Sacha Baron Cohen on playing Borat and Abbie Hoffman and ‘using humor to humble the powerful’

Clothes make the man. And in the case of Sacha Baron Cohen even underwear makes the man. In a recent American Cinematheque Zoom conversation between the star of the two “Borat” comedy films and “The Trial of the Chicago 7” with his good friend Monty Python legend Eric Idle, the two discussed the fact that there is jeopardy in Baron Cohen’s comedy.

“In my movies, they occasionally get violent if they realize you’re not who you say you are,” acknowledged Baron Cohen. “Maybe you’re to make sure that the rhythm of the words is consistent, that the pitch is unique, that the choice of words, the way you walk, the costume, the way you smell has to be completely believable. I remember very early on I once did Borat I ended up taking off my trousers off in scene. I had my underpants on, and the scene ended.”

Though Baron Cohen didn’t describe the type of undies he was wearing, but they more than likely they weren’t a brand of skivvies the anti-Semitic, misogynist from Kazakhstan would have. “They said, ‘You’re a fake!”’ said Baron Cohen. “I don’t know whether this is an interesting tidbit. I’ve always changed my underwear going to work because I felt like every costume, whether I’ll be Hoffman or Borat or Ali G, they have to be complete. I think that was the lesson from that.” “You have balls of steel Sacha,” quipped Idle.

It has been a great year for Baron Cohen. The Amazon Prime release “Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm” also introduced the world to Maria Bakalova as his daughter Tutar. And in Aaron Sorkin’s Netflix film “The Trial of the Chicago 7” he portrays 1960s activist Abbie Hoffman. He’s nominated for Golden Globes for his work in both films, is up for two SAG Awards for “Chicago 7” and at the WGA for his “Borat” screenplay.

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Monty Python was the reason Baron Cohen got into comedy. He was just a little boy when his brothers snuck him into a screening of 1979’s “The Life of Brian.” “Firstly, I think it was the first naked woman I’d seen,” he recalled. “And just the outrageous wild laughter, it was the stuff that inspired me. It’s always inspired me. So, thank you.” In turn, Idle believes everybody who does comedy is inspired by someone, learns all their work and then goes on for themselves. “’Beyond the Fringe” was like that for us: Peter Cook and Dudley Moore.’ And also, Peter Sellers was a big inspiration of yours, I think, is that right.”

“It’s interesting,” replied Baron Cohen. “At the same age I got into Python, I was also getting into Clouseau. He was absolutely hilarious. The characters were completely believable. There was no winking at the camera. Was he a friend of yours?” Idle had met the Oscar-nominated actor a few times. “But he was not really knowable,” he said, adding that Baron Cohen’s comedy is very different than the Pythons because “we did caricature. We are caricaturists. You do real acting. I mean, it seems to me that if you have to act with somebody in a room and fool them. I think that’s serious acting, because they are right in your face.”

Idle proclaimed with a straight face that Baron Cohen actually hates people. “And I think for very good reason.” “Thank you,” said Baron Cohen. “I hate people.” “You hate certain people,” countered Idle. Like the British establishment and upper-class. “There is this inter-class conflict,” Baron Cohen explained.

So, his character Ali G, he said, was “really a way to poke fun a little bit at the establishment and undermine their authority. Actually Abbie Hoffman, just jumping around a bit, also had that slight quality where he realized that humor could be used when it’s done well to humble the powerful. The good thing about doing these characters is you can pick on bullies and people who ae doing wrong. So, there’s a certain enjoyment when you are sitting next to Dick Cheney and getting him to sign a water board kit. You feel good.”

Baron Cohen was thrilled to portray Abbie Hoffman. He wrote a thesis about the activist when he was at Cambridge. “Did you get to meet him?”  Idle asked. “No,” said Baron Cohen. “He had passed away by then. I was writing a thesis about basically Jewish radicals in the black civil rights movement. And Abbie Hoffman was one of the groups of left-wing Jewish students basically, who went down and joined the freedom ride. They then went on and formed the basis of the anti-Vietnam War movement. So, I was obsessed with the character from the age of 20 really.”

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Shortly after the release of 2006’s “Borat,” Steven Spielberg was going to make a film about the Chicago 7. “I called him up rather cheekily, I’d only made ‘Borat” at that point, and said, ‘Could I audition?” and very generously he said ‘yes.'” But Spielberg was worried about his accent.

“It’s a very specific accent,” explained the actor. “It’s Boston mixed with a bit of Berkeley and Brandeis where Abbie was educated. He goes ‘I’m going to give you my best dialect coach. You’ve got two weeks to the get the accent right.”’ So, every night Baron Cohen and the dialect coach recorded a two-minute speech. Three times. “At the end of two weeks, we had 30 takes and the dialect coach was like. ‘Take 28 you got it perfectly.”’

Baron Cohen called up his assistant and asked him to send Spielberg take 28. But when he met up with Spielberg at his late mother’s restaurant The Milky Way the next day, the Oscar-winning filmmaker confessed ‘”Sacha, listen, I’ve got to be honest. I got the CD, but the first 10 takes are pretty bad.’ I realized that my assistant had given him the wrong CD. But then he goes ‘by the late 20s, 27, 28, they were perfect.’ So that was the story with Spielberg. That’s why I couldn’t let the movie go.”

Baron Cohen admitted that he is obsessed with language. “My co-writers, who are fantastic, are completely meticulously. I mean that’s the challenge really to craft meticulous lines that we know are going to get a big laugh from the audience. Then my job is to hide those lines in a conversation and to make sure the character is consistent enough that when you say to Buzz Aldrin, ‘What was it like to walk on the sun?, you want him to not think you are making a joke.”

And it was his obsession with words that drew him to Sorkin. “The writing on the page is incredible,” he said. “You’re going to be really good whatever happens even if you do a bad performance.” He recalled working in the courtroom sequences with “some of the greatest actors in the world there — Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance and Frank Langella — these giants of the stage and screen, So it’s quite intimidating.” But the actors were so brilliant “that [we] would often rehearse a scene and you had all the people in [the courtroom] who there on camera and would basically cheer at the end of the rehearsal because it was like watching great theater.”

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