Currently starring in the sold-out production of His Dark Materials at the National Olivier, Dominc Cooper is also set to appear in Alan Bennett's forthcoming play The History Boys. Laura North caught up with him to find out about his daemons.
Dominic Cooper has no daemon. When he walks into the interview room at the National, there’s no sign of a lemur or a monkey trailing behind him. Should there be? Apart from Cooper’s character, every person in His Dark Materials has a daemon, an animal manifestation of their soul.
Cooper plays Will, the most ‘normal’ character in a play teeming with fantastical creatures. Witches, cliffghasts, harpies and armour-clad polar bears jostle for space with daemons shaped like vultures, frogs, wildcats. The play opens in an alternate Oxford, where the lights are anabaric or naptha and the Master of the fictional Jordan College traditionally serves up opium after dinner, which “made for rich conversation.” Will is from our drearily familiar Oxford where cars race round the busy ring road and the Oxford dons rely on sherry to enhance the quality of intellectual discussion. He lives with his mum, who has suffered a mental breakdown, and spends his time cultivating an ‘average’ appearance to deflect social services. “Dom’s drawn the short straw,” said costume designer John Morrell. “He’s a boy from our world, and he’s just got to look like a regular kid in the middle of all the fantasy and quirkiness.” Dominic is quick to agree. “Eurgh, I know, I’m so unhappy with my costume. It’s so dull. Lyra has this lovely big Eskimo fur coat and I’m wearing a pasty blue Gap sweater and a horrible pair of slightly-too-short canvas chinos. I hate getting into it. I was trying make them go to Diesel. I did actually start with some quite nice clothes and John Morrell just didn’t allow that.” According to Morrell, Cooper’s sense of style was actually the problem: “Dominic is innately hip and trendy, and we’ve had to try and knock that down. He wears clothes a little bit too well, really.” Cooper dismisses the veiled compliment with a laugh. “I really don’t know what he was talking about. He must be out of touch with what hip and trendy is, because I’m certainly not it.”
Underneath the dull jumper, however, Will is extraordinary. Throughout the play, he faces a torrent of horrific incidents, which would make any adult buckle: his fingers are sliced off, his mother is stir-crazy, and his father is murdered as soon as he meets him. Yet he responds with courage, determination and resourcefulness. While on the run from accidentally killing an intruder, he finds a window into another universe and goes through it. In the same situation, Cooper reckons “I would have handed myself straight into the police after throwing someone down the stairs and killing them. I’d put my mum into a nice mental home. I wouldn’t have gone through the window – just go home, sort things out.” Will is the lynchpin of the tale, alongside Lyra, a girl from the alternate Oxford. He is the bearer of the Subtle Knife, an immensely powerful tool that can cut windows between the parallel worlds and is the key to the survival of all life. Philip Pullman equates his ability to use the knife with the ability to write, and the state of mind you need to be to reach inspiration. “You can’t strain after it. You have to be comfortable being in twilight and sinking into a trance.”
Even his exterior gets more interesting, when he ditches the “square Gap numbers”. Will keeps a fairly low profile in Part One but Cooper, instead of sitting back stage with a cup of tea and a crossword, heaves on the outfit of an armoured bear and a tartar guard. “When Nick Hytner [the director] mentioned it, I could have very easily said ‘no thanks’ but I stupidly said ‘Yeah, of course, I’d love to do it’. I’d rather be… staring at the wall. They’re real nightmare parts: the costumes are made from off-cuts of leather, so you’ve basically got a cow on your back, a bear-head on your arm and a crutch. It’s just very hot and very uncomfortable. And the tartar guard is even worse: a big heavy purple military itchy suit and big heavy boots. They’re really, really bad news. I’ve been trying to get out of them for a while.” And that’s just the costumes. Luckily, Part Two is a different story for Cooper: he only has to play Will.
Playing the character of Will presents a bigger challenge than carrying a cow on his back. Cooper is in his mid-twenties but Will is twelve years old. “We chose early on not to play them as twelve-year-olds and maybe do a twelve-year-old voice because it would be horrific child acting, you know, trying to make yourself look like a kid. There is a way you start playing kids – chewing your cuffs, picking your nose and itching your bum. But it just didn’t seem to happen, it just felt wrong.” The decision to cast adults works well: Anna Maxwell Martin, who plays Lyra, and Cooper look youthful and are immediate and instinctive, whilst having the stamina to cope with the physically and emotionally demanding parts. Hytner directed them to be “spunky with each other” and their rapport on stage is impressive. They met five years earlier at drama school but this isn’t the reason for the chemistry. “We didn’t really know each other at drama school, it was just incredibly lucky that we got on so well.” In fact, the role playing was so realistic that it spilled over into real life. “By the second week of rehearsals we were behaving like a couple of twelve-year-olds. We started to really annoy people! It just started happening, I don’t know what it was.”
