As AMC's Preacher heads towards its season conclusion, we look back at our cover feature with the holy man himself, Dominic Cooper, and talk about his time playing John Wilmot the dissolute, the self-destructive 2nd Earl of Rochester (and the most renowned fornicator of his time), in the Stephen Jeffreys stage play The Libertine
It’s been twelve years since Dominic Cooper’s star-making turn on the London stage in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys. Since then, his career has catapulted him through time and space, from crowd-pleasing comedies to historical costume pieces to gripping contemporary thrillers. And now, treading the boards again as Restoration England’s greatest rake, he’s come back to his roots.
Dominic Cooper’s head is in a whirl. He’s back on stage for the first time in seven years in The Libertine, the Stephen Jeffreys play which centres on John Wilmot the dissolute, self-destructive 2nd Earl of Rochester, a 17th-century man of letters (and the most renowned fornicator of his time). Unsurprisingly, he’s feeling a little wrung out. But the role taps into a quality that’s long been apparent in Cooper, ever since his early triumph as serial seducer Dakin in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, back in 2004; the fact that behind the leading-man looks lies a sense of puckish mischief — and the whiff of something a little more dangerous.
The son of an auctioneer and nursery school teacher, Cooper was born in Greenwich and trained at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. The History Boys catapulted him to fame, alongside fellow cast members like Russell Tovey and James Corden (Cooper and Corden were once flatmates and remain great friends; Cooper is godfather to Corden’s son Max). His CV since has been decidedly mixed, from movies like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Mamma Mia!, My Week with Marilyn and Warcraft, to his meaty turn as Ian Fleming in The Man Who Would Be Bond, to starring alongside Ruth Negga in AMC’s Preacher — a surreal, violent series based on the comic book franchise in which he encounters angels and demons (of both the internal and external varieties). Backstage at Bath’s Theatre Royal, he talks about the buzz of live performance, the wild ride of Preacher, the heady rush of The History Boys, and the joy of revels — both of the carousing and chocolatey kind…
STUART HUSBAND Is it true that it was your idea to do The Libertine?
DOMINIC COOPER Yes. I only have myself to blame. A few people suggested I play it a while ago — and I looked at it and thought it was an incredible part and a great play.
SH He’s an alcoholic, a syphilitic, a champion fornicator, a great misanthrope. And people thought this would be a perfect fit for you?
DC Yes, that was a bit of a worry, on reflection. Not too much of a stretch for me! I hadn’t done a play for a long time, and I told my agent I’d be interested in doing in The Libertine if it ever came up. [And] she’d actually just put the phone down on the producers, who had rung her for casting suggestions for this very production. It seemed like fate was intervening. It’s a decade since I first came across the play — and now, at 38, I think I’m the perfect age for it. Some experience has piled up, some of the youthful shine has worn away. And I’m much more of a twisted, embittered old ruin.
SH And it’s a marathon role.
DC I’m so glad you say that, because that’s exactly what it feels like. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever done before. I need Mo Farah’s training regime to get through it.
SH Rochester’s been described as a ‘punk in a frock coat’. is there a temptation to go large, and play him like Lord Flashheart in Blackadder?
DC There is, but that wouldn’t quite work. Even though he’s obviously a big personality, you want to make him real. He’s also extraordinarily unlikeable — so you’re also trying to find ways to add the charm and charisma so he isn’t completely off-putting to people. He has a wonderful opening speech, so you’re enamoured of him at the beginning, and you’re trying to get the audience on-side, so his terrible behaviour can be indulged, if not forgiven.
He was a sad man; he never lived up to his own expectations, and became very embittered. I often think that people with as much talent as he had, as a writer and a poet, can be inhibited by it. If he’d attempted to write something profound, rather than a silly song about dildos — which we have in the show, by the way — he’d really have exposed himself. And I think he was terrified of being found wanting. He was also so ahead of his time. It must have been so infuriating for him, because he lived in a kind of bubble where no-one could match him for wit or intellectual fizz.
SH Do you think the piece has special resonance for our own time, in the age of sexting and revenge porn?
DC I don’t even know what revenge porn is.
SH It’s when we upload images of people in flagrante, without their consent.
DC The truth is, sex and blackmail and revenge have always been around. Sexual intercourse didn’t begin in 1963, after all. They were out of control during the Restoration, the whole time. A great time to live? Well, you had the appalling diseases to contend with, which slightly put a dampener on things. Ultimately, life back then was quite rancid. So I think I’ll go with the age of anti-bacterial wipes, thanks.
(This original article continues in our Issue Eight)