November 13, 2019

Aaron Cohen: Soldier, Actor, Writer, Spy

Aaron Cohen has lived many lives in his 43 years. Born in Montreal, he volunteered for the Israeli Army at 18 and served for three years in an elite Special Forces counterterrorism unit, which he wrote about in his memoir “Brotherhood of Warriors.” Then, using his Israel Defense Forces (IDF) training, he opened his own company, providing personal security for celebrities and VIPs.

Now, with security issues more important than ever, he trains and advises law enforcement agencies while pursuing a career in Hollywood. His latest assignment: playing a police captain in “Rambo: Last Blood,” opposite Sylvester Stallone. Cohen spoke with the Journal about his journey from Israeli undercover missions to the backlots of Hollywood. 

Jewish Journal: How did you come to serve in the IDF?

Aaron Cohen: After my parents divorced, my mother married Abby Mann, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “Judgment at Nuremberg,” and we moved to Los Angeles. He was a Zionist and very much believed in the Jewish state. He encouraged the idea of me going to Israel and serving in the IDF. So I started reading about Israel. I went to a military school for a portion of high school, and then when I graduated, I didn’t really know what I was going to do. I didn’t have any plans for college. I went to Israel and volunteered at Kibbutz HaZore’a, where I spent four months learning Hebrew. I fell in love with Israel and joined the IDF because I thought it would be a great opportunity to learn about Israel and do something adventurous. After an 18-month training period, I joined the Duvdevan unit, which the show “Fauda” is based on. Soldiers masquerade as Arabs for the purpose of infiltrating terrorist neighborhoods and sending terrorists back to Israel for trial and interrogation. I learned Arabic, too. I was on over 200 missions. 

JJ: You also worked on covert operations with the Mossad, right?

AC: I don’t publicly acknowledge any connection to Israel’s foreign intelligence service, but I will say I worked very closely with the special operations community in Israel while in the unit, and that’s all I can say about that.

JJ: Have you been back to Israel?

AC: A couple of times. I am a Zionist and a Jew who really believes in the importance of the State of Israel. I am a son of Israel. I will never get Israel out of my blood. I want to take my future wife there. I just got engaged.

JJ: What was your Jewish upbringing like? 

AC: I come from a family with a strong Jewish identity, but not very observant. My grandparents are Russian Jews on my mother’s side and my father’s side is Russian and Romanian. They were truckers and metal collectors — tough Jews who emigrated to Canada just before [World War II]. There are some Holocaust survivors on my father’s side.

JJ: After the IDF, what was your plan?

AC: I didn’t know. I had some depression and probably some PTSD and spent the next year-and-a-half decompressing. Then I started working as a bodyguard for Brad Pitt and the Schwarzeneggers. Just before 9/11 [2001], I opened my own security company, hiring over 200 guys from my unit over the years and giving back to Israelis who wanted an opportunity here. I worked with other celebrities, providing residential security for [model] Kate Moss, [actor] Jackie Chan and protective services for Pink, Katy Perry and other musicians on tour. I sold the company five years ago. It was a 15-year run, and it led me to my first movie.

In 2011, [director] Steven Soderbergh was working on “Haywire” and called me. He said, “I’m working on a film with Channing Tatum, Gina Carano and Michael Fassbender, and I’m looking for a consultant because it’s a special operations type of movie. Would you be interested?” I was asked to train the actors with all the firearms and Krav Maga fighting for about three months leading up to the film and helped design the action to make it look real. Steven gave me some dialogue; I had a couple of scenes in the film. That was it. I was hooked. I was reminded of how much I loved acting in high school. 

After that I did “211,” a cop drama with Nic Cage for Netflix. I played his lieutenant. And did a short film called “Overwatch” as an exercise to build up my reel. One day maybe it’ll turn into a feature.

JJ: How did you become involved with “Rambo: Last Blood?”

AC: The producers of “211” called and said they had a great scene with Sly for me. We shot in Bulgaria for about a month. I also did some advising on the film. There were a lot of special effects; it was a rain scene. It was a very expensive sequence. There’s a bit of a twist that I can’t reveal, but I had a great time doing it. 

JJ: What’s next for you?

AC: There’s another project for Netflix based on the Mexican pop star Luis Miguel’s life — there’s a role in it for a Mossad [agent]. I’m going to spend the next two years focusing on transitioning into acting full time. Meanwhile, [with] with my company Cherries — Duvdevan is cherry in English — I manufacture products for law enforcement, and I’ve put together an affordable digital counterterror training series. I’ve got agencies from all over the world downloading the content.

JJ: As an expert, what advice would you give synagogues to better protect themselves against attacks?

AC: Hire armed security or put together a volunteer security team, and get them trained in behavior-based counterterrorism and active-shooter response. Stop playing around with feel-good unarmed security. It will fail, and members of your congregation will get killed. I want to see synagogues safe, and that means an aggressive response.

“Rambo: Last Blood” is in theaters Sept. 20.