“When I’m in a scene as Eli Cohen, I am pretending like a kid would be, reacting to things that I’m hearing as if I’m Eli Cohen.” – Sacha Baron Cohen
While it’s not uncommon for actors known for being comedians to occasionally take on a dramatic role, there are some comedians who seem to be tied to their comedian schtick. For example, it would initially seem difficult to imagine Sacha Baron Cohen in a serious role after his “great success” in hit comedies like Borat, Bruno, and Talladega Nights.
Nonetheless, Cohen is starring in his most high-profile dramatic role in the Netflix series, The Spy, in which he portrays the real-life Israeli spy Eli Cohen in the early 1960s who was a master of impersonation. In an interview with the New York Times, Cohen speaks about his commitment to staying in character and why he was embarrassed to reveal his passion for acting to others when he was younger.
Regarding his reasoning for staying in character even when faced with physical danger, Cohen remarks, “If somebody sees through the character, either the scene ends or the police are called. It can, very occasionally, turn violent. So I learned that I could never drop character. When I was playing Ali G, I remained Ali G. That was the result of a steep learning curve: One day, an interviewee walked in on me while I was out of character, and he complained to [Channel 4’s executives].” Cohen points out that while it’s very different material, he uses a similar approach when portraying Eli Cohen. He explains, “So when I’m in a scene as Eli Cohen, I am pretending like a kid would be, reacting to things that I’m hearing as if I’m Eli Cohen.”
Yet despite his professional success, Cohen confesses that he had a hard time admitting that he wanted to be an actor and comedians to others when he was growing up and kept his passion a secret. He says:
“It was embarrassing to admit to other people that I wanted to be a comedian, because I was essentially telling people that I thought I was funny. That’s as embarrassing as someone saying, ‘I want to be a model.’ You risk people saying ‘You’re far too ugly to become a model.’
So I really kept my ambition to perform hidden, though I ended up going to Cambridge in order to join the Cambridge Footlights drama club. I was denied entry for three years, but joined up in year four. I did a number of dramatic productions — Cyrano de Bergerac, Fiddler on the Roof, Tamburlaine the Great — so I had to learn how to act. That ended up being useful later in my career.
But the idea of making a living from acting or being a comic was absurd.”
Even all these years later, Cohen admits there’s one aspect of his love for acting that still embarrasses him: “I love doing musicals. I even snuck in some musical numbers into the early Ali G Show. Musicals are my embarrassing passion; they give me joy.”