Dominic Cooper On Becoming 'The Devil's Double'
Evil though Saddam Hussein may have been, his oldest son, Uday, was in some ways worse. In the years before 2003, when Uday Hussein was killed by American special forces, he was a drug-addled playboy capable of rape and murder on a whim.
In the '80s and '90s, Uday was a dangerous man — but he was also in danger. Like his father, he needed a body double, so he called upon Latif Yahia, an old school chum who looked just like him, and forced him to fill that role.
Now, the story of the man who couldn't say no to a dictator's son has inspired a new film. Set around the time of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, The Devil's Double depicts a life of extreme extravagance in the inner circle of Saddam Hussein 's cruel regime. It stars British actor Dominic Cooper as both Uday and Latif.
Cooper describes Uday as doomed from the start.
"All that I could think about when needing to get into his headspace ... was that I suppose that he had an extremely volatile, awful upbringing," Cooper tells NPR's Renee Montagne. "Any son of a dictator, I'm sure, has major issues with their relationship with their father. Saddam certainly didn't believe in Uday's military capabilities. He wasn't ever going to ... give him the reigns of power. So I think his father was desperate for him to have some other value. He put him in charge of the Olympic committee. But all I could see that he did with the Olympic committee was torture athletes for no reason; expecting results from athletes by beating them."
Tackling The Transitions
In order to better resemble Uday, the real Latif endured plastic surgery operations that left him physically scarred. Cooper explains that because he plays both Uday and Latif, and because of budgetary and time constraints, the transformation in the film is more minimal.
"What we decided upon was to make Latif slightly different with the use of prosthetics at the beginning of the film," Cooper says. "By the time Uday has forced him into having surgery, it's back to my face."
Back to his face, but not back to his teeth. Cooper says the prosthetic rodent-like teeth he used as Uday helped him better understand the character.
"He did have extraordinarily strange teeth," he says. "He could have anything in the world that he possibility desired or wanted, and he obviously wasn't concerned with dental care. I often heard actors say how ... [they] only feel that the character comes alive when they step into the shoes of this person. And certainly with Uday I felt that these teeth changed the whole nature and behavior. It was extraordinary."
The professional transition — from playing the role of Uday to that of Latif — was another story. Cooper says that on any other film, he might have been able to spend a couple days as Uday before diving into Latif. But for The Devil's Double, he often had to switch between characters in the course of a single day.
"What I had to do in this particular project was do the establishing shot as Uday, preempt and second guess what my performance as Latif was going to be, and therefore react and respond to how I imagined Latif would react and respond," Cooper says. Then he would change into Latif and do the scene again, this time reacting to his earlier performance.
'Inhabiting The Monster'
As an actor, Cooper was charged with playing two different characters, but there was also another layer of acting at play — that of Latif playing Uday.
"This guy — ... a man from a modest background, a soldier, a military man, a sort of considered man — was suddenly having to be an actor and a good one for the sake of his life and his family's life," Cooper says. "And I didn't want him to do it too well, but he had to do it [well]."
There's no denying that The Devil's Double will touch a nerve with those who lived through Saddam Hussein's regime and the Iraq War, especially considering that, at its core, it's a gangster movie. But Cooper emphasizes that the film was not made to glorify the luxurious lifestyles of an oppressive regime.
"It's not saying for one moment, 'Look at these great guys; look what they can achieve, look what they can do,'" he says. "[Latif] fooled many, many people, so I really wanted there to be a kind of self hatred of becoming this person, inhabiting the monster."