Evil though Saddam Hussein may have been, his oldest son, Uday, was in some ways worse. In the years before 2003, when Uday Hussein was killed by American special forces, he was a drug-addled playboy capable of rape and murder on a whim.
In the 1980s and '90s, Uday was a dangerous man — but he was also in danger. Like his father, he needed a body double, so he called upon Latif Yahia, an old school chum who looked just like him, and forced him to fill that role.
Now, the story of the man who couldn't say no to a dictator's son has inspired a new film. Set around the time of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, The Devil's Double depicts a life of extreme extravagance in the inner circle of Saddam Hussein 's cruel regime. It stars British actor Dominic Cooper as both Uday and Latif.
Cooper describes Uday as doomed from the start.
"All that I could think about when needing to get into his head space ... was that I suppose that he had an extremely volatile, awful upbringing," Cooper tells NPR's Renee Montagne. "Any son of a dictator, I'm sure, has major issues with their relationship with their father. Saddam certainly didn't believe in Uday's military capabilities. He wasn't ever going to ... give him the reins of power. So I think his father was desperate for him to have some other value. He put him in charge of the Olympic committee. But all I could see that he did with the Olympic committee was torture athletes for no reason — expecting results from athletes by beating them."
Tackling The Transitions
In order to better resemble Uday, the real Latif endured plastic surgery operations that left him physically scarred. Cooper explains that because he plays both Uday and Latif, and because of budgetary and time constraints, the transformation in the film is more minimal.
"What we decided upon was to make Latif slightly different with the use of prosthetics at the beginning of the film," Cooper says. "By the time Uday has forced him into having surgery, it's back to my face."
Back to his face, but not back to his teeth. Cooper says the prosthetic rodent-like teeth he used as Uday helped him better understand the character.
"He did have extraordinarily strange teeth," he says. "He could have anything in the world that he possibly desired or wanted, and he obviously wasn't concerned with dental care. I often heard actors say how ... [they] only feel that the character comes alive when they step into the shoes of this person. And certainly with Uday I felt that these teeth changed the whole nature and behavior. It was extraordinary."
The professional transition — from playing the role of Uday to that of Latif — was another story. Cooper says that on any other film, he might have been able to spend a couple of days as Uday before diving into Latif. But for The Devil's Double, he often had to switch between characters in the course of a single day.
"What I had to do in this particular project was do the establishing shot as Uday, preempt and second guess what my performance as Latif was going to be, and therefore react and respond to how I imagined Latif would react and respond," Cooper says. Then he would change into Latif and do the scene again, this time reacting to his earlier performance.
'Inhabiting The Monster'
As an actor, Cooper was charged with playing two different characters, but there was another layer of acting at play — that of Latif playing Uday.
"This guy — ... a man from a modest background, a soldier, a military man, a sort of considered man — was suddenly having to be an actor, and a good one for the sake of his life and his family's life," Cooper says. "And I didn't want him to do it too well, but he had to do it [well]."
There's no denying that The Devil's Double will touch a nerve with those who lived through Saddam Hussein's regime and the Iraq War, especially considering that, at its core, it's a gangster movie. But Cooper emphasizes that the film was not made to glorify the luxurious lifestyles of an oppressive regime.
"It's not saying for one moment, 'Look at these great guys; look what they can achieve, look what they can do,' " he says. "[Latif] fooled many, many people, so I really wanted there to be a kind of self-hatred of becoming this person, inhabiting the monster."
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator feared by all. Hard as it may be to imagine, his eldest son, Uday, had an even worse reputation. In the years before Uday was killed in 2003 by American Special Forces, he was known as a drug-addled womanizer who abducted and raped school girls and once on an impulse killed his father's best friend.
Uday was dangerous, and also in danger. Like his father Saddam, he needed a body double, a fiday, which in Arabic translates to bullet catcher. So Uday Hussein summoned a former schoolmate, a young man named Latif Yahia, and made him an offer he couldn't refuse. Here's how it plays out in the new movie "The Devil's Double."
(Soundbite of movie, "The Devil's Double")
Mr. DOMINIC COOPER (Actor): (as Uday Hussein) Look at yourself, Latif. Hmm? Look at me. We could be twins, no?
(as Latif Yahia) You are taller.
(as Uday Hussein) How much? This much? Didn't they used to say you look like Uday Saddam Hussein, didn't they used to say that in school? I want you to be my brother.
(as Latif Yahia) What happens if I say no?
MONTAGNE: The new gangster-style film is set around the time of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. British actor Dominic Cooper plays both roles, the body double Latif who's the moral center of the film, and Uday Hussein, the villain. Dominic Cooper joined us from London. Welcome to the program.
Mr. COOPER: Thank you for having me.
MONTAGNE: Let's start with one of your two roles, the role of Uday, a spoiled man-child who is the dictator's son. He could literally do anything he wanted. Describe him for us.
Mr. COOPER: I was horrified by everything that I unearthed about him, everything that I researched or found out. He was, as you say, an uncontrollable playboy with access to as much money, drugs, alcohol, women, anything that he pleased. All that I could think about when needing to get into his head space was I suppose that he had an extremely awful upbringing. And any son of a dictator I mean I'm sure has major issues with their father.
