Sacha Baron Cohen: ‘If you’re protesting against racism, you’re going to upset some racists’

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‘I’ve never really cared much what people I don’t respect thought of me’ … Sacha Baron Cohen. Photograph: Buck Ellison/New York Times/Redux/eyevine
The Guardian -by Catherine Shoard

Stopping Trump, reforming Facebook and risking his life to make a Borat sequel. In an exclusive interview, the actor unveils his plans for a revolution – and reveals how it feels to come out as himself

Seven months ago, Sacha Baron Cohen was in the back of a speeding ambulance. It was an escape car, and he was fleeing a gun rally. The Borat producers had chosen the ambulance as it could blend in, accommodate a small film crew and, if necessary, hasten a trip to hospital.

Baron Cohen – dressed as Borat, himself disguised as a country singer – had just led the crowd of far-right conspiracy theorists in a singalong. At first, they happily joined in: “Obama, what we gonna do? / Inject him with the Wuhan flu.” Then one or two smelled a rat. Then they all stormed the stage.

“I was watching, terrified, on a monitor,” says writer Peter Baynham. “I saw a guy heading towards him with a pistol and I realised Sacha didn’t know.” The security team waggled frantically. But even as the danger became plain, says Baynham, “you could see Sacha thinking: did I nail that last verse? He’s obsessive about getting as good a take as possible. That’s why he might have hung on a little bit too long.”

Baron Cohen then legged it (he’s 6ft 3in, which comes in handy) and jumped on to the ambulance. The door was torn open again from outside. Baron Cohen used his entire body weight to heave it shut and they drove off.

 

This was business-as-usual on the shoot for Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, which saw a triumphant and topical return for Baron Cohen’s bumbling Kazakh reporter. In Georgia, a dozen drunk fathers grabbed their guns after a graphic fertility dance performed by Borat and his daughter, Tutar, at a debutante ball.

At last February’s Conservative Political Action Conference, security captured and interrogated a mysterious Donald Trump impersonator who had interrupted Mike Pence’s speech to offer him the woman over his shoulder.

In July, the NYPD were summoned to a hotel bedroom after a man in “a crazy pink transgender outfit” burst in on Rudy Giuliani as he was debriefing with a young TV journalist.

“It was the hardest movie to make that I’ve ever heard about,” says Baron Cohen. “Maybe apart from Fitzcarraldo. The director was taking risks very few directors in the history of film have taken: being chased by an angry mob, armed to the teeth. When people are triggered in a crowd, certain things can happen they wouldn’t do individually.”

Today, Baron Cohen, 49, is speaking from the safety of the home he shares with his wife, Isla Fisher, and their three children. Palm trees wave behind his head. He’s having a croissant. In London, I’m ready for bed. He won’t say where he is, for security reasons.

“I’ve had threats since Ali G and in my experience publicising them only does one thing: lead to more threats. We are in a very violent time. If you’re protesting against racism, you’re going to upset some racists.”

Baron Cohen is the most inspired and inventive figure in big-screen comedy so far this century. He is the first British comedian to crack American cinema since Peter Sellers or, perhaps, Monty Python. Yet – or, perhaps, because – of this, he has only given a handful of print interviews out of character. This is his first for a British newspaper.

There are a number of reasons he’s doing it: an awards push, a record-straightening, an opportunity to impress on people the need for urgent social, political and technological revolution (of which, more later). I also wonder if he ever thinks: just in case. Everyone I speak to about Baron Cohen says they worry about him. They all gawp at just how literally he puts his life on the line.

“There was no question he had taken his mind to the place of, what if people try to kill him,” says Eddie Redmayne, his co-star on The Trial of the Chicago 7. He recently asked Baron Cohen if he had been able to sleep before a big day on Borat. Not much, he replied. You keep running through what might go wrong.

One morning, Baron Cohen had a panic attack. He was in a remote log cabin with two Trump-supporting conspiracy theorists, Jim and Jerry, at the start of a planned five-day stay. “It was 6am and I started pacing around my room, thinking, how am I going to keep in character? They’re going to see through me. It was bloody terrifying.”

