After the movie Brüno was released in 2009, Sacha Baron Cohen made a vow, both to himself and to his wife, actress Isla Fisher. “I vowed never to make this kind of comedy again,” he tells me. “Because it had become so dangerous.”
By “this kind of comedy,” Baron Cohen is referring to the type of outrageous, reality-based stunts he pioneered on Da Ali G Show and perfected in the Oscar-nominated film version of Borat. On this week’s episode of The Last Laugh podcast, he explains what prompted him to break his vow for Showtime’s Who Is America?, which premiered last summer and managed to dominate the headlines for weeks.
“There were a bunch of scenes where I was lucky to get away without getting really badly injured,” Baron Cohen says of his experience on Brüno. “And you get addicted to it at the time but at the end it seemed like an idiotic way to make a living. So I vowed never to do that type of comedy again.”
“And then something happened,” he continues. “A guy called Donald Trump—I don’t know if you’ve heard of him—got into office.”
As he explains, it was actually the Muslim travel ban Trump attempted to institute just one week after his inauguration that made Baron Cohen jump into action. “I was like, OK, I am very, very angry and I have to do something about this,” he said. “And the only thing I knew how to do was to go undercover again.”
During our wide-ranging and lively interview as part of the SAG Conversations series, Baron Cohen opened up about the painstaking process of creating six brand-new characters and shared some truly insane stories from filming both Who Is America? and Borat. You’ll want to keep listening for his harrowing and hilarious tale involving Ben Carson and dozens of Secret Service officers.
What ‘Who Is America?’ reveals about ‘complicit’ politicians
“What we wanted to show was there’s a choice. So you can stay in the room and listen to a conspiracy theorist talk nonsense or you can get up and say, I’m not putting up with this, I’m leaving. There’s a choice to say, yeah, I’m going to agree with this disgraceful scheme or you can say, you know what? That’s absurd. And I think that’s what we all have to remember, which is this idea of complicity. We’re all complicit until we say no. That was an important thing, to say Republicans do have a choice. Even people who fully support the Second Amendment have a choice of how far they’ll push it.”
Getting ‘cocky’ about trying to make O.J. Simpson confess
“So the idea with O.J. Simpson was, I’d got a little cocky. This was the last thing I’d done on the show. I was like, you know, I’d got a guy to get his buttocks out, I’d interviewed a vice president, can I get O.J. Simpson to confess to murder? And so I thought, firstly, can I even get him in a room? And it turned out it was quite easy to get him in a room. He can’t leave Vegas and we lured him with the promise of a meeting with an Arab sheikh. We said this Arab sheikh is going to give you this deal that will be worth a lot of money. I ended up training with one of the main FBI interrogators. And they have a technique for breaking down criminals and getting them to confess. So within the interview, and it was quite nerve-wracking, I asked him about 45 times whether he had murdered anyone and he was getting increasingly frustrated.”
The truth about interviewing Donald Trump as Ali G in 2003
“I’d interviewed academics, Nobel Prize winners, heads of the United Nations, nobody had ever kept us waiting before. He kept us waiting for an hour and a half. And then I remember just before the interview, he shouts, ‘Get me the mayor!’ And I think it was [Rudy] Giuliani at the time. He starts screaming [into the phone] and I was really intimidated. I mean, since I’ve realized it was actually probably a complete ruse and he was just trying to intimidate us. And then he comes into the room and there was this very Oxford-educated blond director we had. He thought he was the guy interviewing him. And then I got introduced [as Ali G.] and he looked at me and he did not want to sit down with me. And he immediately said, ‘Let’s make this quick.’ So he stayed about eight minutes, which was pretty good, because I was talking complete nonsense to him. Later on he came out and said, I was the one person who saw through this, you know, I got out immediately. My question is, if he saw that it was fake, why would he have claimed, as he did, that human beings have been trading in rocks for millions of years?”
How he almost died while filming the naked fight scene in ‘Borat’
“I wrote it with me sitting on his face. And then we got into the room and the director Larry Charles said, actually it’s funnier if he sits on your face. And I go, no, no, no, no, read the script, Larry, in the script I sit on his face. Ken Davitian, a brilliant actor, is a big guy. And so I was scared that I would not be able to breathe underneath, because his buttocks is so big. It’s like when you kill someone with a pillow. His buttocks were enough to cover my entire face and create a seal around—so I had a certain amount of seconds. So I said to Larry Charles, here’s the code. If I tap the mattress three times, that means I’m out of oxygen and you shout ‘cut!’ and you rip him off. When you see the actual scene, you see me banging three times and they do nothing! And at that point, I realized I had two choices: either I could die or I could suck the air that had been stuck up my co-star. And in that moment, I chose to die.”
Subscribe to The Last Laugh podcast to hear our full conversation. New episodes released every Tuesday.