Before the meal: Cooper has suggested to the distribution company behind his participation in the ludicrously titled Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, that I stay in the same hotel as him, for heightened interview immersion. This basically means something to the effect of, Let him, too, smell the smells that I’ve been smelling. This is not to say the smells are bad. They are, in fact, nice smells. Comforting smells: mildew, lace, cornflowers, Louisiana debutantes. Cooper, you see, likes to share. (Literally: he’ll later spoon me some beef cheek.) But he’s also been here for five months, and I spend the first chunk of our meal—before we even turn on the dictaphone—sympathizing with an inferred anxiousness that’s cropped up during his time in this particular hotel, in New Orleans’ Central Business District, that often hosts the “Hollywood of the South” (per Gerald’s revelations), that regularly sees the Mississippi Delta’s coterie dine beneath its chandeliers, that saw panic and pandemonium on an undocumented scale, and that is still here to politely warn you about your mini-bar allotments from the film company.
Let’s take a step back in time, just after Gerald dumps me in front of the hotel. Cooper—who’s ascended his way onto the pages of such revered publications as the one you’re holding with roles originating in theatre (he trained at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art), and then to films alongside Keira Knightley in The Duchess, Carey Mulligan in An Education, and his “breakout” in Mamma Mia! adjacent Amanda Seyfried—phones me to bump the time of our original rendezvous back to 10 p.m., as he’s “still on set, and then has to run an errand.” It’s a welcome move—the later the interview, the more chance he’ll loosen up—but I’m twiddling my thumbs and can’t any longer, so I leave my room for the French Quarter. I’m carrying a white cotton MCM bag housing my dictaphone, some pens, and an instant camera. In the elevator down, I’m teased by a group of geriatrics headed to the ground floor restaurant, dressed to the Dixie nines, for nicking hotel linens (read: the sexy MCM sleeve). Reeling from the ribbing, I enter the lobby only to spot through its revolving doors the “errand-ing” Cooper, donning workout duds and shades. He’s off for a jog, the bastard! This, atop the old fogies: severe buzz kill. So, I quickly hasten to assume New Orleans a place intolerant of outsiders and Cooper a wiggly little prince. Naturally, I come to learn, after a night spent floating through the city’s labyrinthine, uniquely welcoming haunts with the very prince I’m decrying, these are both foolish, foolish presumptions.
Cut to: a few hours later. In the courtyard, salamanders dart about, cicadas chirp, and a hulking hog of an air conditioner pumps out what sounds like the breathless heave of mechanical coronary arrest—not the sizzling shortages from the crispy cream-colored variety of restaurant gear, but the bleating wails of industrial U.S.A.’s taupe Clydesdales. During the air conditioner’s roaring intervals, Cooper is forced to lean in closer to be heard.
We comb through a few of the usual adjectives about New Orleans, come to the bit where it was treated like abject filth during one of the deadliest hurricanes to date by its government, and find ourselves talking about power and fear and control of the many. Cooper leans in: “We’re so force-fed, surrounded by opinions that are often very biased,” he states. “And I always find it incredible how truly powerless we are as individuals, really. That terrifies me more and more. I’m always confronted by looking back at history and going, ‘Why didn’t people stand up to this, why didn’t people know what was going on?’ And then suddenly you’re having your own experience of something similar. This is why what’s been going on in the Middle East has been so wonderful. People have had enough.”
Cooper perhaps sees the many vs. the few in this particular way because, well, beyond the nature of our news origins and our increasingly unbelievable political spectacles, the man is not fond of absolutes. Cooper likes to re-invent himself. He’s moved by imagination, channeling identity, twisting his heels into conversational pivot points, either scripted, recorded, or off-the-cuff, and countering with a crackling joke (the guy’s a ham, in the best way). But he’s also a realist, not leaving a lot of room for hubris—no need (as one of his contemporaries sat in his place might) to buoy his profile up with declarative blacks-and-whites. No, Dominic Cooper would sooner settle on slightly wry fascination, maybe a bit of artistic removal.
My plan, you see, upon meeting Cooper, was to rib him about his being spotted in the lobby of our musty, glamorous roosting place while still “on set.” But the moment flittered into the night like the many love bugs cloistered in the blush of the courtyard’s twinkly lights. That happens here. Notions, inclinations, principles, worries vanish without circumstance into the dreamy cauldron of the city’s many stories and legends. As well, the guy’s very disarming. And that realism, that openness, quickly took us in another direction.
