Friday, October 27, 2006

The Many Faces of Sacha Baron Cohen

Updated 10/27/2006 7:58 AM ET
By Donna Freydkin, USA TODAY

Britney. Barbra. Bono.

There are a handful of stars in the pop-culture pantheon who sail by on just one name. Prepare to add one more: Borat.

Borat Sagdiyev, the sex-crazed, thong-wearing, moustache-sporting, obscenity-spouting Kazakhstani reporter hurtling into a theater near you in one of the year's most anticipated comedies.

He's not real. Neither are his "reportings."

Yet his movie, which has the unwieldy title of Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, has generated the kind of pre-release hype that blue-chip Oscar contenders can only dream of.

"I haven't ever gotten this same kind of response from such a broad range of people, like parents at my kids' school," says producer Jay Roach, who helmed the Austin Powers and Meet the Parents flicks. "I was just sitting with Jack Valenti (the 85-year-old former head of the MPAA) at something, and he'd heard about Borat. The weirdest people come out of the woodwork."

The movie, which starts rolling out Nov. 3, killed at early screenings in Cannes, where Borat showed up on the beach in a neon man-kini, and Toronto, with Borat arriving at the premiere in a cart pulled by burly women. "You probably won't laugh as hard all year," raved the Hollywood Reporter, while Variety called it "uproariously funny."

The credit for all that hoopla goes to British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, 35, a Cambridge-educated fellow best known as faux gangsta rapper Ali G on Da Ali G Show, which made its debut in England before having a two-season run on HBO. The show featured Baron Cohen as Ali G, who interviewed unsuspecting public figures such as Andy Rooney and Pat Buchanan, and secondary characters Bruno (a catty gay Austrian fashion reporter who accosted stylists and designers) and Borat, who came to America to report on the great land by going to wine tastings, self-defense classes and dating services.

Borat simply moves Borat to a larger screen: The star Kazakh reporter comes to America to learn about it and to take his "reportings" back to his homeland. While here, he catches a rerun of Baywatch and falls head over heels for Pamela Anderson, deciding to make her his bride.
Because he's afraid of flying and believes the Jews were responsible for 9/11, he drives cross-country from New York to L.A. to find her. Along the way, he sings at a rodeo, learns to rap, hits a yard sale and engages in a wrestling match.

"Borat wants to come to the greatest country in the world and take back what he's learned," says Roach. "It just so happens that he reveals things about our culture to ourselves by getting people to say what they're privately thinking." For example: Drunken college boys lament the end of slavery and a rodeo hand slams homosexuals.

The goal was "to make a hysterically funny movie," says director Larry Charles. "The idea of exposing hypocrisy? Those were secondary agendas."

Some bits shoot barbs straight at Kazakhstan. Borat says the central Asian country is a backwater that holds an annual event called "the running of the Jew," bans women from driving because "to let a woman drive a car is like to let a monkey drive a plane" and serves fermented horse urine as wine. He professes amazement that in the "U.S. and A.," people flush their excrement down the toilet and wash themselves in a shower, not a river.

Some are not amused

The humor hasn't gone over well with officials in Kazakhstan. Earlier reports had Kazakhstan threatening to sue, but embassy spokesman Roman Vassilenko dismisses those accounts.

"We're concerned that the joke may be lost on somebody, that it's just a British comedian playing a prank on Americans," Vassilenko says. "We never did threaten to sue, and we're not going to. The movie is an opportunity for Kazakhstan to present its side of the story, and we hope the movie will draw attention to the real Kazakhstan."

Although Baron Cohen is devoutly Jewish, his bumbling alter ego fears Jews. On the Ali G show Borat sings a song called Throw the Jew Down the Well; in the film he refuses to stay in a B&B run by Jews. When Kazakhstan first protested Baron Cohen's shtick, Borat sided with the angry country by saying in a video posted on his official website that he supports the decision to "sue this Jew."

Baron Cohen wasn't available to comment. Not exactly, anyway. He responded to questions by e-mail — as Borat. On the movie, he writes: "My government was concern about amounts of anti-semism in my moviefilm. But eventually our censor decide there was just enough and allow its release. However it do have most strict certificate of Kazakh Censor, which mean it cannot be looked on by anyone below age of 3."

And on the biggest perk of fame: "Since I change from be gypsy catcher and icemaker to occupation make reportings I have much better life and great success, especial with opposite sex ... Hi 5! Ladies like Borat!"

Such oddities as doing interviews only by e-mail and in character are the mild side of the Borat universe. To promote the film, Borat has gone to Washington, D.C., to meet with "Premiere George Walter Bush." On his MySpace page, Borat posts videos that have Kazakhstan endorsing Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic tirade and calling him a "warrior" and asking his "lady-friends" to send him erotic photos.

In comedy circles, such dedication is something to celebrate.

"Borat is fantastic," says British comic Ricky Gervais, creator of The Office. "He absolutely goes all out. If he can justify something, he doesn't compromise."

