Stepping Into the Shoes of a Psychopath

In “The Devil’s Double,” Dominic Cooper, with Ludivine Sagnier, plays Uday Hussein.

IT’S hard to conceive of too many narratives in which Saddam Hussein might emerge as a second-tier villain. But in “The Devil’s Double” he is portrayed as a man who at least operated according to his own narrow code of loyalty and warped ethical compass, while his nihilistic son Uday is pure, unchecked evil.

Dominic Cooper, above in West Hollywood, Calif., said that his research into Uday Hussein “made me despise the man.”

“I’m not saying Saddam Hussein was an angel,” said Latif Yahia, a former Iraqi Army lieutenant who was forcibly inducted into the entourage of the president’s son, and whose story is recounted in the film. “But if you compare Uday to Saddam, absolutely, Saddam was an angel. If somebody made a mistake, Saddam could sometimes forgive. Uday didn’t even have a word for forgiveness. Even if you didn’t do anything, he might torture you or make fun of you.”

Tales of the abhorrent behavior of the first-born scion of the Hussein regime, who was killed in a shootout with American forces in 2003, are legendary. A cocaine-snorting party boy with a taste for fat cigars, flashy pimp outfits and luxury cars, Uday was a loose cannon whose sadistic exploits included routinely ordering the torture and imprisonment of athletes under his supervision on the Iraqi Olympics and national soccer teams. His violent, sexually predatory nature was equally notorious, treating the abduction, rape and murder of young women as sport.

Directed by Lee Tamahori, “The Devil’s Double,” which had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January and opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, has no shortage of graphic examples. They range from the merely perverse — Uday, on a whim, ordering guests at a birthday party to strip naked and dance — to more chilling incidents like cruising a Baghdad street in one of his many sports cars preying on schoolgirls, or snatching a bride away from her wedding celebration. Other recent dramatic depictions seem almost playful by comparison. In the 2008 BBC-HBO mini-series “House of Saddam” Uday was first seen as a petulant brat, grumbling about the heat in the desert and throwing stones at camels. In the recent play “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” Uday figures in the afterlife as a pernicious ghost. Gleefully brandishing the severed head of his brother Qusay, he taunts his former gardener about the sexual brutalization of the man’s sister.

Recounting Uday’s story through the horrific real-life ordeal of Mr. Yahia, “The Devil’s Double” is unapologetically lurid, an account of an amoral psychotic in a lawless society. It might be described as “The Prisoner of Zenda” meets “Scarface.”

Bearing a strong resemblance to Uday, Mr. Yahia was forced in 1987 to serve as his “fiday,” or body double. Refusal would have meant a death sentence for his family. He was given a makeover, an intensive drilling in speech and behavioral patterns and minor cosmetic surgery. During public appearances as Uday, Mr. Yahia frequently dodged assassination attempts while under constant threat of exposure. He eventually fled Iraq in late 1991 and now lives in Europe.

In a bravura display of dramatic pyrotechnics the British actor Dominic Cooper plays both men in the film. Not only does Mr. Cooper persuasively embody two diametrically opposed characters, often within a single scene, but he must also tackle the third role of Mr. Yahia impersonating Uday.

“What on earth ever made me think I could play the son of an Iraqi dictator I don’t know,” Mr. Cooper said. “But what an opportunity.”

“Everything that I read or looked at, everything that I found out he was part of, made me despise the man,” he recalled of his research into Uday. “I looked at as much footage as I could get hold of, and he was always this ominous figure, looming in the background at parties, with fear emanating off the people around him — a live wire that could do anything at any given moment.”

That volatility is key in a performance characterized by quicksilver shifts. Mr. Cooper doesn’t shy away from the borderline comedic lunacy of Uday, with his toothy grin and his mawkish attachment to his mother. But he doesn’t soft-pedal the sinister reality of an egomaniac spreading chaos and carnage with zero accountability. He said he found it important to humanize the character by finding some shred of vulnerability behind the cackling fiend with the solid-gold pistol.

“If you look at children of dictators there’s often a desperate need to be noticed by their all-powerful fathers,” Mr. Cooper said. “I suppose my way in was that he was exposed to torture when he was a young boy. He witnessed the unloving relationship between his parents. The lack of respect from his father, who never trusted him with military capabilities and certainly didn’t want him to take a place of power.”

Mr. Cooper noted that for an eldest son to be passed over is a mark of dishonor in many cultures, and Saddam’s choice of Qusay as a senior tactician must have stung his brother.

“It’s those things that I grabbed hold of to understand at least something of his mentality,” Mr. Cooper said. “To allow me as an actor to accept his behavior and have some level of enjoyment in his sadism, if that makes sense, you have to like something about the character to play it.”

Hrach Titizian, a Los Angeles actor from an Armenian background, sought a similar balance in playing Uday in “Bengal Tiger,” Rajiv Joseph’s existential reflection on war and death. While he wanted to base the performance in reality, playing a ghost in a surreal fictional work gave him greater license to depart from the truth and create his own character.

“It’s always fun to play the villain,” Mr. Titizian said. “But I tried to add some humor and charm because even though you’re a bad guy, you have to get the audience on your side. I basically had to find that line of going as far over the top as I could but still be real and believable.”

In the film Mr. Cooper’s performance is notable for the crystal-clear distinctions that separate Uday from Latif from Latif as Uday. Uday’s voice is high pitched, and his speech rhythms faster and more aggressive; Latif speaks in a lower register and more deliberate manner. What really distinguishes the roles, however, is the intrinsic difference between a reactive, animalistic character and a thoughtful, observant one. Mr. Cooper said that the most challenging scenes were those in which the men appear simultaneously, requiring him to play to a mark on the wall rather than work with another actor.

“Whether people respond to the film or not, it certainly lets them see another aspect of what I can do rather than prancing around on a beach singing,” he said, referring to his part in the screen version of “Mamma Mia!”

Given that “The Devil’s Double” is his first leading role, Mr. Cooper relished the chance to participate in the entire trajectory of a film, likening it to his full-immersion experience on “The History Boys.” In that Alan Bennett play, he lived and breathed Dakin, the cocky teenager, for three years in London and on Broadway before doing the movie.

He said that meeting Mr. Yahia was important in terms of grasping that a version of the events in the film had actually happened and to comprehend the lasting psychological and emotional scars. But he was reluctant to dig deep into painful history or to try to impersonate the man.

“He did a great job,” Mr. Yahia said. While he acknowledges that the film is an interpretation of events, not a faithful account, he pegs its historical authenticity at 70 to 80 percent, saying that he believes Mr. Tamahori has captured the essence of Iraq at that time as a society run by gangsters.

“Even the mafia all over the world has justice,” Mr. Yahia said. “They can be arrested by the law, put into prison, tried in a court. In the Saddam regime there was no authority. They could do what they wanted.”

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