Sacha Baron Cohen is more than just funny
The English actor switches it up as Mossad agent Eli Cohen in Netflix's The Spy
In a dramatic departure from Ali G, Borat and Bruno, Sacha Baron Cohen switches to an intense role for the new Netflix miniseries The Spy, where he plays the title role of a Mossad agent.
At our interview at the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills, he said he was familiar with the story of Eli Cohen (no relation to Baron Cohen), the most famous spy in Israeli history.
The 47-year-old English actor and comedian said: "When I was growing up, my dad told me about this story and he had a book on the bookshelf, Our Man In Damascus, which was the Eli Cohen story. And then when my dad passed away a few years ago, this project came up."
In The Spy, which premieres on Friday, Cohen is a supermarket accountant before being recruited by the Mossad, after which he is given a whole new identity in order to embed himself into Syrian high society.He rises through the ranks of their politics - till he is discovered by the Syrian regime, sentenced to death and publicly hanged in Damascus.
His actions, including becoming friends with the future President of Syria Amin al-Hafiz, has had lasting consequences in the Middle East of today.
The Ba'ath Party, which al-Hafiz headed, still remains in power in Syria, but also gained power in Iraq where Saddam Hussein was its leader.
That such an Everyman could go on to play a pivotal role in political events appealed to Baron Cohen.
He said: "What was it about this guy, who was apparently quite quiet and straight and was not exuberant, who then becomes this gregarious guy who's throwing orgies in Damascus and becomes so much part of the Ba'ath regime that supposedly he was offered to become deputy defence minister? That's kind of a superhero story. This is a guy who ends up saving his country, and so that human story is really interesting to me."
But according to him, Cohen was not like movie spies.
"James Bond and Jason Bourne, they get women, have sex with them, get rid of them the next day. They are these womanisers without any empathy for anyone they meet, which allows them to shoot people and dispose of them.
"(But Cohen) is a guy who is deeply human, and that's what makes his job so much harder. He's somebody who's deeply empathetic, and that is what makes him really good as a spy. That his love and his friendships actually ended up becoming real, it became really hard for him to turn in some of these people who he'd lived with for years and the fiction became reality."
After confessing that he usually deals with down times in his life by laughing them off, Baron Cohen - who has three children with his Australian wife, actress Isla Fisher - talks about an incident that happened during shooting which surprised him.
"There's one scene where Eli is forced to shoot a civilian with a gun to prove that he is a Syrian guy. And when I started doing the scene, I found myself imagining that I had a civilian in my sights and then just suddenly I started crying. And it was a really weird emotion. My style of acting isn't Stanislavski or Method or whatever. And so, the reality of this guy in the scene thinking he actually had to murder a civilian was so upsetting that tears came out. It was a wild experience to do this show," he said.
Baron Cohen also took great pains to perfect the character's two accents - one for the Sephardic Jewish accountant, and one for his Argentinean millionaire persona.
"That was really tricky because he's Egyptian-Israeli, and then he becomes Argentinean-Syrian. Even finding an accent coach who is good enough to know the difference between Syrian-Arabic and Egyptian-Arabic is tough. In the end, I found a dialect coach in Morocco who lived in Syria and had played a lot of Egyptian characters and he became my kind of go-to for 'Okay, we are Egyptian now'."
Another interesting revelation from Baron Cohen comes when he tries to answer why Cohen went back to Syria despite the risks of discovery.
"Was there something within him where he almost fell in love with his persona? I know that when I did Ali G, Bruno and all these personas I've created, there's a point where you actually prefer being in the character than out of it," he said.
"You come back to your real life and you are in the supermarket buying toilet paper, and you go, 'Wait a minute, what am I doing here?' It's less interesting than your fake life sometimes. Maybe that just means I'm very, very peculiar."
The writer is the chair of the board of directors of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, a non-profit organisation of entertainment journalists that also organises the annual Golden Globe Awards.