The previous morning, the director, Jason Woliner, realised that although the pair hadn’t heard of Borat, they did know of Kazakhstan. Cue two hours of Baron Cohen furiously mugging up on Belarus. “There was so much reality setting off-camera,” says Woliner. “No one would ever imagine a fake would go to such lengths.” Borat’s clothes were never laundered. “All washing was prohibited. He always smelled terrible. And we concocted a spray to heighten it.”

Every second had to be consistent, says Baron Cohen, every move – sitting, eating, drinking – immaculate. “If they went to the toilet after Borat they had to believe somebody from a very primitive central Asian country had just been.” What does that mean? “There was some potpourri in there and I chucked that in. And I can’t remember whether I flushed.”

For Baynham, monitoring the log-cabin shoot was like watching “a very strange experiment”. “I’ve worked with Sacha for 16 years but I still get taken in by Borat. Sometimes, you’d think: is he doing a bit, is he getting their trust or has he gone full Daniel Day-Lewis? But at the same time he was also himself, a month on, in the edit suite. So he’d find a way, in Borat’s voice, to tell the crew we needed to get a wide-angle shot or that the camera was too high.”

Trump appealed to predominantly white men with a feeling of emasculation who felt threatened by the rise of women

The assumption was that Borat’s retirement could not be reversed. Surely the success of his first outing – and 2009’s Bruno – made future dupes impossible? For a decade, Baron Cohen hadn’t tried. Instead, he acted in an Oscar-winning Martin Scorsese movie (Hugo), two musicals (Sweeney Todd and Les Misérables), a couple of Will Ferrell films, three Madagascar animations and one TV drama about an Israeli agent (The Spy).

He also wrote and starred in a couple of scripted comedies: The Dictator (2012), which was well-received, and Grimsby (2015), which wasn’t. Critics sniffed. Baron Cohen was accused of punching-down. Audiences steered clear.

“Any flop is difficult,” says Baron Cohen. “But in retrospect, the experience was fantastic. I was on the trajectory of a comedy movie star in Hollywood where you make a certain amount of movies that have to do well at the box office. The great thing about having a complete bomb was being liberated from that.”

He grins: bright incisors not completely uniform, the better to blend into places other than Hollywood. He wears a white shirt and has very speaking eyebrows: thick black circumflexes that add considerable dash. He looks very scrubbed; more clean-cut than you might expect.

He is also, on Zoom, immediately likable. His voice is pure north London sark but he speaks with a fluency and directness that mean you swallow statements you know can’t be quite true. He discloses just enough – “even in this conversation, Catherine, I’m trying not to slip up” – to counter the smoothness.

He answers most questions but abruptly ducks a couple. Redmayne speaks – fondly – of a “sensitivity” and “neurosis” that does sometimes seem to pop up. But warmth wins. The overall impression is of a chess champion who spends quite a lot of time with cabbies.

Anyway, as he says, everyone hated Grimsby, which was great because any plans for blockbuster domination were scrapped. And at the same time, Donald Trump came to power. “The moment they issued the Muslim ban, I was so repulsed I thought I had to do something. So I went back to creating characters, with the aim of infiltrating Trump’s inner circle.” This led, in 2018, to Who is America? an extraordinary TV series in which a host of new stooge interviewers bag dozens of Republican scalps.

Among them Dick Cheney, who signs a waterboard, countless law-makers who endorse a “Kinderguardian” programme to arm toddlers in schools, and Republican state senator Jason Spencer, who required little persuasion to repeatedly yell the N-word, do a lively impression of a Chinese tourist, drop his underpants and upskirt a woman in a burqa.

Spencer quit. But the bigger threat remained – indeed, he was only getting more dangerous. “Trump was really just following step-by-step the classic authoritarian arc of how to transform a democracy into an autocracy,” says Baron Cohen. “He was completely following the path.”

