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An Interview With The Real Sacha Baron Cohen

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An Interview With The Real Sacha Baron Cohen

Arts & Life

An Interview With The Real Sacha Baron Cohen

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DAVID BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of tvworthwatching.com, sitting in for Terry Gross.

In 2006, the British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen became an international sensation thanks to his starring role in "Borat." It was a movie in which he pretended to be a clueless and bigoted TV reporter from Kazakhstan, improvising outrageous exchanges with unwitting U.S. citizens and politicians. Sacha Baron Cohen is up to his old tricks again in a new movie but with a different character, a flamboyantly gay fashion reporter from Austria named Bruno, who also has conversations with people who aren't in on the joke. He crashes fashion shows in Europe, vies for celebrity in Hollywood and even tries to broker peace in the Middle East.

(Soundbite of film "Bruno")

Mr. SACHA BARON COHEN (Actor): (As Bruno) Why are you so anti-Hamas? I mean, isn't pita bread the real enemy?

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) You're confusing Hamas with hummus, I believe. Hummus has nothing to do with Hamas.

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) Do you think there is a relation between Hamas and hummus?

Mr. COHEN: (As Bruno) So was the founder of Hamas a chef? He had created the food and then got lots of followers?

Unidentified Man #2: (As character) Hummus has nothing to do with Hamas. It's a food, okay? We eat it; they it eat.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) It's vegetarian. It's healthy. It's beans.

BIANCULLI: Bruno and Borat not only are played by the same actor but come from the same source, "Da Ali G. Show," a sketch comedy series that premiered in the United States on HBO. Ali G., a cocky but dumb white rapper wannabe is yet another Sacha Baron Cohen alter ego.

When promoting his film or TV projects, the actor usually prefers to stay in character, but when Terry Gross spoke to Sacha Baron Cohen in 2007, he agreed to speak to her as himself. They talked about his Bruno, Borat and Ali G., but let's begin with a clip from "Borat." In this scene, he's taking a driving lesson.

(Soundbite of film "Borat")

Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (As character) My name is Mike. I'm going to be your driving instructor. Welcome to our country, okay?

Mr. COHEN: (As Borat) My name Borat.

(Soundbite of kissing)

Unidentified Man #3: (As character) Okay, okay, good, good. I'm not used to that, but that's fine. So use two hands now.

Mr. COHEN: (As Borat) What?

Unidentified Man #3: (As character) Two hands.

Mr. COHEN: (As Borat) But then it look like I am holding a gypsy while I eat my (unintelligible).

Unidentified Man #3: (As character) I don't care what it looks like. You use two hands when you drive, okay?

Mr. COHEN: (As Borat) Okay. You want have a drink?

Unidentified Man #3: (As character) You can't drink that while you're driving.

Mr. COHEN: (As Borat) Why not?

Unidentified Man #3: (As character) It's against the law.

Mr. COHEN: (As Borat) What? Look, there is a woman in a car. Can we follow her and maybe make a sexy time with her?

Unidentified Man #3: (As character) No, no, no, no, no, no, no.

Mr. COHEN: (As Borat) Why not?

Unidentified Man #3: (As character) Because a woman has a right to choose who she has sex with.

Mr. COHEN: (As Borat) What?

Unidentified Man #3: (As character) How about that? Isn't that amazing?

Mr. COHEN: (As Borat) Is it joke?

Unidentified Man #3: (As character) There must be consent. How about that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #3: (As character) That's good, huh?

Mr. COHEN: (As Borat) Is not good for me.

TERRY GROSS, host:

Sacha Baron Cohen, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, lots of comics have created characters that they do in sketches, like everybody on "Saturday Night Live," but you take your characters into the real world, which is part of what makes it so incredible. How did you start doing that?

