Sacha Baron Cohen, dark clown

NYTIMES – 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”.

Sacha Baron 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.

Sacha Baron 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”.

Sacha Baron 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 Moviefilm: Delivery Of Prodigious Bribe To American Regime For Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation Of Kazakhstan, now streaming on Amazon, that will leave you gobsmacked.

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

I’ve 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 Baker III about why he used a system of carrots and sticks in international diplomacy. What if a country didn’t 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.

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

Baron Cohen, who just turned 49, 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’s 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 (ADL), 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, Baron 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 (Trump adviser) Stephen Miller’s Labradoodles.”

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Later he noted that while his stunts could be “juvenile” and “puerile”, at least some were aimed at getting people to reveal what they 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” advertisement 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 Baron 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

Baron Cohen 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 Hoffman.

“Essentially, he was trying to be a stand-up comedian,” Baron 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”, Baron Cohen is, 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 Miserables 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 Baron 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.”

Baron 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,” the actor said. “Now those inner prejudices are overt. Racists are proud of being racists.” When the president is “an overt racist, an overt fascist”, the actor 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 coronavirus 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 United States presidential election.

But the comedian was determined to get it on before election day on Nov 3 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.”

Fisher, a modern Carole Lombard who converted to Judaism for Baron Cohen, has said that it’s 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”.

Baron 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.”

Baron 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’re 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 Baron 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 Baron 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. 

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