Sacha Baron Cohen on his Borat sequel: The aim is to make people laugh, but also reveal perils of authoritarianism

Sacha Baron Cohen was determined to get the new Borat on a streaming service before Election Day because “we wanted it to be a reminder to women of who they’re voting for — or who they’re not voting for. If you’re a woman and you don’t vote against this guy, then know what you’re doing for your gender.”

The New York Times October 21, 2020 13:03:32 IST
Sacha Baron Cohen on his Borat sequel: The aim is to make people laugh, but also reveal perils of authoritarianism

Sacha Baron Cohen’s riotous characters have perhaps masked his dramatic abilities | By Buck Ellison © 2020 The New York Times

Borat uses the flower bed in front of the Trump International Hotel at New York City’s Columbus Circle as a men’s room.

Sacha Baron Cohen plays the cello and is planning to take some Zoom classes from the masters.

Borat keeps his teenage daughter in a cage. (“Is it nicer than Melania’s cage?” she wonders.) And when he takes her clothes shopping, he asks the saleswoman to direct them to the “No means Yes section.”

Cohen, who once dreamed of being a chef, loves to cook for his family.

Borat buys a chocolate cake, and asks the woman behind the counter to write, “Jews will not replace us” in icing — with a smiley face.

Cohen is an observant Jew who speaks Hebrew, and works with the Anti-Defamation League on “Stop Hate for Profit,” a campaign to stem the bile on social media.

Borat sings a ditty about the Wuhan flu and chopping up journalists “like the Saudis do.”

Cohen is Zooming in for an interview, sporting a black baseball cap, a black T-shirt, and a COVID-o’clock shadow.

We talk for two hours about everything from his riotous Borat sequel to how he fell in love with his wife, the flame-haired actress Isla Fisher, to how he prepared to play Abbie Hoffman in Aaron Sorkin’s new Netflix movie, The Trial of the Chicago 7, to how he decided to call out Mark Zuckerberg and “the Silicon Six.”

If you thought the comedian could never do anything wilder than getting Dick Cheney to sign a waterboarding kit for him in his 2018 Showtime series Who Is America?, you would be wrong. There is a scene with a top adviser to President Donald Trump in Borat Subsequent Movie Film: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan that will leave you gobsmacked.

Sacha Baron Cohen on his Borat sequel The aim is to make people laugh but also reveal perils of authoritarianism

Sacha Cohen Baron in Borat | Image from Twitter

They say Trump has destroyed satire. But Cohen proves that is not so.

I have been following his work, and pestering him for an interview, ever since he first hit America, masquerading as Ali G, a wannabe British rapper, and scamming unsuspecting dignitaries into interviews.

He quizzed a puzzled James A Baker III about why he used a system of carrots and sticks in international diplomacy. What if a country did not like carrots? What if its inhabitants preferred a different vegetable?

In 2003, Ali G pitched Trump about investing in an ice cream glove that would prevent your hand from getting sticky.

Sacha Baron Cohen on his Borat sequel The aim is to make people laugh but also reveal perils of authoritarianism

Sacha Baron Cohen as Ali G interviews Donald Trump | Image from Twitter

Trump, who walked out of the interview in disgust, told me afterward: “I thought he was seriously retarded. It was a total con job. But my daughter Ivanka saw it, and thought it was very cool.”

Cohen, who turned 49 this past week, said: “Obviously, I’ve realised that I’ve had a long-standing distaste for the president. That was why I wanted to interview him as Ali G.” He added, “His brilliance was to commandeer the very term that was being used against him, ‘fake news,’ and use it against every journalist that had journalistic integrity.”

The prankster has no problem sprinting out of a luxury hotel in New York and running down the street in lacy pink lingerie. But out of character, he is very private, even a bit shy.

He refused for many years to give interviews as himself. He would occasionally speak as his characters. He tended to let critiques pass without rebuttal, as when journalists wondered if Ali G was in the tradition of Al Jolson and when Abe Foxman, the former director of the Anti-Defamation League, criticised Borat, fearing the character could incite anti-Semitism because some people might miss the irony.

After the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, an appalled Baron Cohen reached out to Jonathan Greenblatt, the director of the ADL, who persuaded the star to give the keynote at last year’s ADL conference, Never Is Now.

“I was just so impressed by his intelligence,” Greenblatt said. “These issues are at the heart of his motive for his unique style of art. More than anyone in public life today, he exposes bias — whether it’s anti-Semitism, homophobia or rank racism — for what it is, shameful and wrenching and ignorant.” (In fact, Cohen used Hebrew and some Polish as a stand-in for the Kazakh language in Borat.)

