Sacha Baron Cohen: The Fresh Air Interview
This interview was originally broadcast on May 21, 2012. Sacha Baron Cohen's The Dictator is now out on DVD.
Actor and writer Sacha Baron Cohen is famous for taking his characters — Ali G., Borat, Bruno — into the real world, interacting with people who have no idea that they're dealing with a fictional character. But his new movie, The Dictator, is a scripted comedy about a tyrant on the loose in New York.
On why he enjoyed playing a dictator
"Dictators are ludicrous characters, and, you know, in my career and in my life, I've always enjoyed sort of inhabiting these ludicrous, larger-than-life characters that somehow exist in the real world. And just looking around, you know, over the last 10 years in particular, I kind of became obsessed [with] Colonel Gadhafi, amongst others, but Gadhafi in particular because he was so over the top. His dress style was so flamboyant, so ridiculous. In fact it could only really get to that level of absurdity by the fact that he was somebody who was unquestioned. You know, it's a bit like when you walk around Los Angeles, and you see some of these stars dressed in a peculiar way, the reason they're dressed like that is that no one actually questions them."
On Gadhafi's flatulence
Baron Cohen: "He, you know, is notorious for breaking wind furiously during various BBC interviews."
Gross: "Do they edit that out, or do they leave that in?"
Baron Cohen: "They actually, they did a little piece on it because after he did the interview, they noticed that he was breaking wind, not only breaking wind but sort of raising himself up before breaking wind in a kind of proud moment of defiance of Western journalistic standards."
On the design of the set:
"I said [to the set designer] 'Listen, we want to create this new country that is not quite in the Middle East, it's not quite in Africa, but, you know, it has elements of Gadhafi, it has elements of the United Arab Emirates, it has elements of Turkmenistan. We don't want it to be specific, but we want it to feel real."
On Borat speaking in Hebrew in the movie Borat
"I do like the irony of Borat, a deeply anti-Semitic character, speaking Hebrew, and this guy [in The Dictator,] who you know, wants to annihilate Israel, is also speaking Hebrew."
On why the movie The Dictator, unlike Borat, is scripted
"We actually just thought we could make a better movie if it had a script and, you know, didn't involve real people. I think pulling off, pulling off a kind of fake documentary of me being a, you know, actual dictator would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible. We got away with it on Borat because Kazakhstan was a real country. So you could say, 'I'm from Kazakhstan National Television.' People would look up Kazakhstan, and it existed. But if I came this time and said, 'I'm from Wadiya,' they'd, you know, look it up and realize it didn't exist, and if I said listen, 'I'm the dictator of Turkmenistan or, you know, or Libya,' they could look it up on Wikipedia and realize that I'm not. So it would have been impossible to, you know, have this real story."
On being brave
"I don't know if I'm brave. Yeah, I mean, I don't know if I'm brave. I think I think in the moment. So when I'm in character, I'm in character, and I'm obviously thinking about what's going on around me, but it's easier to do stuff when you're in character."
On the police and FBI following his characters
"There was a time, you know, I got so used to the police turning up. You know, with Borat, I think they came about 45 times. Sometimes it was the police, then the FBI were following us for a while. They had so many complaints that there was a Middle Eastern man ... driving through America in an ice cream van, that the FBI assigned a team to us. And so we had the FBI and then we had the Secret Service. But there were so many of these instances, and with Bruno as well, that for a while it would take about six months afterwards for me not to totally freak out whenever I saw a policeman."
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our first guest, actor and writer Sacha Baron Cohen, is famous for taking his characters into the real world and interacting with people who have no idea that they're dealing with a fictitious character.
He's done it with his characters Ali G, a hip-hop wannabe and clueless TV interviewer, Borat, a misogynistic, anti-Semitic and all-around clueless man from Kazakhstan, and Bruno, an Austrian, gay fashion reporter who comes to America and is, of course, clueless and incredibly inappropriate.
