We could talk about what’s wrong with Lee Tamahori’s “The Devil’s Double” (and we will), but let’s start with what’s right: Dominic Cooper. The British actor plays both Uday Hussein and Latif Yahia, the man who was forced to become the fidai, or body double, for the son of Saddam Hussein.
The film is based on Yahia’s memoir, “I Was Saddam’s Son;” after four years he escaped and went on to become a military officer and to earn a PhD in international law. However, “Devil’s Double” is less concerned with exploring Yahia’s journey and more intrigued by the opportunity to turn the experience into a sexist-music-video-meets-violent-video-game take on Hussein’s regime and its byproduct: a psychotic son who blithely rapes, kills and snorts copious amounts of coke. Tamahori seems to glamorize violence with as heavy a hand as his New Zealand drama “Once Were Warriors” (1994) depicted it with such honest grit.
However, thanks to Cooper’s dual performance, the film is watchable. It’s a testament to his talent — which we’ll soon see plenty more of in “Captain America: The First Avenger,” “My Week with Marilyn” and “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” — that this film has merit. It will be interesting to see how this one plays when it hits theaters July 29.
IW: So tell me about how you first got involved with “The Devil’s Double.”
DC: Well, I saw a script. Well, I didn’t see it, I read it. But read it with the knowledge that it was already being cast and there was no chance of me doing it, so I’m not sure why I read it, but you know these things often fall apart and things change, directors change, actors drop out for some reason or another–and I was so blown away by the story and the idea and the concept and with how they wanted to make it with the same actor playing the two roles –that I just kept chasing it, finding out about it and asking about it, asking whether it was still being made, and it went very very quiet for a period of time and then I got a phone call saying that ‘Lee would like to meet you’ and that it’s all happening again.
So I learnt some scenes, interpreted the characters in a way that I thought was best, and it seemed very much that we were on the same page in terms of what we thought the film should be saying and the fact that it shouldn’t be a detailed accurate biographical account of these people or this moment in history because there’s no one really to verify exactly who said what, how they really behaved, what was really going on–but what an incredible story, and therefore lets use this story and then sort of run away with it and take these two characters and make them very distinctive, very separately distinctive.
And Lee, always, as would I have said, this will only really work if you are going to use the same actor and that you believe the illusion that this is two different people. So it was such a challenge and I don’t know what made me or inspired me to chase it or even believe that I could possibly play an Iraqi guy or Saddam’s son. It was something that I just instinctively felt it a necessity to chase.
IW: Did you read the book as well?
IW: How close are the screenplay and the book?
DC: All of what’s in it is in it. In many respects, we dumbed down many of those atrocities [that are in the book].
IW: The graphicness of it?
DC: Yeah. Because it becomes unbelievable. You’re so astounded that any human being could behave like this. Any aspect of it–it was hard for me to believe. That was a big challenge, to find anything that I could relate to or even remotely like about this man. I found him so hideous.
IW: It sounds like both you and Lee brought a lot of imagination to it. Was it a collaboration or did he have a concept and say ‘Dominic, I want you to take this and run with it’?
DC: Yeah, no, he did want me to take it and run with it. It was definitely a collaboration and it was the most magical experience for me and like none which I’ve ever had before, where I felt very obligated and part of the creative decisions. And I could throw in ideas or maybe assess a situation and change it or manipulate it. It was such an evolving process because of the amount of time we had and the budget. Because of those restraints, we had to be instinctive.
IW: How much time did you have before shooting to prepare the characters?
DC: Lee was good with giving. I had a few weeks before I traveled to Malta and then I spent a week with him and Ludivine and going through scenes and seeing what worked and trying to understand the technicalities of how it would work. I had never used motion control before.
IW: Explain what that’s like, to act essentially across from yourself but you’re not there?
DC: Yeah, it becomes very tough. I wanted to make sure that we would shoot Uday first, because he was the force in the scene, he kind of instigated the timing.
IW: Latif is reacting to him.
DC: Exactly. So it was good for me to be this kind of crazed lunatic in this environment at first, and then establish what that was graphically, and what the movements were. And that was done on a motion-controlled camera that would then repeat the action exactly so that we could then slot the image together, so that I could then become Latif who was always much stiller and much more voyeuristic and much more subdued and then I’d be responding to how I remembered the performance I just gave. You know, it was very technical and it meant that you weren’t doing what I find so enjoyable in acting which is to react and respond and develop and change and see how a scene progresses.