The actor started his speech by saying that, to be clear, “When I say ‘racism, hate, and bigotry, 'I’m not referring to the names of Stephen Miller’s Labradoodles.” Later he noted that while his stunts could be “juvenile” and “puerile,” at least some were aimed at getting people to reveal what they actually believed, as “when Borat was able to get an entire bar in Arizona to sing ‘Throw the Jew down the well,’ it did reveal people’s indifference to anti-Semitism.”

Scorching the lords of the cloud, he said that Facebook would run and micro-target any “political” ad anyone wanted, even if it was a lie.

“If Facebook were around in the 1930s,” he said, “it would have allowed Hitler to post 30-second ads on his ‘solution’ to the ‘Jewish problem.’”

The speech catalysed the “Stop Hate for Profit” campaign, with a coalition of civil rights groups and Cohen wrangling celebrities. Doing the speech was “completely out of my comfort zone,” he said, because “I’ve always been reluctant to be a celebrity, and I’ve always been wary of using my fame to push any political views, really.”

Embedding With Conspiracy Theorists

Cohen actually started studying anti-Semitism at Cambridge University, when he wrote his thesis on “the Black-Jewish alliance” and identity politics in the civil rights movement. So he was primed to play the puckish Abbie Hoffman.

“Essentially, he was trying to be a stand-up comedian,” Cohen said of Hoffman, who was a founder of the Yippies and preached flower power. “He was very influenced by Lenny Bruce, and he realised that if he could make people laugh, he could get them engaged in the cause.”

While he calls himself “this comedian who’s dabbled in a bit of acting over the years,” Cohen is actually, like all great clowns — yes, he went to clown school, L’Ecole Philippe Gaulier — able to switch easily from light to dark.

(And, he has a terrific singing voice, which he showed off in Sweeney Todd, Les Misérables, and at David Geffen’s 75th birthday party, when he sang 'If I Were a Rich Man' from Fiddler on the Roof, and chaffed the billionaires and millionaires in the room that they made up “the world’s third largest economy.”)

Sorkin, who wrote and directed the Chicago 7 film, said that the day Cohen shot his scene on the witness stand reminded him of the day Jack Nicholson shot his courtroom scene in A Few Good Men, noting, “Everyone wanted to watch; 120 extras didn’t care that the camera wasn’t on them, they stayed to watch.”

Sacha Baron Cohen on his Borat sequel The aim is to make people laugh but also reveal perils of authoritarianism

By Buck Ellison © 2020 The New York Times

Cohen has been compared to a raunchy de Tocqueville, and he said he did see a huge change in American society from the time he first went out to shoot Borat 15 years ago to the time he made the sequel.

“In 2005, you needed a character like Borat who was misogynist, racist, anti-Semitic to get people to reveal their inner prejudices,” he said. “Now those inner prejudices are overt. Racists are proud of being racists.”

When the president is “an overt racist, an overt fascist,” he said, “it allows the rest of society to change their dialogue, too.

“My aim here was not to expose racism and anti-Semitism,” he said of the sequel. “The aim is to make people laugh, but we reveal the dangerous slide to authoritarianism.”

He pondered if America, under a second term for Trump, would “become a democracy in name only, similar to a Turkish democracy or a Russian democracy.”

He said he moved in with two conspiracy theorists for a few days for the new Borat to show “that they’re ordinary folks who are good people, who have just been fed this diet of lies. They’re completely different to the politicians who are motivated by their own power, who realised that they can create fear by spreading these lies through the most effective propaganda machine in history”: social media platforms.

I had thought that the satirist’s most challenging moment was when he fell asleep as Ali G, after drinking in Mississippi with two old Southern gents, and somehow, to the amazement of his terrified director, woke up in character.

But in the new Borat, filmed in part during the pandemic, he said “the hardest thing I had to do was, I lived in character for five days in this lockdown house. I was waking up, having breakfast, lunch, dinner, going to sleep as Borat when I lived in a house with these two conspiracy theorists. You can’t have a moment out of character.”

He said that when he was presenting Borat to streaming services, several were concerned by the political content and the idea of running it before the election.

But the comedian was determined to get it on before Election Day because “we wanted it to be a reminder to women of who they’re voting for — or who they’re not voting for. If you’re a woman and you don’t vote against this guy, then know what you’re doing for your gender.”

The B-List

I wonder if, with all the scenes of his narrow escapes from armed crazies, diving into trapdoors and vans, carrying a clipboard in case he needed to ward off bullets, his wife ever tells him that his job is too dangerous.

