He shot to fame playing the romantic lead in the most successful British film of all time, but there’s a hint of menace about Dominic Cooper’s performances that could make him this generation’s most lovable Hollywood rogue, writes DONALD CLARKE
EVERY GENERATION needs a cad. Funny cads like Terry-Thomas. Brooding cads like James Mason. Smooth cads like George Sanders. The dangerous lover never quite goes away.
In recent years, Dominic Cooper, a dreamy Londoner with bandit eyes, has been shaping up to become the signature cad for this era. He is perhaps still best known for playing Amanda Seyfried’s boyfriend in Mamma Mia! , but he was superbly slippery as a classless conman in An Education . He did the business as an uncaring pop star in Tamara Drewe . Heck, I half expect him to swipe me across the face with a riding crop, fling me down the stairs and call me “a bally whore”. He doesn’t.
“Yes I suppose I have done a few cads,” he says. “They’re much more fun than your basic lover. I guess there’s a bit of repetition there. But I hope I find something more than what’s on the page each time.”
Next week, Cooper moves from moustache-twirling cad to out-and-out bastard. In Devil’s Double he delivers two quite stunning performances as Uday Hussein, deranged son of the late Saddam, and Latif Yahia, the soldier who was forced to act as the heir apparent’s double.
The film offers a series of technical challenges. Not only does he have to play two characters – a murderous psychopath with a toddler’s giggle and an ordinary bloke propelled into an extraordinary universe – he has to play one playing the other.
It was a busy set. Far from having hours to shift character, Cooper was often asked to move from monster to man in an instant.
“There was no time,” he says. “I managed it because I had established exactly who they were. I had worked out the basic tricks of creating two very different physical types. The vocal tunings were different. Uday somehow occupies more of the room than Latif.”
Cooper was lucky enough to have the real Latif Yahia as a resource. Since fleeing Iraq – the film speculates that he may have tried to assassinate Uday Hussein – he has written a few books. Until recently, he lived quietly in this country with his Irish wife.
“It was daunting when I sat down with him,” Cooper explains. “I knew immediately not to pry too much. He has serious scarring and I had to be careful not to ask too much about that too soon. Who am I to start interrogating this guy?”
The film depicts Hussein kidnapping school girls, enjoying video tapes of torture sessions and murdering a henchman at a heart-stoppingly vulgar party. He also has a creepily close relationship with his mother. Did Cooper come to any conclusion as to what turned him into such a deranged personality?
“Was it nature or nurture?” he muses. “It was hard to find anything to cling on to with that character. It’s so far from anything I could understand. But you can’t help but think who his father was. You just think how difficult that sort of relationship can be at the best of times. His father really did seem all-powerful to him. By all accounts, Saddam thought Uday was idiotic.”
Cooper, now 33, was raised in southeast London, the son of a nursery-school teacher who separated from his father when Dominic was a boy. Later in life, his dad revealed he had a daughter by another woman while still living in the family home. It all sounds very EastEnders. But Cooper insists everybody behaved in a mature fashion.
“After that, I had a stepdad, and he was lovely and great,” he says. “No, it wasn’t like a broken home, because there was no real animosity. It was very easy and calm. Everybody saw one another and got on very well. Looking back, it was a bit eccentric. I don’t know how it worked. But it just did.”
Cooper’s older brother is a music-video producer who arranged work for his teenage brother as a runner on his sets. Later, Dominic moved into editing, and while at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts he used this to support himself. “During the day I’d be pretending to be a dog, then at night I’d be digitising images and logging them into computers,” he says.
A good-looking guy with a crisp, clean voice and an ability to convey inner turmoil through the tiniest movement, Cooper has never been short of work. Soon after graduation, he secured a berth at the Royal National Theatre, where he appeared in the first production of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys. He later starred in the film version of that piece and remains pals with Bennett.
Coopermania stepped up a gear in 2008. He had, to that point, rarely been molested while buying his roll of Toffos and his pint of milk. But his turn alongside Keira Knightley in The Duchess brought him a greater degree of visibility. Then he starred in (honestly) the most successful British film of all time.
“I learned quite quickly that fame goes in waves,” he says. “If you are in a magazine, that week you are recognised. When it does happen it’s never aggressive. It’s very pleasant when someone refers to a play they’ve seen or the deep-rooted happiness that they got from Mamma Mia! ”
It’s hard to overestimate the impact of that mad, charming Abba musical. Everyone knew it would be a hit, but no sane person suggested it would take more than €400 million worldwide. Until Avatar came along, it was the most lucrative film ever at the combined UK and Irish box office, and it still holds the No 2 spot.
