Sacha Baron Cohen Wishes He Could Interview Alabama Abortion Bill Authors for 'Who Is America?'

"It's the kind of thing you can do once every dozen years," the actor told The Hollywood Reporter of his Showtime political satire series, which he has no plans of bringing back.
Michael Buckner/SHOWTIME
Sacha Baron Cohen at the 2019 Emmy FYC event for 'Who Is America?' at the Paramount Theatre.

In December, Sacha Baron Cohen confirmed to The Hollywood Reporter that he isn't planning another season of his political satire series Who Is America?. Without the element of surprise, he probably wouldn't be able to score interviews with political figures anymore. But sometimes, especially on days where states like Alabama pass sweeping legislation outlawing abortion, he wishes he could.

"When something like what happens today and something as reprehensible as that occurs, there is a part of me that wishes that I was undercover and interviewing the men who were passing that bill," he told THR on the red carpet Wednesday night at a For Your Consideration event for his Showtime series. "However, it's impossible now. It's the kind of thing you can do once every dozen years."

The top-secret project took many months to complete, during which Cohen was continually surprised by the things that his subjects — everyone from former Vice President Dick Cheney to O.J. Simpson — would say and do on camera.

"I was surprised, actually, how far people went on camera in Who Is America?," the actor said. "The language in politics has moved to a much more extreme and violent level, and that is reflected and exacerbated and amplified on the show. The last time I went undercover was actually doing a movie called Bruno, and what I've noticed is that the political landscape has become far more extreme. That's primarily because you have a president who is using extreme and racist language, so things that we would have found shocking and would have made a crowd, you know, their mouths open, aghast, in Borat now are the kind of utterances coming from the most powerful office in the country."

Cohen's targets would say and do some unbelievably inappropriate things on camera — one state congressman from Georgia exposed himself and yelled racial slurs during a segment — but the comedian had to stop himself from reacting in the moment.

"I have to keep a straight face because you have one take. The [shoots] can be anywhere from two hours long till, you know, we had one that was 14 hours long," he told THR. "I can't break character during that whole period because if there's any sort of chink in the armor, then, you know, I'm dealing with real people. Often they're very suspicious and sometimes paranoid, often very intelligent. I mean, look at Vice President Dick Cheney. And so if there's any glimpse that the person interviewing them is actually a comedian wearing a silicone mask, then the interview's over."

That Georgia lawmaker, Jason Spencer, eventually resigned — though it took days after the episode aired for him to do so — and it is still a little surprising to Cohen that the series was able to effect so much change.

"I was surprised that it had some effect, that a few people resigned. I mean, Jason Spencer, obviously, resigned. And he'd made some racist comments prior to the show. Congressman Rohrabacher lost his seat. I'm not going to claim that, but the campaign against him did use clips of the show. And I think that's an achievement because there are multiple allegations that he had been being paid by the Kremlin for many years. And obviously Sheriff Joe Arpaio believed that his senatorial race was ruined by the show. I think it's very generous of him to blame me. I think he should take some of the credit for that."

Arpaio isn't the only one who was upset with the show, following the airing of his segment — where he said he'd accept oral sex from President Donald Trump. Former Alabama senate candidate Roy Moore sued Cohen after his appearance, where he ended the interview early when Cohen's character used what he called a "pedophile detector" on the former judge, who was accused of sexual misconduct against teenagers.

"I'm not really at liberty to talk about them, unfortunately. But I'm fairly confident that pedophile detectors are not such a dangerous thing," he told THR of the lawsuits.

After a presentation of some of the series' biggest sketches, Cohen sat down with his friend Sarah Silverman for a discussion about the genesis of the series — the 2016 election was the catalyst, not surprisingly — and how long it took him to perfect the characters.

"It was basically for me to just get this anger out my system. So I should really credit Donald Trump as the creator of the show," he joked.

The characters came about essentially via an acting challenge he set for himself. He would create one new character each week for eight weeks, and do his best to convince people the character was real. He worked with a dialect coach to perfect each person's accent, sometimes learning it during the four hours he'd be sitting in a makeup chair having prosthetics applied.

And while many of his most famous targets made it on the show, several did not — including Sarah Palin, whose public outcry made headlines before Showtime had even announced the series. Since he'd already decided he wasn't going to do any press for the show, he said he almost felt relieved that Palin brought attention to the series.

Another big name who didn't make it to screen is Ben Carson, Housing and Urban Development secretary. While Carson showed up to the hotel room where Cohen was planning to interview him as his Finnish vlogger character OMGWhizzBoyOMG!, the production team didn't realize that the hotel was hosting a conference with multiple world leaders. That meant dozens more secret service officers were there, and they knew something was weird about what Cohen was planning to do. Carson's officers whisked him away, and Cohen had to make a dramatic escape from the hotel without the Secret Service stopping him and blowing his cover.

Occasionally, Cohen worked with law enforcement. After a Las Vegas hotel concierge offered to help cover up the pedophilia of Cohen's Italian photographer character, Gio Monaldo, and "disappear" a boy blackmailing him, Cohen and his team turned the footage over to the FBI.

Ultimately, Cohen reiterated that he couldn't do another season of the series if he wanted to.

"This type of stuff you would never be able to get past a publicist again," he told Silverman. "This was most popular in D.C., and this was in The Hill every day because they were people who were actually sometimes losing their jobs."

Silverman and Cohen riffed on current events throughout their conversation, including the Alabama abortion legislation and the Rothschild film that Mel Gibson recently booked. But ultimately, they said, they are talking about these things because they care about what is happening in the world today.

Cracked Cohen toward the end of the panel, "We're a bit concerned with what's going on."