“If there’s anything dangerous that I’m going to do, I just don’t tell her until it’s over,” he said. “I made a mistake with her. She once came on set just for fun. On set means coming to the minivan, which carried me around when we were shooting ‘Bruno.’ And there ended up being a police chase. I was in a separate car and the police were trying to find me. She found the whole thing so upsetting, and she never came back on set again.”

Sacha Baron Cohen on his Borat sequel The aim is to make people laugh but also reveal perils of authoritarianism

By Buck Ellison © 2020 The New York Times

He had an early preview of Trump’s penchant for vengeance. Playing a prank at the 2012 Oscars, dressed up as his character in the movie The Dictator, he dumped the cremation “ashes” of Kim Jong II — really just flour — on Ryan Seacrest’s tuxedo. Trump, who used to spend an inordinate amount of time gossiping about celebrities, went nuts, tweeting and making a YouTube video about how rude the stunt was.

The real estate dealer said that Seacrest’s security guard should have “pummelled” and “punched” Cohen “in the face so many times, he wouldn’t have known what happened.” He said the comedian should have ended up in the hospital.

Recalling the bizarre incident, Cohen said, “I remember my late father watching Trump on the campaign trail in 2016. I said, ‘What do you think of him?’ He said: ‘Two things. He’s extremely entertaining. Far more entertaining than Hillary (Clinton). Two, he’s a fascist.’ My dad was born in 1932. He’d seen fascists on the streets, Mosley’s Blackshirts beating up Jews. And he knew what fascism was.”

Cohen's Jewish grandmother Liesel, a ballerina, fled Germany in 1936. She lived in Israel, and worked as a fitness instructor. Cohen filmed her lessons for a video — “Exercise for the Over 60’s” — and would send her a bouquet of flowers every week until she died. His mother also worked in fitness.

He said that his father, a native of Wales who was an editor on Fleet Street for a periodical called New Middle East, before he went into the clothing business, sat with him at the kitchen table, when he was still living at home, to edit his first Ali G script.

“He goes, ‘This is really funny, Sach,’” the son recalled, lighting up as he talks about his father. “He was a great supporter and a brave, courageous, hysterically funny man. I’m sure he would have preferred to be doing what I’m doing rather than sitting in as an accountant for a very small gentleman’s menswear business.”

The business, Cohen said, laughing, “was so unfashionable that many of the brands actually pulled their clothes out of my dad’s shop when they wanted to become fashionable again.”

Gerald Baron Cohen lived to see the son’s success. I met the parents at a Vanity Fair Oscar party once, and they were the most blissful people at that party, where stars often wander about looking bored or resigned. The father had on a jaunty hat, and glowed with pride when I asked about his son.

“That’s hilarious,” the younger Cohen said, when I remind him about the encounter. “You can only do this stuff if you feel loved and secure, and you don’t feel judged. They loved me being naughty, being funny, and potentially embarrassing them amongst their friends.”

He said that his father grew up in poverty, but his parents worked hard to get their three children into a good high school. Cohen did well enough on his tests and in his Cambridge interview to get a coveted slot to study history.

When he was unemployed, the 6-foot-3 Cohen briefly worked as a model. “Believe it or not,” he said, sounding a bit sheepish, “I did a tiny bit of work during a time where they didn’t want models who looked like models.”

He also tried to be a chef. “I finished high school, and there was a chef called Raymond Blanc, who got a Michelin star,” he said. “I went over to his restaurant, called Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, and I asked to work there, and he declined. He said I was too tall to work in the kitchen, and then I gave up my dream.”

“Recently, I was lucky enough to work in the kitchen at Le Bernardin in New York. I bumped into Eric Ripert and I told him I want to be a chef, and he goes, ‘Come over.’ It was amazing, because me and my brother spent three hours in the kitchen during their dinner service. It’s incredibly tiring, and then we’re in the way. I felt very bad about it.”

Sacha Baron Cohen on his Borat sequel The aim is to make people laugh but also reveal perils of authoritarianism

Sacha Baron Cohen and Isla Fisher | Image from Twitter

Fisher, a modern Carole Lombard who converted to Judaism for Cohen, has said that it is difficult to embarrass him.

“Listen, I do get embarrassed,” he said, but “when I go into character, I get fully immersed in it to the degree that I’m almost locked into the character.”

Cohen believes, as Abbie Hoffman said, that “Sacred cows make the tastiest hamburger.”

In Who Is America?, he satirised the left with a character who is a professor of gender and women’s studies at Reed College. The professor believes that “the world’s most dangerous chemical weapon is testosterone” and refers to “President Hillary Clinton.” He cycles, and wears an NPR T-shirt and a pink pussy hat, and says things like: “In our yurt, we try to challenge the gender stereotypes. My son, Harvey Milk, is not allowed to urinate standing up. And our daughter, Malala, is obliged to urinate standing up.”

