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Sacha Baron Cohen Goes Undercover Again — But Not For Laughs

Originally published on September 6, 2019 12:33 pm

The actor and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen has a childhood memory: In his family's living room in London, there sat a book called Our Man in Damascus.

It's a non-fiction account of an Israeli spy who infiltrated Israel's enemy, Syria, in the 1960s. Eli Cohen was publicly executed, but not before he obtained vital military secrets.

Sacha Baron Cohen now plays Eli Cohen in The Spy, a Netflix series that dramatizes that true story.

"Partly what attracted me was: His acting skills rivaled those of [method actor] Daniel Day-Lewis," Sacha Baron Cohen says in an interview with Steve Inskeep. "He was playing the role of a multi-millionaire businessman who'd been brought up in Argentina from Syrian descent, and maintained that persona for many, many years."

In one early scene, the character even appears to briefly forget his real name.

"I've always been intrigued by this question of identity — how people identify themselves," Baron Cohen says. "And for Eli Cohen, he had these two different lives. He was an Israeli second-class citizen living in poverty, and he was also, when he was undercover, a wealthy Syrian.

"So the question of identity, and who you really are, and people who are questioning their own identity or unaware of the irony of their identity — I mean, take for example a character that I first created 20 years ago, Ali G, who's a white middle-class youth from a suburb in London but who identifies as an African-American gangsta rapper. When he says, 'Is it 'cause I is black?' when he's not, we laugh. But in the case of Eli Cohen, that question of identity, we suspect, and I played him, as that leading to incredible turmoil."

Sacha Baron Cohen can relate to going undercover. He's famous for playing Borat, a fictional Kazakh man who was filmed while interviewing unsuspecting real-life Americans, documentary-style. Before that there was Ali G, the dim-witted "hip-hop journalist"; after that, the flamboyantly gay Austrian named Brüno.

"What I try and do when I'm in character is to read the other person," Baron Cohen says. "If they're suspicious, they squint their eyes, they look you up and down. Part of what I'm doing is: I'm acting, but I'm also observing the other person to see if they are suspicious or ... if they feel calm. And if they're suspicious, then I back down. I won't say anything funny for a while, and I'll try and go deeper into character. And if they're not suspicious, then I take more risks."

For the 2018 series Who Is America? he invented multiple characters, which he used to make satirical proposals to unsuspecting Americans. One of his characters was an Israeli soldier — who landed an interview with former Vice President Dick Cheney. That presented a special challenge.

"Dick Cheney may be many things, but he's not an idiot," Baron Cohen says. "And so when I first sat down with him, his main intention was to find out whether I was legitimate or not. And so he asked me to chronicle my military history."

Luckily for Baron Cohen, he had a meeting with a real-life Israeli soldier right before the interview.

"And so I said to this guy, I said, 'Listen, I want you to tell me about your military history,'" Baron Cohen says. "And this man said to me, he goes: [affecting an accent] "OK. At the age of 7, I went to school. I had a lunch box in one hand and a gas mask in the other. And at that point I realized I wanted to be a soldier.'

"And then cut to an hour later. Dick Cheney comes in the room, and he says, 'Listen, before we start this interview, tell me about your military history.' And I said: [in character] 'Vice President Cheney, at the age of 7, I went to school with a gas mask in one hand and the lunchbox in the other. And that's when I realized I wanted to be a soldier.'"

Though the satirical characters have brought him fame, Baron Cohen says he's "tried very hard" to not become a celebrity. For many years, he refused to give interviews as himself.

"It was actually a fantastic life," he says. "I remember being dressed as a character I did called Borat, standing in HMV — which was the biggest record and DVD shop in London — next to the stand selling videos of Ali G. And so I was surrounded by fans of Ali G and me, and I was dressed as Borat, and nobody knew it was me. And for me that was the real pleasure."

Danny Hajek and Arezou Rezvani produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The actor and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen has a memory of his youth.

SACHA BARON COHEN: I was brought up in London, and in the bookcase in our living room was a book called "Our Man In Damascus."

INSKEEP: It was the true story of an Israeli spy, a man who infiltrated Israel's enemy, Syria, in the 1960s. Eli Cohen was found and executed, but not before he obtained vital secrets. Sacha Baron Cohen now plays the role of this man in "The Spy," a Netflix drama that's not comedic at all. He's a store clerk who is recruited by the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SPY")

COHEN: (As Eli Cohen) I love this country with all my might.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Mossad member) If your country needed you to lie to your friends, your family, your wife, would you do it?

COHEN: (As Eli Cohen) Yes.

Partly what attracted me was his acting skills rivaled those of Daniel Day Lewis. So even though he was an accountant in a supermarket, he was born in Egypt. He was playing the role of a multimillionaire businessman who'd been brought up in Argentina from Syrian descent and maintained that persona for many, many years.

INSKEEP: The spy is undercover, and Sacha Baron Cohen can relate, since his most famous comedy routines also have him undercover.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BORAT")

COHEN: (As Borat) Ladies very much like Borat. High-five.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I would imagine. You're a good-looking man.

