Read our exclusive interview with British actor Mem Ferda, who portrays Kamel Hannah in the new biographical drama ‘The Devil’s Double,’ which is now playing in a limited theatrical release. The film follows Latif Yahia, played by Dominic Cooper, an Iraqi who’s forced to become a body double for Saddam Hussein’s oldest son Uday. Latif searches for a way to escape the new dangerous lifestyle he’s been forced into, after he discovers how sadistic and power-hungry Uday really is. Ferda discusses with us, among other things, what attracted him to the role of Kamel, and how he prepared for the movie.
Shockya (SY): You portray Kamel Hannah, Saddam Hussein’s body guard and food taster, in ‘The Devil’s Double.’ What attracted you to the role?
Mem Ferda (MF): What attracted me to the role was the actual story of Latif Yahia. He’s written three books, one’s called I Was Saddam’s Son. The other one was The Devil’s Double, and the sequel to that is The Black Hole. I read all three, and I really liked the actual story. I thought it was really well told. When the opportunity came up, the screenplay was sent to my agent. The actual role of Kamel Hannah, in the book The Devil’s Double, there’s a whole chapter dedicated to his death, because he was such an important person to Saddam Hussein. He was his body guard and his food taster. He was also his confidante, he would rely on him and ask him for advice about things. The actual death of him, where he gets attacked by Uday, in reality, in the real story, it was an electric kitchen knife that he used. It was very, very gory and frightening. In the film, we didn’t actually use an electric kitchen knife, we used a machete. But it was frightening. I wanted to do the role because I liked the idea of playing Kamel Hannah. Also, Lee Tamahori was directing. I was a fan of his film ‘Once Were Warriors.’ He also directed the Bond movie, ‘Die Another Day.’
SY: Did you have any reservations about playing Kamel in the film?
MF: Well, not really. I know Latif Yahia personally, and he always speaks about Kamel Hannah in a very good light. He was a good friend of his. Physically, I was not right for the role. Kamel Hannah was very tiny, a very small person with a high-pitched voice. (laughs) Very much unlike me, a big guy. But I had no reservations about playing the role.
SY: How much did you know about Kamel before you began filming the movie, and how much research did you do into his life before the shoot?
MF: Yeah, the research I did, I read the books that he (Yahia) wrote, and I read the screenplay. When I read the screenplay, I thought it would be a very interesting role to do. It was a challenge, really. I had to have a prosthetic stomach made up, with all the internal organs. I was carrying this big, heavy thing on my body, and basically they shipped you overseas. They took a body cast of my body, and they made three bellies, which they put in an iron chest. We had problems going through customs. We flew over with the special effects team with the bellies. They (custom workers) came up to us, asking what was in the bellies. They wanted to open them, but they couldn’t do that because there’s internal organs in there. But I knew it would be challenging psychically, doing that death scene. But I wanted to challenge myself, both psychically and mentally.
SY: Dominic Cooper played Uday in the film. What was your working relationship like with him?
MF: It was fine. Dominic actually graduated from LAMDA (the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art) as well. We went to the same drama school. He finished his three-year course degree in 2000, I believe. I was doing my post-graduate degree in acting there. So we kind of crossed paths there. There was another film that I could have possibly worked with him on, ‘Momma Mia.’ I got the audition and the role, but I couldn’t do it because I had a commitment. I met him, and he was a great guy to work with, friendly. We practiced out the scene, which reassured me that we’d be fine. We did a couple of takes.
SY: What was the process like getting into the mindset of Kamel? Do you take a different approach to preparing for a role that’s based on a real person?
MF: Not really. When you’re playing a real person like Kamel Hannah, who’s deceased, you can’t talk to him or anything like that. It’s different than playing someone who’s available in real life who’s around. You can visit them, you can chat with them, you can learn a lot more about them-their mannerisms, the way they moved, the way they behaved and talked. You can try to adopt that physicality to your character when you do it. It’s very difficult when someone’s not in life anymore or is a fictional character. You have to use your imagination quite a lot. Basically all you’ve got to work with is the text and what’s being written about him. But the process of getting into the actual mindset of the character is the same, whether it’s a fictional character or a real person. It’s the same process, a lot of thinking about this guy’s motivations and how people may have perceived him, what comments other people have made about him. You leave the audition and get a feel for the guy. You look at what kind of commonalities you have, how you are as a person and then you see how you perceive that character, how he would be. You kind of reach a medium for the two. You bring what you have as a quality, or even as a flaw, and you kind of match the two together.