Cohen explained that his aim was “to challenge and mock the absurdity of the extreme left, too,” faulting “the ineffectiveness of extremists on the left who are unable to ask a simple question because there’s so many qualifications before every sentence so that they don’t offend anyone.”

Other comedians speak of his work with awe, particularly the sketches mocking the left that surely hurt his award prospects in Hollywood.

If you wrote down a list of what constitutes excellence, said Bill Maher, it would be epitomised by Cohen. “Originality, courage, degree of difficulty, laugh-out-loud funny,” Maher said. “What he gets people to reveal about themselves, and in so doing, the country, is astonishing. He’s a genius in a league of his own.”

I ask Cohen how two A-list stars, who have three children, make it work. “Luckily, we’re not A-list,” he said. “I remember once in Hollywood, I was trying to avoid being photographed by paparazzi. I think I put something in front of my face when exiting a restaurant, and this photographer shouted, ‘You’re only a B-lister!’ And I said to Isla: ‘Oh, my God, we’re B-listers! We made it! We’re B-listers.’”

He mused that “it seems bizarre that we’re still married in Hollywood after so many years.”

They met in Sydney, Australia, circa 2000. Was he ensorcelled at first sight?

“She was hilarious,” he said. “We were at a very pretentious party, and me and her bonded over taking the mick out of the other people in the party. I knew instantly. I don’t know if she did.” He chuckled. “It’s taken her about 20 years to know.”

So what is he doing now that he can take a breath as his two movies open?

“Well,” Baron Cohen said, “I might try exercising again because I haven’t done that for seven months.”

Unless you count fleeing crazed Americans.

CONFIRM OR DENY

Maureen Dowd: You made your dad pose as a famous chef at your wedding?

Cohen: Correct. We had a secret wedding in Paris. And the ruse was that it was my father’s 70th birthday, and that he was a famous chef in England. That was how we avoided having photographers at the wedding. I trained him up to be in character. He said that his favourite dish that he created was L’oeuf Scrambled.

Dowd: You gave a Zoom toast at Larry David’s wedding to Ashley Underwood, who was a producer on Who Is America?

Cohen: Me and my wife introduced him to her at my birthday party. Together, we have set up three weddings.

Dowd: Your favourite Adam Sandler movie is You Don’t Mess With the Zohan.

Cohen: Listen, I actually tried to get that movie, to rewrite it, to appear in it.

Dowd: In character as Ali G in 2000, you played a limo driver in the video for Madonna’s 'Music.'

Cohen: Yes, that’s right.

Dowd: If Steve Mnuchin was not Treasury secretary, you think he would have produced the new Borat.

Cohen: No. I think he was one of the financiers of the first Borat.

Dowd: You got into day trading on Robinhood during the lockdown.

Cohen: I wish. Actually, I’ve lost a lot of money. I’m very bad at financial stuff.

Dowd: Most nights you spend doomscrolling on Twitter while watching The Great British Baking Show on Netflix.

Cohen: While I do occasionally tweet, I do not have access to Twitter. I think I’d be too infuriated with stuff, and I wouldn’t be able to control myself. When I write a tweet, I don’t have access to my account, so I need to send it to someone for them to actually put it up.

Dowd: You stayed at the home of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston while making Ali G.

Cohen: Correct.

Dowd: You are still friends with Pamela Anderson, who did a cameo in the first Borat.

Cohen: I was never friends with her. Borat was the reason she got divorced. She wrote that down on her divorce papers: “Reason to divorce: Borat.” She showed the movie at Ron Meyer’s house with Kid Rock. She hadn’t told him that she was in it. She texted me after the movie, and I said, “How did it go down?” And she goes, “Great, though I’m getting divorced.” I thought it was a joke but it was actually true.

Dowd: Your brother, Erran, a composer who wrote the music for Ali G, and wrote a new national anthem for Kazakhstan for the first Borat and did the music for the new one, also made the single greatest Hanukkah record ever made: 'Songs in the Key of Hanukkah,' featuring everyone from Chrissie Hynde to rapper Y-Love.

Cohen: Confirm

Dowd: You play the cello.

Cohen: Correct. In fact, my first ever TV appearance was playing cello in a program called Fanfare for Young Musicians.

Dowd: You cannot believe that Tom Hayden got Jane Fonda.

Cohen: Yes, I can’t.

Borat sequel will start streaming on Amazon Prime Video on 23 October.

Maureen Dowd c.2020 The New York Times Company

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