COHEN: (As Borat) Thank you. You are so - I like your face. It beautiful.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: He's famous for playing Borat, a man supposedly from Kazakhstan, who was filmed interviewing unsuspecting real-life Americans. Last year, he did this again for a series called "Who Is America?". He invented multiple characters to make satirical proposals to unsuspecting people. One of his characters happened to be a former Israeli soldier.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WHO IS AMERICA?")

COHEN: (As former Israeli soldier) In America, there is big problem of shootings in schools. The NRA want to arm the teachers. This is crazy. They should be arming the children. Yalla (ph).

What I try and do when I'm in character is to read the other person. If they're suspicious, they squint their eyes, they look you up and down. Part of what I'm doing is, I'm acting, but I'm more so observing the other person to see if they are suspicious or if they feel calm. And if they're suspicious then I'll try and go deeper into character. And if they're not suspicious then I take more risks.

INSKEEP: He is a kind of comedic spy who somehow set up an interview with former Vice President Dick Cheney.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WHO IS AMERICA?")

COHEN: (As former Israeli soldier) It is a great honor to be next to a real mensch, Dick Cheney. Shalom.

DICK CHENEY: Thank you.

COHEN: Dick Cheney may be many things, but he's not an idiot. And so when I first sat down with him, his main intention was to find out whether I was legitimate or not. And so he asked me to chronicle my military history.

INSKEEP: Had you prepared for that kind of interrogation?

COHEN: Yes.

INSKEEP: Sacha Baron Cohen happened to be traveling with a real-life Israeli soldier.

COHEN: I said, listen, I want you to tell me about your military history. And this man said to me - he goes, OK, at the age of 7, I went to school. I had a lunchbox in one hand and a gas mask in the other. And at that point, I realized I wanted to be a soldier. And then cut to an hour later, Dick Cheney comes in the room, and he says, listen, before we start this interview, tell me about your military history. And I said, Vice President Cheney, at the age of 7, I went to school with a gas mask in one hand and a lunchbox in the other. And that's when I realized I wanted to be a soldier.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WHO IS AMERICA?")

COHEN: (As former Israeli soldier) You started so many wars. Which was your favorite war, and why?

CHENEY: I think it was what we did in Desert Storm. I really do.

COHEN: (As former Israeli soldier) Fantastic.

CHENEY: And...

COHEN: (As former Israeli soldier) Fantastic.

INSKEEP: And that's the kind of impersonation that Sacha Baron Cohen imagines a real-life spy must perform, a spy like the one he plays in that Netflix drama.

There is a moment quite early on in which this man, Eli Cohen, who is playing another character, as a spy, is supposed to write his name on a letter. And there's a moment where he appears to have forgotten, maybe, what his real name is. What is it like to play a character through to that point, where maybe you begin to forget the real you?

COHEN: I think it's fascinating. You know, I've always been intrigued by this question of identity. You know, how people identify themselves. And for Eli Cohen, he had these two different lives. He was an Israeli second-class citizen, and he was also, when he was undercover, a wealthy Syrian. So the question of identity, and who you really are, and people who are questioning their own identity or unaware of the irony of their identity - I mean, take, for example, a character that I first created 20 years ago, Ali G, who's a white, middle-class youth from a suburb in London but who identifies as an African American gangster rapper. When he says, you know, is it cause I is black? - when he's not - we laugh. But in the case of Eli Cohen, that question of identity, we suspect, and I played him as, as that being leading to incredible turmoil.

INSKEEP: Being a celebrity is a kind of role. Do you ever worry about getting lost in the role of Sacha Baron Cohen, famous guy?

COHEN: I've tried very hard, you know, over the last 20 years to not become a celebrity. So for many years of my career, I actually refused to give any interviews as myself. It was actually a fantastic life. I remember being dressed as a character I did called Borat, standing in HMV, which was the biggest record and DVD shop in London, next to the stand selling videos of Ali G. And so I was surrounded by fans of Ali G and me, and I was dressed as Borat. And nobody knew it was me. And for me, that was the real pleasure. So the idea of becoming famous and doing interviews like this are anathema to me. But I'm enjoying speaking to you because I'm a fan of yours. So...

INSKEEP: Well, thank you. I appreciate that. And, of course, also you're on the radio. No one can see you. So this is a kind of anonymity, even as you're getting the word out.

COHEN: Yes, I suppose so. And obviously, this is not my real voice. My real voice is more like this, but I...

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

COHEN: You know, my publicist said I should, you know, layer it a bit.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

COHEN: Might lose some of the fans because I'm doing a serious role and playing a muscled he-man.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

COHEN: So yeah. So...

INSKEEP: How are you going to pull out of this one now? You've gone so deep into that. I don't know where you go.

COHEN: Yes. I'm deep. I'm deep into this one now.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

COHEN: The pseudo-intellectual English serious guy who's abandoning his comic roots, that's my latest character.

INSKEEP: Sacha Baron Cohen, thanks. It's been a pleasure.

COHEN: Thank you, Steve. An honor to speak to you.

INSKEEP: His latest project is "The Spy," a Netflix series out on Friday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.