Hence Borat 2. Its mission – to sway voters in advance of the presidential election – was baked into the concept. Baron Cohen told prospective crew members: “‘We are concerned about what will happen if Trump wins and want to make this movie as a protest. Would you join us?’” If they were risking violence or imprisonment, it was helpful they knew there was more at stake than slapstick.

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm was released 10 days before polls closed. Did it work? Perhaps. The Biden team were, reports Baron Cohen, “very happy” about the footage of Rudy Giuliani horizontal on a hotel bed, hand down his trousers. Trump’s personal attorney had already been booked on countless news shows to peddle tales of Hunter Biden’s laptop.

“Suddenly he was having to try to explain that he wasn’t playing with himself. It was such a close election that everything in those final weeks was crucial.” Giuliani was discredited. But he wasn’t destroyed; his behaviour on-brand enough for Trump to stick with him.

“The government was always proud of its misogyny,” says Baron Cohen. “It got elected after it was publicised Trump suggested grabbing women’s genitalia. He appealed to people with a feeling of emasculation, who were threatened by the rise of women. Predominantly white men who felt that they had lost their advantage.”

Three of the four female writers nominated this year by the Writers Guild of America (out of a total of 24) worked on the film. They were the driving force behind the “moon blood” dance, which ends with Borat’s daughter, Tutar, proudly displaying her inordinately stained knickers and thighs.

It was all part of the film’s empowerment agenda. “Why should a woman be embarrassed about what is completely natural – menstruating,” says Baron Cohen. Adds Maria Bakalova, who plays Tutar: “Women should not try to change our bodies to please society or men. And we were both so happy that this would make every little girl proud she has a period.” I’m not entirely certain this admirable message fully transmits in the movie, but it’s clear even the most gross-out gags were strategic.

Everything was intentional, says Baron Cohen. It was crucial that the film’s “fairy godmother” – Tutar’s babysitter, Jeanise, appalled by Borat, who teaches Tutar self-worth – was a woman of colour. “We knew that ultimately it would be women and people of colour who would swing the vote.”

Borat is the most notorious and most amusing of Baron Cohen’s two-year, three-pronged attack on populist proto-dictators and the unchecked websites that enable them. Also released shortly before the election was The Trial of the Chicago 7, Aaron Sorkin’s courtroom drama – also a rallying cry to dissent.

In the film, Baron Cohen plays Abbie Hoffman, the counterculture campaigner and sometime standup best known for co-founding the Youth International party (Yippies). Baron Cohen first encountered his work writing his undergraduate thesis about Jewish involvement in the black civil rights movement. “He was so pivotal. An exuberant fool but underneath a very specific, brilliant, intelligent activist.”

When a movie about the moment Hoffman and six other anti-Vietnam protesters stood trial for inciting riots was first mooted in 2007, Baron Cohen rang its then-director, Steven Spielberg, to try to audition, despite other actors – Heath Ledger, Philip Seymour Hoffman – already being attached.

His approach to the role is the same as it is with Borat, he says: immersive and meticulous. Hoffman’s accent, for instance – which Spielberg advised him to work on – is “really specific: Boston with a bit of Brandeis [a liberal arts university] mixed with Berkeley. His pitch jumps an octave when he gets excited or inspires people. Almost to this falsetto, a kind of shrieking yiddish mama.” He studied the loping walk, the poise, the wardrobe.

I can appreciate the process is similar. But the payoff must be dramatically different. Borat director Jason Woliner wistfully remembers the thrill of being part of “a band of righteous bank robbers, riding into town” – something absent from regular scripted work.

There wasn’t quite the same adrenaline rush, Baron Cohen concedes. There’s always the safety net of another take. “But when a scene goes well, and Aaron Sorkin comes up to you and says, that was perfect. Then you have an incredible sense of satisfaction that’s similar.”

That this may be true says much about Baron Cohen’s eagerness to be a serious actor. His most passionate ambition out of Cambridge was to join the Theatre de Complicite (he drifted into Ali G while dabbling in presenting). “He does take that craft seriously,” says Woliner. “He may still be left with a desire to show that he’s not just a provocateur. I wonder if he feels the derring-do element of Borat overshadows the acting work.”

