I recently got the chance to talk to Khalid Laith about his role in ‘The Devil’s Double’. Here, Khalid talks about how he got involved in the project, and how he got into acting in the first place…
Hey Khalid. Thanks for taking the time out to talk to me about your new film, ‘The Devil’s Double‘.
What’s the general plotline surrounding the film? I hear it’s based on a true story?
The film tells the story of Latif Yahia, an Iraqi man who is enlisted to become Uday Hussein’s “fidday” or body double. Uday was the psychopathic son in the Hussein family, famous for his unabashed excess and gruesome violence of every sort. Latif, threatened by the death of his family, has no choice but to accept the appointment as Uday’s “brother”, and is slowly groomed into becoming the perfect Uday impersonator. It’s a struggle for the good man to contend with doing the bad job he is forced to do, and things get worse when he falls in love with one of Uday’s concubines, a definite no-no amongst the psychopath’s entourage. The script was written by Michael Thomas, and is based on the books ‘I Was Saddam’s Son’ and ‘The Devil’s Double’ by Latif Yahia. The film does take some dramatic license along the way, but I don’t think we were trying to make a historically accurate documentary. The film is essentially a gangster movie set amidst the Hussein family in the Iraq of late 80’s and early 90’s. As to whether Latif Yahia’s account of his story is true, that is something only Latif can answer. For myself, as an Arab who grew up in the Gulf, the special brutality of the Hussein family was definitely in people’s consciousness. The stories we heard of what Uday did were the stuff of nightmares.
In your opinion – is this film aimed at shocking people or educating them to a degree?
The film does shock. It has to! I somehow think the film isn’t shocking enough to do justice to Latif’s books and the fear that people lived under, but that probably has more to do with censorship issues than anything else. I read ‘I Am Saddam’s Son’ before we started shooting. I remember having to put the book down and stop reading a couple of times. Latif’s description of the numerous home-made torture films he was made to watch as part of his transformation into Uday are especially harrowing. I think the aim of the film is to show the decaying opulence in which this group of people lived. It aims to show the monstrousness of Uday especially. That’s something Lee Tamahori talked about a great deal, the psychopathic nature of sons of dictators across history. Some might be educated to something they hadn’t known or thought of while watching the film, but it is important to note that this is not a political film, at least I don’t think we tried to make it that.
Tell us a bit about your character in the movie…
I play the part of Yassem El-Helou, one of the men in Uday’s strange inner circle of confidence. Yassem is basically Uday’s advisor on fashion issues (and sometimes pimp). Working for Uday comes with it’s luxuries, something that Yassem enjoys, but as with everyone working in the household, the job begins to wear them down. It’s the realisation that they are ultimately expendable which bursts that bubble. We don’t see this in the film, but when it was deemed that Yassem had outstayed his welcome or perhaps knew too much, Uday had him killed and his body dumped in the desert.
How did you get involved in the project in the first place?
I think casting for this film was quite a struggle as most “name” actors would shy away from playing such a dislikable character as Uday Hussein. I believe they even looked into finding a genuine Iraqi actor to play the role at some point. It was obvious with a project like this that the actor playing Uday, and consequently Latif, would be the most important piece of the puzzle. For myself, I remember going for a casting sometime in 2009. I’d been asked to prepare the role of one of the hard-men in Uday’s entourage, but when I read the script, the Yassem character stood out to me. As an actor of Arabic origins, one is constantly asked to play terrorists and the like – which is understandable as the subject matter has been topical ever since 9/11, but with Yassem I saw something far more interesting to play. There was an apparent materialism to him and a sexual ambiguity there. I thought it would be fun to play that sort of Iraqi character for a change. It took a long time between the initial casting and the news that I had got the job. The main concern was who to cast as Uday/Laitf. I’m glad Dominic agreed to do it. Once he was confirmed, everything else fell into place.
The film stars the likes of Dominic Cooper, Ludivine Sagnier, Raad Rawi and Mem Ferda – and has Lee Tamahori onboard as director – what was it like working with the cast and crew? I’ve watched the trailer and Dominic Cooper – wow.
It was a real honour to work with Lee Tamahori, ‘Once Were Warriors’ is an amazing film. He’s a very energetic man for his age, always keeping his hands busy on set and very involved with his actors while filming. The cast was great too. We were always out to dinner as a group. The food in Malta was very good. I had worked with Mem and Raad on previous projects, and we’ve maintained a friendship over the years. Ludivine is simply adorable, she carries herself with such grace at all times, and has brilliant taste in music. It’s hard not to be taken with her French charm. I have to say Dominic is simply outstanding in the film. It was fascinating to see him play both parts. Doing a scene from one end, then changing into the other character to play the reactions – it was almost schizophrenic. He just thrust himself into the experience without questioning. That requires a fearlessness which not many actors can muster.
Let’s talk a bit about you Khalid. What made you want to get into acting in the first place?
