Sacha Baron Cohen, front right, plays Abbie Hoffman in The Trial of the Chicago 7. Nico Tavernise / Netflix hide the caption
Nico Tavernise / Netflix
Nico Tavernise / Netflix
British actor and satirist Sacha Baron Cohen is having a very good year, as his fictional character Borat could put it.
He recently took home the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Musical / Comedy and has been nominated for two Academy Awards: Best Adapted Screenplay for Borat Subsequent Movie Film and Best Supporting Actor for The Trial of the Chicago 7. While those two films maybe Seeming to have nothing in common, Cohen’s exaggerated characters and outrageous pranks are supposed to question people’s beliefs and take over the powerful, much like Abbie Hoffman, the counterculture revolutionary he portrays in The Trial of the Chicago 7.
Like him or not, Sacha Baron Cohen is both a sophisticated clown and a social activist. The clown part started watching legendary British satirists Peter Sellers and Monty Python early. “The reason I became a comedian was because I saw Life of Brian when I was about 8 years old,” says Cohen of the Monty Python movie.
Cohen’s social activism was sparked when he studied the American civil rights movement at Cambridge University. His dissertation was called “The Black-Jewish Alliance: The Case of Identity Errors”. Then Abbie Hoffman became one of Cohen’s heroes.
“I was really in awe of Abbie,” he says, “someone who was really an authentic protester, willing to die to fight injustice.”
Hoffman also knew how to entertain. In 1968, he was one of the men accused of conspiring to spark the riot that broke out at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Hoffman’s antics in the courtroom were legendary: he stood on the defense table and appeared in court robes with his friend and co-defendant Jerry Rubin. He was both charming and open press conference.
“He really understood the power of humor, wit and comedy to expose the evils of society,” says Cohen.
To prepare For Abbie Hoffman, Cohen listened to Hoffman’s speeches and press conferences and read transcripts of the trial. As a writer himself, Cohen was in awe. He even suggested lines to Aaron Sorkin who wrote and directed The Trial of the Chicago 7. “And Aaron would say very kindly, ‘Thank you very much, but we’ll stick to the script,'” jokes Cohen.
Sacha Baron Cohen in Borat Subsequent Film. Hide caption courtesy of Amazon Studios
Courtesy of Amazon Studios
Courtesy of Amazon Studios
There was no way to stick to the script when Sacha Baron Cohen was making his other Oscar-nominated film, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. A cross between the satirical correspondents on The Daily Show and the slapstick of The Three Stooges, Cohen embodies a naive, backward journalist from a mythical version of Kazakhstan. Cohen describes Borat as “racist”, “misogynist”, “anti-Semitic”. When real people hang out with him and think they are being interviewed for a foreign documentary or some other pretext, their true beliefs often come up. “You have a camera in front of you and it can turn out to be either terrible or good or a mixture,” says Cohen.
“Hillary Clinton Drinking Children’s Blood?” Borat asks QAnon supporters Jerry Holleman and Jim Russell. “We heard that” and “it was said,” they reply.
Without ever breaking character, Cohen spent almost a full week with Holleman and Russell and, he says, loved them.
“Sure, they’re conspiracy theorists and a lot of liberals see them as an enemy, but I liked them,” he says. “A lot of people who saw the movie liked them very much too. And you realize that these are good, ordinary people who have been fed lies and conspiracies from politicians and social media.”
For Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, Sacha Baron Cohen is an “insatiable curious” satirist who uses his art to expose the hypocrisy of those in positions of authority in popular culture … and he really forces you to confront it your own prejudices. “
In 2019 the ADL Cohen presented the International Leadership Award. In one speech Cohen has called the tech giants who control social media “the greatest propaganda machine in history”.
“Sacha Baron Cohen is also an activist willing to go there and use his craft to have a conversation and make change,” says Greenblatt.
Cohen and a small team of writers have been nominated for an Oscar for best adapted screenplay for Borat Subsequent MovieFilm. Although the film requires constant improvisation, Cohen says they wrote a 90-page script before starting filming. In addition to writing lines for Borat and Borat’s daughter Tutar, he says, “We wrote the lines we hoped the real people would say, and we had a read through.”
They brought in great Hollywood screenwriters who, according to Cohen, thought the script was “great.” Then they asked him: “Who are you going to get to play Mike Pence or Rudy Giuliani?” When Cohen stated that they would play themselves, people just said, “Okay, you’re completely insane and you’ve wasted the last two hours of our lives. Thank you very much,” he says.
In a scene from the film that made headlines, Borat’s daughter Tutar, played by Maria Bakalova, poses as interviewer Interviewing Giuliani in a hotel.
“I must have freaked out before this famous scene at the hotel in New York with Rudy Giuliani,” recalls Bakalova, who has been nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actress. “Because he’s an established public figure and a politician, and I’m not even American.”
Bakalova says that Sacha Baron Cohen kept making changes during the filming: “There was a script that evolved every day. They wrote new scenes and new jokes because Sasha is a perfectionist too, so … there is always will probably be a better joke. “
Serious about the craft and power of comedy, Cohen holds on to something he learned in his early twenties. “I learned from this legendary clown teacher what sounds like a joke in itself, but there is a legendary clown teacher, Philippe Gaulier, and he taught this really obscure form of satire called Bouffon,” says Cohen. “Bouffons were kind of dispossessed in society in the Middle Ages. They lived outside the cities and then once a year they were allowed into the villages, into the cities, and they played those bouffons and the idea was to undermine the establishment.”
Cohen says Gaulier once told him, “You’re a fool.”
“I was pretty shocked,” says Cohen, “but I suppose yes, I’ve never sought approval from people I don’t respect.”
How else could Sacha Baron Cohen spend years playing wildly ambitious pranks that would raise awareness, sometimes sue him, and earn him Oscar nominations?
Nina Gregory edited and Kelli Wessinger produced this story for the radio.