Mr. COHEN: I started about 10 years ago. I was doing a TV show in London, and I was doing an early form of a character that I used to do called Ali G., who's a kind of hip-hop journalist, a wankster reporter. And at the time, he was just - it was just the character that I was recording, you know, little segments for. And then I went out onto the street to record a particular segment, and I saw this group of skateboarders, and the director I was with gave me a little nod, and I went up to them and approached them and started interacting with them in character. And then to my surprise, they actually took me seriously, and when I was doing some kind of terrible skateboarding tricks, they were laughing at me, and they were mocking me. And then after a couple of minutes I, you know, went back to my normal voice, and I said, you know this is a character? And they were really surprised, at which point I realized that people would believe me when I, you know, when I did this character.

So a tourist bus suddenly turned up. I jumped on it with the camera, kind of commandeered the tourist bus, got dropped off, went into a pub, started breakdancing. The police were called, went into the offices of this major multinational, asked to see my father on the 14th floor. The police were called again. And suddenly I realize there was this - there was never a question of whether I was actually the character or not, but there was this incredibly exciting form of comedy that I was suddenly in the middle of.

GROSS: Once you realized you could do it, why did you want to keep doing it? What could you do that way that you couldn't do with regular comedy on a stage?

Mr. COHEN: Well, I think there was an added element of satire. For example, when I first started doing Borat, I realized it was a way to get people to really open up. And at the time, you know, I realized that documentary was essentially - you know, one of the ultimate aims of documentaries were to make people feel so comfortable that they would forget the cameras were there, and they'd really say their true feelings. And here was a way, you know, by creating a foreign character, where people would really explain what they genuinely felt about particular subjects, but immediately. You wouldn't have to leave a camera in the room for three months before they'd start opening up.

GROSS: Well, you know, as you say, you know, you created this character who is seemingly, like, really warm and lovable although naïve, but what he's saying is so horrible. It's so, like, sexist and anti-Semitic. And so people don't know how to react to him of course. And, you know, he's so, like unenlightened, but the real person who he's talking to is always put on the spot. Are they going to agree with the things that he's saying? Are they going to argue with him? Are they going to hold their tongue out of politeness? Are they going to hold their tongue because they're on camera? I mean, so, gosh, like, you're really putting people on the spot. What's it like for you to be in character watching people be so uncomfortable as they try to figure out what they should do?

Mr. COHEN: I mean, it's interesting. You know, it's fascinating to see how people are going to react, and it's exciting however they react, you know. When I was in the country and western bar in Tucson, Arizona, singing "Throw the Jew Down the Well," I didn't know that the crowd were going to, you know, start chanting along and start singing "Throw the Jew Down the Well" or even that certain members of the audience would start miming horns. But...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: You know, but it's exciting waiting to see what the response is, whether people are going to answer with integrity or whether they're going to, you know, reveal certain prejudices that they have. And I think, you know, part of the enjoyment of watching it is the space between the question and the answer, where you're waiting to see how the person will react.

You know, for example, there's a moment in the movie where Borat asks, you know, what is the best gun to defend from a Jew? And there is that moment, there's about two or three seconds before the gun shop owner answers, you know, and goes, actually it's this, the Magnum .54 or whatever. So I think there's - that's part of the enjoyment, actually...

GROSS: It's terrifying, though, when he says that, isn't it? It's like Borat had asked him what's the best gun to kill a Jew, and he has an answer. It's just really scary.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: Yeah, it really is terrifying that you can go into a gun shop in certain parts of the country and get advised on the best gun to defend yourself from a Jew, and...

GROSS: Well, I'm glad...

Mr. COHEN: And actually - sorry - there was a lot of that interview that we didn't actually show. There's about 20 minutes of Borat asking him, you know, but I want a gun that, you know, shoot them very clearly because they can jump. They can jump very fast. And he goes, yes, I know. You know, this one's great. You know, and sort of questions like: Will this gun be able to shoot the horns off a Jew from 50 meters? And he's like, you know, yes, yes. You know, that will be fine, you know. So it was a long, protracted discussion of, you know, the perfect technical rifle to defend yourself from a member of the Semitic tribe.

