Interview: Dominic Cooper talks Abba, auditions and what it's like to play one of the world's most hateful men

Dominic Cooper has worked his way up through the ranks of British film by revelling in loveable rogues. As he takes on a dream role as Saddam Hussein's sadistic son, there's an opportunity to show his true grit

DOMINIC Cooper has the rakish look of a 1950s matinee idol and the buff career possibilities of a new A-lister. Add to that, apparently, the mindset of a fastidious septuagenarian. "Wow!" he says, as a giant latte is placed in front of him. "That should get the bowels moving."

We are in a London hotel so fashionably discreet and lowlit, that at first I don't recognise Cooper when he looms up from the shadows. His thick, unruly hair has been gelled upwards into stiff perfection and he's wearing an immaculate blue jacket, but has also pulled on some much-loved, bagged-out jeans that look less Yves St Laurent, more Yanked Back From The Laundry Basket.

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Everything about Cooper seems to be a duel of personalities. In the space of a month he appears in two films. Amid the blockbuster sturm und drang of Captain America, he plays the Howard Hughes-inspired Marvel inventor Howard Stark with a swagger that leaves you in no doubt that one day this man will father Robert Downey Jr and the Iron Man series. However, it's The Devil's Double, a micro-budget film about a monster of epic proportions, that may finally pluck the 33-year-old from the ranks of long-lashed male totty and turn him into someone incredibly famous.

"It's very odd," he says. "The moment you leave drama school you are told, 'Well, you'll probably never work again.' Then you go for these meetings where you're desperately trying to sell yourself and get work. So to get to where I am now just feels like a dream. For most of my youth, I was hoping for just a line on The Archers."

Cooper's first leading film role is – of course – actually two roles. Or maybe even three. Set in the Baghdad of the 1980s and the first Gulf War, he plays Uday Hussein, the playboy son of Saddam Hussein, but also Latif Yahia, a former classmate forcibly recruited to become Hussein's double and assassination decoy due to their physical similarity.

Based loosely on Yahia's autobiography, Lee Tamahori's gory, near-the-knuckle rendering certainly isn't interested in political biography. This isn't Syriana: it's more like a vigorously embellished gangster memoir.

"Scarface," says Cooper. Or Caligula. Most gangster movies, however, don't challenge the leading man to play both characters: the cigar-chomping Black Prince, his controlled, contained shadow, as well as a third act, where Yahia impersonates Hussein's imperious, aggressive sadism.

Cooper worked hard to create distinct vocal patterns and mannerisms for the two men, augmented by prosthetics, false teeth and make-up. The science of creating the illusion of two Coopers on screen was achieved through strategic cross-cuts, and occasionally the kind of digital face replacement that allowed one actor to play the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network.

But the film's tight budget meant the film relies chiefly on Cooper doing almost every scene twice, in perfect sync, so that his split-screen performances could be matched up and merged later. Generally he played the physically uninhibited Hussein first, "because he's almost a cartoon at points and being that mad takes more energy."

And it is Cooper who binds the lurid pyrotechnics of the story together. He doesn't shy away from the borderline comedy of Hussein's chipmunk grin and maudlin attachment to his mother, but he doesn't soft-pedal the reality of his harrowing sadism either. From electrocution to sexual torture, Hussein's appalling brutality was endless, and managed to make his father Saddam look relatively respectable.

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Unsurprisingly, although directors and actors had been circling the film's script for a decade, no-one felt confident they could pull off a movie where one of the leads cruises Baghdad for 14-year-old girls, snorts coke from a scimitar, and pulls out the intestines of his father's food taster. Yet all these events actually happened.

"I don't know why I thought I should be the one to play the Iraqi son of a dictator," admits Cooper. "But after I read the story I couldn't stop thinking about it, and over the years I kept asking what had happened to it, and who was attached to it. I think people did get scared of the film, because it was much closer to the collapse of the regime, and people feared who it might upset. But when it came around again, I begged for audition. I said, 'You've got to get me in that room somehow.'"

Like many, Cooper's awareness of Hussein was initially vague. Growing up, he recalls a Gulf war conversation that passed over his head "until someone really seriously said, 'We mustn't get rid of Saddam, because then his son will take over, and he's much, much worse.' I have to say, it was a real shock to learn how much of this really took place, while we weren't really paying that much attention to the Middle East and Iraq. We ignored what was happening. But mostly, we didn't know.''

Yahia did know and his 1997 auto-biography detailed how proximity to Hussein nearly destroyed him. Cooper met Yahia for a few hours before filming to try and get a fix on him. "He was quite daunting because the first thing he said was, 'I know whether I like someone within the first 30 seconds of meeting them.' Which immediately put me in my place. Then he said he'd be honest and tell me if he didn't, and I truly believed him. I just wanted to meet him, to meet this man who'd been through that story that I'd found so riveting.

"I had all these questions ready to ask him, but I thought, 'If we're not making this film as an accurate historical account, then who am I to start prying and ask him questions about something so raw?' So I let him say what he wanted to say and it came in drips, but ultimately it's very painful. The man has lost his family, his country and his life essentially. He's rebuilt it fantastically and he's happy now, but it still felt very much like the recent past, and who was I to start interfering with it? That's why I didn't want to pry too much."

