‘Let’s pretend to be doing something,” proposes Dominic Cooper. “Let’s make ourselves seem like good people.” This isn’t an acting exercise, though maybe it’s a moral one. Or maybe it’s just his wry comment on doing just what we’re doing: having lunch under an olive tree in a private indoor forest on the penthouse floor of Soho House West Hollywood and talking about his two new films, which are opening within a week of each other. In Captain America, he appears as the Howard Hughes–inspired comic-book character Howard Stark, and in The Devil’s Double, his first lead role, he plays Saddam Hussein’s son Uday and Uday’s body double. He’s also met with Tony Gilroy to talk about starring in the fourth film of the Bourne series. In other words, Cooper, 33, is about to be incredibly famous. Perhaps to atone for this, he suggests we do an act of charity: “Let’s say I’ve gone off to help an old man.”
He even has a specific old man in mind, and a particular act of service: washing his convertible. They met recently while Cooper was doing a photo shoot at the man’s house in the hills of Los Angeles. “In the garage there was this wonderful sixties Lincoln, in beautiful condition but covered in dust and dirt,” he recalls. “And you could immediately picture his whole life and his enjoyment of that car with his partner”—who passed away—“and the roof down. I just want to go clean it.”
Worthy as this idea is, it’s just a fantasy; there’s no time in his busy movie-star schedule. Besides, Cooper hasn’t washed a car in years. But since he doesn’t really seem to want to talk about his movies either, he switches to another playacting scenario. “We’re having fun! It’s our first date!” Each time the waitress comes around, he gives her progress updates on our budding relationship—sometimes, for no reason, in a Cockney accent.
“She’s good, this one. Right up my street,” he tells the waitress. “Although, I’m making all the decisions … Do you think that’s good?” The waitress gives him affirmation, as waitresses do. He asks if I like octopus and crab. I do not. He orders them anyway. We’re both really excited about the beetroot salad, though. Says Cooper: “I need a nice red poo.”
Up till now, Cooper is probably best known for playing the (memorably shirtless) boyfriend from Mamma Mia! and for getting together with his co-star Amanda Seyfried when they both may or may not have been in other relationships. Beyond that, he was the guy who wasn’t Peter Sarsgaard in An Education and the bad boy Dakin in The History Boys—a role he played for three years, from London through its Broadway transfer and its film adaptation. He played Willoughby in 2008’s BBC mini-series of Sense and Sensibility and, the next year, Hippolytus in Phèdre at the Royal National Theatre, opposite Helen Mirren. He says he’s enjoyed doing theater and small film roles rather than mucking around in action epics full of “greasy robots and flying men.” Not that he’d been offered one of those parts before. “Not even nearly,” he admits, laughing.
Cooper grew up in the London suburbs; Jude Law was a family friend. A few weeks ago, he went home (he lives in a “really tiny” flat in London’s Primrose Hill) after having spent four months in New Orleans shooting the role of Benjamin Walker’s vampire mentor in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. His whole family got together to watch his niece play the teacher in Annie. At a garden party later, a food fight broke out between him and his two older brothers. One produces commercials and helped Cooper get an early gig in a Durex-condom commercial, running through the streets of Prague with a crowd of men in sperm suits. The other is a synth-pop artist who goes by the stage name Kid Kasio; Cooper directed one of his videos in the ruins of a Katrina-ravaged Six Flags. (He also has a grown half-sister who surfaced a few years ago. When I ask about it, he changes the subject: “Do you like my new shoes?”)
And now he’s in L.A. for a few days, where he keeps winding up at Soho House to “drink vast amounts, dance on my own, and go home and feel depressed about my life.” He’s been working off his jet lag by playing tennis with a ball machine at “my very sad hotel,” which nonetheless has a tennis court on the roof.
Before The Devil’s Double, Cooper says, “I’ve never felt that challenged by film work.” The movie is loosely based on the life of Latif Yahia, who was unlucky enough to look so much like Saddam Hussein’s unhinged-sadist son Uday that he was forced to become his fiday, or body double (direct translation: “bullet catcher”). He plays both roles: a psychopath and his borderline slave. Make that three: Latif, Uday, and Latif playing Uday. He’s riveting.