Sacha Baron Cohen on Dramatic 'The Spy' Turn and "Pitching Comic Alternatives to Every Line"

The six-part Netflix series tells the real-life story of Israeli spy Eli Cohen, who goes undercover in 1960s Syria.
Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Netflix
Sacha Baron Cohen and director Gideon Raff

After building a career out of going undercover for comedy's sake, donning disguises in everything from Borat to Showtime's Who Is America? Sacha Baron Cohen is taking on a much more dramatic undercover mission with his latest project, The Spy

The six-part Netflix drama tells the real-life story of Israeli spy Eli Cohen (played by Cohen, but with no relation), who goes undercover in 1960s Syria, cozying up to military leaders to learn of Syria's secret plans against Israel. Cohen says that he grew up reading and hearing stories from his father about the famed spy, and when this script came his way he had to say yes. 

"I'd been offered different incarnations of this story in various movie scripts, which I turned down, and eventually I read this one and I couldn't put it down," Cohen told The Hollywood Reporter at a Netflix screening on Thursday. "I thought, 'I would love to see this show.'"

Although he's dabbled in serious projects before, including Sweeney Todd and Les Miserables, this marks Cohen's first starring role in a drama, which he admits was a real change. 

"I tried to pitch comic alternatives to every line and suggest that he become a great wit and the Oscar Wilde of Syria, but Gideon [Raff, director] quite rightly refused to accept any of my changes," he said. "In the end I just had to act the words and pretend to be him." 

Raff, who also wrote the limited series, has been working on The Spy for seven years, starting it as a two-hour feature before breaking it into more and more parts. Although Cohen may have been an unconventional choice to play the title character, Raff said the moment he thought about casting the comedian he knew it was the perfect choice. 

"I flew to London to meet him, and he loved the script. It was so out of the things that he usually does, that I think because of that he was very intrigued to it," he said. He also revealed that the real Eli Cohen's wife, Nadia, complained that Cohen was too fit to play the role, as "Eli was chubby." 

Raff said he stuck with the project over its long life because he wanted to explore "what spying does to you," in terms of living double lives and being torn between his family and his duty. It's also a relevant exploration of Syria, he said, which shows "a side of the Middle East that we're not used to seeing." 

"The music was amazing, the fashion was amazing and Damascus was a party town and together with [Eli], on his journey, we see what happens to the Middle East and how it turned into what it is today," Raff added. 

The Spy, which also stars The Americans' Noah Emmerich, Hadar Ratzon Rotem and Waleed Zuaiter, is now streaming on Netflix. Watch a trailer, below.