‘The role is all yours!’: How Gideon Raff secured Sacha Baron Cohen for The Spy
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‘The role is all yours!’: How Gideon Raff secured Sacha Baron Cohen for The Spy

Award-winning director of shows such as Homeland and Prisoners of War speaks about the development of his recent hit Netflix show about an Israeli secret agent in Syria

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

Hadar Ratzon Rotem as Nadia and Sacha Baron Cohen as Eli in Netflix drama, The Spy
Hadar Ratzon Rotem as Nadia and Sacha Baron Cohen as Eli in Netflix drama, The Spy

Six months after he turned down the role of Israeli secret agent Eli Cohen, the actor and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen met director Gideon Raff by chance in a Los Angeles restaurant. 

And as Raff, in a special webinar for supporters of Tel Aviv University, revealed, Baron Cohen, having said he could not commit to the project, was curious as to who had been cast in the lead role. “If you still want it, it’s yours!” declared Raff — and so the two combined to make The Spy, which evolved from a two-hour feature film to six hour-long TV episodes for Netflix.

Raff is undoubtedly Israel’s most successful film export. A graduate of Tel Aviv University’s admired film school, and the winner of nine separate Israeli Academy Awards, the Jerusalem-born Raff now spends his time between homes in Los Angeles and Tel Aviv.

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In a wide-ranging discussion with film-maker and fan Adam Mirels, Raff spoke about the creation of his mega-hits Prisoners of War and Homeland, as well as his most recent film, The Red Sea Diving Resort. 

Sacha Baron Cohen had been Raff’s first choice to play the Egyptian-born Eli Cohen, who spied for Israel while based in Syria. He was eventually caught by the Syrian authorities and hanged in the public square in Damascus in 1965. Raff had originally flown to London to woo Baron Cohen for the role. He said that though some had had doubts as to whether Baron Cohen, most known for his comic persona, would be suitable, but that he had believed “he would be amazing”. He said the actor spoke fluent Hebrew but had immersed himself in Egyptian and Syrian Arabic dialects in order to ensure an accurate portrayal. 

Gideon Raff during the webinar

Raff, as with his other work, had top-flight access — not least with members of the Mossad, who advised him on his other projects. Prisoners of War, his first big hit , was commissioned by an Israeli TV director in Los Angeles who was “looking for a sitcom” — and the programmes are in fact the very opposite of a comedy. On the strength of his script, without shooting a frame, the show was commissioned, first in Israel and then in America with an English-language version. After that the basic premise of the show — that a leading character may have been captured and “turned” by the enemy — became the focus of Homeland. 

Speaking of cultural differences between Israel and the US, Raff said that TV films tended to run only for one season in Israel, whereas in America there was an expectation that the characters could continue from season to season. Thus Homeland was able to continue even after the Nicholas Brody character was written out, and has continued for eight seasons with leading characters Saul and Carrie looking at new problems.

He revealed that Homeland has been remade in numerous countries, including, most recently, Russia and India — where the local version ran to 126 episodes. 

Though he would not reveal what projects he has been working on in lockdown, Raff did say he would like to return to comedy — his first work after film school was a comic novel. Most of all, he said, he enjoyed working on “a story I can’t resist”.

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