“It’s very touching. It’s very, very moving. I can’t believe the number of people who’ve come up and said: ‘We saw that at an important point in my late mother’s life, and that brought us all together.’ ”
Was he surprised to find himself in a musical? “I think so. I wasn’t sure what I was embarking on. I had never seen the show. That genre is not mine. I found it hard to cross the line of suddenly bursting into song. But, when I saw who else was in it, I thought, this could be either extraordinary or a disaster. I didn’t actually realise I could sing in that way. I’d always been in some sort of band, but those Abba songs are hard to sing.”
The success of Mamma Mia! coincided with a difficult time in Cooper’s personal life. He had been going out with Joanna Carolan, personal assistant to Harold Pinter, for 12 years. The relationship ended that year amid reports Cooper had begun dating Amanda Seyfried.
“We are still great friends,” he says of Carolan. “It’s an amazing experience going through a relationship that is longer than a lot of marriages. There was a sense of loss. I was so young when we got together: 16 or 17. But you realise that that person can still be a major part of your life. Work pulled me away. I just began travelling a lot, and that’s hard.”
One suspects Cooper is here to stay. Tabloids have tried to represent him as the new Colin Firth or the new Hugh Grant, but he has a sly energy all his own. Though he can play the romantic lead, there is a hint of menace about him that adds an edge to all his performances.
You can see that force at work in the current, surprisingly nifty superhero flick Captain America: The First Avenger . Playing Howard Stark, father to the future Iron Man, Cooper nods towards Howard Hughes with his portrayal of an eccentric engineering genius.
Later this year he will join a tasty cast – Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe, Kenneth Branagh as Laurence Olivier, Julia Ormond as Vivien Leigh – in Simon Curtis’s My Week with Marilyn . Cooper plays the esteemed photographer Milton H Greene.
What with all this travelling, he must have trouble maintaining a normal home life. Has he found time to buy a proper house? Is there butter in the fridge? “No, not at all. I bought a shoe box at the top of a tree in north London,” he says, laughing. “I have barely been home this year. There are so many things to do. I keep meaning to buy a bed, but I haven’t got round to it. There are just so many choices.”
He’s laughing at the trivial nature of his problems. Cooper seems to have his head screwed on. Earlier he was talking about the horrible pressures that assailed Latif Yahia.
“He was acting, and he knew that if he got it wrong he could be killed.”
Well, that puts his job in perspective. “Yeah, yeah. It certainly does.”
The Devil’s Double is on general release from Friday
On the double
No challenge excites actors more than playing against themselves. It stretches their technical gifts. It allows them to experiment with vocal timbres. Most importantly, it ensures they keep as much of the limelight as possible to themselves. The history of the double-up performance goes back a long way. In 1922, Rex Ingram, a Dublin-born film-maker, directed what was already the third version of Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda . Lewis Stone played the English gentleman who gets to impersonate a Ruritanian prince.
Subsequent versions of that definitive lookalike story followed, with Ronald Colman, Stewart Granger and Peter Sellers all playing both roles. Comics quickly saw the comedy potential, and, in 1921, Buster Keaton played virtually every role in The Playhouse. But the masters of this class of comic multitasking were Laurel and Hardy. They each played dual roles on three occasions. In Twice Two (1931) each, somewhat creepily, also played the other man’s wife. In Brats (1930) they played their own children. And in the superb Our Relations (1936) they played sober domestic pals and their dimmer, more dissolute sailor brothers.
If you really fancied yourself, you could, like Keaton, attempt a whole busload of characters. Peter Sellers managed three in the magnificent Dr Strangelove (1964): a blimpish English officer, the ineffectual president and the titular, Machiavellian scientific adviser. That array seemed insignificant when set beside Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), in which Alec Guinness gave us eight members of the foolish and doomed D’Ascoyne family.
Such versatility deserves an Oscar. Yet only two actors have ever managed it. No, not Jeremy Irons as the twins in David Cronenberg’s masterpiece Dead Ringers (1988). Nicolas Cage failed to take a statuette for his split personalities in Adaptation ( 2002). But Frederic March triumphed in 1931 for playing both Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in the best version of that story (then again, are they both the same man?). And Lee Marvin got a gong for best supporting actor for playing the drunken Kid Shelleen and the scary psychopath Silvernose in Cat Ballou (1965).
Mind you, the double-up performance can be as much a triumph for the special-effects boys as it is for the overworked actor. In The Social Network (2010), rather than hiring real twins to play Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, David Fincher asked Armie Hammer to submit to the digital photocopier. The effect was dramatic, but it looked a little like showing off.