IW: Because everything is about your partner.
DC: Yeah, it is really. Because it’s about listening and I didn’t have that. But then we worked out another way, maybe I’d have to have an earpiece occasionally, with the last performance, which meant that we were deciding on that master shot which performance would be the take that he’d choose, there and then. And that for a director is a huge —
IW: As opposed to doing it in the editing room.
DC: It’s a huge decision. Because that take was the one that I’d then have to be Latif responding to with all the timings there. That was very daunting, but he always knew. And Lee’s energy was incredible, he never slowed down. He’d always have time to listen, but he was just constantly evolving and very energetic. And although it was playing this sadistic nightmare of a man, it was terribly freeing because you just, you had no time to sit and ponder or worry or go over the decisions you’d make; you just had to make them then and there and be very instinctive, and I think that was a really creative environment in which to work. I loved it.
SS: What was the biggest challenge when trying to differentiate between these two men? They are very different, but you were shooting them in quick succession.
DC: Yeah, there was no time to kind of sit and focus and inhabit each one of them. The tricks that we used for me to get into that frame of mind very quickly were things that, you know I wanted them both to have a very different physical appearance and vocal register. I worked with a great dialect coach who really helped me out, just little tricks that you need to use that work very very quickly that get you into that mindset and suddenly you’re there again, as well as the makeup and the concept of the teeth, the moment I slotted those teeth in it changes the shape of my mouth and it was odd, it did something.
SS: It switches someone in you?
DC: Yeah. It was really, really interesting. I was amazed at how that worked, I just felt like a completely different person.
SS: I saw it with a friend and she thought it was two different actors.
DC: That’s amazing. That is such a compliment, if they really do then that for me is something that I really, really would have loved to achieve.
SS: The voice definitely helps because there is such a distinct mannerism, and ways of speaking…
DC: Yeah, it was really helpful, the syntax and how they structure a sentence. But it was actually quite restrictive, because if you were using a certain vocal register, then you lose all your tones, which was quite difficult as well. But it helped me inhabit each of them and be constantly aware of which one was which at each given moment. And then also, playing the third character really, which was Latif then pretending to be Uday, which I wanted it to be–it needed to be–believeable. But at the same time I wanted there to be some trepidation or not quite getting it right, being slightly unnerved by it. He wasn’t an actor, there’s no reason why he should have been good at that.
SS: You couldn’t be perfect at it.
DC: No, no. You needed to see someone who wasn’t as flamboyant but was trying desperately to be.
SS: How would you describe the tone of this film to someone who knew nothing about it?
DC: Yeah, it’s really difficult because I don’t think I do a good job of that. But I suppose it’s… I don’t know, it’s very hard for me to, I never can watch it with fresh eyes, I don’t know what people will make of it. I suppose it’s a mixture of, ultimately it’s a gangster film with no limitations whatsoever, so the people were just at liberty to do anything, it’s people disguising themselves, pretending to be what they’re not, everyone’s lying to one and other. I love the look of it, it reminds me of the sort of films I loved growing up. It’s the fast cars, the sex, the excitement of life in the ’80s, a rich life in the ’80s, and at the same time it’s got this terribly dark shadow of what was really going on in the inner workings of that regime, which we sadly know –I think– know very little about when it was so close to us in terms of the war in that part of the world.
SS: So the film that you saw, is it the same as the idea you first had when you read the script and got so interested in it?
DC: Yeah, more so, though. Yeah, but it’s slightly more–it’s richer and more dynamic and faster paced. Um, it’s a really good question, I’m trying to remember how I saw it, and yeah, I don’t think I saw it as glamorous, actually.
SS: Because it is quite flashy.
DC: It’s flashy, really.
SS: It’s like a music video. Or an action video game.
DC: It’s a flashy action video–for the budget that it was shot for and the lack of locations, I think, are deeply, in fact everyone that worked on it did such a great job because everyone cared so much about this incredible story and script, everyone was sort of firing on all cylinders and doing their best, their utmost, which is why I think the film looks so incredibly expensive when it actually wasn’t.