In Baron Cohen's latest movie, "The Dictator," which comes out on DVD next week, he plays General Aladeen, the tyrannical ruler of the fictitious North African country Wadiya, and he travels to Manhattan to address the U.N. Terry spoke with Sacha Baron Cohen last May, when "The Dictator" was in theaters.
Here's a clip from the film. The clueless dictator is in a health food store, run by an environmentally dedicated young feminist played by Anna Faris.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE DICTATOR")
ANA FARIS: (As Zoey) Anyway, let me give you the grand tour. Up on the roof we've got this amazing organic garden, and...
SACHA BARON COHEN: (As Aladeen) Boring. Do you sell any assault rifles?
FARIS: (As Zoey) Oh wait, I got it. Humor, right? I took a feminist clown workshop once. Help, help, I'm trapped under a glass ceiling. I wasn't the best student, but...
COHEN: (As Aladeen) You seem educated.
FARIS: (As Zoey) Yes, I went to Amherst.
COHEN: (As Aladeen) I love it when women go to school. It's like seeing a monkey on roller skates. It means nothing to them, but it's so adorable for us.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Sacha Baron Cohen, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Thank you so much for coming back to the show.
COHEN: Thank you for having me back, Terry.
GROSS: So this is the first time that you have a character that comes to America, and it's scripted. You know, Bruno's come to America, Ali G's come to America, Borat's come to America, but that has been your character coming and actually talking to real people who didn't know who the characters were and didn't know that they were, you know, made-up characters.
So what are some of the differences for you - first of all, why did you do this as a scripted film? My assumption would be because it was unsafe to do it any other way at this point, between how famous you are now, more people are in on the joke, lawsuits, you've risked your life in other films for the joke. So I assume that's among the reasons why this one's scripted.
COHEN: That's it, and the biggest one was a creative one. We actually just thought we could make a better movie if it had a script and, you know, didn't involve real people. I think pulling off, pulling off a kind of fake documentary of me being a, you know, actual dictator would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible because, you know, we got away with it on "Borat" because Kazakhstan was a real country. So you could say I'm from Kazakhstan National Television, and people would look up Kazakhstan, and it existed.
But if I came this time and said I'm from Wadiya, they'd, you know, look it up and realize it didn't exist, and if I said listen, I'm the dictator of Turkmenistan or, you know, or Libya, they could look it up on Wikipedia and realize that I'm not. So it would have been impossible to, you know, have this real story.
Plus it had got extremely dangerous. On "Bruno," I remember towards the end, you know, we loved the experience. But I did say to the team, you know, at some point we've got to stop because you can only be so lucky, and we'd been incredibly lucky, We were very close a lot of times to, you know, sustaining real injuries and not just me, the crew as well. You know, there was a lot of kind of very violent situations, and we were antagonizing a lot of people who were armed, which we hadn't really dealt with in "Borat."
But with "Bruno," we felt that because he was sort of more of an unlikeable figure, in a way, that you would have to put him in slightly more dangerous situations and situations of homophobia. You know, and in a lot of places where we were dealing with homophobes, a lot of those guys were armed. And so it became - you know, we were very lucky that there wasn't really a problem.
GROSS: Well, I can definitely see why you're doing scripted movies now.
GROSS: In the don't-push-your-luck category.
COHEN: Yeah, I've got to say I do miss some of the fun. I miss a lot of it.
GROSS: Well, it must be so weird not to have - I assume, like, you have permits to shoot on the street, and you might have police protecting you as opposed to police trying to arrest you. That must be a new feeling for you.
COHEN: Yes. I mean there was a time, you know, I got so used to the police turning up. You know, with "Borat" I think they came about 45 times. Sometimes it was the police, then the FBI were following us for a while. They thought that - they had so many complaints that there was a Middle Eastern man, and this was Borat, who is supposedly from Kazakhstan, a Middle Eastern man driving through America in an ice cream van, that the FBI assigned a team to us.
And so we had the FBI and then we had the Secret Service. But there were so many of these instances, and with "Bruno" as well, that for a while it would take about six months afterwards for me not to totally freak out whenever I saw a policeman. And so it was totally bizarre shooting "The Dictator," to actually have cops protecting me. It was...
