It’s easier to imagine the British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, best known as bombastic cringe humor icons like Ali G and Borat Sagdiyev, playing a subtle dramatic role once you know that the character in question, in the Netflix mini-series “The Spy,” is also an undercover performer.
The Israeli producer Gideon Raff (“Homeland”) created the nervy six-episode thriller, which debuted Friday. Baron Cohen plays Eli Cohen (no relation), the real-life Israeli spy who worked for the Mossad in the early 1960s, gathering information about Syria’s military plans while posing as Kamel Amin Thaabet, a patriotic Syrian shipping magnate. Like Baron Cohen, the creator of ambush comedies like “Da Ali G Show,” “Borat” and “Bruno,” Eli Cohen got results by going deep into character.
“I saw Eli Cohen, as he was written in the show, as an extreme version of myself,” Baron Cohen said recently. “The stakes were higher for him, because the price of failure is imprisonment and execution. Eli Cohen was, in that sense, the greatest method actor of the last century.”
In a phone interview, Baron Cohen also talked about singing in musicals, starting riots, doing his own stunts and being typecast as “a Jewish actor,” even after creating one of the most openly anti-Semitic characters in Hollywood history. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Cohen and Thaabet are both motivated by love for their respective countries. How did you get into a patriotic head space?
I try to see the world through the characters’ eyes. Cohen joined the Mossad 15 years after all Jewry became aware of the horrors of Auschwitz, and that two out of three Jews in Europe had been slaughtered. That was fresh in the minds of anyone who joined the Mossad, because they were risking their lives for their families.
So to understand Eli Cohen’s motivation, I learned more about Israeli history at that time, and why the Mossad treated the Syrians like an existential threat: The Mossad thought that if they didn’t get a spy embedded in Damascus, Israel would be destroyed. There are many military historians who believe that the intelligence that Eli Cohen gathered while in Syria actually won the Six-Day War for Israel.
After “Borat,” you were ironically offered several roles as Jewish characters. What was that like?
There were two Jewish characters that I was developing for film roles with Steven Spielberg, including [the Yippie activist] Abbie Hoffman, who I am still playing in a film that Aaron Sorkin is going to direct. But yes, I used to be reluctant to play anyone Jewish, because I didn’t want to be typecast as the Jewish actor. There are other Jews in Hollywood besides me. But somehow, people thought of me as “a Jewish actor” even after I played Borat, the most outwardly anti-Semitic character probably since Leni Riefenstahl directed movies.
I had also been offered different versions of the Eli Cohen story, but they didn’t happen for various reasons. Finally, a number of years ago, I read Gideon’s script, and I couldn’t put it down. So I gave up this position of avoiding Jewish or Israeli roles.
In “The Spy,” Cohen eventually realizes that he’s behaving like Thaabet, even when he’s not trying to be in character. You’re known for going deep into character for your comedies. Does it take time to leave those personas behind?
There’s a cage fight scene at the end of “Bruno.” I’d been debriefed by my lawyer about a number of legal requirements, for fear of me getting arrested. One of those requirements was that I could not incite a riot or any violence because I was crossing a state line, so inciting a riot would be a federal offense. Unfortunately, in the middle of this scene, I got carried away and challenged any willing audience member to a fight, which is exactly what the lawyer asked me not to do. This was an audience of 10,000 rednecks, some of whom had just left jail on parole, and had swastikas tattooed on their heads. Somebody rather large in the audience ran up, jumped into the cage with me, and proceeded to attack me.
Making that challenge was an idiotic thing for me to do, but in that moment, the character was responding, not me. In other words: I acted like an idiot.
Why do you go — and stay — so far within characters like Bruno and Borat?
Because if somebody sees through the character, either the scene ends or the police are called. It can, very occasionally, turn violent. So I learned that I could never drop character. When I was playing Ali G, I remained Ali G. That was the result of a steep learning curve: One day, an interviewee walked in on me while I was out of character, and he complained to [Channel 4’s executives].
So when I’m in a scene as Eli Cohen, I am pretending like a kid would be, reacting to things that I’m hearing as if I’m Eli Cohen.
There are scenes in “The Spy” where it looks like you, not a stunt double, are the one scaling buildings and sneaking across slanted rooftops.
That was me!
Does doing your own stunts help you to stay in character?
It’s pure ego, really. I did prepare for the role though, because I was completely out of shape, and Gideon wanted me to do, among other things, a couple of sex scenes. And I said, “Listen, in my experience, when the audience sees me having sex in a scene, they’re in hysterical laughter. So unless you want ‘The Spy’ to be a comedy, I would skip it.” And he said, “No, I want you to do things you haven’t done before.”
I had to go through a pretty rigorous physical training with a Moroccan colonel to get in shape for the role in about four weeks. Part of my training was learning a form of [the Israeli martial art] Krav Maga that members of the Mossad would have known in the ’60s. And unfortunately, they cut out all those scenes from the show!
I read that when you were a prep school student in Britain, you felt that acting or performing as a comedian was an embarrassing career choice. Is that true?
Yes. It was embarrassing to admit to other people that I wanted to be a comedian, because I was essentially telling people that I thought I was funny. That’s as embarrassing as someone saying, “I want to be a model.” You risk people saying “You’re far too ugly to become a model.”
So I really kept my ambition to perform hidden, though I ended up going to Cambridge in order to join the Cambridge Footlights drama club. I was denied entry for three years, but joined up in year four. I did a number of dramatic productions — “Cyrano de Bergerac,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Tamburlaine the Great” — so I had to learn how to act. That ended up being useful later in my career.
But the idea of making a living from acting or being a comic was absurd. When I was growing up, nobody knew anyone who was an actor! So the idea of being successful in Hollywood was ludicrous. At that point, no British comedian had a strong presence [in America] since Monty Python, so there was this prevailing assumption that British comedy would never travel across the Atlantic. That’s obviously a patronizing viewpoint, but it informed many early reviews of my work.
When “Da Ali G Show” came out, there were newspaper billboards around London saying “‘Ali G Show’ bombs in America.” The show had received a number of Emmy nominations, but some British journalists didn’t believe that Americans would understand what they saw as British humor. So yes, the idea that I, a teenager in Northwest London, could become a comedian and that would be my job was ludicrous.
But you have been an outrageous success, in every sense of the word. How did your family react to some of your more outlandish work?
I only realized that my grandmother was going to the “Bruno” premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater hours before the screening. I realized that there were scenes in the film that were too extreme for my grandmother, so I called up [the distributors at Universal Pictures] and said: “Listen, you have to remove these three scenes from the movie.”
The distributors freaked out and asked me: “What do you mean? We’re screening it tonight! The premiere’s tonight!”
And I said, “You have to do it, my grandma’s watching the movie!”
I bumped into one of the distributors a few years later. He said that the last 12 hours before the “Bruno” premiere were the worst of his life, because he had to go into the projection booth and cut out anything my grandmother would have found offensive.
Also: I only heard that Michael Jackson had died as we were driving to the screening. I thought to myself “Thank god we don’t have any jokes about Michael Jackson.” And then we realized that there actually is a Michael Jackson joke in the film.
So we sent one of the editors into the projection booth and he cut out the scene with scissors, and somehow managed to glue the print back together before the premiere. That was back in the days of celluloid; fortunately, it’s more digital now.
You mentioned some of your university musicals and you’ve starred in musical films like “Les Misérables” and “Sweeney Todd.” Would you ever want to perform in a stage musical now?
Yes, I love doing musicals. I even snuck in some musical numbers into the early “Ali G Show.” Musicals are my embarrassing passion; they give me joy.
(The New York Times)