GROSS: I'm glad you mentioned "Throw the Jew Down the Well," the song that you sang at a bar in Tucson. That was actually in the "Ali G. Show" but not in the movie.

Mr. COHEN: Yeah, that's right.

GROSS: And you're doing this in character as Borat. This is - I think this is, like, one of the most brilliant pieces of comedy that I know of.

Mr. COHEN: I thank you. That's very kind.

GROSS: I love it. You're in this bar as this character from Kazakhstan, and the song starts: In my country, there's a problem, and that problem is transport. Okay, so far, so good, but the next verse is: In my country is a problem, and that problem is the Jew. And then the refrain is: Throw the Jew down the well so my country can be free. And it's kind of an idiot's version of the Final Solution?

Mr. COHEN: Yeah, yeah. I mean, it's - I think Borat's impression of Jews is really, you know, has its origins in the medieval ages, you know. So his Jew has horns, you know. It is that kind of medieval anti-Semitic portrayal of, you know, this demonic creature. And that's why, for example, in the running of the Jew, the Jews are these huge challah-and-cleaver-holding monsters, you know, with green faces and warts, that are chasing, you know, the poor, innocent Kazakh men.

GROSS: Why don't we hear a little bit of "Throw the Jew Down the Well," which is on the "Borat" CD.

(Soundbite of song "Throw the Jew Down the Well")

Mr. COHEN: (As Borat) (Singing) If you see the Jew coming, you must be careful of his teeth. You must grab him by his money. And I tell you what to do. Everybody. Throw the Jew down the well so my country can be free. You must grab him by his horns. Then we have a big party. Throw the Jew down the well, so my country can be free...

GROSS: That's Sacha Baron Cohen, singing, in the character of Borat, from the "Borat" CD.

You said that you didn't expect that the people in the bar would be clapping as you sang this song. So what was your reaction when people were really getting into it. Do you think that meant that they were anti-Semitic, or maybe they weren't really paying attention to the lyrics? Maybe it was noisy, and it was hard to hear. Like, how do you interpret it?

Mr. COHEN: That's an interesting question. Firstly, it was very clear what I was saying. So everyone was, you know, clearly heard throw the Jew down the well, and they were singing along, and I sang it a number of times.

The question is: Does it reveal their anti-Semitism? You know, was everyone in the bar anti-Semitic? And I think, you know, there's a historian - not to bring it down and to depress everyone - but there was a historian of the Holocaust and of Nazi Germany called Ian Kershaw. He said quite an interesting thing, which was that the path to Auschwitz was paved with indifference.

In other words, you don't actually have to be a rabid anti-Semite to allow certain things to happen. All you need to be is really indifferent. You can listen to a song and just go oh, that's actually quite a nice song, and I'll sing along to it. You don't actually have be a - you don't actually have to say wow, these are really, really offensive lyrics. I'm going to stop. You know, I'm going to walk out of the bar, but it's that indifference that is actually quite dangerous.

GROSS: But there's a debate, a very lively debate, going on right now because of your work, about whether this kind of comedy actually feeds anti-Semitism and hatred or mocks it in a way that shows how stupid and pointless it is.

Obviously, you don't think that it's feeding anti-Semitism. I assume that if you did...

Mr. COHEN: Oh no, I do, I do...

GROSS: You do think it's feeding anti-Semitism?

Mr. COHEN: No, no, no, I'm joking. I'm joking.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So tell me why you think it's not harmful, do you know what I mean? Tell me why you think it's not feeding anti-Semitism.

Mr. COHEN: Well, I think an interesting test is to see how it played with Jewish communities around the world. And for example in Israel, this has been one of the most successful comedy films of all time, and there have been standing ovations at the end of a lot of performances. And that's partly to do with the fact that Borat, when he speaks in Kazakh, he's actually speaking in a cross between Polish and Hebrew.