Growing up in the Gulf, the possibility of being an actor was very slim. I’m originally from Bahrain, where we did have a small yet thriving theatre scene, even a small film and television industry, but it was on my trips to London that I fell in love with the theatre. My family on my father’s side live in England and we’ve always had a second home in London. It was during those visits that I immersed myself in the theatre and had decided I wanted to become an actor. Breaking the news to my businessman father wasn’t easy. In fact I think almost everyone in my family tried to deter me from following the path of an actor, mostly in the name of stability. I was ultimately too stubborn to concede and after spending a few years in the United States, I decided to come to London and attend the Central School of Speech and Drama, and I haven’t looked back since. I often wonder why I decided to become an actor rather than a director – (something I hope to do in the future) – or even another type of creative in the industry. I think being an actor requires a comfort, or perhaps a need, to live in the imagination. On a personal level, there is an interesting exploration of oneself through living in another person’s skin. I hate to say “acting as therapy” but there is an element of that. More importantly it’s the connection one makes with individuals, with other actors on a smaller scale, and with the audience in the wider sense. It’s a wonderful thing to move people with the stories we tell, and to be moved by theirs.
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to get into the industry?
Every actor has a list of advice and experiences he’s been through. I’ve heard a lot of great advice from other actors, but we are all ultimately different and that’s what makes us an interesting bunch. The best advice I can give is to: just do, embrace fear, and forge your own path. There is no set way of doing this job. There are methods and techniques of course, which are very useful when applying your craft, but the best advice is to do it your own way. That’s what makes you stand out.
You’ve had numerous roles in different films and TV projects – who has been your favourite actor to work with and who has given you the best advice?
I’ve been lucky enough have productive and often illuminating working relationships with other actors. You learn a great deal by just watching other actors. Hmm…I wouldn’t like to pick any favourites, I don’t think my brain works in those terms. As I mentioned before, I have a slight aversion to listening to too much advice, but I think Dominic Cooper said a brilliant thing to me which I have started applying to my own work. He said, “Do the thing you fear”. As actors, we are often cautious with our performances, not wanting to do too much, or overact, or fuck it up! I believe those who excel do so because they overcome that fear. Come to think of it, it’s something I’ve heard and read many interesting actors say. They take on the jobs they don’t necessarily know how to or think they can do, challenging themselves in the process. I think true and meaningful art, whatever it’s form, comes from that tipping point between genius and failure, the vulnerability has to be real. It’s quite a responsibility when you think of it that way. I was also given wise words by Kevin Spacey recently, as we sat in Berlin Airport during a 6 hour delay because of a bomb scare. We were talking about how critical actors can be of their own performances when seeing themselves on film, and he pointed out that actors only see what they do not play. In other words, the artist only sees his failures, even when faced with his successes. Understanding that, I don’t cringe as much when I see myself on-screen now.
If you could have a dinner with three historical guests, alive or dead – who would they be and why?
Ani Difranco would be top of my list. She’s an American folk singer I’ve been a fan of for years. Simply put, she’s an amazing guitarist, and a fervent political voice that speaks clearly and eloquently about the state of the modern world. And hey, it’s always good to have a musician at a dinner party. As a counterpoint, and since we’re discussing ‘The Devil’s Double’, I was going to say Uday Hussein, just to see what he was really like, but I fear the dinner party might end in a bloodbath. So I opt for his brother, Qusay. Not much is known about Qusay personally or politically, he was the quiet one in the family. It would be interesting to see how a mind like that works. The American linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky would be my third guest. Only because I think he would make start quite challenging conversations with everyone else.
What has been the most interesting piece of local / national news you’ve heard in the last month?
The news event that has effected me the most has to be the August riots in the UK. I think every Londoner was angered, dismayed, and heartbroken by what they witnessed on their television screens and on their streets. I don’t want to go into a deep discussion about the subject, because many far more qualified individuals have already spoke about the issue with much more eloquence and insight than I could offer. I did however find it incredibly laughable when Iran chipped in with words of advice, calling for the British government to use “restraint” when dealing with the rioters, or “protesters” as they had worded it. Such obvious hypocrisy is completely mind-blowing!
What’s coming up for you in 2011?
Well, ‘The Devil’s Double’ has just been released as you know. It will be interesting to see what people think of it, especially in the Arab world. Earlier this year, I finished filming the lead male role in a supernatural horror set in Dubai, Djinn. The film was directed by Tobe Hooper, of ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ and ‘Poltergeist’ fame. I’m hoping the film will be released at the end of this year, maybe at The Dubai Film Festival in December. We have a couple of days of ADR on it next month, so it’s in the final stages of post-production. There are a couple of other projects in the pipeline, but I can’t really speak about them until they’re confirmed. I also translate plays from Arabic to English, and have been involved with the Royal Court Theatre International Residency this year, and the Middle Eastern Rough Cuts this month. As a personal project, I’m in the first stages of writing a play which centres around the recent unrest witnessed in Bahrain earlier this year.
Thanks for the interview!