Actor’s ‘Double’ take is a big step toward stardom

By Christopher Wallenberg
Globe Correspondent / July 31, 2011

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NEW YORK - Dominic Cooper is starting to see the signposts of his shift from up-and-coming young actor to first-time leading man. Passersby flash double-takes at him on the street. Diners steal glances in restaurants. His air-brushed face stares out from posters and billboards. But you know you’ve really arrived when you must grapple with that inevitable drawback of movie star status - fielding vacuous questions from red carpet reporters.

At the New York premiere party for Cooper’s new film, “The Devil’s Double,’’ which opens in the Boston area on Friday, the 33-year-old Brit was besieged by a fair share of trashy inquiries. “I was talking to one reporter last night and I was asked was that my real bum in the film?’’ he says, flashing an incredulous grin, his words trailed by easygoing laughter.

Such frivolous questions could become a frequent job hazard for the actor. This summer, Cooper is in the midst of a watershed career moment. Head to the multiplex and you’ll see him as eccentric inventor Howard Stark, a supporting character in the blockbuster “Captain America: The First Avenger.’’ In “The Devil’s Double’’ he steps into the lead, juggling the dual roles of Uday Hussein, the sadistic loose-cannon son of Iraqi dictator Saddam, and Uday’s look-alike body double, Latif, on whose life the film is based.

A spin on the lurid gangster flick, “Devil’s Double’’ could potentially rocket Cooper to the next level of stardom. In a previous blockbuster, the big-screen adaptation of “Mamma Mia!,’’ he was mostly eye candy as the shirtless, jet ski-riding fiance of Amanda Seyfried’s Sophie. But Cooper has a serious stage background. He was trained at drama school in London and first rose to semi-prominence playing the manipulative rake Dakin in “The History Boys’’ on Broadway, in the UK, and in the 2006 film adaptation. Since then, he’s turned in charismatic supporting roles in films such as “An Education’’ and “The Duchess.’’

“It’s very odd going from a state where you’re in meetings and trying so desperately to sell yourself and plead and beg for work to where I am now,’’ he says, during a recent interview at a posh hotel in the Meatpacking District. “You’re told the moment you leave drama school, ‘You will probably never work again.’ Which is very often the case, so everything up till now has been sort of a dream.’’

Still, Cooper seems to be taking all the movie star chatter in stride, not wanting to get caught up in the hype. “I’m proud of the work, but I think it’s so important not to believe that what you do is any more important than what anyone else does in their lives,’’ says the actor, who was born and raised in Greenwich, south London.

Indeed, self-effacement and self-deprecation seem to be Cooper’s default setting. But he also walks, talks, and looks like a movie star. Dressed in a chic gray blazer over a white T-shirt and black pants, his chin coated in de rigueur stubble and his hair gelled into a short pompadour, Cooper oozes charisma that somehow does not come across as smarmy. With dark features and alluring eyes, he straddles the line between boyishness and smoldering sex appeal.

In “The Devil’s Double,’’ set in the opulent, decadent world of 1980s Baghdad, Cooper brings to life three distinct personalities, often within a single scene. There’s Saddam’s cigar-chomping, party-boy son known as the Black Prince. There’s Latif, the man who was forced to shed his life in order to become Uday’s body double, or fiday (which harrowingly translates to “bullet catcher’’). And there’s Latif impersonating Uday - a chameleon-like performance that is a marvel.

To differentiate between the two men, Cooper and director Lee Tamahori worked to create distinct vocal pitches and speaking styles, mannerisms and body language for each character. While Latif is a controlled, contained military man of few words, Uday is a fast-living hedonist and brutal sadist who acts on aggressive, primal instinct.

“I had those fantastic prosthetic teeth, which immediately changed my whole physical sensation,’’ Cooper says. “When I was younger I remember listening to actors say, ‘When I slipped into his shoes, I felt the character come to life.’ And I always thought, what a load of rubbish. But actually, the teeth were like that for me. At the moment those teeth went in, I became a manic, depraved monster. And the moment they came out, I felt the more generous, human Latif.’’

Indeed, because of Uday’s famously sadistic exploits, Cooper struggled to find a point of identification, any trace of humanity, with the character. The actor says he mined Uday’s childhood and his relationship with his parents for insight. “He was exposed to scenes of torture when he was a really young man. He had this all-powerful figure as a father. His father never really took him seriously, was never going to give him a place of power because he thought he was so reckless. And in that culture, I think that’s probably emasculating, especially for the eldest son.’’

One of the biggest challenges was pulling off the scenes where the characters appear together, which required Cooper to act to a stand-in or a mark on the wall and listen to the performance he had just given as the other character. It was complex, but Tamahori was impressed with the seamless ease with which Cooper shifted roles.

“He surprised himself, and he surprised all of us by being able to dial each character up and down,’’ Tamahori said, in a phone interview from his native New Zealand. “When he got into it, he was capable of jumping from character to character - literally within a given scene and without any hesitation.’’

Tamahori says Cooper reminded him, in an odd way, of old studio mega-stars like Cary Grant. “In previous films I’ve seen Dominic in, he plays the boyfriends or Lothario lovers. When we put a mustache and a stubble on him and he started to sink into the role, for the first time I think he wasn’t boyish in his qualities anymore. He suddenly turned into this quite virile man.’’

As a budding star, Cooper’s personal life has already been held under the public microscope. His breakup with a longtime British girlfriend and an on-set romance with “Mamma Mia!’’ costar Seyfried were zealously chronicled in the tabloids. Cooper acknowledges that it comes with the territory, even if it can still be difficult to handle. “It makes you much more defensive, which I don’t like,’’ he says. “You ultimately want to be honest if people are asking you questions. So you learn to tread carefully and assess the people that you do speak to.’’

In the fall, Cooper will appear in “My Week With Marilyn’’ as the celebrated photographer and close friend of Marilyn Monroe, Milton Greene, opposite Michelle Williams. He recently wrapped “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,’’ in which he plays the vampire-hunting mentor to a young Lincoln. And he’s reportedly met with director Tony Gilroy to talk about the new installment of the “Bourne’’ series.

It might be wise to strike while the iron is hot, but Cooper is preaching a patient, methodical approach to choosing his next project. “These films consume big chunks of your life. So you start asking why on earth you’re spending so much time away from family and loved ones for the sake of something that you’re not feeling extraordinarily passionate about.

“I feel very proud of this film, and it was creatively rewarding. So I want to take a moment to make sure that the next thing I do is something that I thoroughly enjoy as much as I enjoyed this one.’’

Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@

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