But it’s also occurred to me that Dominic Cooper is fucking busy. Sure, he’s here in New Orleans, crawling up the walls for this production to finish, but that’s hardly clogged the creative wheels. His forthcoming spectrum of films runs the color wheel from an indie arts short (Hello Carter), to a historical piece centered around Marilyn Monroe’s starring role in The Prince and the Showgirl (My Week With Marilyn, featuring the tastily ripened Michelle Williams as Ms. Monroe), to another load launched o’er the chest of the superhero-crazed mainstream, Captain America: The First Avenger. Thus, if the guy needs to squeeze a jog in before mug clanks with a flown-in scribe, it’s truly okay. It’s all good. This is the Deep South. Relax. And anyway, those folks in the lobby? They weren’t so bad. They’ll probably joyously wet their Confederate Depends, then buy the house a round, when they hear they’ve stayed in the same hotel as that wild British actor that played both Uday Hussein (remember Saddam? Uday was his whelp) and his body double Latif Yahia in that Gulf War era film, The Devil’s Double, which gleefully exploits the Hussein mystique to the tune of Uday’s belligerently bombastic immaturity, handfuls of Ferraris, piles of cocaine, harems of teenage girls, palaces, and gold-coated automatic weapons—pretty killer, I know.
This leads to, as you might have guessed, the Middle East part of the interview. We begin by analyzing Cooper’s execution of the two roles (he’s in nearly every frame of the film), both of whom bed co-star Ludivine Sagnier, and both of whom inhabit a film that requires an absolutely, indulgently challenging suspension of factual adherence. Instead, the filmmakers called for an artistically maniacal mindset to pull off really the first large-scale, money-backed dramatic depiction of Iraq’s tyrannical family.
“With The Devil’s Double,” he shares, “it’s very serious subject matter, and it’s a deeply terrifying and horrible story what Latif went through. It was really important then, early on, in discussions with the director (Lee Tamahori), we determined this was not about making a really accurate, biographical, detailed account of what went on—because the truth is, no one really knows the inner workings, and no one’s alive from the regime anymore, so therefore we’ll use it as a backdrop. I know that some people feared making it early on. I know of some directors who wouldn’t go near it. I’m interested to see how they react to it there [in Iraq, throughout the Middle East], actually.”
Cooper developed a relationship with Yahia—the Iraqi serviceman turned pawn of the Hussein family, currently in hiding—in his research for the film. In doing so, he discovered a handful of things. “The state that that country’s in now is shocking and terrifying, and extremely saddening,” he says, “but the truth is that that man [Saddam Hussein], who was this vicious kind of monster, actually ran the country extraordinarily well. Of course, people lived in constant fear, but it had fantastic education, brilliant medical care—Baghdad was an affluent, well-run city. That doesn’t change the fact that he was a tyrant and needed to be removed, but I think very few people know about that.”
The Devil’s Double marks yet another period role for Cooper, who has now flexed his filmic muscle in several major eras—from 18th century Victorian (The Duchess), to forthcoming WWII playgrounds of patriotic showdown (Captain America), to Laurence Olivier’s late ‘50s (My Week With Marilyn)—some of which, beyond his alterable skillset, is perhaps due to a particularly timeless handsomeness. This varied oeuvre, and Cooper’s being here in New Orleans to act as Abraham Lincoln’s vampire-slaying adviser, prompts discussion on large-scale productions, on creativity versus the bank-stuffing stuff. “I don’t know how things shift for people where dollars [in lieu of creativity] really change their choices,” he remarks. “And unfortunately, the industry has a way of making you into someone that eventually continues to strive for more and need more. I don’t have a family, I haven’t got a bunch of people around me who I need to be providing for, but you can understand how it happens—the certain lifestyle that people need to maintain—and the idea of taking a certain job for that reason alone. I think the moment you start doing that, it’s the beginning of the end—in any creative capacity.”
The above quote would have usually been lopped during early edits of this article, considering its nearness to actorly cliché, but Cooper and I have plunged deeper, and he’s scratching at the conversation’s belly, though all the while with the aforementioned, well-maneuvered grin. Perhaps, as well, considering that the actor has struck balance between over-the-top studio blockbusters and more cerebral indie fare, he’s got room to breathe, room to walk the talk. What’s even better is that he’s doing so with honesty about the very real pressures of his vocation. “I think,” he continues, “in our nature, there’s a driving force. From an early age, you’re told to get a job because that will give you a living and then you can survive. I didn’t grow up having loads of stuff, or having everything I wanted all the time—and I always think the struggle and the desire for that is ultimately much more exciting. The idea of having those things we think will give us pleasure is more exciting [than actually having them], because imagination is exciting—it gives you this kind of tingly feeling—much more exciting than the real thing, unfortunately. And the realization of that is quite depressing. But at least it influences the decisions about what you decide upon—at least with work.”
