Netflix's 'The Spy' star Alona Tal says Eli Cohen's mentor Julia was based on the many Israel women operatives in Argentina post-WWII
In an exclusive interview with MEA WorldWide (MEAWW), Alona Tal spoke about her character, Julia, playing a pivotal part of shaping Eli Cohen as a spy, working with Sacha Baron Cohen and the charges by Twitter users from Arab countries claiming Gideon Raff presented a one-sided, biased narrative
Every superhero has an origin story. It starts with him as a novice, making mistakes, before his mentor steps up to guide him on his journey to becoming a mythical, legendary figure. In 'The Spy', the first two episodes focus on the origin story of Eli Cohen, the legendary Israeli spy.
On his first undercover assignment in Argentina, he creates self-incriminating evidence in the form of letters to his wife Nadia, who he misses and almost blows his cover when he is followed. Both times, it is his mentor, the experienced Mossad operative Julia Schneider (Alona Tal), who saves him from the consequences of his actions.
She harshly reminds him he is not playing a game when she finds the letters. She is also the one who tells Eli to just leave and not blow his cover when they accidentally kill the man who has followed him to their secret rendezvous. She makes him realize the stakes are very real.
Alona Tal, in an exclusive interview with MEA WorldWide (MEAWW), said while Julia was loosely based on several people, she did not really exist. "I know that there were many, many Israeli operatives who worked in Argentina, which they mentioned in the script as well. Israeli operatives, many of who were women, were involved in an extensive search for war criminals, like [Otto Adolf] Eichmann, in Argentina, post World War II. So, I tried to build as much of a back story for her to make sense of how she arrived there, who she is, how she assimilated in that society, in that community, that would help the storyline."
She revealed that the series' creator, Gideon Raff, gave her as much insight as he could on the part Julia plays in Eli Cohen's journey to becoming a legendary spy. "She is there basically at that pivotal moment when he almost decides not to go through with it. But their interactions make him decide to go forward. Because at that point in the story, he is not a spy. He doesn't fully understand what it means to be a spy. He makes mistakes in these episodes but he doesn't make them later. His experiences [with Julia] teaches him to do better."
Commenting on Julia's forceful personality, she said: "I tip my hat to Gideon for making such an important, pivotal and powerful character, a woman. I think women, who have had to have long interactions with men, get very good at scolding. But to see a woman in power, that is unusual." 'The Spy' is Tal's second collaboration with Gideon Raff after the film 'The Red Sea Diving Resort', even though she ended up not appearing in the final version of the film.
"Gideon is an extremely emotional and heartfelt human being. Working with him, it's never just about the technical stuff. Some directors are very technical, he's not. I also have had the pleasure of knowing him personally. When you feel safe with someone on a personal level, as an artist, it makes for a more relaxed work environment," Tal said.
When she first walked on to the set, however, the idea of sharing screen space with Sacha Baron Cohen was intimidating. "We have several mutual friends, so I knew he was a lovely human being. But I had never actually officially met him myself. But I had such an admiration for him and his work. He is a satirical genius. Acting opposite him, when he was attempting something new, was an honor, but also obviously intimidating. But then I met him, and all my worries evaporated because he was one of the nicest, most generous and relaxed people on set."
As an Israeli, Tal is no stranger to Eli Cohen's story and she was acutely aware of the gravity of a project attempting to tell his story. "Every country has its own national heroes and those people become mythical. You want to honor them as best as you can. He's probably the most iconic, the most legendary Israeli spy we've ever had. And I know that his family is still around. So that was the reason why his story had this aura of importance."
She revealed that the goal was to have as many people relate to Eli's story. "For Israelis, it's almost like a built-in mechanism to be interested in this subject matter because it's so iconic for us." But by adding fictional and dramatic moments and characters like Eli's interactions with Julia, the story was "opened up" Tal said. "I assume this was done so that someone who had never heard of Eli Cohen, would be interested in him and would care for him as much as we do."
Responding to the charges by Twitter users from Arab countries that Gideon Raff had presented a one-sided, biased narrative in 'The Spy', Tal welcomed the criticism though felt not all criticism was valid. "I think that asking for a story of this scope to be told from every point of view, from every perspective, is unrealistic. I'd welcome any Arab creator, any artist, to tell their point of view on any story that has to do with their history. I would welcome it, I would watch it and I will also welcome any criticism because criticism builds discussion, it builds communication and communication builds community. However, I am non-responsive to aggressive criticism or criticism just for the sake of criticism. But critique for the sake of discussion is a welcome element in the world, and this business, in particular."
The six-episode miniseries 'The Spy' released September 6 and is available on Netflix.