Catching an actor on his cell phone while they’re on a short break from shooting isn’t the best way to start an interview. After introductions and trying to see if we could hear each other across the country – “Can you hear me? How are you? How are you?”– you get to the first question of the interview. Aiming to paint the visual of Dominic Cooper on set, or in a greasy spoon cafe in South London, he tells me, “I’m in Philadelphia.” Hardly across the ocean, or even across the country, Cooper was less than a hundred miles away. “I am loving it here. There is great food, great people.” Cooper is on set with Colin Farrell filming the new movie Dead Man Down, set for release next year. “You’re in New York, right?” he asks. “We could have met for coffee!”
No stranger to our city (Cooper’s last visit was in early May), it took him back to when they were filming The History Boys. He had landed a part in the 2004 stage production at the National Theatre, which ran for two years, and then revisited the roll in the 2006 film. A part of that show from the very beginning, he remembers it fondly, and the city he spent so much time in as a result.
It seems that Dominic Cooper fell into the acting business. His mother was a nursery school teacher and a keen theater-goer, his father an auctioneer. After leaving school following his A-levels and not really knowing what to do, this Brit pursued acting. Knowing it wasn’t going to come easy, he worked at his brothers’ company as a runner and kept part-time jobs, while seeking a break in the theater. All that early exposure to the business cultivated discipline and respect for the theatre, which led to pursuing training at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. After a number of smaller roles in An Education, My Week With Marilyn, Mamma Mia!, and Captain America: The First Avenger, he played a break-through part in the controversial movie, The Devil’s Double.
Tackling a duel role, Cooper played Uday, the son of Saddam Hussein, in a family that resembles classic Hollywood crime-family depiction. Uday was a pathetic and dangerous weak link beneath his playboy strut. Contrasting this character is Latif, the Iran-Iraq War veteran with a troubled conscience who is plucked from obscurity and offered the opportunity to be Uday’s body double. Latif was also played by Cooper. Playing both roles was a little weird for him, but interesting. “That’s the key to survival as an actor. You can never take yourself too seriously. It’s playing. Even when the material is this dark and serious, this real.”
We talked extensively about the importance of education, if only to groom someone to want to learn more about the world. But of course, it’s more fun and far more interesting when you stray from the following the traditional school curriculum – and you’re much more likely to remember things. “Learning about what is interesting encourages you to learn more – to want to learn more – rather than being forced into learning by doing what you are told. I would have much rather learned about the cultures and flavors of the world in geography class than learn about the make-up of soil.” Harnessing that youthful, bright, eager-to-learn mentality is something Cooper learned from starting his acting career at such a young age. “You can get into a role so much easier when you take only what you know (which is not much) and supplement it with the need to want to please, and to be this fictional character. This is why young children make good actors.”
Having acted on both stage and screen, Dominic maintains that screen work is harder. “You have all the surrounding sounds, you have the director calling the shots, you have to keep the person you’re talking to in your immediate view, and block out all the surrounding sounds and pictures, and then you have to get into your role and say your lines….” It’s exhausting just listening to Cooper describe all that goes on. But it’s clear he loves it.
Currently, you can see Cooper in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. And as spoofy as it sounds, his part took some research. Growing up in the UK, the history of the rest of the world was only taught with broad brushstrokes.
“You don’t really get to learn about someone as important as Abraham Lincoln and the respect he earned from his country. It’s funny. You hear about people with a wealth of knowledge about this man. He was almost a super-hero, running and changing the country, pulling it all together.” But American History doesn’t exactly take precedence when you’re attending school in Britain. “We knew his name, and what he represented. We did not know what he was up against, or any idea of his vision.” And it seems clear that Abraham Lincoln has had an effect on him. “Can you imagine the abuse he must have seen? And knowing the only way he could get through the Civil War was through having that many people opposing the decisions he was making? It takes an incredible human being to do that, to come from where he came from. Is he a real person or just made up?”
Cooper returns to the importance of education, and of continuing to learn in whatever way you can: “I don’t know why I keep talking about education, but it’s kind of the perfect thing you want to have going on. In making a film, you have to learn where he is coming from and what he is up against, and all the incredible things he came to do. Yes, the special effects were very clever. But it’s been remarkable portraying this man. An uneducated Republican who becomes President and leads his country in the 18th century, making changes which would shake up the world even today, abolishing slavery.” Anyone with an appreciation and understanding of the need to improve the world we live in would know, “the ride must have been rough. Yet no rougher than where we are today. The need to understand the divide is still strong. We still need to understand and overcome the prejudices people have.”
I tell Cooper that in the USA, 48 states do not allow prisoners to vote, and the majority of those prisoners are black men. Even with an African American man as President, not much has changed when it comes to the men behind bars. It calls to mind the race issues that Lincoln faced, and the social ramifications of the divide he helped begin to bridge. “It’s a hard path to go down. I don’t live here (in America), but there is still a divide that needs to be addressed. I am always quite astonished it is not addressed more. The atrocities that took place – why on earth they did them – especially with the hindsight of today? I am always sad and amazed that we do not have more dialogue about it, or address the issue of slavery, of what did happen, rather than push it under the carpet and try to move on.” Dominic takes the view that we need to look at the divisions in the world, talk about them, and face them in order to understand how to change. “I don’t really know the answer. But the answers need to be found to move forward.”
As our time grew to a close, I asked Mr. Cooper what he does to get away from it all and unwind, since he’s not always wrestling with socio-economic chasms or hunting down bloody vampires. I find out that he’s quite the interior designer. “I work on renovating my home in London. I try to create a home base to come back to. After the long hours and the hard work and all the unknowns of the acting world, it’s great to know you have somewhere familiar to lay your head, with the comforts of home and some friendly faces.” But he’s never one to stop building on his knowledge base – “and not forgetting to pick up the odd book and get some reading in.”