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE)
COHEN: ...quite ironic. I mean, a lot of the cops loved it, you know. But, I mean, there was one time during the filming of "The Dictator," there's one shot where we are just driving down the street, and I suddenly saw a bunch of police around a hotel room. I said all right, wait a minute, stop the car, and it turned out that Ahmadinejad was staying at the hotel. And I said, all right, great. We've got to shoot something here.
And so basically Ahmadinejad's convoy arrived and, you know, it's a bit of the movie where the dictator is down and out in New York on the street and no one recognizes him because he's had his beard shaved off. And so I was there saying, you know, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, it's me. I've still got your tennis shorts. What are you doing? It's me. Ahmadine, where are you? You know, my friend, (unintelligible), you know, you are my doubles badminton partner, why you're not responding?
COHEN: Anyway, the police were so scared. They all were fans and they were, you know, they were saying listen, please don't ruin this for us. We've got, you know, they've asked, you know, the Iranian government have asked us to look after Ahmadinejad. So, you know, if you cross the street we will have to arrest you. So there is a - there's a shot in the movie that is, that we use. You see me surrounded by five cops and those guys are real.
GROSS: And they...
GROSS: And they didn't arrest you.
COHEN: No, they didn't arrest me but they made it clear if I was going to cross the road that they'd arrest me. So, and I've got this thing where I can't get arrested in America, otherwise my visa then becomes taken away from me.
GROSS: So one of the things you stay away from in "The Dictator" is religion. We don't know if this dictator is Muslim. There's no mention of Islam, there's no mention of the prophet Muhammad, and that's a good thing, I think, because I don't think it's - I mean, Muslims are very offended by anything that parodies the religion but also especially it's considered sacrilege to, you know, parody in any way the prophet. Did you intentionally try to avoid that so as not to be misunderstood, so as not to insult people who you had no interest in insulting?
COHEN: Exactly. I mean, firstly again, he's not an Arab dictator, and he actually says that he isn't in the movie. And so we wanted to really ensure that he was not Arabic in any way. So we created a new language - well, I say that, but he actually speaks at times in Hebrew, which would be strange for...
GROSS: Like Borat did.
COHEN: Exactly, which would be strange for an Arabic dictator. And we created a new alphabet, which was actually a form of Manchu, which is a dialect, Chinese dialect. And we wanted to make sure the architecture was, you know, not exactly Arabic, as well. So we wanted it to be Arabesque but have influences of Africa and other dictatorships, as well.
And in terms of the religion, you know, he's not a Muslim. His religion is himself. You know, he's turned himself into a demigod. You know, and also we wanted to really make it clear particularly after the Arab spring that this was in no way a parody of Arabs. This was a parody of people who oppress Arabs and people who oppress other people around the world.
So that was kind of really crucial, you know, for me to, you know, put out there to show that, you know, that we do support, you know, the rights of people to be free, whatever their religion.
GROSS: Do you get any criticisms from Hebrew-speaking people for using Hebrew in your movies and passing it off as the language of the oppressor or the language of - yeah?
COHEN: Well, when - during the premiere of "Borat" in Israel, they had a screening, and about two-thirds of the way through, somebody shouted in the back row, you know, (unintelligible), which means he's speaking Hebrew. And at that point, the whole audience erupted in applause. You know, I think they loved it, you know, the irony.
I do like the irony of Borat, a deeply anti-Semitic character, speaking Hebrew, and this guy, who is the - you know, wants to annihilate Israel, is also speaking Hebrew.
DAVIES: Sacha Baron Cohen, speaking with Terry Gross. We'll hear more after a break; this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's interview recorded in May with Sacha Baron Cohen. His movie "The Dictator" is out on DVD next week.
GROSS: So the movie is scripted, but in promoting the movie you did things that were just in character, and this was really hysterical, when the Academy Awards people - I guess it's the National Academy of Arts and Sciences?
