Sacha Baron Cohen talks to Michele Manelis about his role in the Netflix miniseries The Spy, playing Israel's top Mossad spy Eli Cohen.
Eli Cohen was a spy who chose patriotism for his country over
his family. As a father, could you fathom that way of thinking?
Well, I think you have to remember the context. This is 1961 and it's 16 years after the end of World War II and there's a real sense of fear and terror and jeopardy. And so yeah, this is a guy who loves his wife but he's always in this dilemma of "my family or my country" - but in a way they are united. I think he was kind of justifying that by thinking, "If I'm protecting my country, I'm actually protecting the family." They are kind of one and the same thing.
Would you be a good spy? Obviously you are great at impersonations, making people believe you are somebody you are not.
I think I wouldn't like to risk being tortured. Then again, it depends who is doing it.
The show has really dark moments, but I really enjoyed the exchange of love notes between Eli and his wife. I was wondering, is that something that you and Isla do as well?
As you know, I don't really like to talk about my personal life. But through his undercover life as a spy, he's obsessed with his wife and he still has this great love for her. You've seen all these guys - James Bond and Jason Bourne - and they get women, basically have sex with them; get rid of them the next day. They are womanisers without any empathy for anyone they meet, which allows them to shoot people and dispose of people, men, women. I think Bond and Bourne are people who've got almost no empathy for anyone else.
You have made millions of people laugh …
Not in China, apparently.
What makes you laugh?
I was brought up on American comedy. My dad used to force us to watch The Phil Silvers Show and Your Show of Shows and Blazing Saddles. I was kind of obsessed with Peter Sellers as a child, because this was a guy who was not doing goofy stuff, he was playing real characters that were completely believable but were hilarious. And he was the guy who really inspired me, that was the style of comedy that I really loved, which was, "Can you make a character that is completely believable, that's also hilarious without over-the-top goofiness?"
What about contemporary comedians?
I think there some really brilliant comedians at the moment, I have really been loving Fleabag [Phoebe Waller Bridge] recently. I think she's completely original and I'm actually quite jealous of her.
A lot of comedians are quite depressed. How do you deal with darker emotions?
My outlet is comedy, so when Trump got in some people dealt with it by sending emails to each other and articles and complaining about it. My outlet is to go in character and that's why I made the last show, Who is America? I get out my frustration and my anger through comedy.
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Do you regard this TV series as opening the door for more dramatic roles?
Over the years, I tried not to do much but I have been in straighter movies like Hugo, Sweeney Todd and Les Mis. There are comedic elements but there's real drama as well, where you have to play it completely real. When I was in university, the roles that I specialised in were tragic-comic roles, like Cyrano de Bergerac, where there are really funny characters but they go through a complete gamut of emotion and end up tragically dying or some tragedy happens to them.
You seem fearless. Have you ever been afraid when you have been in character?
I have a mental problem. When I write something, I can never in my mind fast-forward to the actual event. So I write, "making out with a guy in a cage and it'll be 2000 rednecks around and that'll be hilarious!" Then when it came to the actual time in Bruno where we had a cage fight, there's 2000 rednecks, 100 of them had just come out of jail, they are on parole, there are literally people with swastikas tattooed on their heads and I remember saying to the director, "I don't want to do this." And he was like, "You wrote it!" So there's that moment where I'm terrified but I have an ability to overcome the terror. I remember we did the first cage fight in Bruno and people started throwing chairs, a guy jumped into the ring, a real fighter, and was going to kick the s*** out of me. And these metal chairs are flying into the ring. We built a trapdoor, I went into the trapdoor, closed it and my co-writer said, "Get out there, finish the scene, finish the movie!" I was looking through the little peephole and these metal chairs were flying. But so far, thankfully, I have managed to get away without being too badly injured. And that scene was great, by the way!
The Spy screens from Friday, September 6 on Netflix.