So there's a deep irony in this viciously anti-Semitic character actually speaking in the ancient Jewish language, but I think the reason that it's not actually encouraging anti-Semitism is that it's showing that all forms of prejudice are really delusional. So for example, Borat believes that, you know, Jews were behind 9/11. However, he also believes that Jews can shift their shapes into insects, you know, which is clearly delusional.

BIANCULLI: Sacha Baron Cohen, speaking to Terry Gross in 2007. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's interview with Sacha Baron Cohen, star of the new movie "Bruno." She spoke to him in 2007, after his film "Borat" came out about a visiting journalist from Kazakhstan who was bumbling, clueless and bigoted.

GROSS: You know, I was going to ask you if you could take liberties with this anti-Semitic character because you're Jewish yourself, because for instance you can have him speaking Hebrew, but at the same time, I was thinking well, you also have the character Bruno, the gay fashion reporter, and he's gay, and you do a lot of, like, funny gay stuff in it, but you're not gay. So it's like you're very brave as a comic and will...

Mr. COHEN: Well, I mean, I'm not gay. However, I have had a man's testicles rest on my chin.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: You know. And it's been in the movie. So I mean, technically does that not make me gay?

GROSS: And for anybody who just didn't comprehend, there's this incredible wrestling scene in the "Borat" movie that he was just referring to. So - but anyways, is it different for you to play a gay character not being gay than to play an anti-Semitic character and being Jewish? A lot of people feel that they can take on characters if they are that kind of character themselves, and that gives them liberties to do the kind of humor that they wouldn't feel they had the right to do otherwise.

Mr. COHEN: The main difference between doing Bruno and Borat, and Bruno is just - for those who don't know - is this Austrian gay fashion reporter, is that it's a lot more dangerous doing Bruno because there is so much homophobia. So for example, when I was doing Bruno at the Alabama-Mississippi football game in Alabama a few years ago, 60,000 people starting chanting - in the crowd - started chanting faggot and started throwing stuff at me and, you know, taunting me and spitting at me and threatening to kill me, and those kind of situations are a lot more common when you're playing a gay character.

It's almost as if homophobia is one of the last forms of prejudices that is really tolerated.

GROSS: Now I think the incident that you're referring to, there's a little clip of that in one of the Ali G. episodes in the first season, in which, you know, the character of Bruno has joined the line of cheerleaders. Is that the same game?

Mr. COHEN: Yeah, that's right, that's right.

GROSS: But you don't show - you show some people, like, yelling nasty things in your face, but you don't show 60,000 people in the stands jeering you. Why did you decide not to include that?

Mr. COHEN: Well, we didn't - the honest reason is we didn't have them miked up so you couldn't actually hear it, but the thing was actually that day, I knew it was going to get a little dangerous. So I decided to hire a bodyguard, but the moment that the crowd starting jeering and booing and chanting faggot, I turned to see where the bodyguard was, and I saw the back of his head as he was running out of the stadium. So he kind of left us high and dry.

GROSS: So what did you do?

Mr. COHEN: Well, I carried on in character. I mean, it's a bizarre feeling, but it was actually quite exciting, and in the character, you know, at the time I get very invested in the characters, and I kind of almost believe I am the character.

So feeling like a gay guy taunting 60,000 bigots, it felt actually very invigorating, and that's when I joined the line of the cheerleaders and started taunting the crowd, because I knew it was almost sacrilegious to them for a gay man to be standing on their football pitch. And actually, the funny thing was a few years later, I went down to Alabama to shoot "Talladega Nights," and I got introduced to the NASCAR audience at the big Talladega race. And there was a crowd of 200,000 people, and I was playing a French - once again, a French gay character there in the movie "Talladega Nights, and Will Ferrell's character was introduced first, and everyone cheered for him, the whole crowd who were made up of genuine fans cheered for his character.

And then they introduced my character as being from France, and the entire crowd started booing again. So it was actually the second time in Alabama that I've been booed at by a crowd of over 60,000 people.