GROSS: When you were told that he couldn't show up in character for the red carpet, you did a really hysterical video in character in your full dictator regalia with your virgin bodyguards protecting you. And I'm going to play the clip of - we'll just hear the audio of that video that you did.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
COHEN: (As General Aladeen) Good morning, great Satan of America. How are you? I am fine. Thank you. On behalf of the nation of Wadiya, I am outraged at being banned from the Oscars by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Zionists. While I applaud the Academy for taking away my right to free speech, I warn you that if you do not lift your sanctions and give me my tickets back by 12:00 p.m. on Sunday, you will face unimaginable consequences.
(As Aladeen) Furthermore, it is an act of aggression that nobody in films have been recognized by the Academy. Where are the nominations for such classic films as "When Harry Kidnapped Sally," "You've Got Mail Bomb" or "Planet of the Rapes"? On top of all this, I paid Hilary Swank $2 million to be my date, and she will not refund a penny.
(As Aladeen) My Sunday calendar is now as empty as a North Korean grocery store. But whatever happens, I still plan to attend director Brett Ratner's after-party, since it's impossible to catch herpes twice. Death to the West. Death to America. And good luck, Billy Crystals(ph). You're fantastic. How was that? Did I sound crazy enough?
GROSS: That's Sasha Baron Cohen in character as The Dictator, after he was banned from the Oscars. Why were you banned in character?
COHEN: I don't know. I mean I'll tell why I was invited. I was invited to the Oscars originally because I did this movie "Hugo" with Martin Scorsese, and the movie got nominated for a few awards. And so I think he was quite an unprecedented thing that the Academy essentially banned me from coming with a beard on. And...
GROSS: And this was to the red carpet and to the Oscars?
COHEN: Yes. I was not allowed to come. So the head of the...
GROSS: Could you have come yourself or just not come in character?
COHEN: They said I could come as myself. Yes. But the dictator was not to be dictated to.
COHEN: So, but the head of the Academy called my up agent and threatened him, and it became kind of like a, you know, semi kind of mafia-like threat of, you know, if I turned up within half a mile of the Oscars, he said that I would be arrested by one of the 250 plainclothes FBI officers that were, you know, under his command.
They said that there would be repercussions for my career in Hollywood, that I would 0 you know, there'd be repercussions for the film "Hugo." And so - so I issued that statement.
GROSS: But you defied the Academy. You actually showed up in character as the dictator on the red carpet. How did you decide to defy them?
COHEN: Well, they actually capitulated. I mean I put that video out saying that they had until 12:00 and it was obviously, it was a kind of jokey threat, but they actually gave in and they gave, handed me back my two tickets. So...
GROSS: OK. So what you did was, you were talking to Ryan Seacrest, who was doing, you know, the red carpet stuff and, you know, broadcasting from the red carpet, and he was interviewing you and you explained that you had Kim Jong Il's ashes in the urn and that like, oops, you accidentally spill them all over his beautiful tuxedo jacket. And I think you've explained that the, quote, ashes were actually flour and baking flour.
COHEN: Yes. Yes. It was flour. And then I was showing him the irony that the urn was actually made in South Korea. And so I lifted it up and it spilled on him.
GROSS: So I kept trying to put myself in Ryan Seacrest's shoes because it was a very funny stunt. At the same time I'm thinking like, God, this is, like, his big night. It's almost, like, you know, in the movie "Carrie," when she's, like, she's finally, like, she's prom queen, they like her after all, and then she has the pig blood spilled on her.
Did you worry, like, you were going to ruin his night, and maybe the flour wasn't going to come out of the jacket and he'd have to be on like global television with a stained jacket for the rest of the evening?
COHEN: Well, I think that's why it was flour rather than something that could stain, and that's why it was something that you could really brush off. And also, that's also the reason, you know, I was, you know, sitting with my co-writer and we were saying, you know, who do we - who do we spill it on, and we only came up with the idea the night before.
