Rarely giving interviews out of character, Sacha Baron Cohen has managed to keep his distance from fame, and from his critics. Paul Byrne was lucky enough to meet him. Well, a version of him.
It’s disconcerting, interviewing Sacha Baron Cohen. Mainly because, well, you’re not really interviewing Sacha Baron Cohen. You’re interviewing whoever it is that Sacha Baron Cohen happens to be today.
From his early incarnation as Staines would-be gangsta Ali G on through Kazakh television’s roving reporter Borat Sagdiyev and gay Austrian fashionista Bruno Gehard, right up to Admiral General Aladeen, the subject of this month’s big-screen offering The Dictator, Sacha Baron Cohen is only ever interested in presenting himself through his latest comic creation. Which makes meeting him not so much an interview as more taking part in a multi-million dollar art installation.
Especially when you’ve got to submit your questions well in advance. So, you know, Baron Cohen’s comic creation can come up with some suitably witty answers. “I think Sacha feels that giving interviews as himself would only ruin the illusion,” says a helpful PR girl outside the hotel room where Baron Cohen is getting into character. “Most people want to interview the clown, the person everyone loves, not the guy without any make-up on…”
Not true. Still, this way, Sacha Baron Cohen gets to keep his private life private, and his working methods a secret. The interview itself was all gags and no real info, telling you nothing at all about the brains behind the operation. Other than revealing Cohen’s mischievous sense of humour, of course. Would you like to know what Gen. Adm. Aladeen’s favourite movies are? Back in Wadiya, he grew up loving When Harry Killed Sally, The 14-Year-Old Virgin and family favourite Planet Of The Rapes. Having been banned from taking the stage at the recent Oscars, Baron Cohen had to settle for letting the good General walk the red carpet, along with his two ever-present scantily-clad beauties, resplendent in revealing military regalia. It was peppy American TV host Ryan Seacrest who found himself at the centre of the inevitable money shot, as Baron Cohen spilled an urn full of what he claimed were the ashes of recently-deceased North Korean leader Kim Jong Ill all over the presenter’s suit. Hardly a controversial stunt, but it was enough to send the world’s entertainment media into a feeding frenzy. Just as Baron Cohen had hoped.
It’s at times like this you have to wonder what the comedian’s real goals are? Has Baron Cohen got important political points to make? Or is he just happy to stir it up, to see how far he can take a gag? The more tasteless he gets, the more controversy Baron Cohen stirs, but his outrageous characters come with a simple get-out clause; this is all parody. In other words, hey, he’s not being anti-Semitic – he’s being anti-anti-Semitic. You schmuck. When the Anti-Defamation League complains that some people may take Borat’s rousing bar-room anthem Throw The Jew Down The Well at face-value, or the senior director of the Gay And Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) describes Bruno’s satire as “problematic in many places and outright offensive in others”, it’s difficult for them not to look like people who just can’t take a joke. So, why does Sacha do it? It’s unlikely to be the fame, given that he and his wife, fellow comic actor Isla Fisher (who broke through as the no-holes-barred Gloria in The Wedding Crashers), are rarely seen at any premieres other than their own. Has anyone here seen photospreads with their two girls, Olive and Elula, yet? Me neither. And if it was money the man was after, we’d be seeing a lot more faded Borat merchandise in charity shops.
That leaves the glory, but Baron Cohen has yet to be seen gloating about any success that he has had. So, maybe it’s all just fun and games, with a little social commentary thrown in? Whatever the motivation, given the deep analysis that even the most trivial bout of celebrity arse-scratching can inspire today – when the likes of Jersey Shore’s mooing meatball Snooki can become a thesis goddess – Baron Cohen’s sociopolitically-driven creations do warrant some real analysis. This is one comic genius though who would much rather leave all that heavy digging to others. Like his hero, Peter Sellers, Baron Cohen knows that fact is never quite as interesting as fiction. Still, there are some truths that he has let slip through the net.
Born October 13th, 1971 the youngest of three brothers in Hammersmith, London to Israeli-born aerobics teacher Daniella (nee Weiser) and Welsh-born clothes shop owner Gerald, the young Sacha Noam Baron Cohen attended the private Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys School in Elstree before going on to Christ’s College, Cambridge, where he studied history. It was here that Baron Cohen got his first taste of performing, attending the Cambridge University Amateur Dramatic Club, and taking part in such plays as Fiddler On The Roof and Cyrano de Bergerac. For his Cambridge thesis, he wrote a dissertation on Jews in civil-rights movements, called Black-Jewish Alliance: A Case Of Mistaken Identity, which focused in particular on the 1964 murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Baron Cohen is a devout Jew, with Fisher converted to Judaism before their marriage.
After graduating, he spent a year in Israel at the Rosh Hanikra Kibbutz before returning to England to work as a fashion model. Baron Cohen made the move into television by hosting a weekly programme on Windsor cable television, and when Channel 4 sent out an open call for presenters on a planned replacement for latenight youth programme The Word, he sent in a tape of himself as Christo, a fictional television reporter from Albania. Christo would later become Borat, but not before another Cohen creation, Ali G, became a hit through Channel 4’s The 11 O’Clock Show. Here was a man who could locate the soft spot in any given culture, his seemingly blunt and rude creations poking political sore spots, and cutting right through our social graces to reveal the dark underbelly. Oh, and he could make us laugh too. Early on, when Baron Cohen took Ali G out into the real world, he was delighted to discover that people believed the character was real. It didn’t take long for the comedian to realize that people can be incredibly revealing when they think they’re talking to an idiot. It’s an approach that Baron Cohen has been exploiting ever since.
