Sacha Baron Cohen Explains Why He Stepped Out of the Shadows to Save Democracy — No Joke

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Eric Kohn
·11 min read
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ConsiderThis
ConsiderThis

It’s no easy feat to get Sacha Baron Cohen to explain himself. But with his dual roles in “The Trial of Chicago 7” and “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” making the rounds in awards season, he has no choice but to play the game. “I hate it,” he admitted in a recent phone interview. “It’s fucking horrible.”

However, he insisted that the real motivator was the message he’s been pushing for the past several years — a desire to speak truth to power, rid the world of Trumpism, and save America from itself. “I felt the stakes were higher than any of the movies I’ve done before,” he said. “I really didn’t want anything I’d done to be misconstrued.”

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Baron Cohen has been putting his life on the line for over 30 years. When he was 17 years old, he went to a neo-Nazi rally in London. Within a decade, he’d build a spate of comedic personas to goad real-life figures into revealing their biases, but back then he was just a young Jewish kid from Hammersmith lashing out against hate. It got heated.

“There were about 500 police officers and we were all screaming at each other,” the 49-year-old Baron Cohen said. Afterwards, he wandered into a bar with his brother, not realizing that it was frequented by skinheads. “I had a poster in my hand that said ‘Keep Nazis Off Our Streets,’” he said. “It was literally like a bad movie where the pub went completely silent.” He asked the bartender for two pints of beer. “He said, ‘We don’t serve beer here,’” Baron Cohen said. “That probably saved me from going to the hospital that day because we just walked out and nobody chased us.”

In the years since, Baron Cohen has been chased a lot. In one recent example, while shooting “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” he barely escaped a pro-gun rally with his life. For much of the production, he was disguised as the ignorant overseas journalist that has become his most popular avatar, reacting to shocked and angry subjects in real time. Cohen’s performance art antics stretch back 25 years and, even in their most lowball iterations, reflect the same activist instincts that radicalized him as a teen.

Yet even with Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” in which he portrays the zany Yippee iconoclast Abbie Hoffman, Baron Cohen’s socially-conscious instincts come through. He even interrupted the covert “Borat” sequel production to tackle the role, one of only a few dramatic opportunities he’s explored in a very selective career.

“I was always interested in what motivated people to be activists,” he said, referencing his undergraduate thesis on the “Black-Jewish alliance” of the 1960s, which became the de facto research for the Sorkin gig years later. “I’m nowhere near as courageous as Abbie Hoffman. He went to countless protests!” But it was studying Hoffman and his ilk, he added, that led Baron Cohen to radicalize his approach to comedy. “I had just wanted to be funny,” he said. “But they were ready to risk their lives against racism.”

These days, Baron Cohen understands that risk more than ever. Over the years, he has preferred to stay in the shadows rather than promote his work, allowing the targets of his satire and audiences worldwide to figure out his message on their own. However, the 2020 double-threat of “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” and “Chicago 7” has forced the actor to step into the spotlight to discuss his political inclinations and advocacy in more detail than ever before.

A cynical reading of this decision would suggest that the writer-actor-producer knows the score in Oscar season, where he’s on track to get nominated in several categories, including Best Supporting Actor for “Chicago 7” and possible Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor, and Best Picture opportunities for “Borat.” The “Wuhan Flu” song that Borat belts out at the gun rally is also in contention.

The promotional tour may be part of the deal. But his decision to speak out also serves as an extension of the instincts motivating him ever since the Trump Administration took hold in 2016. During the Obama years, Baron Cohen put Borat to bed, along with the other outré caricatures he deployed to goad people into revealing their biases that had flourished on “Da Ali G Show” and several movies since 2000. (“Bruno,” the gay news anchor designed to highlight homophobia, came and went in 2009.) He popped up in dramatic movies like “Hugo” and “Les Misérables” as well as his own scripted projects like “The Brothers Grimsby.” He even planned to play Hoffman in a Steven Spielberg project based on an earlier version of Sorkin’s script that never came to fruition.

When Trump came to power, Baron Cohen felt the urgency to get back to the work that made him famous in the first place. “I could’ve just been a straight-up comedian and been as funny as I could,” he said. “But I felt an obligation to not be a bystander during these hard times.”

Within two years, he’d launched a whole set of new characters, tricking everyone from Dick Cheney to Corey Lewandowski into looking ridiculous while discussing their beliefs. He even got Georgia representative Jason Spencer to participate in a grotesque, Islamophobic training exercise alongside the Baron Cohen alter ego Erran Morad, a phony Israeli counter-terrorist expert who played off the GOP’s worst instincts. Spencer resigned, and Baron Cohen considered writing a whole movie around Morad.

Then he briefly resurrected Borat during the 2018 midterms for a five-minute bit on Jimmy Kimmel “to do election tampering,” as the fake Kazakh character put it. Knocking on doors in Southern California, he found plenty of xenophobia lurking in the suburbs and suddenly it clicked. He burst into his writers room shortly afterward. “I just said, ‘Hold on,’” he recalled. “’Borat can exist undercover and work with Trump supporters. Is there a movie in that?’” Thirty minutes later, they had an idea of how it would work.

