The Man Behind The Mustache

In his only interview as himself, Sacha Baron Cohen talks about growing up kosher in London, inventing a new kind of comedy with Ali G and conquering Hollywood with Borat

By NEIL STRAUSSPosted Nov 14, 2006 12:20 PM

"I remember, when I was in university I studied history, and there was this one major historian of the Third Reich, Ian Kershaw. And his quote was, 'The path to Auschwitz was paved with indifference.' I know it's not very funny being a comedian talking about the Holocaust, but I think it's an interesting idea that not everyone in Germany had to be a raving anti-Semite. They just had to be apathetic."

Baron Cohen doesn't make this grand statement with confidence. He makes it shyly, as if he's speaking out of turn. It's interesting to watch Baron Cohen get bashful, because it is the exact opposite of the characters he portrays. These sincere boors aren't afraid to bring a bag of their own excrement to the table at an antebellum dinner party or ask David Beckham if he can feed on his wife Victoria "Posh Spice" Beckham's breasts.

There is a certain sadism to Baron Cohen, who seems most comfortable when making others uncomfortable. To some degree, Borat and Ali G are safe refuges for him, masks he can hide behind. If everything that comes out of your mouth is parody, then you never have to be accountable for what you say -- because you didn't really mean it anyway. You only said it to lead your interview subjects to the thin line between patience and intolerance in order for their true personality to reveal itself.

In contrast, Baron Cohen himself has no defenses or alibis. One wonders if he could withstand the awkward situations to which he constantly exposes his alter egos.

"I think I'd find it hard to," he admits. "I think you can hide behind the characters and do things that you yourself find difficult."

There are two things Baron Cohen doesn't like talking about: his background and his creative process -- how he creates his characters, how he procures interviews with highly inaccessible figures like Newt Gingrich and Donald Trump, and how he gets them to take seriously his preposterous questions.

Here's what I have gathered, through interviews and observation, about how he does it. Of course, his techniques are ever-evolving, and after every close call or less-than-perfect interview, the scrupulous Baron Cohen adds a new rule.

With Ali G, the interview requests come from a fake British production company (United World Productions). And until just before the cameras roll, the interviewee is under the impression that the clean-cut, well-dressed director is going to do the interview and the baggy-clothed, wraparound-shades-wearing character carrying equipment is just part of the crew.

For the Borat film and TV segments, on the other hand, subjects are told that the crew is shooting a documentary intended for Kazakhstan television. Much to the surprise of producers, celebrities and politicians are willing to do such an obscure interview and, once on camera, are eager to please.

Because Da Ali G Show had run already for two seasons on HBO, most of the Borat movie had to be shot in areas of the Deep South with minimal cable penetration. As an extra precaution, during the pre-interview, researchers made sure subjects hadn't heard of Baron Cohen. For a final safety measure, a lawyer was kept on retainer. Before each scene, producers would tell her what they planned to do, and she'd let them know where the boundary between comedy and criminality lies.

Once on site, the first order of business is to get subjects to sign releases, which are worded vaguely and omit the actual name of the media outlet where the show will air. In the case of scenes shot in public, passers-by are given releases before entering the area. "We'd have someone in the lobby of a hotel with release forms," Borat director Larry Charles, who previously directed Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, recalls of one scene. (Full disclosure: Charles is slated to direct the film version of a book I wrote, The Dirt.) "We'd tell people we were shooting today and they may be in the background of a shot. Then they'd get in the elevator and, boom, two naked guys would come running in."

As Ali G, just before the interviews begin, Baron Cohen emerges and asks his subjects really stupid questions (like spelling simple words, how to pronounce their names, how to write particular letters in the alphabet) so that they get accustomed to his idiocy. Then, once the cameras start rolling and he begins asking actual interview questions, they realize that the person they've been talking to is not a crew member doing a pre-interview but the actual show host.

Though what airs on television is just a four-minute clip, Ali G spends some fifteen minutes warming his subjects up with straightforward questions. Once any lingering doubt has been banished, he sticks the knife in and starts asking ridiculous questions like, "What is the type of acid that actually makes you fly?" and "But what harm has violence ever done?"

As Borat, Baron Cohen tests his subjects differently. First, he'll often give them a Kazakh cigarette or do something else to prove his authenticity. Occasionally, he'll start the interview by giving them a gift -- a tin of fish, a bag of cookies or an over-affectionate kiss. He watches as they accept the gift (or decline it), and the manner in which they do so lets him know how far they're willing to go. In the case of right-wing activist Alan Keyes, the gift was identified as the rib of a Jew. Keyes accepted the gift with the words, "Thank you very much." However, as it dawned on him what he'd just done on camera, he freaked out, tore his microphone off and stormed out of the room. Producers were able to bring him back into the interview by saying there had been a misunderstanding and Borat had said a "dew's rib," as in a rib of the morning dew, which may not have made any more sense to Keyes but at least it couldn't ruin his political career.

Once each interview ends, the charade is not over. Whether playing Ali G, Borat or Bruno (a gay fashion reporter from Austria), Baron Cohen remains in character from the moment he leaves his hotel until the crew wraps. This sometimes means leading production meetings in character. "He and I had some heated discussions, the way a director and actor might, but he'd be chastising me as Borat," Larry Charles recalls. "I'd be standing in the middle of a cotton field in Louisiana being yelled at by Borat."

Sometimes, after an interview, Borat would get stuck in lengthy off-camera discussions with his curious subjects -- and, occasionally, when things went really wrong, the police.