He does, it turns out. Baron Cohen talks about how his awards chances for the first Borat may have been hurt by not doing press. How the Screen Actors Guild deemed Who is America? ineligible in all categories. “They said it wasn’t a comedy performance,” he says. “That it didn’t qualify as acting.” In fact – a little bristle – making so many characters plausible in the real world in such a compressed timespan “was the hardest acting challenge of my life”.

If that was the hardest, and Borat the riskiest, Hoffman is the most personal. Discussing the film is as much evangelism about his hero as movie publicity. The connective tissue between the two men is so strong because one of them part-modelled himself on the other. Now, Baron Cohen speaks about Hoffman in the same language others employ to describe him. “He understood the power of humour to expose the ills of society and humble those in power. With laughs, he could gain attention and recruit more people to his cause.”

Back when he’d rung Spielberg, “there was a lot of apathy”. By the time the movie was finally made, the murder of George Floyd had reignited the Black Lives Matter movement and other protests around the world were making the headlines. “The point of the movie was for you to come out and go: ‘I would love to be one of the Chicago seven. I would love to go out and protest when I felt democracy or justice was in peril.’”

Never let it be said Baron Cohen refuses his own medicine. In November 2019, on one of his free days from the Chicago 7 shoot, he made his first ever public speech out of character. It was to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and was an astonishing broadside against social media sites which sanctioned hate speech, in particular Holocaust denial. Facebook, said Baron Cohen, was “the greatest propaganda machine in history” and Hitler would have loved it.

And this is the third prong of Baron Cohen’s new activism, and the one that continues to skewer. It’s also the one that has had the most quantifiable effect. The speech went viral. A chord was struck. A member of the Silicon Six – the billionaires running the tech companies who Baron Cohen accused of profiteering through the dissemination of dangerous untruths – rang him saying he wanted out. Facebook made changes. Others followed suit.

Along with ADL, headed by Jonathan Greenblatt, Roger McNamee, an early investor in Facebook and mentor to Mark Zuckerberg who since written a book criticising the site’s business model, and a consortium of civil rights organisations, Baron Cohen founded an action group: Stop Hate for Profit. Under their aegis, campaigns were launched. In June, Coca-Cola, Microsoft and Starbucks were persuaded to pull ads from Facebook until inclusivity and ethics goals were met.

In September, Baron Cohen called the cavalry for a one-day freeze of Instagram and Facebook accounts. “I can’t sit by and stay silent while these platforms continue to allow the spreading of hate, propaganda and misinformation,” Kim Kardashian West informed her 270 million followers. Baron Cohen had discovered that the best way to undermine social media companies was to use their own algorithms against them. A career spent undercutting the entertainment establishment had won him the respect and friendship of enough of its stalwarts to mean he could bring things down from within.

Shortly after, Facebook “banned QAnon and Holocaust deniers,” says Baron Cohen. “They took down a Trump post saying flu was worse than Covid. They banned political ads after the polls closed on election day, they added labels and notifications about the actual election results. Facebook and Twitter did more in a few weeks than they’d done in a few years.”

It had worked. But it nearly never happened. Months of coercion was needed, says Greenblatt, to persuade Baron Cohen to come out as himself, after so many years of careful concealment. The idea of becoming a celebrity with a cause was anathema.

He reconciled himself to a ruined career. “Eventually, I felt it’d be OK because I’ve achieved more than I ever would have dreamed of. Having had my own TV show was unbelievable. The fact that I got to make my own movie was beyond my wildest dreams.”

People are dying because the internet is unregulated

And then, in the end, “I didn’t feel I had a choice. If social media wasn’t reformed, Trump would definitely win. Because he could only do so by propagating lies about voter fraud, the danger of certain ethnic minorities, of violence, of the Black Lives Matter movement, of Antifa.