SY: You appeared as a Ukrainian arms dealer in a television movie about Saddam, called ‘Saddam’s Tribe,’ in 2007. Did that role influence your decision to appear in ‘The Devil’s Double?’
MF: In a way it did, yeah. Saddam was in the news, and the war, it’s a very topical subject. As far as the character’s concerned, the Ukrainian arms dealer, it’s very different. In ‘The Devil’s Double,’ I play an Iraqi, so it’s the other side of the fence. But yeah, it must have had some kind of influence, psychologically, for me wanting to do ‘The Devil’s Double.’
SY: You’re primarily known for playing villains. What is it about playing the bad guy that you find so appealing?
MF: It’s fun. (laughs) I find it great. I grew up doing some bad things in my life. You remember these characters, they stay in your mind. You try to think what their psychology was like for doing the things that they do, or behaving the way that they do. I feel it’s quite therapeutic at times, to let out a lot of aggression. But while you’re doing it, it’s quite taxing on you. It’s tiring, and takes a lot of commitment. Sometimes you can get into a frame of mind where you come off the set, but you’re still pretty much in character. I do a lot of method acting, and I find that when I come away from having performed, I do need some time to calm down a bit, to readjust myself, and then come home and see the wife and be pleasant. But it’s good, I don’t have nightmares about playing villains.
SY: You have a degree in psychology from the University of London. Do you bring your background and knowledge in psychology to help you prepare for roles?
MF: Yeah, probably. Consciously, not so much, but subconsciously, yeah. I know a lot about finding the psyche of the character, what motivates them, why they do the things that they do. Yeah, I think a lot of my psychology knowledge has helped in that, with certain traits they might have, personality traits that they might have.
SY: As you said before, you also graduated from one of the most renowned drama schools in the world, LAMDA. How did studying there help influence your acting?
MF: It helped a lot really, because I started off modeling, and then that kind of led to doing commercials, and that progressed into doing films and stuff. A lot of my training at LAMDA was what opened a lot of doors for me. I had already done a lot of TV work. At LAMDA, I was actually doing Shakespeare. I’m classically trained in Shakespeare and theater, and so forth. I was always told I looked good on camera, that I had a certain look that they liked, so I felt film is where I really want to be. But the training at the Academy did help my acting tremendously, because you pay attention to things like breathing, controlling your breathing while working. You don’t get tense. You can’t act if you’re not relaxed. I learned how to breathe properly and relax properly, stretch your body before you perform and stuff like that. It’s called the Alexander technique, which they teach there at the school, which was very useful to making my acting better. I don’t get so nervous. It also teaches things like sensory perception. You do object exercises where you take an object that’s relevant to your character, like a lighter, and you start to use the objects around you to bring out the character. The training there is amazing and fantastic, and I think it helped tremendously with my acting.
SY: As you said, you have also starred on television shows and in theater productions. Do you have a preference for one medium?
MF: I do really, I prefer film, only because I find stage work and theater hard work. I find it underpaid as well. I think for the amount of work that you do in theater, it’s not rewarding financially as much as film is. Both of them have their good points and their bad. One thing that I do love about theater is that you get feedback from the audience straight away. Performing in front of an audience, they respond to you, and it’s a fantastic dynamic. You don’t get that in film; in film you’re talking to a camera, you’re talking to another actor. You’re not actually getting feedback to how good you’re doing. They’re two different mediums. Also with theater, your body moves differently. You’re a lot more expressive, and you do a lot more voice projection. You speak louder, so people can hear you in the back of the auditorium. They do require different qualities. Film is focused very closely, so even the slightest eye movements can look huge on screen, so you tone down your performance more. But they both have their good points and their bad. But for me, for financial reasons, I prefer to work in films, because the money’s better. But I feel that real acting, that true acting is on the stage, doing Shakespeare. But I’ve kind of made a name for myself in film, and I’m staying there. But I would like to make a return back to stage.
Written by: Karen Benardello