"He's courageous," says Stephen Colbert, host of Comedy Central's The Colbert Report. "It's hard to know how much someone knows what he's doing is real and how much is a creation. I have a great admiration for him. It takes a tremendous amount of guts to stick to your character."

Whenever Baron Cohen is Borat, he never breaks away from the character's wide-eyed stare, gleeful grin, choppy accent and garbled English. While shooting, Charles says he noticed Baron Cohen's mouth twinge a few times, perhaps inching toward a smile, but that's as far as it went.

"He is doing four-hour single-take scenes, and he is in character at all times," marvels Charles. "He's in character when he and I talk between scenes. From the moment he comes out of the hotel in the morning, you're talking to Borat. He was completely immersed in the character. He is an incredibly intense, focused individual."

While Baron Cohen takes his comedy seriously, he's not afraid to mock himself. Hence his penchant, as Borat, for wearing thongs and shiny suits.

"He has no inhibitions with his physical self. None whatsoever," says Roach. "When you think of the green thong to the little gym shorts, there's very little concern for the risk of looking uncool."

He's nothing like Borat

Those who know Baron Cohen say he's nothing like any of his outrageous, in-your-face characters. He also voiced King Julian in Madagascar and played the Camus-reading French race car driver in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.

His Talladega co-star Molly Shannon calls Baron Cohen "hilarious. Such an original talent. I was so star-struck. But he seems very normal. He's funny but kind of quiet. And he's pretty religious."

Bring up his name to anyone and the word you often hear is "nice."

Paul Rudd calls him "the greatest comedic performer on earth. There's really funny people, there's incredibly funny people, and there's him. He's got more guts and is more inventive than anyone except Peter Sellers. I actually, as a diehard Peter Sellers fan, think he might actually be better, because he's a very nice guy, too."

There's that word again. Nice.

"He's not like what you'd expect," says Gervais, who has known Baron Cohen for years. "He's very scholarly and quiet, and serious."

Adds Tina Fey, who is writing a movie for him to star in at Paramount: "He's really smart. Just a lovely, genteel, educated British gentleman."

And while comedians can be sour in person, Roach says Baron Cohen is the exception. "You don't have to have a dark upbringing or dark approach to life to be funny. I don't think his comedy comes from that at all. His personas often come from the physical. That walk he has, that looks almost like a wooden puppet, as Borat."

Roach calls Baron Cohen "very respectful, deferential. He will get up and pull a chair out for anybody who walks into the room and make sure they're comfortable and (make sure) they have something to drink. He's tremendously chivalrous. I find him to be incredibly intelligent, articulate, charming, super-polite by American standards."

A life more ordinary

The London-born Baron Cohen lives in Los Angeles and is engaged to Aussie actress Isla Fisher, of Wedding Crashers fame.

He has a solidly middle-class background. His first cousin, psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, is an autism expert in London, his brother Erran Baron Cohen is a composer and a trumpet player, while dad Gerald is an accountant and mom Daniella an aerobics instructor.

At Cambridge, he studied history and wrote his thesis on the Jewish involvement in the U.S. civil rights movement in the 1960s. While in college, he performed in scores of plays, including Cyrano de Bergerac and Fiddler on the Roof, and became involved with the Cambridge Footlights acting troupe. After graduation, he worked the London comedy club circuit, where he developed the characters he later brought to British TV.

Because he inhabited his Da Ali G Show characters thoroughly, he told Jimmy Kimmel in 2004, viewers had no idea what Baron Cohen looked like.

"When the first DVD came out in England, I'd be at the stands, and the people would be buying them and have no idea that I was standing next (to them)."

Despite the buzz surrounding Borat, which cost less than $20 million to shoot, it remains to be seen whether an R-rated comedy based on a character from a premium cable channel will have wide appeal.

But if the movie does reach mass audiences, Baron Cohen's anonymity could be endangered.
To a certain extent, a hit movie is the comedian's Kryptonite. The more identifiable he is and the more people are aware of his ambush antics, the less he can con people into chatting with him.

"His art depends a certain amount on being able to go incognito," Roach says. "He's conflicted about it. On the one hand, he very much wants people to enjoy the film. But every exposure makes him that much more recognizable. It's a conundrum."

Apparently, Baron Cohen is willing to take it as far as he can; according to Variety, he's shooting another reality-based movie next summer with a new character.

And Borat himself has no qualms about being rich and famous. Will success spoil him?

"No, I excite!" he writes. "I hope my fame outside Kazakhstan will make come true my dreams to be friend of bald homosexual Eltonjohn. If you are read this, Eltonjohn, you must call me for chitchat! My telephones number is Almaty 74. I would also like very much to have meet ladies man Frederick Mercury. It was shame he die in that car crash. Many peoples say I looks like him, infacts, last month I come 7th in Almaty's annual 'who look most like Freddy Mercury' competition. This out of over 843,000 entrant!"

Posted 10/26/2006 10:16 PM ET

Updated 10/27/2006 7:58 AM ET

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