'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Sacha Baron Cohen ('Who Is America?')

Sacha Baron Cohen - Getty - H 2018
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"Listen, I'm a comedian, I'm not a politician," says Sacha Baron Cohen, one of the most revolutionary and outright hilarious figures in the history of comedy, as we sit down at the offices of The Hollywood Reporter to record an episode of THR's 'Awards Chatter' podcast. The 47-year-old, who has given interviews out of character only a handful of times, continues, "I have no obligation to be moral or ethical. In fact, people from my profession are generally assumed to be deeply unethical. However, we [Cohen and his collaborators] try to do the right thing. Nobody is misedited. We have strict journalistic standards, even though we're not obligated to because it's a comedy show."

Some 20 years ago, Cohen began creating wacky characters and taking them out into the world to interact with unsuspecting people, a form of comedy that hadn’t been done before. He did so on local TV in the U.K.; then on Da Ali G Show, which ran on Channel 4 for one season in 2000 and two seasons on HBO from 2003 through 2004; and also in films centered on the characters for which he first became famous: Ali G, a white Brit posing as a gangsta (2002’s Ali G Indahouse); Borat Sagdiyev, a Kazakh TV personality dispatched to America (2006’s Borat, for which Cohen was nominated for a best original screenplay Oscar and won a best actor in a musical or comedy Golden Globe); and Bruno, a gay Austrian fashion enthusiast (2009’s Bruno).

Over the last few years, though, Cohen has been rather quiet, leading many to assume that his personal fame and that of his characters precluded him from continuing to do the sort of work for which he became internationally known. But this year, along came Showtime’s Who Is America?, on which, through the brilliance of Cohen's abilities and the magic of makeup and hairstyling, he took new characters out into the world for the first time in 15 years, exposing bigotry, hypocrisy and general stupidity throughout American society. And, for his efforts, which have left not just TV viewers but countless fellow comedy titans buzzing with laughter and amazement, he has been nominated for the best actor in a TV musical or comedy Golden Globe.

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Cohen was born and raised in London, the youngest of three children — all boys — whose British father was a journalist turned accountant and whose Israeli mother was a fitness instructor. The family, which was Jewish and "always very proud of our cultural identity," bonded over comedy, and Cohen recalls consuming everything from Monty Python to Peter Sellers. Despite being "a white middle-class Jewish kid," Cohen also came to love hip-hop (he was "obsessed" with a white DJ named Tim Westwood who represented himself as a gangsta) and became a breakdancer (often donning ski goggles while performing). As he puts it, "I basically, at the age of 11 and 12, was a real-life Ali G."

Writing and performing sketch comedy became Cohen's passion shortly before he headed off to university. He first tried his hand at it as part of Habonim Dror, a Jewish youth group, and applied to Cambridge hoping to be accepted into Footlights, the drama club famous for its comedy. He gained admission to Cambridge, but was repeatedly rejected by Footlights, which prompted him to begin studying acting elsewhere. His main focus of study, though, was history, which led him to write a dissertation on the role that Jews played in the U.S. Civil Rights movement — research for which brought him, for the first time, to America, where he was a fish out of water. "It was a bit like Borat," he chuckles.

Cohen's dissertation was well-received and he graduated with honors. He was encouraged to pursue a Ph.D., and began to do so before experiencing an awakening. "I was so bored," he says. "I thought, 'Am I going to spend the next three years in the library by myself?' And I decided, 'No, I'm going to try and become an actor or a comedian.'" He continues, "I gave myself five years to be able to — not 'make it,' but to manage to pay for my lifestyle." While working as a waiter, he performed stand-up as characters he concocted; he did a double-act with one of his brothers that became his first content ever to appear on TV; and he ultimately landed a job hosting a debate show on a small cable network — which he decided to intersperse with commentary from five characters he also played.

At the age of 24, during the filming of one such segment in which he was inhabiting an early version of Ali G, Cohen went out into the street, noticed a group of teenage skateboarders and decided to try to interact with them in-character. He explains, "At this point, to my knowledge, there were no other comedians who were interacting with members of the real public. There was no kind of 'reality comedy.' So this was a kind of pivotal moment in my life." The bit played like gangbusters and, Cohen says proudly, "We kind of accidentally discovered this new form of comedy." A week later, he created the character Borat.