“I thought I would feel really upset with myself on November 4th if I hadn’t done my tiny bit to try to stop Trump getting reelected and dismantling American democracy into something similar to what we see in Russia and Turkey. And I felt that other populists would do the same around the world.”

Fair enough. There’s nothing like the prospect of guilt about the death of global democracy to motivate you. “The level of intensity and preparation and anxiety was remarkable,” says Greenblatt. He was surprised such a seasoned performer was so nervous.

Friends of Baron Cohen since childhood suggest the ADL speech was the work to which he has devoted the most energy. And this is a man notorious for his industry – and expectation of it in others. A Harvard commencement address as Ali G in 2004 went far above and beyond. A brief acceptance speech for a comedy award in 2013 became, says Baynam, “a massive production” involving a stuntwoman, a wheelchair and a fake death announcement. An invite to the Oscars means 40 minutes in the disabled loo with his wife as she covertly stuck on his Ali G goatee or chucking an urn of “Kim Jong-il’s ashes” over unamused red carpet host Ryan Seacrest.

For Baron Cohen, making the move into the public eye was also an admission that his art had not been quite enough. “Maybe an observant viewer” would have clocked the message earlier, he thinks. But the climate had evolved rapidly. Back in 2006, Borat revealed the US’s worst prejudices and everybody gawped. Fourteen years on, people seemed more than happy to proclaim them as openly as possible.

Yet Borat 2 is also the kinder movie. A substantial number of its hoodwinked victims acquit themselves honourably. Many of the stings turn into an affirmation of common humanity. Most crucially, says Baron Cohen, in the case of Jim and Jerry. They may have subscribed to the belief that the Clintons drink the blood of kidnapped children, and are presumably crestfallen at Trump’s defeat. But they also welcomed a very weird foreigner into their homes during a pandemic, came to care for him and even encouraged him to think more progressively about his daughter.

“People who believe in conspiracies are not necessarily bad people. The problem with social media is that it’s impossible to distinguish fact from fiction. If you believed in 2016 that Trump was part of a group of paedophiles who were cannibals and he had stolen the election and there was an incredible threat to children and American democracy, I think a lot of liberals and Democrats would have said: You know what? We have to go to the Capitol.”

Fostering further division in the wake of such insurrection is, says Baron Cohen, obviously unhelpful. “Trump got 10 million more votes than he received in 2016. You have a hugely aggrieved section of the American population and that can be amazingly dangerous. Germany post-world war one: a huge section of the population also believed in a big lie.”

The ADL speech was also an acknowledgment that Baron Cohen’s powers of private persuasion had been inadequate. For years, he had ineffectually bent the ears of the rich and famous. Bigwigs in Silicon Valley. Jeff Bezos. Jean-Claude Juncker, at a children’s hotel in Austria. George Osborne, at a party at Tom Hooper’s house. “I told him the government’s policy towards Syrian refugees was immoral. He basically said: ‘Hold on. I thought you were going to do some funny Ali G stuff.’” Baron Cohen continued regardless. “I’ve never really cared much what people I don’t respect thought of me.”

It’s hard to know exactly how he feels about those who once rebuffed him. One day when we speak he says of the celebrities he tried to get onboard about the dangers of social media: “They know who they are and they weren’t interested.” A week later, he’s more lenient. “A comedian comes up to you in a restaurant and tries to convince you your whole worldview is immoral. It’s pretty easy to dismiss them. I don’t blame people. And I’m known as a troublemaker.”

Baron Cohen is friends with David Baddiel and Seth Rogen, Sarah Silverman and Amy Schumer. Does he see himself as part of a new movement of Jewish comedians who have become increasingly forthright in smacking down hate speech?

“I think most Jewish performers actually do not move into activism,” he says. “I think there’s generally a tradition if you’re Jewish and you’re in the spotlight of being very, very quiet. The vast majority of Jewish entertainers or performers or actors have never, ever come out as Jewish.”