The rest is history, and compared to previous Baron Cohen outings, a well-documented one at that. The movie finds the fictional Kazakh journalist forced to return to America to present his daughter Tutar (newcomer Maria Bakalova) as a gift to Mike Pence, then Rudy Giuliani. America gets skewered every which way, from pro-life clinics to plastic surgeons to the conspiracy theory nuts with whom Baron Cohen lived, in character, for several days.

“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” cracked the national news cycle when Bakalova entered a New York City hotel room with Giuliani and he stuck his hands down his pants, with Borat bursting into the room before the situation got even dicier. It’s hard to argue with Baron Cohen’s assertion that this humiliating revelation helped further discredit Giuliani as he continued to peddle Trump’s lies throughout election season.

“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” ends with a plea: “Now vote…or you will be execute.” By then, Baron Cohen had already wrapped production on “Chicago 7,” which climaxes with Hoffman on the witness stand, ready to face charges for the protests he helped incite in 1968. “I think the institutions of democracy are wonderful things,” he says, “that right now are populated by some terrible people.”

Once again, the work speaks for itself. But Baron Cohen had more to say in blunter terms. Around the time of the Kimmel bit, he was reading the 2018 book “How Democracies Die,” by Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt when he had a revelation about Trump’s online vitriol. “Trump was just following the playbook of how to transition a democracy into an authoritarian regime,” Baron Cohen said. “He wasn’t mad. That was what compelled me to make two political movies, to speak out as myself, and to deliver a speech as myself about the dangers of social media.”

That speech came the following year, when he gave the keynote address to the Anti-Defamation League, taking aim at social media platforms that enabled racists and bigots to spew unfettered hate. It was a sobering performance filled with rousing calls for accountability, anticipated the eventual social-media exile that befell Donald Trump, and it was a far cry from Baron Cohen’s passive-aggressive history with the organization.

In a 2004 episode of “Da Ali G Show,” Baron Cohen famously used Borat to convince an Arizona country bar crowd to sing along with him as he belted out the lyrics to an anti-Semitic ditty with the lyrics, “Throw the Jew down the well.” The ADL’s top executive at the time, Abraham Foxman, publicly lambasted Baron Cohen for satire that could be mistaken for genuine anti-Semitism. “I never spoke to him,” Baron Cohen said. “For many years afterwards, my fake name on set was Abe Foxman.”

But he fared better with Foxman’s replacement, Jonathan Greenblatt, who invited Baron Cohen to give his speech. “Probably half my comedy has been absolutely juvenile and the other half completely puerile,” he told the crowd. “But one thing is pretty clear to me. All this hate and violence is being facilitated by a handful of internet companies that amount to the greatest propaganda machine in history.” A year later, he’d be living with men who believed in QAnon conspiracy theorists and tossing in Facebook-fueled Holocaust denial into the “Borat” sequel plot.

Baron Cohen excels at explaining himself, but rarely does it for the subjects of his jokes. There have been some exceptions, including the Labour Party leader Tony Benn, who was initially frustrated when Baron Cohen pranked him on “Da Ali G Show” until the actor picked up the phone. “He was originally upset because he didn’t know the nature of the show,” Baron Cohen said. “Afterwards, he realized young people were suddenly interested in his political views. I ended up being invited by his children to his funeral.”

Years later, after “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” he felt compelled to engage with Jeanise Jones, the babysitter who looks after Tutar and ends up teaching her about Western feminism. “You see her fundamental goodness and the way she has a positive impact on all those around her,” Baron Cohen said. He later donated $100,000 to help her church community.

Overall, Baron Cohen said he felt validated by his decision to remain in the background over the years. When a Fox executive screened the first “Borat” movie in 2006, Baron Cohen said, he was told, “You’ve made a comedy and a satire, you can’t have both, so I suggest you get rid of all the satire.” That didn’t take. “His opinion was that people in America wouldn’t understand the satire. I had a higher opinion of them,” Baron Cohen said. “They’re more sophisticated. Listen, the evidence is that really until this project I haven’t spoken out, and I think people have fully understood exactly what I was trying to do.”

That includes “Chicago 7,” a performance that elevates Sorkin’s talky script through the startling commitment that Baron Cohen brings to the story. Buried under an unkempt Jewfro and adapting Hoffman’s thick Boston accent, he seems to wink at the audience even as he educates them to his point of view.

This role positions Baron Cohen’s own career highlights in a broader historical context that extends beyond traditional comedic performers to include one of the great rabble-rousers of all time. Baron Cohen isn’t just good at playing Hoffman; he’s an heir to the Hoffman ethos. “My activism is part of the ultimate aim, which is making stuff that I’m proud of doing,” he said. “That’s probably why I do so little.”

Given his relatively spare resume, Baron Cohen sounded eager to complete his promotional responsibilities with the American election behind him. “I would far prefer to be anonymous, to be more of a Banksy type,” he said. “But I didn’t feel that I could look myself in the mirror if Trump had won, and I hadn’t done everything I could to play my part.”

For the moment, he has suggested that Borat and his fellow creations will go dormant as he settles back into more conventional opportunities (and raises his three children with his wife, actress Isla Fisher). But he never anticipated a “Borat” sequel in 2020 and acknowledged that the world would tell him what he needed to do next. “Much to my agent’s upset, there’s never really been a plan,” he said. “There have been a random series of acts. I’m very bad at planning for the future.”

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