Dominic Cooper Talks Playing Saddam’s Son In ‘Devil’s Double’

Actor opens up to MTV News about dual roles as murderous Uday Hussein and his hapless body double, in our Summer Movie Preview.

The reign of Saddam Hussein is mostly in the collective rearview mirror, but for Dominic Cooper it’s still very much in the present.

Cooper stars in this summer’s “The Devil’s Double,” the Lee Tamahori-directed historical gangster flick that tells the story of Saddam’s murderous son Uday and his reluctant body double, Latif Yahia. Appropriately enough, Cooper’s pulls double-duty as both Uday and Latif, delivering a two-pronged performance that swings between psychotic mania and indescribable tragedy. And as moviegoers will no doubt observe in the just-released trailer, getting into those two divergent headspaces could not have been an easy task.

With “The Devil’s Double” arriving in theaters on July 29, now’s the perfect time to get the inside track on what’s sure to be one of the can’t-miss movie affairs of the summer. To that end, MTV News spoke with Cooper about playing Uday and Latif as part of our continuing Summer Movie Preview.

MTV: What drew you to “The Devil’s Double”? Was it the opportunity to tap into these two different roles? The chance to explore this fairly recent period of history?

Dominic Cooper: Yeah, you know, it is such an interesting period of time. It seems so apparent to us, so much to do with our recent history, really, that area with regards to the war and that regime. But I didn’t know enough. To sort of get inside of it and to see what this was all about and the world in which [the Husseins] existed, for me, was really intriguing. I wanted to know more.

And the opportunity to work with [director Lee Tamahori] — once I met him, I was blown away by his energy and his vision of what the piece should be. It wasn’t meant to be an accurate historical reference to those people and that period of time; it was very clouded, what the actual truth is. But he saw this incredible dynamic between an evil man and a poor guy who was thrown into a situation he couldn’t get out of. That dynamic and that conflict, he found so riveting, as did I.

MTV: Just judging by the trailer, this doesn’t seem like an easy project to take on.

Cooper: It wasn’t. It was chaos filming it; there wasn’t much time to do it, and with the technology of having to double me up and the speed with which that had to be done and the change of character I had to do in a matter of moments … it wasn’t easy.

But I remember thinking, ‘This is very special for me. No matter what people think of it and no matter who sees it and no matter how it turns out, these parts come along rarely.’ I just absorbed every moment of it really and enjoyed playing out being a kid — because Uday was basically a child gone wrong, but one who had access to everything with no one stopping him. I was running around with golden guns and Ferraris … it was an odd experience! Playing out this gangster role, knowing that this man did ruin and destroy people’s lives and families without any remorse or forward thinking. He was just all-out evil, Uday was. It was very complicated, playing a character that you have no empathy for.

MTV: So were you ever able to get yourself to that point, a place where you could empathize with a man like Uday?

Cooper: No, not really. [Laughs.] The wonderful thing was having Latif to play as a sympathetic character. After being this monster for days in and days out, it was nice to play something genuine and heartfelt and sort of emotionally raw rather than this savage person. I suppose in terms of strength and understanding, on some level, I had to comprehend what it must have been like for [Uday] as a child, growing up in that regime and having Saddam as a father, not being acknowledged by his father. I don’t think he trusted him to take his position, to run a country, with military decisions. All of those things, if you think about them, it’s why he killed his father’s best friends. He was desperate for attention. He was never given enough. That was a way in for me, to try and comprehend the monstrosities that he took part in.

MTV: From a technical standpoint, how did you do this? What was the process of playing these two characters?

Cooper: Technically, some of the scenes where both of us were in the shot, we’d have a motion-controlled camera. I’d film a scene dressed as and behaving as Uday, and it would replicate the move exactly so you could double the screen up and put it over the top. I would have to guess or work out where I was standing for the other character, which was sometimes very difficult, because Uday takes up a lot of space; he’s very manic, he moves around a lot, and we’d have to try and pinpoint where the eye-lines would be. It’s quite complicated, really. I was basically acting to nothing, remembering the performance I was doing as that person. It wasn’t easy, but again, it was so creative and in the moment because on-the-spot decisions were being made. I think a lot of the time, instead of too much thinking, you kind of go with your instincts and our wonderful cameraman’s instincts, and I think it turned out better for it.

MTV: “Devil’s Double” hits theaters in July, right in the midst of a very crowded summer-movie season filled with superheroes, robots and what have you. For you, what makes “Devil’s Double” stand out in a sea of blockbusters?

Cooper: Well, I think it’s the fact that this is not a blockbuster, in a way. [Laughs.] They’re visually stunning, those films, but ultimately it depends on whether you want complete escapism — to believe that there are green monsters coming down from Mars and superheroes are flying around the sky, which is wonderful and exciting — or whether you want some sort of reality-based reference to a man who actually existed.

I think Latif’s story is exhilarating. How could anyone have ever lived through that? It’s so far from where we are, seeing how Baghdad functioned, this lavish and overwhelming lifestyle that these people led. There’s a true horror of what went on within it. But at the same time, Lee’s made it action-packed and fast moving and sexy in a way. It has all of those elements. It’s a gangster film rather than a historical documentation. You’re just amazed that anybody ever went through this.

Check out everything we’ve got on “The Devil’s Double.”

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Likes pizza, punch and pie. Dislikes the Chitauri. Find him on Twitter @roundhoward — like Ron Howard, but rounder.