LAFF Coverage: 'The Devil's Double'

Thursday, 23 June 2011 13:29 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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LAFF Coverage: 'The Devil's Double'

The LA Film Fest continued Monday night with the Los Angeles premiere of The Devil’s Double, which is currently in competition at the festival. The Devil’s Double is directed by New Zealand filmmaker Lee Tamhori who is familiar to the action genre for his work on the James Bond film Die Another Day, XXX: State of the Union, and Next starring Nicolas Cage. The movie features a star-making performance by English actor Dominic Cooper, who is best known for his roles in An Education and Tamara Drewe but will soon be seen as Iron Man’s dad Howard Stark in next months Captain America: The First Avenger. The actor and director were both in attendance Monday night, as well as French actress Ludvine Sagnier (Swimming Pool) who plays the film’s female lead, and rapper turned reality television star Lil Jon (The Celebrity Apprentice), who was the evening’s host.

The film was written by Michael Thomas and is loosely based on the true story of Latif Yahia, a former military officer in the Iran-Iraq war who was forced to act as a body double for Saddam Hussein’s oldest son Uday. The movie is one part The Godfather, and one part Scarface, and takes an action movie approach to telling Yahia’s story. Cooper plays both of the lead roles in the film, the good-hearted but reluctant Latif, and the sociopathic madman Uday. Against his own wishes, Latif is brought into the Hussein home to act as a decoy for Uday so he can avoid assassination attempts. As Latif slowly becomes Uday, he is given a first hand look into the life of a dictator and quickly becomes disgusted with his new occupation. He eventually begins a relationship with Uday’s mistress Sarrab (Sagnier) that could end up getting them both killed. As Latif gets closer to Uday, he learns just what kind of a monster he is working for and desperately wants his own life back. But with Uday threatening to kill Latif’s family if he leaves, he is left no choice but to stay. Now Latif must put his trust in Sarrab, and work with her to escape, if he has any chance of retrieving his identity and finally regaining his freedom from Uday.

Before the screening I had a chance to speak with both actors Dominic Cooper, and Ludvine Sagnier, as well as the film’s director Lee Tamhori, and the evening’s host, Lil Jon. I began by asking hip-hop mogul Lil Jon how he got involved with the film and hosting the evening’s events. “I never get to see movies; I’m out partying too much,” the rapper joked. “They just called me up and asked me to check this out and I thought it had a great story.” I followed up by asking him what kind of movies he’s normally attracted to. “I like comedies and action. There is no damn comedy in this film at all but there is a lot of action. The plot is amazing and just to know that this stuff really happened is incredible,” said Lil Jon. “You are going to be shocked with some of the stuff that really happened with Saddam Hussein’s son.”

Next I spoke to French actress Ludvine Sagnier who plays both Uday and Latif’s love interest in the film, Sarrab. The actress started off by telling me a little bit about the character that she plays in the film. “I play the role of Sarrab and she is the mistress of Uday Hussein. She has been at his service for many years and she has no choice but to serve him as a lover, a mistress, and a sex slave. When Latif enters this world she sees somebody loyal, someone straight and someone she could maybe trust,” explained Sagnier. “Women in this part of the world are all survivors even the women who have to deal with this in their own lives. So to me she was like a secret agent because she plays on both levels. She falls in love with Latif but cannot show it and she tries to escape from Uday. I think that is a very courageous woman.”

I followed up by asking Sagnier what it was like playing opposite the same actor in two different roles in the same movie. “It was such an amazing performance. I didn’t have a lot of space in this environment but I got to be a witness to Dominic’s performance,” she said. “It was stunning really because he would jump from one character to the other and he would act completely different. I had to have a relationship with, what I would call, both actors because he really did become two different people for the film. When he was Latif he would be careful with me and when he was Uday he would be more playful and tacky. But I could always tell the difference.”

I also had a chance to speak with the film’s director Lee Tamahori and he discussed his motivation for making the film. “It’s a very bleak script but I quite like challenges like that,” he explained. “Michael Thomas, who wrote it is a brilliant writer, did not write a conventional screenplay so that turned a lot of people off but not me. Because it is very interpretive, the way he writes, and it allows the director a lot of room to move. His dialogue is crackling, his characters are fantastic and I just loved it when I read it. It was my type of movie,” he continued. “It’s R-rated, it’s very hard-core, and violent but the subject matter is what mattered to me. It was subject matter that I had been very interested in for sometime which is: the evil sons of dictators. Not daughters because they tend to only breed evil sons,” he joked. “This film is particularly nasty and I wanted to do it as a gangster film like The Godfather. What I mean by that is my movie has Sadaam playing Vito Corleone, and Dominic Cooper playing Sonny Corleone. There is a Michael Corleone waiting in the wings who is younger and smarter than his brother, and will be taking over the family business but we don’t focus on him. We concentrate on Sonny Corleone because that is where our story is.”