He mentions Harrison Ford, Bob Dylan, Peter Sellers. “How many of them actually were public about their ethnicity? I think there was probably a fear that they’d become less popular as it reminded the audience that they were different. I think you’re generally gently nudged into being quiet about it.”

One issue on which Baron Cohen does not want to break silence is the fallout from the case of Judith Dim Evans, the Holocaust survivor who, with her friend, fed and embraced Borat, despite ample evidence of antisemitism. The producers claim both women were let in on the joke after the scene wrapped, but this was disputed by Dim Evans’ estate (she died a few months after filming). Their case was dismissed a few months ago, and the film ends with a tribute to Dim Evans.

I wonder how much this offence taken by those he was trying most to defend affected Baron Cohen, but he’s not minded to say. Greenblatt thinks considerably. “He had a legitimate concern that regardless of his intent his art had the potential to be mischaracterised. And when that was questioned I think that was really hurtful.”

To most people to whom I speak, Baron Cohen’s Judaism is pivotal. Woliner points to how much more recent the trauma of the Holocaust was when they were both growing up. This may have given him “a fearlessness in the face of institutions. If he believes he’s right about something he’s just you really can’t convince him otherwise. He believes very deeply when he believes. And I imagine a good deal of that has to do with his Jewish upbringing.”

Baron Cohen’s time after college in a kibbutz, thinks Talladega Nights director Adam McKay, showed him that “putting a spoon full of white nationalism into that hungry dog’s mouth can be, and has been, catastrophic.”

Greenblatt goes further: “There is something deeply Jewish about his commitment to justice. To give voice to the voiceless. There’s a long legacy of Jews who have used their art to convey powerful truths. Sacha is part of the venerated tradition.” He is, he says, after a little reflection, a Tzadik: the Hebrew word for a righteous person. “That’s no small thing. It’s a very rare designation.” It is: the word is generally reserved for biblical figures and spiritual masters.

Whether he likes it or not, Baron Cohen is a transformed man, at least in the eyes of others. The veneration among his acolytes is hard to understate. Sorkin tells me: “He’s on the side of the angels.” To Bakalova, he’s “my teacher, my mentor, my non-biological parent figure … the smartest person I’ve ever met … the true version of a hero”. For McNamee, he’s “indisputably a thought leader and catalyst for action” who stands alone in a world of celebrities effecting real change. “He’s got serious political chops. I don’t see any limit on what he could do.”

Baron Cohen is unlikely to quit activism any time soon. Section 230 – the legislation that gives internet companies immunity from the consequences of third party publications – remains in place. He organises Zoom symposiums with academics and, says McNamee, is highly engaged on the Stop Hate for Profit groupchat at least five days a week.

Baron Cohen is my teacher, my mentor … the smartest person I’ve ever met … the true version of a hero

And, if anything, the battle has never been more pressing. The threat that social media could help kill democracy may have abated, but the conspiracy theories now being spread are more immediately lethal. “People are dying because the internet has not been regulated,” says Baron Cohen. “The length of the pandemic depends to no insignificant degree on whether conspiracies about the vaccine are spread on social media.”

At the moment, Baron Cohen has little time to plan future comedy, let alone more Borat. He would like an easier life, he grins. He envies colleagues who waltz off to the golf course. But he doesn’t, really – does he? What about their souls?

“Ooh. I dunno. That’s a complicated question. But they have a much more enjoyable life than somebody who’s trying to fix problems that are almost insurmountable. This isn’t something that’s going to be resolved fast.”

If it takes a decade, it takes a decade. “Generations will look back at this period as absolute madness. It’s like we’re at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and still have naked children going up chimneys and having their limbs broken when they get stuck. We are at the start of a huge revolution in the history of the world.”

Exactly what Baron Cohen’s role in the revolution will end up being is history unwritten. The last word goes to McKay, the one dissenting voice when I asked if Baron Cohen would make the ultimate sacrifice for the cause.

“I think Sacha would go to jail for the revolution,” he says. “Or suffer blacklisting or surveillance. But I know for sure he’d give his life for a big laugh.”

 

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