Cohen then pitched an "undercover character comedy" series to Channel 4, which rejected his idea. But a year later — just as Cohen's self-imposed five-year deadline was about to hit — the network re-approached him with an invitation to audition to host the network's version of The Daily Show, The 11 O’Clock Show. He instead asked to become a contributor on the show, was hired and in 1998 debuted the character Ali G. "I became famous extremely quickly," Cohen recalls — or at least Ali G did, as clips of the character quickly began circulating as email attachments, making Ali G, in England, at least, "a household name." This, in turn, led Channel 4, in 2000, to greenlight Da Ali G Show — which featured Ali G, Borat, and a new Cohen character, Bruno — which Cohen subsequently took to America.

"It's not just comedy interacting with real people," Cohen emphasizes. "By presenting people with these very extreme characters who they believe are real, they actually open up and reveal themselves." The lengths to which Cohen has been willing to go to evoke such essential truths are almost limitless — the authorities have been called on him dozens of times, his safety has frequently been jeopardized and he displays no discernible personal shame when he is in-character. "I don't think it's fearlessness," he says, "because I get very scared. But even when I'm really scared, I want the piece to be really funny, so I try and overcome my extreme fear."

What then led Cohen to the big screen? "I always had a dream, which was to make one classic comedy film," he volunteers. He hadn't had a great experience with Ali G Indahouse, but he says he consulted with comedy legend James L. Brooks and came to the conclusion that "a reality movie" might indeed be possible. That led to Borat, one of the most popular and influential film comedy films ever made, which, in turn, was followed by Bruno and then a scripted project, 2012’s The Dictator, in which Cohen plays General Aladeen, a dictator of a North African country who winds up in America. (All three films were directed by Larry Charles.) In promotion of The Dictator, Cohen, in-character, famously emptied "Kim Jong Un's ashes" on an unsuspecting Ryan Seacrest while walking the Oscars red carpet in 2012.

Cohen, it should be noted, is not just a comedian, but also an actor, and he has proven that via his performances in films for a number of first-class directors including Adam McKay's Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006), Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd (2007), Martin Scorsese's Hugo (2010) and Tom Hooper's Les Miserables (2012). "I've been extremely fortunate in that those directors early on realized that there was a degree of acting skill in what I was doing in Da Ali G Show and Borat," he says. Still, he knows that he will always be most closely associated with undercover character comedy — which presented something of a conundrum when he and his characters became so well known that he could no longer work undercover.

Cohen had long thought that makeup and hairstyling might be a way around this challenge, but it wasn't until recently that it became possible to provide him with the sort of long-lasting get-ups that he would need to return to the game. (Tony Gardner, a makeup artist who worked on the film Bad Grandpa, showed him how it could be done.) And it wasn't until the 2016 election of Trump — who Cohen had interviewed on Da Ali G Show in 2003, and who subsequently "suggested that I should end up in hospital" — that Cohen decided he had to do so. "I was angry and I felt I needed to do something to let my anger out," he explains, "and that turned into creativity."

Cohen came up with 10 new characters, six of whom made it onto what ultimately became Who Is America?. "There's a huge amount of research and study and prep that goes into all the characters because they have to be real," he says. "With each of these characters, I create a very, very detailed backstory, because I need to be prepared to answer any question they ask." And, he adds, "It is grueling — it is five hours in makeup every morning." But, to Cohen, the hard work and time is worth it because it helps to shine a light on the truth. Of the real people who his characters interact with, he says, "I think you give them a chance to reveal their true selves. So if they are the kind of person who uses the n-word [as Georgia State Rep. Jason Spencer did on the show, the fallout from which led to his resignation], they'll use the n-word."

Cohen's six new characters span the political and geographical spectrum. There is a far-left activist who goes to middle America and proposes building there the world's largest mega-mosque outside of Mecca. ("When I'm going into Trumpland, they believe that this is what liberals are really like," Cohen says.) There is a far-right conspiracy theorist who tests the patience of Sen. Bernie Sanders. There is an Italian photographer who attempts to coax a confession out of O.J. Simpson. There is an Israeli anti-terrorism expert who promotes arming kindergarteners with guns and interviews Dick Cheney, even getting him to autograph a waterboarding kit. ("I wanted a character that would kind of expose this irrational fear of Muslims," Cohen explains.) There is a Finnish YouTuber who gets Sheriff Joe Arpaio to admit that he would allow Trump to perform fellatio on him. And there is a British ex-con who makes artwork out of bodily fluids.

"They're all generally reprehensible people," Cohen says with a laugh, before revealing that the show will not return for a second season and that he doesn't have other characters ready to go should he change his mind — "not really," at least. "It's like Da Ali G Show in England — I did one season. The idea is not to make it a Seinfeld or an SNL. And also, it is grueling." He says with a twinkle in his eye, "I'm too lazy to do that."