I found Tamahori’s Godfather references to be fascinating and I remembered Sagnier mentioning something about Scarface during our interview so I followed up by asking the director if the Al Pacino classic was an inspiration for the film as well. “Well we all love Scarface, how can you not, it is an iconic movie. I’ve always felt that every director needs a gangster film and I always wanted to make one. It’s hard to make a good gangster film these days because the stories aren’t there. They tend to be formulaic scripts but this was an original and it was the real deal,” Tamahori said. “So I thought that it was a different way into it rather than a big studio epic, which is what Scarface was. What we remember about Scarface is Al’s performance more than anything else,” he continued. “All you remember is Al Pacino playing Tony Montana and I thought what we needed in this film was another towering performance like that.”

Since he said that he was looking for another “towering performance,” I asked Tamohori how he found Dominic Cooper and why he felt he would be the right actor to play the two roles. “I didn’t know Dominic but I had seen him in some movies like The History Boys and Mama Mia! He was always playing the love interest and the romantic lead so I thought that he was incredibly undeveloped and underused as an actor. I thought that people hadn’t discovered his true talent yet because I knew how good he was,” said Tamohori. “When I had him in an audition he proved it to me. What I wanted was an unknown actor, not somebody that was well known. I wanted him to be unknown because I wanted people to look at a new face and see a new character instead of looking at the A-list face that they are used to regularly in the movies.”

Last but not least, I had a chance to speak with the star of the film Dominic Cooper, who had just flown in for the event from New Orleans where he is shooting Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter for Wanted director Timur Bekmambetov. The actor began by telling me about why he wanted to play these two roles. “It was an opportunity that I chased really more than anything. I had heard about the project for a long time. I read it and I thought that these opportunities so rarely come along,” Cooper explained. “I loved Lee’s work and finally after chasing it and finding out about it, I got in a room with Lee. We both worked on how we deciphered the characters and how we felt that they differed. As an actor you could make very distinctive comparisons and we were both on the same page for that. Then we tried stuff out and it was incredibly enjoyable, exhilarating, hard and nerve racking because you couldn’t have any fear,” he went on to say. “This is how I think this man was, this is how I portray him. If you don’t like it then there is nothing that I can do about that. But what an opportunity and you have to feel comfortable with the people around you. I’ve never worked on a set where I felt so involved, so much a part of it and so much part of the development and creation of it. I’m really proud of it. I had the most incredible experience working on it.”

The actor continued by discussing his approach to playing the two different characters and how he did his research for the film. “I created my own character from the script with Lee and of course it was great to have that. It was also great to talk to the real Latif but I felt that I didn’t want to pry too much into his personal life, however all the occurrences that took place in Baghdad affected so many people in such horrific ways. And in speaking to Lee early on, he decided that if we were not making a biographical detailed account of that time, then we didn’t want to do it half heartedly, we wanted to do something else,” Cooper explained. “We used the essence of it as an incredible gangster idea and concept for this lawless environment. I think it was about creating something on top of that. That’s kind of what we did and what Lee and I thought was the right way to portray those characters.”

Finally, I had an opportunity to see the movie and I have to say that The Devil’s Double is one hell of a good motion picture. If you like classic gangster films like Scarface and The Godfather series then you are going to love this movie. Dominic Cooper gives a star-making performance as Latif Yahia, and Uday Hussein, respectively. Not only were there moments in the film where I had to remind myself that I was watching one actor play two different parts, I had to remind myself that I was watching an actor and not the real people that he was portraying. The script for the film is well written by Thomas and perfectly executed by Tamohori, who infuses just the right amount of action and suspense into the real life drama. The movie hits all the notes that you expect from an action film, but at the same time is grounded in a reality that is very refreshing for a film like this. In the end, The Devil’s Double is a fast-paced, full-octane, fun action movie with a lead performance that you are not soon to forget. If it gets the attention it deserves, I think Dominic Cooper’s performance in The Devil’s Double is something that movie fans will be talking about for quite some time.

The LA Film Fest runs from June 16th-26th.

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