And Saddam certainly didn't believe in Uday's military capabilities. He wasn't ever going to give him the reins of power. So he put him in charge of various you know, the Olympic committee. But all I could see that he did with the Olympic committee was torture athletes for no reason, expecting results from athletes by beating them. A madman.
MONTAGNE: Although he I mean in the end for someone viewing the film, he's compelling because he's just so weird and creepy.
Mr. COOPER: Yeah, there's a certain level, I suppose, of comedy. He's almost a cartoon, I think. What was important was when I realized, I think, that we weren't making an accurate biographically detailed or historical account of these events or these people, that it gave me the opportunity to actually just create two distinctive people in the hope that the audience were always aware of which one they were watching. I think that was essential.
MONTAGNE: The real Latif actually had some plastic surgery to help make a more complete transformation to Uday, and you show that in the film. Talk to us about that.
Mr. COOPER: Well, I've met Latif on several occasions and he's physically scarred from the operations he had to change his appearance.
MONTAGNE: Which is sort of minimal in the film. Was it more...
Mr. COOPER: It's minimal in the film because what we're dealing with in the film is the same actor playing these two roles, which is me. So what we decided upon was to make Latif slightly different with the use of prosthetics at the beginning of the film. But then I just had the prosthetic teeth to play with, which were incredible and they create a whole change in vocality and physicality, actually.
MONTAGNE: They're sort of a little, to describe them, rodent-like.
Mr. COOPER: He did have extraordinarily strange teeth. Why he - who could have anything in the world that he possibly desired or wanted, he obviously wasn't concerned with dental care. But I often heard actors say I only feel that the character comes alive when they step into the shoes of this person. Certainly with Uday I felt that these teeth changed the whole behavior. It was extraordinary.
MONTAGNE: Well, just in terms of what you had to do then, again, to transform, the film had a relatively small budget, which I gather put a bit more pressure on you to move from one character to the next rather quickly.
Mr. COOPER: Well, I would ask essentially to play Uday first. He was so much in charge of a scene and a space. And he was the driving force in each scene. I mean, I thought it was more tiring and energetic to play Uday.
Now, if it had been a larger budget or we were filming this in a different way with much more time, I would stay as Uday maybe for a day, maybe two days, and then go back into the headspace of Latif. What I had to do in this particular project was do the establishing shot as Uday, preempt and second guess what my performance as Latif was going to be, and therefore react and respond to how I imagined Latif to react and respond.
And I'd run off quickly as possible, run back into the same location, shoot exactly the same master shot, and then I would be reacting and responding to a memory of my performance as Uday with an ear piece to react and respond to, of the performance that I gave. And then have to remember where I was standing in that particular space as Uday so that the eyelines would be exact. If they were out by millimeters, the scene would fall apart and it wouldn't work.
MONTAGNE: Latif ended up being a body double for a couple of years. There was no escape. His family would have been in danger if he escaped, or at least that's what he was told. But one thing that makes this as much a thriller as a true story is Latif seemed to be at all times in danger. Let's play another clip where it's a father of a kidnapped schoolgirl, and the father actually has the nerve to come and face Uday to get some answers, and instead he finds himself facing Latif. And Uday directs Latif to kill the father.
(Soundbite of movie, "The Devil's Double")
Mr. COOPER: (as Uday) You, put that bullet in his head now. Now.
(as Latif) What has he done?
(as Uday) What has he done?
(as Latif) He's a man who has lost his daughter.
(as Uday) You heard what he said about you.
(as Latif) About me?
(as Uday) About you, Uday Saddam Hussein.
(as Latif) It was not me who snatched her off the street. I didn't beat her. If you want to kill him, kill him yourself.
(as Uday) You think you can pick and choose? You think you can pick and choose? You are nothing.
(as Latif) I'm not going to kill this man. Kill me if you want, I don't care.
(as Uday) You would die to save this man?
(as Latif) Well, go on, what are you waiting for? Kill me, put a bullet in my head.
MONTAGNE: You know, Latif Yahia is still alive and living in Europe. There are a lot of people that have experienced a lot of pain, most particularly since the war in Iraq. How did you come to terms with being in a film that turns something that's quite real, you know, into a gangster movie?
Mr. COOPER: That's really tough, and I don't think we're showing him in a glamorous light, you know, even as a gangster film. It's fast-paced. It's got guns, fast cars and girls, drugs and booze, and that's what his life seemed to really be about. And this is a family of gangsters who run a country like gangsters and we needed to exploit this certain story in a way that's beneficial to an audience watching it.
So it's not a history lesson, but it's a compelling story about, you know, the inner workings of this regime that actually, I think, an awful lot of us know very little about, although it's very much in our recent past, and very much part of our history.
MONTAGNE: Dominic Cooper, thank you very much for joining us.
Mr. COOPER: Thank you very much.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: Dominic Cooper stars in the new movie "The Devil's Double." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.