Interview: Dominic Cooper - 'I nearly broke Ronnie Wood’s shoulder'

Even with films for Marvel Studios in the can and a possible role in a Freddie Mercury biopic, Cooper is still unsure of his choices

Dominic Cooper is talking music. Specifically the Rolling Stones, and what happened backstage after he recently saw them playing in Los Angeles. 

“I nearly broke Ronnie Wood’s shoulder,” he shudders, leaning forwards in his chair in a Soho club. Invited to the after-party, the British actor felt rather overwhelmed when he met the Stones’ 66-year-old guitarist. “I ended up doing this really over-the-top shoulder-barge that I thought Mick had done on stage.”

Fortunately, Wood’s shoulder – and Cooper’s reputation – survived. But he’d better improve his stage skills, given the recent news that the 35-year-old is currently circling the Freddie Mercury biopic, after Sacha Baron Cohen vacated the role. As well as bearing some physical resemblance to the late Queen frontman, Cooper is no slouch when it comes to music, having played a drummer in Tamara Drewe and sung Abba (opposite his now ex-girlfriend Amanda Seyfried) in the movie musical Mamma Mia!

He has also increasingly found his way into biopics of late. He played the fashion photographer Milton Greene in My Week with Marilyn, opposite Michelle Williams’ Marilyn Monroe. He was Saddam Hussein’s loose-cannon son Uday Hussein (and his decoy) in The Devil’s Double, and recently starred as A J Munnings in Summer in February, which deals with the anti-modernist painter’s early years in an artists’ colony in Edwardian-era Cornwall, long before he was elected President of the Royal Academy.

At least, in that instance, Cooper had Munnings’ work to study and a BBC-broadcast speech to hear – given when Munnings was retiring from the RA. “Listening to him …[he was] this gruff, grumpster who is so drunk,” Cooper chuckles. “It’s coherent for a bit, and then he starts pulling apart the idea of modernism. Winston Churchill is also there and he drags him into it: ‘My friend Winston here agrees with me. I spoke to him about this Piss-caso and he said he’d kick him in the shins with me!’”

Nevertheless, biopics are tough to get right, Cooper says. “It’s impossible to condense someone’s life into one film.” Even before potentially testing this theory with Freddie Mercury, he recently completed another real-life tale for television. A four-part series running on Sky Atlantic later this year, Fleming sees him play the James Bond author Ian Fleming in his pre-007 days, working for Naval Intelligence during the Second World War.

“He’s a very different guy [to Bond],” says Cooper, whose sartorial elegance today – white shirt, grey suit – Fleming would doubtless approve of. “But he did see himself as being Bond, and that’s our take on it. It’s how he would’ve liked to have seen himself. But he definitely doesn’t have the strength of character. That’s why he ended up writing the books, about the man he thought he was. He tried to be him, but he failed. He could never kill a man, so he had to back out of that.”

While earlier this year Cooper took himself out of the running to replace Matt Smith as the nation’s favourite Timelord – “I’m definitely not obsessed with Doctor Who,” he told one interviewer – he is less certain when it comes to James Bond. Would he ever consider it, post Daniel Craig? He smiles. “I don’t think you could not want to do Bond, but whether that dramatically pigeon-holes you, who knows? I think people do escape it – Pierce Brosnan has. And Daniel Craig has managed to.”

Cooper is no stranger to Hollywood, after playing the  inventor and entrepreneur Howard Stark – father to Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man – in Captain America: The First Avenger. “It was the biggest movie I’d ever done at that point,” he says. “The scale of it was mind-boggling … and you don’t know anything with those guys [at Marvel] either. Everything is so top secret.” He’s not even sure if the new scenes he  recently shot will be for the upcoming sequel, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, noting that they could end up elsewhere. (He’s already appeared briefly in Agent Carter, a spin-off short found on the Iron Man 3 Blu-ray).

Whatever happens, Cooper will most certainly star in Need for Speed, a big-screen drama about cross-country car racing, based on the  popular video game of the same name, co-starring Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul. Cooper has yet to play the game, despite what he told its makers. “I keep having to lie to the man from EA Sports!” he laughs. “I do remember it, but I stopped playing video games a while ago.” Why? “I don’t feel like I’ve gained anything from them, apart from wasting a lot of time! So I always feel regretful.”

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine him indulging in Grand Theft Auto V, when he could be reading a good book. He even tells me about his trip to Finsbury Park earlier this year to see the Stone Roses, which – even by outdoor gig standards – was a little rough. “I felt really threatened. I thought it was  really aggressive. Bottles of urine being lobbed everywhere.” It didn’t help that he didn’t really look that part. “I wasn’t appropriately dressed, in my three-piece suit and suede shoes. In fact,  I looked like a complete idiot.”

Born and raised in Greenwich, the son of a nursery school teacher and an auctioneer who divorced when Cooper was five, he says: “I had a very mixed background, surrounded by totally different types of people.” Attending the local comprehensive, he was “academically useless in school” – and it was only when a girlfriend suggested he try out for drama school that he found a direction. Accepted into the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, he graduated and headed to the National Theatre, eventually originating the role of Dakin in Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys.

Playing the role in the 2006 film version boosted Cooper’s career considerably – though even now, having just completed work on a new vampire movie, Dracula Untold, he feels uncertain. He’s not one for plotting career paths. “I feel like it’s really difficult to draw up a plan,” he says, and adds that it’s sometimes difficult to know whether to take a project or hold out for something better. “It’s hard. And it gets harder. And I’m really useless at it.” Maybe playing Freddie Mercury will change all that.

‘Summer in February’ is released  on DVD today. ‘Fleming’ will be broadcast on Sky Atlantic  later this year

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