despised him."
He put together a picture: a cocaine-snorting, cigar-chomping loose cannon whose father exposed him to scenes of torture at a young age, then gravely insulted him by passing him over in favour of his younger brother; a massively spoiled man-child who loved his mother excessively, and hated how his father treated her.
"From age three, he was in charge," Cooper said. "He could say or do whatever he liked, and no one could touch him. Only one of his teachers ever dared to discipline him, and that teacher went missing. That escalates into this monster. But what would happen to any of us under those circumstances?"
Shooting took place in Malta over an intense 54 days. Cooper worked out a separate voice, laugh and physical presence for each character – Uday's high-pitched, giggly, expansive; Yahia's deep, still, watchful – and then shot each scene twice: first as Uday, "because he was the dynamic one, large with his gestures," Cooper said; then as Yahia, accompanied by Uday's voice via earpiece.
It was dizzying, but also exhilarating. "I absolutely loved it," he continued. "I loved trying to make it work, without it being ludicrous. I'm proud of it, and I've rarely ever said that."
His next films should only aid his ascent. In My Week With Marilyn, due later this year, Cooper co-stars with Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh as Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier. Next year he'll star in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, directed by Timur Bekmambetov, the Russian dynamo behind Night Watch and Wanted. And he's about to portray another scion of a sociopath, John Gotti Jr., in Gotti: In the Shadow of My Father. (John Travolta plays Gotti Senior; Al Pacino co-stars.)
Now that Hollywood is beginning to see The Devil's Double, Cooper's getting a crash course in how the business works. "I'm becoming aware that people had no idea I could do this," he said. "Now that they know, they'll consider investing in me. Whereas an actor thinks it should just be about finding the right person for the role."
He even ventured that he's glad to have spent years "on the sidelines," to not have been "thrown into these huge studio pieces" before he was ready. "It's hard to believe in yourself and what you're doing amongst the vast scale of the studio film, where you're a small cog in a massive machine," he said. Then he snorted. "I pretend I'm really fortunate that never happened to me. Of course, I would have given anything for it."
Watching The Devil's Double, I was struck by how closely Uday's life of unimaginable luxury and access, where minions sate his every whim and no thing or person is beyond his grasp, parallels that of a pampered Hollywood star. Is Cooper ready for that life?
"You can be seduced by the environment," he agreed. "You get treated ludicrously well. You have to constantly remind yourself that something as simple as someone bringing you a coffee is a real privilege. You have to be careful who you become amongst it."
To promote Mamma Mia!, he remembered, the cast "went on this incredible tour, via jet, to the most beautiful places in world, where we were treated like royalty and stayed in six-star accommodations looking over cliffs and sea. And you go, 'Yeah, this is my life.' But when it ended, it was wonderful to be thrown back into South London, playing soccer next to a freeway again. [He plays weekly in a league.]Going, 'Oh right, this is my life, not that.'
"You dabble with it," he concluded. "You're fortunate enough to have a moment of seeing it. But don't become complacent with it."