Sacha Baron Cohen has brought so many outlandish characters to life in envelope-pushing projects such as “Da Ali G Show” and “Who Is America?” that it’s easy to forget he has a serious side. He gets to show that part of himself in the Netflix series “The Spy,” based on the life of Israeli spy Eli Cohen, which began streaming Friday.
The Mossad agent worked undercover from 1961 to 1965 in Syria, where he developed close relationships with the political and military hierarchy, becoming the chief adviser to the minister of defense. He became so driven by the need to help his country there became a point where he lost control of his double identity.
Baron Cohen found taking on the role to be daunting.
“There is a family — his wife and his children — who survived him, and you want to create a good bit of drama, but you also want to do something that’s respectful to their relative’s memory,” he said. “I wanted to understand this man who was ready to sacrifice his life because of a belief. I was drawn to the concept of a deputy accountant in a supermarket who ends up going undercover as a multimillionaire businessman.
“The story is so incredible, it’s almost unbelievable.”
The intelligence Eli Cohen gathered before his arrest and execution in 1965 was a key to Israel’s success in the Six-Day War in 1967.
Baron Cohen, who was born in west London to Jewish parents, was aware of the story long before he was offered the role because of a book his father purchased years ago. He had been offered the opportunity to play Cohen in the past, but those projects were feature films. He found the story so complex that the story could be played out properly only through multiple episodes.
One reason the actor became so intrigued with playing Cohen was the element of how a fairly normal person could become one of the most successful spies of the 20th century. He wanted to know what it was about Cohen that made powerful people trust him.
What Baron Cohen finally decided was that Cohen was one of the greatest method actors to have ever lived. He points to the extreme difference between Cohen’s real life as a simple family man and his persona as a highly educated man of the world.
“He must have had an ability to charm and win people’s trust,” Baron Cohen said. “I know from having a career where I go undercover — where I only spend a maximum of seven to 10 hours in the company of someone — that if you have any kinks in your armor or any tells, then someone realizes who you pretend to be. Eli had to keep this character going for years without ever having any tells.”
Baron Cohen found Cohen to be a deeply emotional person with family ties, and he’s certain those aspects will make it easier for the audience to connect with him.
The actor is banking on the audience remembering his work in serious projects such as “Les Misérables” and “Hugo” but recognizes there’s a real possibility some are going to think this is another comedy.
He had several conversations with Emmy-winner Gideon Raff (“Homeland”), who wrote and directed “The Spy,” in regards to how his past roles would affect taking on a deadly serious project.
Raff had always thought of Baron Cohen for the role but became convinced when they met to talk. “The minute he started talking about these two characters in one and how he connected to the script, I knew there was no one else to play the role,” he said.
When/where: Now streaming on Netflix.