GROSS: Articles that have been written about you have described you as an observant Jew, and it's surprising to some people that you are practicing in your religion, I think because - I think it's surprising because you break so many taboos with your humor, and in your humor, like, nothing's sacred. So the fact that in your life, some things really are sacred might come as a surprise to people.

Mr. COHEN: Well, I should probably qualify that. I mean, I wouldn't say that I'm a religious Jew. I'd say that I'm very, very proud of my Jewish identity. I'm proud to be a Jew, and there are certain things that I do that are, you know, Jewish customs and traditions.

Friday night, you know, I enjoy being with my family when I'm in England, and you know, we'll light the candles and, you know, a couple of times a year I will go to synagogue, and I try and keep kosher, as well.

So those are things, but they're not really derived from - they're not really because I'm religious. They're more kind of traditional things and they're things that I do because I'm, you know, culturally and historically, you know, proud of my Jewish identity.

GROSS: Can I ask what your bar mitzvah was like?

Mr. COHEN: Yes. I actually provided the entertainment.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Oh great.

Mr. COHEN: I was very into breakdancing at the time.

GROSS: Breakdancing?

Mr. COHEN: Yeah, I was a breakdancer, and I put down the linoleum on the floor of the marquee, and me and my crew performed for about an hour and a half.

GROSS: Oh, that's so great.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: Sacha Baron Cohen speaking to Terry Gross in 2007. We'll hear more of their conversation in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's interview with Sacha Baron Cohen.

He's the actor and writer behind "Bruno," the new movie in which he plays a flamboyantly gay fashion reporter from Austria. Baron Cohen originated the character on his TV series "Da Ali G. Show" which also gave birth to the Kazakhstan TV reporter Borat and the white wannabe rapper, Ali G.. "Da Ali G. Show" ran for two seasons on HBO and the entire series has been released on DVD. Terry spoke with Sacha Baron Cohen in 2007 when "Borat" was in theaters.

GROSS: There's a scene in an evangelical church in which as Borat, you are saved, and people are praying over you, and they're speaking in tongues. And present at the church are both a congressman and a State Supreme Court chief justice. This struck me as one of the most unusual scenes I've ever seen in movies...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...because here you are, a Jewish actor in character as this Kazakh anti-Semite who's in this church getting saved. And, of course, nobody in the church seems to know that you're an actor doing all of this. So there's - I don't know where to start. Let's start with...

Mr. COHEN: Sure.

GROSS: ...was it uncomfortable for you impersonating somebody who is Christian and getting saved in a church and having people really kind of praying for you?

Mr. COHEN: I mean the interesting thing about that scene was that it worked exactly as we needed it to work because essentially the film was very experimental. We had two things that we had to accomplish in each scene. Each scene had to be funny, but it also had to achieve a certain story beat that you had to push the story forward, and that really had never really been done before in a movie. And so in that particular scene Borat was at his lowest point. He starts the scene at his lowest point ever. You know, he's contemplating suicide. He's almost killed himself the night before. He decides not to kill his chicken.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: He's given up on his dream of marrying Pamela Anderson after finding out that she's no longer a virgin.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: And you know he really is at his lowest point ever. And so we needed a scene where he'd leave the end of Act II and emerge into Act III reinvigorated, full of life and with this renewed sense of purpose and a renewed mission to actually wed and bed Pamela Anderson. And the church was the perfect opportunity to do that. And the interesting thing was actually writing the scene. And I have to say that a lot of the scenes, you know, we wrote a kind of rough script of how we thought people would react and what we wanted from the scene, so we knew the beginning of the scene and how this - we wanted the scene to actually you know go. And the weird thing was that the church pastor was so predictable that he actually almost said everything that we anticipated him saying.

GROSS: Like?

Mr. COHEN: So for example, when, you know, Borat goes...

(As Borat) Who can save me? No one can save me.

We wrote in the script, the pastor says, there is someone who can save you. Jesus can save you. And that is what - that's almost word for word what he actually said. So that was the bizarre thing, was that it was, the man was such a fundamentalist that he was - he became incredibly predictable.

