When I saw The Devil's Double at Sundance earlier this year, it wasn't until about halfway through the film that I felt compelled to reach for the press notes -- only to discover that the two central characters were both being played by the same actor.
Which is music to the ears of that particular actor, Dominic Cooper: "That's the biggest possible compliment I can get," Cooper, 33, says by telephone.
"That's magical to me. If people can understand which is which, then I've done my job. And the fact that Arab people in London have told me I've very convincing as a make-believe Arab also feels great. If I'm believable as a man from that environment, then I did the things that I wanted to get right."
In The Devil's Double, now in limited release, Cooper -- who pops up as Howard Stark in Captain America: The First Avenger -- plays both Uday Hussein, the crazed son of Saddam Hussein, and Latif Yahia, an Iraqi soldier forced to become Uday's body double in the late 1980s. It's a galvanizing pair of performances, playing to characters so different in temperament that, even when Cooper shares the screen with himself, it's easy to believe you're watching two different characters.
For Cooper, the challenge was not in making them easily distinguishable -- it was finding a way in which to play Uday, a figure so horrifying that Cooper had trouble finding a way to humanize him.
"Uday was extremely difficult," Cooper says. "I could find nothing to like about him, no acceptable behavior or understandable moral code. I hated every aspect of him. And that was something I had to tap into. So I looked at his background and history and tried to understand what he was exposed to, what it was like to have a father who was a dictator. He had a desperate need to please -- that was the kind of thing I had to cling on to. Otherwise, I despised him."
"And yet the truth is that it was extremely enjoyable and freeing to do what I pleased in playing this part. It was probably similar to the way he acted in life, living in a country run by a gangster family. It was easy, once I realized that we were not making an accurate piece of history, that no one was going to say, 'Well, that's not what he said,' that you just had to believe this character at face value. And that's what he was to me -- a character. I could just take a deep breath and go for it."
A killer, rapist and torturer, Uday personally selected Latif Yahia, who had been a one-time schoolmate of his. As Cooper plays them, Uday is buck-toothed, excitable -- a kind of deadly Daffy Duck, with armed henchmen, guns of his own and the impunity to do what he wants -- and Latif is a somber, emotionally ravaged former soldier forced to bear witness to Uday's barbarity without real recourse, because of Uday's threats against Latif's family.
"Latif was more difficult because Uday was driving most of the scenes," Cooper says. "Uday was more exhilarating to watch, so I was worried that Latif would become mundane and dull.
"I discovered layers because, beside playing Uday and Latif, I was also playing a third person: Latif playing Uday. Here was this family man, playing psychotic dictator. It was exhausting to play Uday but I was exhilarated by doing it."
The personal technical details -- the rabbity teeth of Uday and his high-pitched voice vs. the better-looking, deeper-voiced Latif -- were less of a challenge than the one involved in playing scenes opposite himself.
"One of the exciting and enjoyable aspects of acting is being in the environment with another actor," Cooper says. "I like being in focus, in the moment, changing and adapting and creating and advancing a scene. It's wonderful to work with other actors. But here I had no one to act against."
Cooper and director Lee Tamahori made the decision early on, as much as possible, to do Uday's half first, in any scene in which both characters appeared.
"It was the nature of what he did," Cooper says. "He was the force behind most scenes, where my level of energy had to be. Then when I would do Latif, I knew what I was responding to."
Cooper read Latif's book about his experiences and met with Latif himself, eventually watching the movie with him: "He was happy it was being told. It was a horrible experience for him because he despised Uday. Even when they were at school together, he despised him. I asked myself what I would have done in his position and I have no idea. I'd like to think I'd have the strength to do the right thing but you're at a lost either way. It's a completely no-win situation. It scared me."
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