By Christine Kearney
NEW YORK (Reuters) - It's still very early. In fact, it's not yet awards season in Hollywood, but already movie fans might have their first bona fide contender for this year's best actor Oscar.
Briton Dominic Cooper gives what critics are calling a brilliant performance in dual roles of the brutal, sadistic Uday Hussein -- the son of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein -- and his emotionally conflicted body double, Latif Yahia, in new movie "The Devil's Double."
His role in the film, which hit theaters in New York and Los Angeles last Friday and expands around the United States in coming weeks, scored Cooper a standing ovation at the Sundance Film Festival when it premiered there earlier this year.
Add to that bit of bravura that Cooper is coming off an acclaimed performance in 2009's "An Education" and is currently showing versatility in this summer's big-budget "Captain America: The First Avenger," and it all has Hollywood buzzing.
Cooper can feel the heat. He told Reuters he is now "getting really exciting meetings with really exciting directors who I want to work with...it's a shift."
He remembers Sundance as being "almost terrifying, the idea of people seeing the work," then said he was relieved because the audience "believed the illusion, that it is the same guy playing two parts, which was always going to be the problematic dilemma of the film."
In fact, Cooper is really playing three roles -- Uday, Latif and Latif playing Uday to fill-in as a body double for the feared son of the late Iraqi dictator, who lived in a decadent world of designer suits and was surrounded by violence and torture.
Uday Hussein was killed by U.S. troops in a gun battle following the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Latif lived to write a book upon which the film, which is more a gangster drama than Iraq truth tale, is loosely based.
Latif was a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war who was recruited to be Uday's body double. He had no choice in the matter. It was either that or death, beatings or violence to his family -- or all three.
ONE ACTOR, TWO CHARACTERS
Despite his own moral convictions, Latif is forced to comply with Uday's tortures, rapes, drug use and pornographic debauchery. He is conflicted in his new job, as he takes audiences on a journey into Uday's surreal world.
To portray the dual roles, Cooper said he concentrated on physical gestures, vocal tones, syntax and speech patterns. He made up a very high-pitched signature laugh for Hussein. He watched some video footage of Uday.
"There is not much of it, but when you do it's scary. There is this very hideous man, emanating bad vibes," Cooper said.
The lack of time to shoot the relatively low-budget ($15 million) movie meant Cooper was forced to switch characters quickly on the set. When both were together in one scene, a stand-in would read the dialogue, so he did not have another actor's reaction from which to work. In some scenes, Cooper wore an earpiece to hear the performance he had just given.
"I would ask if I could do Uday first, because he was the driving force and he was the one that took up a huge amount of energy," Cooper said.
While the movie has received mixed-to-positive reviews and comparisons to other character-driven gangster films, such as the 1983 version of "Scarface" starring Al Pacino, the praise for Cooper has been nearly unanimous.
"Playing both the somber Latif and the hysterical Uday is a stunt, but it is also a tour de force," wrote the New York Times' A.O. Scott.
Cooper seems humbled by all the attention, but also refreshingly frank when talking about his chances for possible Oscar glory in early 2012. Most actors say they do not to think about awards, but Cooper said it's hard to avoid it.
"Any actor that says they don't actually, occasionally do some ridiculous speech in their head at some point in their lives -- while they are on the toilet or some other ridiculous circumstance -- would be lying," he said.
"It's part of your ambition and desire to have your work noticed, I suppose, but I don't sit mulling it over, the fact that it is even being mentioned is wonderful."
(Reporting by Christine Kearney, editing by Bob Tourtellotte)