GROSS: Well, you know, the scene is just kind of gripping and it just raises so many questions about how you felt, you know...

Mr. COHEN: Well, yeah, I mean I'll tell you how I felt. I mean it was actually - it was a very, very strange experience as an actor. I mean I totally lost myself in the role at that point. You know when they actually start, you know, saving Borat, I was there and it's just so overwhelming because you have about six men, you know, pressing on you at the time. I had a man on either side holding my arms. And actually, interestingly enough, they start shaking your arms so it looks like you're, you know, you're possessed or you're, you know, you're suddenly seized by this greater force. And then you, you know, you're -there's not much oxygen there. The pastor was shouting at me and saying, you can speak in tongues now. You can speak in tongues. And so when you actually start moving your tongue and start speaking, they're so excited that it's this really overwhelming experience, so it was really bizarre, you know.

GROSS: So what did the people in the church know when you got there? Or like typically what do people know? What kind of release form do you give them? What did the crew tell them about what to expect?

Mr. COHEN: They were told that there's a foreign journalist who's coming to do a piece on, you know, that particular church and he's at a low point in his life at the moment. He's had a particularly tough time while crossing America and he might be looking for a, some kind of spiritual salvation.

GROSS: Do people ever feel betrayed afterwards when they see what the film really is?

Mr. COHEN: I think most people don't. I think 99 percent of people don't. You know, a lot of them hear about it, and I've obviously been doing this for many years. A lot of them hear about it through their kids who suddenly call them up and go, dad, you're on TV. You're on the "Ali G. Show."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: And they suddenly, you know, achieve this kind of street cred.

GROSS: So they don't know until then? Like you never go back...

Mr. COHEN: No.

GROSS: ...to them and say guess what? It was all like kind of "Candid Camera"...

Mr. COHEN: No.

GROSS: ...or something and they don't find out until someone tells them?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: Yeah. They don't find out until it goes on TV.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. COHEN: Or, you know, on the film and that, you know, that's something that I'm quite rigorous about in that from the moment they meet me to the moment I leave I'm fully in character. You know, I don't want - we didn't want to ever have that kind of hey, gotcha moment where they go, oh all right. It was a joke, you know, because we want it to be a kind of real experience.

But for example, it does - there are certain people that - who are initially upset by it and then actually realize that it was actually beneficial for their careers or for their, you know, for their status. For example, there was a famous socialist politician in London called Tony Benn. He used to be actually Lord Benn but gave up his title. And I interviewed him as Ali G. and afterwards he found out and he was very upset. But he wrote an article in the Times about a month later expressing how his initial feeling was that of betrayal and upset that this guy had, you know, basically hoodwinked him. But then he later explained in the article that he felt that the, he actually had become a fan of, you know, the whole show and a fan of, you know, had started loving the character of Ali G. because the character of Ali G. had actually given him an opportunity to explain to people finally what he had actually believed, what socialism was. And because he had this ignoramus in the room with him...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: ...who was espousing the most right-wing and totally selfish attitudes, he was able to kind of put down Ali G. and really put his viewpoint across. So I think there's lots of people who, you know, really benefit from being in the film and, you know, being in the show before that.

BIANCULLI: Sacha Baron Cohen, creator of the characters Borat, Bruno, and Ali G., talking to Terry Gross in 2007. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2007 interview with Sacha Baron Cohen, the creator of the characters Borat, Bruno, and Ali G.. His latest movie, called "Bruno," opened last week.

GROSS: You know, in taking your characters into the real world, you're also taking physical comedy into the real world. And slapstick and physical comedy is something like the oldest stuff in comedy, like from vaudeville and the early days of movies, and it's hard to do that in a fresh way, but you're incredible. I mean like there's a scene in the "Borat' movie in which you're in an antique store...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: It's not a very high-priced antique store but it's an antique store, and suddenly you start falling and like, knocking all over all the dishes. And then each time you pick yourself up you start falling over and knocking off more. And it's really hysterical because it's in the real world. And, of course, the owner is just horrified looking at everything that's being ruined. And I'm thinking too, as I watch it, that this isn't like special effects china. This is like real stuff. You could really hurt yourself. I mean, it's very risky slapstick and in a way that I think slapstick usually isn't.