And, you know, we thought, you know, do we do it on Clooney or Brad Pitt? And I thought no, we can't do it on them because that really is their big night, you know, that is, you know, Hollywood is celebrating them for the, you know, their, you know, achievement in movies.
You know, really the journalists on the red carpet are just there to, you know, talk about what suit you're wearing and what, you know, and promote various fashion labels. So to cover a suit that was given by a fashion label with a bit of flour that could be brushed off we thought wasn't really such a terrible thing.
And also, after the actual event, I sent him a new jacket that was identical with a little label inside, which said made in the Republic of Wadiya by child slavery.
GROSS: Any regrets about anything you've done in character that looking back you think did cross the line and was maybe, like, hurtful in a way you didn't want to be or inappropriate in a way that you did expect it to be?
COHEN: There's always a discussion before anything is done. It's, you know, me and my co-writer or, you know, this can be co-writers, and we sit around and discuss the morality of a particular act, you know, is the subject worthy of, you know, having an hour of their time wasted?
Or - and if something worse is happening, you know, then, you know, for example, the hunters in Arkansas, when I'm Bruno, and I'm coming onto them, you know, and being flirtatious with them, which really isn't such a terrible thing.
If a woman was being flirtatious with a man, I don't think a man would get extremely upset; he might blush. But - so there was no real logical reason why a man being flirtatious with another man should get a man incredibly upset unless the subject exhibited some deep-rooted homophobia.
So, you know, when it's something like that, we do always question the morality. And, for example, if a woman was pregnant or, you know, there was somebody who was poor or somebody who was undeserving, you know, I'm certainly much more reluctant to do anything, and those people would be ruled out.
And, you know, if you look at the Ali G show and you look at generally the people who I interview, they tend to be white, wealthy, powerful males, you know, in positions of extreme influence.
GROSS: So in addition to your movie late last year there was "Hugo," Martin Scorsese's movie, which is based on a book about, you know, a children's or a young adolescent's novel about the rediscovery of the very early filmmaker George Melies.
And I'm just thinking what it must've been like for you to not only be in character but to be in somebody else's character. It's not a character you created. It's not something you have a lot of control over, and also you probably have to do a lot of takes, as you would in any movie, not only to get it right but just to get, you know, get it from different angles which the film director will need, you know, coverage.
Do you have the patience for that? Since you're so into, for lack of a better word, you know, like, guerilla filmmaking.
COHEN: Yes, I did. I mean, part of the reason I agreed to do that movie was I knew I was going to make "The Dictator." I knew it was a different genre, and I knew I had to learn how to make a real movie. And so I said, you know, Marty, if I make this movie, do you mind if I sit by your side and ask you a variety of inane and, you know, often idiotic questions about how to make a movie?
And he said fine. And I ended up sitting next to him by the monitor, watching how he directed.
GROSS: What's a kind of question you asked him?
COHEN: Well, I would ask basic stuff like - because there's so much improvisation on my movies, you know, because it's a scripted movie but, you know, we improvise a lot. So, you know, we do a couple of takes that are scripted and then half an hour of improvisation.
So I said how do we make it an interesting shot? And he said, well, you know, I said how do we get any movement to the camera while we're improvising? Because often, comedies can be very, very static. And he said, well, he goes, you know, there's a method that Kurosawa uses, which is you put two cameras, you put them on sticks, and then you put them on dollies, and then you keep on moving them around.
And so, you know, he knows every movie that's been made since the beginning of cinema and actually in every continent, and he's memorized every single movie. So it was incredible. He was giving me incredibly obscure movies to look at, which inspired me for the character in "Hugo" and inspired me for "The Dictator."
And I kept on asking him about it and also asking the other people on set how I would, you know - I basically abused everyone on set and abused the fact that they were sitting ducks for six months.
GROSS: Well, Sacha Baron Cohen, it's been great to have you back. Thank you so much for coming back to our show.
COHEN: Thank you having me back. Thank you for letting me speak for so long.
DAVIES: Sacha Baron Cohen spoke with Terry Gross in May. His movie "The Dictator" is out on DVD next week. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.