Cooper's in top gear with white-knuckle road race
Dominic Cooper has come a long way since his breakthrough role in Mamma Mia. He's now also a petrol-head bad guy and 'spymaster'.
Dominic Cooper thinks he'd be brilliant on Top Gear. Over coffee, he confesses that he's "sure" he "can do well on that race track." It seems there is a boy-racer heart inside the man from Mamma Mia.
Which makes sense, watching his new movie. Need For Speed is a film based on the computer game of the same name. "There's always a certain amount of snobbery towards big films, and films from games," Cooper says. "And actually, the truth is, they're really good fun. Of course we love going to watch an artistic black-and-white set in Eastern Europe. I love that. But there's also a huge amount of enjoyment in seeing this action take place on a screen."
He's not wrong. On first glance, Need For Speed looks like the kind of film with a very specific target audience. "17-year-old boys?" Cooper asks with uncertainty. But I am forced to admit that Need for Speed challenged all my prejudices. There's a lot to enjoy for people who have never played the game, or who aren't particularly into cars. After 20 minutes, by the time the white-knuckle plot had set in, Michael Keaton had appeared in a compelling cameo and Imogen Poots had established herself as the sassy female lead, I was converted. When it finished, I came out on a high.
For Cooper, it appealed in part to an as yet unseen part of him. "I love cars," he says. "I think they're fun. I'm excited by the idea of it and always wanted to be a racing driver ultimately... Until you get into one and realise you are absolutely pathetic and terrified."
In Need for Speed, they've inverted the current trend for video-game-style CGI effects. "We've become so used to things of this nature being shot and CGI being used. And just not believing it ... This was actually – we were doing it. We were physically in those vehicles, doing those races."
All good training then, for appearing on Top Gear. Does he think he's a better driver now? Or was he a good one before? "I'd like to say so, but who doesn't? I used to like it when you actually had to drive, when you had to pour petrol into the carburettor to get it started in the morning. It's a bit like you're driving an electric box now."
Cooper is 35, but even sporting a full thick beard, looks boyish. He's chatty and accessible despite his high profile – something of the most charming man in the pub in evidence, despite his growing fame. This year, he's already had two big, high profile releases – the Sky series Fleming, in which he plays the creator of James Bond, and now Need for Speed, in which he plays the bad guy, Dino Brewster. It's an uncomplicated characterisation. "The guy who makes you want to back the good guy. I often asked for an opportunity to try and show him in some other light, or to at least understand why he was going to these lengths ... that were ultimately selfish and horrible ... But, no, he's just awful. What can you do? It is a video game and it needs an evil guy in it," he says.
Still, it must be quite fun to have licence to be horrible ... "Yeah. Absolutely. Licence to really, truly reveal yourself," he jokes.
Cooper grew up in Greenwich in London, and comes from staunchly middle-class roots – the son of a teacher and an auctioneer. He was never particularly academic, but went to LAMDA (London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art) and got his first break when he was cast in The History Boys at the National. When the play was made into a film, he was cast again. And soon after, found himself in Mamma Mia opposite Meryl Streep and Amanda Seyfried. He and Seyfried were an item for some time afterwards and, after they broke up, he dated Irish actress Ruth Negga for a while. But Cooper seems a long way from settling down.
He says he's never been strategic about his career or his personal life, because careful planning isn't part of his character. "I'm very envious of people who do have these amazing plans. They're just people in life aren't they? Some people have a plan in life. I have friends who knew when they were going to get engaged, when they were going to get married, when they were going to have kids. They had it all done. And they were the same kids in school who knew when they were doing their homework and ... how much time they were going to devote to each exam. I've never been that person ... Even for committing to an evening out, I love the idea of things being very spontaneous."
That said, he's experienced the frustrations of trying to just follow his heart in his career. "All I know is that this may not back up what I've actually done, but that quality breeds longevity. And actually, changing everything up, and the theatre. What you ultimately want is to still be being employed. You don't want to be a momentary thing. And what you try and steer clear of is the business side of it."
The pesky business side of things however, will intervene. And Cooper is pragmatic enough to understand this.
"You might not get a lot of smaller things that you'd like to make, that you really love reading, that you want to be at the front of, because they just can't get them made with you, because people don't know who you are, and they can't get enough investment for this thing. And that's really frustrating.
"Because you do have to do things that you perhaps wouldn't think of doing. And that's when it becomes a business ... And the competition is huge. And there's less and less being made, and there are less quality films being made. So it's a constant balancing act."
He's not precious about 'his art', can't bear "turgid actors being morose and inward. Is that fun to watch if there's not an amazing story there?" And was quite happy to submit to the demands of entertainment in his performance. When approaching Fleming, he happily played up to the glamorous and glittering tone of the show, letting creative licence determine his characterisation of the writer.
"I don't look anything like (him) ... Physically it was ridiculous. And then, not a huge amount of people know who that person is, and the drama and the way that it was written, was not a dark tale of a complex, rather nasty, guy who essentially beat up his wife. The thing that I read was much more a tale about a man desperate to be a spy who wrote these books, who wanted to be this thing, who saw himself as this person. So, in a way, you use part of truth to create another character that I thought was possibly more dynamic than a miserable old drunk."
Cooper gets this – this imperative to entertain, because it's in him too. It's apparent in his banter and his jokes and his readiness to turn everything into fun.
Need for Speed is in cinemas from March 12
Sunday Indo Living