His Dark Materials is popular with adults, even though it was published by Scholastic, a children’s imprint. Philip Pullman says he “found a much wider audience through it being published this way”, as parents were introduced to the books by their children. Charles Spencer, the Telegraph’s theatre reviewer, is a good example; he devoured them as ferociously as his children and feels impelled to spread the word to other grown-ups. “Whenever I see adults reading Harry Potter on the train, I feel like tapping them politely on the shoulder and saying: ‘Come on, you're old enough to graduate to Philip Pullman now.’” A graduation to Pullman introduces the reader to some sophisticated literary sources: Milton’s Paradise Lost, the works of William Blake and On The Marionette Theatre by Heinrich von Kleist. Pullman explores death and suffering, usually the reserve of ‘adult’ literature, at every turn in unflinchingly cruel detail – in the play, a witch’s fingers are snapped off one by one, the gruesome sound effect provided by popping bubble wrap. Religious groups have even warned children away, presumably because Pullman kills a “demented and powerless” God. Rupert Kaye, the head of the Association of Christian Teachers concluded "I am unequivocal; I would like to see Pullman's trilogy removed from every primary school in the land." He attacked the National’s production too: “ Teachers should steer clear.” Pullman’s response was as unequivocal as the attack. “This the National Theatre, not the National Christian Theatre.” Cooper agrees that censorship would be reprehensible, seeing as His Dark Materials encourage passion for literacy and theatre. “I think this makes theatre very accessible to kids. I would have loved to come and have seen this as a kid.” Cooper has no clear memory of any favourite books as a child. “Oh, the BFG and Little Brother. I did adore Roald Dahl, it was good, but it didn’t blow you away.” It would have been a different matter if His Dark Materials was available. “It would have made me read more having something like this.”
"I don’t know how in any way Nick dared put this on"
The popularity of the book speaks for itself: it hit number three in the BBC’s Big Read, sold over three million copies and has been translated into 36 languages. Staging it was always an ambitious project. “There was definitely a lot of pressure because of the people who love the books and feel very strongly about the characters. I don’t know how in any way Nick [Hytner] dared put this on.” Hytner himself said that it was unstageable and at some points it looked like he was going to prove himself right. The press night was postponed and the first previews cancelled; the complex set, with over 100 scene changes, was just not working in time. “It is hugely technical. On the first day of rehearsal there was a massive model box that Giles, the set designer, tried to explain to us: it just made no sense. Postponing the opening was a question of safety – it’s vital not to endanger anyone. And while you’re worried about technical stuff you’re not giving your best performance.”
One of the biggest challenges was how to bring the daemons to life. “The daemons were something that I think Nick was hugely worried about, whether they were going to work on stage.” In a production full of technical wizardry Hytner decided to stick to simple means. Puppets were designed by Michael Curry, creator of the puppets for The Lion King musical, and are manipulated by actors. Lord Asriel (Timothy Dalton) has a massive snow leopard, Mrs Coulter (Patricia Hodge) has a golden monkey. “You have to treat them as real living things and it’s difficult to do sometimes when you’re staring at a piece of gauze. It’s against all the training you do at drama school when you look into someone’s eyes and really connect with them.” Will, who has been the odd one out all the way through the play, eventually gets his own daemon and it turns out to be a cat. “I totally understand. I feel Will’s daemon would definitely be a cat.” Why? “God, I’m a bit stuck on this one.” Cooper, however, is sure that he would have the same daemon as Will. “I feel if I had one – ha, when I’ve played this game – mine’s a cat. Definitely… I suppose…because …they’re friendly but they’re very self orientated – they don’t actually need anyone at all, but they like people when they want to. No, that makes me sound awful. I completely didn’t say any of that. Because they’re, erm…furry. I like cats. I think cats are just sort of independent and…no idea, no idea.”
“They loved it in Bath. They were obviously just dying for a bit of gay orgy.”
It’s interesting that Cooper chooses the same daemon as Will because Hytner decided early on, during workshops, that Cooper was perfect for the part. It can’t have been based on his last performance for Hytner – that was in the controversial Mother Clap’s Molly House by Mark Ravenhill. The progression from a male prostitute in a gay orgy to a twelve-year-old isn’t exactly logical. Cooper claimed in an earlier interview, “It’s quite a nice feeling getting your bits out on stage and running around” and I wondered if this was true… “There’s some even worse quotes than that! There was something quite liberating about it. Well, it was bloody terrifying really. Fresh out of drama school and wanting any job you could get your hands on. But it was thrilling swearing your guts out with your bits hanging out and being taken from behind on a sofa. And to do it here was quite exciting, in front of the average National audience, in front of eight rows of blue rinses.” As well as being scary for him (and quite probably for the rows of blue rinses) it was a real risk for Nick Hytner. “It was so dangerous of him to do that show. And it could have gone disastrously wrong. It was very good that people tended to quite like it. They loved it in Bath, believe it or not. Don’t know why. They were obviously just dying for a bit of gay orgy.”
This ‘getting his kit off’ thing seems to be a bit of a habit. He’s firmly zipped up for His Dark Materials “but I’m naked most Sunday nights on BBC1 anyway so that’s fine.” He’s referring to playing “a thick farm hand, the love interest of the farmer’s daughter” in Down To Earth, which stars Ricky Tomlinson and attracts eight million viewers. “I have my top off every week and just get covered in water. That’s all I do, that’s my character.” It’s a bit like a West Country Mr Darcy, although the water incidents are less romantic than plunging into a lake. “One week the spring water unit that I was trying to fix spurted loads of water over me. Then last week, while I was hosing the artichokes, the girls threw a bucket of water over me.”
Perhaps all this water activity will please his female fans. He has been voted as one of the sexiest men of 2004 in a woman’s magazine, even though it’s only early March. If Cooper was unsure about the “hip and trendy” tag, he’s even more unsure about this. “I don’t know what’s that about. And the picture they’ve used is certainly not one of Britain’s sexiest men by any stretch of the imagination. It looks like I haven’t slept for six months. I don’t know who the others are, but get some people to ring up and vote if you can.”