Mr. COHEN: Yeah. Well, it was - actually funny enough. I did cut myself and I was actually bleeding for the remainder of the scene. So we actually cut for a little bit while I went off to the bathroom and washed off some of the blood. But that was a tough physical set piece because - I knew the rough configuration of the shop. What happens beforehand, before each scene is the director, Larry Charles, comes into the van and draws out the location so I can kind of visualize it in my mind. And by the way, at that point I'm actually Borat so he's speaking to me...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: He's speaking to this Kazakhi reporter.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. COHEN: And I'm answering...

(As Borat) Yeah, I'll say, by the - you know maybe we'll put the camera here. Is the...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: (As Borat) ...the antiques over here.

You know, so we're discussing the actually scene and he's drawing it all out. So I knew - I realized where those antiques were and I knew I had once chance to knock over all the cheapest antiques in the shop. You know, we'd intentionally positioned all the cheapest antiques in one particular area of the shop so that...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: ...so that the scene wouldn't cost too much money and so that we wouldn't also...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: ...also so that we wouldn't cause any real upset to the people there. But I knew, yeah, I knew I had one take to get it right, that it was quite a tough set piece. I knew I had to fall, you know, fall over then slip on this truck, then fall backwards, then put my head down to, you know, pick something up, stand up, knock a table over, and then fall backwards again, and then fall onto the floor. And, so it was this you know really convoluted routine and luckily it worked.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: One of the things I love about Borat is that you know he's such a funny character. He makes kind of sex and the human body so unappetizing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: The costumes...

Mr. COHEN: Thank you. Thank you. I take that as a compliment.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. The costumes that you wear...

Mr. COHEN: That's actually - that is actually my body.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I know.

Mr. COHEN: Actually Borat's body and my body.

GROSS: It's the clothing, though. It's the clothing that...

Mr. COHEN: Thank you. Thank you.

GROSS: ...the mesh underwear. That, like, jockstrap bikini that...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...that wraps around his - that's supported by a strap that goes around his neck.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: You know, I must say actually that Borat's underwear is actually provided by my father. That was my dad's underpants.

GROSS: Seriously?

Mr. COHEN: Yeah. Those are my dad's underpants which are...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Uh-oh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: ...which are actually made by the Norwegian Navy. And there was one occasion where I actually lost my underpants as Borat. I was doing a scene, which actually didn't make it into the movie, where Borat, strapped for cash, starts work as a door-to-door salesman. And he goes into one house and he's trying to sell them, you know, subscriptions to the local newspaper. And while he's there - by the, you know, he hasn't washed. He's very poor. He's goes...

(As Borat) You know, can I use a bathroom, please?

And Borat emerges about five minutes later, naked apart from he's wrapped in a towel, which is their towel, and he's holding one of their toothbrushes and going...

(As Borat) Which toothpaste can I use?

At which point I was thrown out of the house by this family. They called the police. And so I'm standing outside in a towel which does not belong to me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: And I can hear police sirens getting closer and closer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: And I'm looking to the director going...

(As Borat) What do I do?

Because - and I was thinking in my mind...

GROSS: Still in character.

Mr. COHEN: I mean yeah, obviously, I'm still in character. And I'm thinking, my costume is in the bathroom of this, you know, of this house.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: I'm standing in a towel that does not belong to me. Now, if I run into the van and you know we make a getaway before the police come, it means that I'm actually stealing some property so I can be done for theft. However, if I take the towel off, I can be done for indecent exposure. So I was in this terrible dilemma. What I do do, and the, you know sirens are getting louder and louder. And in the end I just ran into the van and, you know, I hid underneath the seat and got on the phone to my lawyer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: And still, by the way, in character going...