If Yahia's pain was almost unbearable to investigate, Hussein's psychopathic, unchecked privilege was also hard to access. In the past Cooper has claimed he always locates sympathy for his characters. How about this time? He shakes his head.

"The best I could do was find something I could respond to. Not 'like' because the more I unearthed about him, the more I despised him, but those things there gave me a sense of the man."

In the end, it was Hussein's childhood and his freighted relationship with his father that he drew on. "Sons of dictators are in this rather problematic situation. They have this all- powerful domineering father figure, who in Uday's case didn't pay him the least bit of attention. I think Saddam thought Uday was a bit of a moron – he certainly didn't give him any powerful role to play, which I think would be extremely insulting in that culture. And his father exposed him to scenes of absolute brutality and torture from the time he was four years old, which is going to screw with anyone's mind. Not that I sympathised with Uday. The sooner this guy got wiped off the face of the earth, the better, really."

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All this is light years removed from Cooper's previous work, where 'roguish' and 'smouldering' usually describe supporting roles in British films such as The Duchess, An Education and Tamara Drewe. And then, of course, there's Mamma Mia!, where he sang Abba hits with his top off and a keen sense of irony in place, after getting booted out of his drama school's musical for having no sense of rhythm.

"The thing was, that none of us pretended we were good singers or dancers," says Cooper. "We were totally unequipped. You could see that look of fear, but we had to embrace it and go for it."

One consequence of the film is that even now he gets offered roles in musicals, which amuses him, and his love life is now keenly scrutinised, which does not. While filming in Greece, he fell for his co-star Amanda Seyfried, and after messily disentangling themselves from a boyfriend (her) and a live-in girlfriend (him) they embarked on a two year trans-Atlantic relationship, which eventually fizzled out. Just this month, however, he was photographed kicking about town with Seyfried again – but, no, they are not back together, just good friends.

Cooper gets a bit abrupt and fed up on the subject of girlfriends, and whenever we get close to something personal he slows down a little to give himself time to think. He finds it difficult to run a filter through what he says in interviews and for the first half of our conversation, he can barely make eye contact with me.

That's a pity because he is naturally gregarious and garrulous rather than defensive. We first met back in 2006 when he was tub-thumping for the film release of Alan Bennett's The History Boys. He'd already played cocky prep school lothario Dakin for three years on London, Broadway and stages around the world, and at the press junket it was Cooper and his best chum James Corden who took charge of the banter, teasing journalists about their questions, or flirting outrageously with a rather delighted Alan Bennett.

"At that point I wondered if my career had peaked with one of my first jobs," he grins. "Because it was some of the best writing you'd ever work with." Cooper has a fund of good memories of his History years, and starts to relax when he recalls some of them: "The best moment was when a guy from the audience jumped on stage, made for our piano and started playing some really good jazz. He was obviously bored by my acting."

Along with his two brothers, Cooper grew up in Greenwich, the son of a nursery school administrator mother and auctioneer father. His attention-getting youngest-child status led to a love of performing, which he indulged in childhood plays. His first Abba performance, he notes drily, was aged 13 in a fur coat, singing Money Money Money.

A poor student, drama proved his salvation: when the school wanted to kick him out for failing exams, the drama teacher intervened and got him a stay of execution so he could star as the emcee in the school's production of Cabaret.

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Along with talent, there has always been charm. Cooper is a rare actor who says he loves meetings and auditions, probably because it's hard to resist him when he's on charm offensive. Only the notoriously prickly British director Stephen Frears has managed to resist his cheerful appeal.

"I turned up for an audition, all excited to meet him, and he flat-out didn't like the look of me. He just went ..." Cooper gives an impatient dismissive wave of the hand ... "'Nope, nope, get out! Completely wrong! This character's got long, beautifully flowing hair. You look like a thug,'" recalls Cooper, who at the time had shaved his head for another role.

"But I fought with him. I think I'd travelled from Ireland to London so I was like, 'You will see me. I can have foppish hair." And I grabbed his computer off him and did a google search and didn't find one image of myself with foppish hair."

He starts to laugh. "I had a 1980s spiked look in every single one, so he was right, and I was wrong, and I didn't get the part."

But you parted on good terms?

"Well, actually, I think it ended with him saying, 'Well bugger off.'"

In the end, however, even Frears caved and although the foppish-haired lead in Cheri went to Rupert Friend, Cooper was given Tamara Drewe immediately afterwards, as a guyliner-wearing, yellow Porsche-driving drummer who pulls the village hottie Tamara (Gemma Arterton).

In a busy year, Cooper's dance card is now so full even Frears may have to be nice to him. This autumn he's in My Week With Marilyn as the celebrated photographer and close friend of Marilyn Monroe, Milton Greene, opposite Michelle Williams, and he recently wrapped Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, in which he plays mentor to a young Lincoln. And he's reportedly met with director Tony Gilroy to talk about the new instalment of the Bourne series.

"Met, yes, but nothing has come of it," he says. "I haven't anything lined up either, so actually I'm unemployed right now."

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You may want to cancel the violins though, since in the next breath, he jauntily admits he's hoping to do a play with James Corden, "and we're always talking about writing something together. And you know, I'm a British actor so maybe something will turn up. I'm very cheap."

• The Devil's Double is on general release from Friday.

This article was originally published in Scotland on Sunday on August 7.

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