Over the past two decades, the British satirist, writer, producer and actor Sacha Baron Cohen has made an unforgettable impact creating some hilarious personalities: Ali G, a show host and wannabe rapper, in a TV series that ran for four years; Borat Sagdiyev, a sexist and racist Kazakh journalist; Brüno Gehard, a flamboyant Austrian fashionista, in a film of 2009; and Admiral General Aladeen, the titular villain of The Dictator (2012).
His many other TV and film appearances include those in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011) and Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables (2012); most recently, he played the radical activist Abbie Hoffman in Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7.
However, his most memorable movie is Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, in 2006, in which his crude and offensive fictitious journalist embarks on a quest to discover the “real” America. Audiences embraced the clever blend of shocking social satire and slapstick humour to the tune of more than $260m at the global box office, and Baron Cohen won a Golden Globe.
Fourteen years later, Baron Cohen has faced up to the challenge of following his smash hit with a sequel that may bear the longest title ever: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.
Following the pattern of the first film, his character Borat — in various guises — interacts more and more outlandishly with unsuspecting subjects who don’t appear to realise they have been set up for self-revealing ridicule, eliciting some extreme views and reactions.
This time, however, although he wants it to be “the funniest movie since the first Borat”, as he says over Zoom from San Francisco, Baron Cohen has a more serious political purpose. “The sequel is first and foremost a warning about the dangerous slide towards autocracy as we’re incrementally moving away from this wonderful ideal of American democracy.”
The most important thing for the 49-year-old comedian was the timing of release. “We shot the movie rather secretly, and our goal was always to show it to the public ahead of the 2020 elections.” He thinks that “Borat is the perfect character for the Trump era, because he is just a slightly more extreme version of Trump. They are both misogynistic and racist, they both don’t care about democracy, and they’re both laughable characters.”
Borat exposed the ugly underbelly of American society — racism, sexism, homophobia, bigotry, ignorance — but “over the years, that underbelly has become exposed, and it’s now overt”, Baron Cohen says. “Opinions that we put on screen back in 2006 are now being espoused by the president himself!”
In the new film, Borat is joined by his fictional daughter, played by Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova. “We spent months searching the world for Borat’s perfect daughter, Tutar, and auditioned hundreds of actresses. We wanted someone believable enough to play a woman who had lived an incredibly primitive existence in our mythical version of Kazakhstan [yet could] transform herself into a rightwing journalist.
“We finally found this incredible actress, Maria Bakalova, who had recently left drama school. She was hilarious, and she was courageous, because she had to take risks. I immediately knew she was the one, because I wanted this movie to be an emotional family tale about a father from a primitive society where women are not respected, who finally grows to respect his own daughter.”
It was, he says, “the most challenging movie I’ve ever made, because I was taking my most famous character, trying to make a movie with real people [in] important political positions.”
The sequel was also the hardest endeavour technically: “I was surviving on and off for a year on four hours of sleep. There are a lot more lines in the Borat movies than in any other film, because I needed to be fully prepared for any question anyone might ask me. As Borat, I was learning 100 pages of dialogue a day, instead of the norm of three to four pages.”
For the new film he also realised that he “would have to put myself in some deeply uncomfortable situations”. One such occurred while filming at the Richmond gun rally, when there was a threat of a mass shooting by a white supremacist group. “The FBI had foiled it but I was going into a situation wearing a T-shirt that was not fully supportive of the National Rifle Association. It was the first time in my career that I donned a bulletproof vest.”
Baron Cohen also explains the lengths he went to immersing himself in the role, which had, he says, to be “three-dimensional. There couldn’t be any chinks in the armour where others realise they are not talking to a real person.
“Everything about me, including my underwear, was authentic. My smell was abhorrent, to make people aware they were really in the presence of somebody from a different civilisation.”
Such remarks, however ironic and knowing, have elicited plenty of outraged reaction. After the first Borat film, the Kazakh government reacted angrily to the coarseness of the character and his derogatory depiction of his “homeland”. Now, the country seems to have embraced the joke: Borat’s catchphrase “Very nice!” has been adopted for a new tourist campaign.
And Baron Cohen has remained devoted to his fictional creation. “In one scene, I stayed in character for about 125 hours, I even slept in Borat’s pyjamas and lived in a house with two guys.”
These were two right-wing conspiracy theorists with whom he spent five days, never breaking out of character. “I really wanted to demonstrate that underneath it all they were good people who had been fed lies through social media. Conspiracy theories and lies spread faster and wider on the internet than facts, because the truth is dull. I also wanted to show that in this incredibly divided country, this increasingly divided world, there’s human commonality to all of us.”
The movie’s climax involves former New York mayor and current personal attorney to Donald Trump Rudy Giuliani speaking to Bakalova, who’s posing as a journalist. After the interview in a hotel, Giuliani is seen lying on the bed and putting his hand into his trousers. Baron Cohen says he was “quite worried” for Bakalova while secretly monitoring that scene: “As a producer, I would never let an actress be in a dangerous situation, so the idea was always for me to intervene.”
It has caused considerable ructions — just the latest of the many controversies Baron Cohen has courted over the years. Last week, Giuliani said on Twitter: “At no time before, during, or after the interview was I ever inappropriate. If Sacha Baron Cohen implies otherwise he is a stone-cold liar.”
Claiming that the scene is “complete fabrication”, Giuliani maintains he was only tucking in his shirt after the recording equipment used for the interview was removed. Says Baron Cohen: “The only person responsible for what Rudy Giuliani did is Rudy Giuliani. He was obviously concerned enough about the incident to call the police [to report the incursion of a bizarrely dressed man — Baron Cohen as Borat], and I am not sure what he told them. I just urge everyone to watch the movie. The scene was pretty clear to us, but we want the viewers to make up their own minds.”
Switching away from his film and to the wider world, he is eager for change — even if some change, especially when it comes to social media, gives him cause for concern. “There are a handful of powerful men who control what information billions of people around the world receive. They are not voted for, and they’re not accountable.
“We are witnessing a technological revolution that’s more impactful than the Industrial Revolution. After the Industrial Revolution it took a long time for governments to curb the excesses of the industrialists. We are now in a period of a technological revolution that everyone assumes is positive, but there are very negative effects.”
And despite the wild hilarity of his films, his feelings are somewhat bleak. “It’s very hard for me right now to be upbeat about the future. There will be so much suffering, so many [Covid-19] deaths due to politicians refusing to listen to experts. And the elections are uncertain. America could be in a far worse position than it is now, depending on how the elections go.”
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