(As Borat) Hello, what do I do?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: (As Borat) I do not want to be done for indecent exposure. Do I throw out the towel? Do I throw the towel out?

And finally...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: ...I was taken to a safe location and we negotiated to get the costume back and the underpants. And...

GROSS: Why did you have to talk to your lawyer at that point in persona?

Mr. COHEN: Why did I have to be in persona? I don't know, basically during the days I stay as Borat. So, I wake up, and then from the moment I get into the crew van until the moment I get home, I stay as Borat.

GROSS: And if the police arrested you, would you stay as Borat?

Mr. COHEN: Yeah. I mean the police did come and we had - I think there were 42 or 43 occasions where law enforcement agencies came and, you know, stopped the scene for whatever reason. And that ranged from the NYPD to the FBI to the Secret Service. And whenever they stop me I stayed in character, because I never knew if it was something that we could use the actual movie. So, when the Secret service, you know, started questioning me outside the White House because they were convinced that we were terrorists.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: Because we were driving in an ice-cream van past the White House. So, we were clearly al-Qaida. You know, I stayed in character because you never know when it's going to be something that's useful. And, you know, and that happened a number of occasions, you know. I mean the film became increasingly hard to do because various law enforcement agencies were intent on stopping production or arresting, you know, me. And we had a rule which was, basically, that I couldn't get arrested because if I got arrested, because I'm not a U.S. citizen, it would essentially mean that production would have stopped.

But along the way there were various other people who got arrested. So, within the first week of shooting, actually the first Wednesday night, the line producer and the first A.D. were arrested and spent a night in jail. So, there was always this constant fear of being arrested and trying to get the scene and trying to get the comedy before the police turned up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Sacha Baron Cohen. And he does Borat, Ali G, and Bruno. And I wanted to just ask a couple of Ali G questions. You know, I'd had - I've had several debates with friends of mine about whether the character of Ali G, who is this kind of hip-hop wannabe, who hosts his own TV show - and of course you do the character of Ali G -it's always unclear to me whether he's a white hip-hop wannabe or whether is a Muslim hip-hop wannabe, because, you know, he has the name of Ali - he might be of Arabic descent and living in London and really want to be a hip-hop gangster. So, straighten me out.

Mr. COHEN: You know what, I prefer not to.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: I think it's important, actually, to keep the ambiguity. I mean the important thing about Ali G is that he's not black. And he is delusional, so he believes that he is a - you know, a black hip-hop artist from Staines, and you know, he believes that his neighborhood is a rough ghetto, when in fact it is this lovely, leafy middle-class suburb outside Windsor, where swans swim under the beautiful bridge. So, I think that's really what it is. It's about a guy - it's not important, really, whether he's Arabic, or whether he's Jewish, or whether he's Greek. It's important that he's deluded, really.

GROSS: You've done characters like Ali G and Borat in the United States and in England. Are there are a lot of differences between what the character does in both countries and what the reactions to the characters are?

Mr. COHEN: There were subtle differences and there are certain people and certain types of people that the certain characters work better with. So, for example in England, Ali G and Borat worked very well with the upper class, because they were so polite that they would, you know, keep this person in their room; you know, members of the working class might have thrown them out. Members of the middle class might not have revealed themselves as much. And then, you know, there were certain sectors of society here in America, that were also, you know, ideally suited for, you know, certain various characters.

So, we found that the deep South was ideally suited for Borat, because people were so polite and so welcoming of strangers, and also so proud of their American heritage that they would, you know, talk to this person about American society and about American values, you know, for an hour and a half.

GROSS: I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. COHEN: And I thank you very much for having me on this. I've appreciated it.

BIANCULLI: Sacha Baron Cohen speaking to Terry Gross in 2007. His new movie, "Bruno," in which he stars as a flamboyantly gay fashion reporter from Austria, premiered last week. Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews the new movie, "Humpday."

This is FRESH AIR.

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