Time to let someone who actually knows the man do some heavy digging. Such as Baron Cohen’s longtime writing partner – and former schoolmate – Dan Mazer. “A huge amount of preparation goes into every single little detail,” Mazer says of the duo’s writing methods. “For each character, we’ll have a file of jokes and script ideas that extends to about three thousand pages. We’ll have been through so many possibilities with any given character that by the time Sacha is ready to take him outside, he’s got all these minute details in his head. “It’s a little like a Method actor, living the life of his character for a while, so everything just comes naturally to him in the moment. With Sacha, it’s a long process of finding the character, and then just letting him loose on the unsuspecting public.” Until, of course, that public becomes too familiar with Cohen’s creation. Both Ali G and Borat have been retired, given their enormous success, as has Bruno. These are gags where a short shelf-life is a given. Indeed, there aren’t many places on the globe so removed from popular culture today that these characters wouldn’t be instantly familiar. Just Papa New Guinea and Kilcoole, by my reckoning. Through it all, it’s Baron Cohen’s meticulous attention to detail that has helped make his characters so convincing. Even when, as anyone with their full quantity of marbles should spot, those characters are pretty unbelievable to begin with.
With Borat, for example, Baron Cohen felt it was important to never wash this anti-Semitic, urine-drinking, wife-beating simpleton’s suit. His underwear had to be authentic too, with a Russian label. And when Borat asks his dinner party hosts what he should do with his excrement, that’s got to be a plastic bag of real shit he’s dangling over the table. “Otherwise, people might just call his bluff,” says Mazer. “You recognise something that isn’t quite right, something that’s fake, and the whole façade will come crumbling down. So, Sacha takes all of this preparation very, very seriously. “Besides, it helps him believe in his character too.” And, as Mazer points out in his 2009 book And Here’s The Kicker, all good comedy comes from character. Without it, the jokes are just jokes, with no real resonance. And, he argues, it helps when you have a voice too – when you have something to say. “Without a convincing protagonist and somebody you care about,” he says, “your comedy is on a path to nothing. And have an opinion. Try and say something. I don’t think it’s enough just to write trifling jokes. You should have a point of view. Have the confidence in what you think. Don’t let the executives or your own self-doubt dilute what you have to say.”
The executives behind The Dictator, Baron Cohen’s latest big-screen onslaught, will sleep a little easier in their beds at night, knowing that there are no candid camera ambushes involved in this traditionally scripted comedy. With previous Baron Cohen outings, lawsuits were never far away. That was certainly the case with 2006’s big-screen feature Borat: Cultural Learnings Of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation Of Kazakhstan. This $18m movie went on to gross $261,572,744 at the box-office. It featured only four actors, and one porn star (who played Borat’s teenage son), and it proved to be a new kind of film, mixing reality and fiction to dizzying effect. For this 84-minute film, Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles shot 400 hours of footage.
Unsurprisingly, a few of those featured in the movie – such as dinner host Cindy Steit, driving school owner Michael Psenicska and University of South Carolina fraternity brothers Justin Seay and Christopher Rotunda – sued, some claiming mistreatment and fraud, others claiming to have suffered “public ridicule, degradation and humiliation”. All the cases brought against the Borat movie were later dismissed. Even bad publicity is good publicity when you’ve got a product to sell but it helped, of course, that people actually liked the movie. Baron Cohen has spoken of one lawyer sending him a letter, informing him that he was about to be sued for $100,000 – “And at the end, he says, ‘P.S. Loved the movie. Can you sign a poster for my son Jeremy?’.” There wasn’t quite so much court action surrounding 2002’s Ali G Indahouse or 2009’s Bruno, but then, neither one of those outings made anything near Borat’s box-office.
Still, you can’t say that Baron Cohen doesn’t try and provoke, even after the litigation onslaught brought on by Borat. As Bruno, Baron Cohen interviewed Ayman Abu Aita, a one-time member of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Bridages, an organization responsible for numerous suicide bombings, and a man who served two years in prison on charges relating to shootings against Israeli soldiers. Claiming to be no longer active in the group, Abu Aita felt he was misrepresented in the film, and, at the time of the film’s release, he was planning to sue. When World Net Daily claimed to have received a statement from Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades threatening Baron Cohen’s life after the film’s world premiere, he increased his security detail. So, it’s perhaps understandable that with Baron Cohen’s latest movie, this particular dictator hails from the fictional Republic of Wadiya. The glorious nation of Kazhakstan was not happy about being lumbered with Borat. A meeting in 2006 between Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev and U.S. President George W. Bush had Kazakhstan’s post-Borat international image on the agenda. Nazarbayev then launced a multi-million dollar Heart Of Eurasia campaign to counter the Borat effect. Here was a man who plainly didn’t understand that the joke was on America, not Kazhakstan.
Baron Cohen is unlikely to have such troubles with The Dictator, keeping his creation a safe distance from the living. Said to be loosely based on the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi as well as a romance novel written by the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, the good news here is, hey, the dead can’t sue. Not quite Borat hilarious but certainly funnier than Bruno, as Chaplin did with The Great Dictator in 1940 – parodying Hitler as WW2 raged – Baron Cohen uses his latest comic creation to shine a light on some ugly truths once again, both at home and abroad. Such as America’s idea of democracy being ever similar to most people’s idea of a dictatorship. It’s a well-aimed punch to the stomach after all the belly-laughs of The Dictator.