We’re being pestered by the waiter now, who’s put the rest of his tables to bed and who is angling to pull our unfinished beef cheek free from the table, eyeing my dictaphone with a sort of mellow disenchantment. But we’re not through. We’ve just gotten to the bit where I’m sloppily paraphrasing Gore Vidal: Every time my friends succeed, I die a little. This is funny to Cooper, as it should be to anyone. But nevertheless, it inspires a little stewing. And, in keeping with the self-awareness, the honesty I’ve mentioned, Cooper stews with total nakedness. “I’d be stupid to pretend that that doesn’t exist,” he stews. “And again, I think anyone who says they wholeheartedly relish people, peers, friends, and acquaintances’ success is not being honest with themselves. And yet, it’s all terribly sort of hushed and you speak to each other with such decency and admiration. And really, they’re pointless feelings, they’re a complete waste—also very competitive as well. That can happen when you’re dealing with only a few great jobs, and it’s just a handful of you. But you end up actually knowing quite a lot of people quite well, because you end up working with them, and genuinely liking them, and you realize very quickly that everyone has the same insecurities, and worries, and no one really exudes this confidence that often people think a bunch of actors have. And actually, everyone’s completely, constantly living in perpetual fear that they won’t ever be called again to a day’s work. Because ultimately you’re prancing around pretending to be someone else all the time…”
“To put it simply, you’re acting,” I substantiate.
Cooper quickly smiles and adds, “Yeah, I mean, it’s a joke. The whole thing’s a joke.”
Perhaps one of entertainment’s bigger disappointments is the entertainer’s failing to admit that what they’re doing, at times, is just for the fuck-all fun of it, instead trying to sanctify it with artsy chest puffing. Sure, Cooper can chat theatre and trends in art, and change dialects, and tell hilarious stories, and charm strangers, and intellectually spar. But not about vampires. Not about shooting M16s and racing Maseratis. And you know what? It’s really, really refreshing. “You know what to expect when you’re going in to do a film like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” he says with a laugh. “Don’t turn up wanting your big, award-winning monologue. I love something that doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s great.” We return to The Devil’s Double—the thrill of such an arrogantly outlandish role. “Such good fun,” he says. “The cars that were stuck on my wall as a kid, ‘80s over-the-top Ferraris, wielding a golden gun around: great fun. The fun stemmed from feeling so much a part of the mechanics of making the film, because it was chaos. I had a part that allowed me to be wild, and do whatever the hell I wanted, and go completely off the rails, and make it as far-fetched and ludicrous as I cared to, and on the other hand, I played a much more sympathetic, grounded, stoic man who I got to know. On an acting level, that’s amazing, though I was slightly concerned about not finding any redeeming qualities about Uday’s personality. That was quite tough. I just despised this person—who he was and what he did. I suppose, if you, for a moment, contemplate the horrors he was exposed to as a kid, you do, at least momentarily, understand why he did some of the things he did.”
It’s getting late now. Cooper and I will soon settle up and return to the hotel. At least that’s the intention. Instead, on a spontaneous dime—at his suggestion or mine—we’re hopping into a taxi to commence a wayward, hazy jaunt, returning just in time for Gerald to scoop me and return me to Louis Armstrong for the 7:15 to L.A. There’s jazz and bluegrass; there’s an accosting from a crazy cougar wolfing a burrito, bits flying from her mouth, while divulging her woes on Frenchmen Street; there’s a conversational loop-de-loop with a Midwestern moneybags that looks like Johnny Lawrence from The Karate Kid and his frisky Spanish-French arm candy; there’s Cooper embarrassing me on the billiards table.
But prior to all this mischief, back at the relative docility of the restaurant table, the actor responds to my suggestion that any guy, if given the access to the pleasure-fest laid at the feet of Uday Hussein, might shelve their morality for a while: “It’s worrying to think what your average guys would do,” he says. “Those guys that were singing, ‘We got him! We got him!’ (at the announcement of Osama Bin Laden’s assassination), for instance. I did wonder while speaking to Latif—‘How tempting was it, and how actually indulged in it were you, if you came from such a modest, modest background? I wonder how infectious it is?’” I suppose, when looked at this way—with Cooper’s raw realism—The Devil’s Double, this young actor, the relentless Big Easy, our convergence, touch on something larger, something slightly dark, though certainly more vast. We are, as Cooper has suggested, pretty powerless as individuals. I suppose it’s all a bit like the beef cheek, reader. If the animal’s already gone to slaughter, you may as well enjoy its most tender bits.