HOLLYWOOD — Sacha Baron Cohen is perhaps the unlikeliest British movie star since the plain, self-effacing and rather asexual Sir Alec Guinness. But like the brilliant knight — who happened to be half-Jewish — Baron Cohen seemingly becomes the character he plays, even to the point of declining television interviews unless he can appear as the character in his latest film. Ironically, Baron Cohen’s two most famous movie characters are anti-Semitic (likewise, Guinness elicited widespread controversy for his stereotypical portrayal of Fagin in the 1948 film of “Oliver Twist”).
Baron Cohen, born Oct. 13, 1971, and standing 190 cm tall, is something of an enigma, even though several facts about him have leaked out over the years since he became Britain’s most popular — or notorious — TV star. Although he played a semiliterate, would-be black but nonblack character named Ali G, Baron Cohen is Cambridge-educated, liberal and an observant Jew who spent time living in Israel and working on a kibbutz.
A memorable segment during his latest film, “Bruno,” takes place in the Middle East and involves the clueless title character trying to make peace between an Arab and an Israeli. On location in Jerusalem as the stereotypically gay (and Austrian) fashionista, Baron Cohen’s outre and abbreviated attire seemed to make fun of Orthodox apparel and incited a small band of Orthodox Jews to chase after him on the street, unaware that a film was being shot.
“It was my most dangerous moment as an actor,” recalls Baron Cohen.
Baron Cohen rose to fame fooling public figures into filmed interviews he conducted in character as Ali G or Borat or Bruno; some of his interviewees walked out on him. In his films, Baron Cohen has often placed himself in jeopardy with far-right groups, especially in the United States, inciting their displeasure at crowded events such as a rodeo or a heterosexuals-only wrestling arena.
“I wouldn’t say that I thrive on the danger,” he explains. “It’s not something I do to get off. Some people do flirt with danger — stunt racers or a man who walks a tightrope between two skyscrapers. . . . But I just do what the character would do. I play him reacting in character to the people or situation he’s in.”
“Da Ali G Show,” which became a cult TV hit in Britain and then the U.S., was turned into a movie in 2002, titled “Ali G Indahouse.” It wasn’t the international hit that his subsequent films became, partly because it abandoned the mockumentary style of the TV series, in which Ali, Borat and Bruno seemed to improvise their encounters with the real world and its inhabitants. That movie improbably featured the crude, sexist character running for Parliament and winning, and it also included what many felt was vulgar exploitation of Britain’s royal family.
Indeed, since his rise to stardom, many critics have accused Baron Cohen of doing anything for attention and success, of being an opportunist. He’s been sued more often than any movie star within memory — especially after the huge success of “Borat” (2006) — and was even threatened with legal action by the government of Kazakhstan, where the fictional Borat hails from. Baron Cohen has usually deflected the criticism, aiming it back at his detractors while remaining in (his latest) character. He often invokes freedom of speech and expression, and rather than defending his characterizations and publicity stunts, he goes on the offensive in character.
“Comedy is about extremes, and if you’re too careful about not offending, you can take the sting and the punchline out of it. It’s interesting that apart from films with a religious theme, the most controversial motion pictures aren’t typically dramas or heavy material, but comedies. Laughter makes certain people very nervous.
“Beware of people who seldom laugh or who are too busy trying to censor others. In effect, they’re secretly censoring themselves.”
Beyond any doubt, Baron Cohen pushes people’s buttons big time — particularly on the big screen. “Borat” featured much nudity — most memorably and repulsively with his obese sidekick Azamat in a scene that not long ago would have earned the film an X rating. “Bruno” features full phallic nudity — in a hilarious talking penis scene — scatological humor and assorted incidents of new-fashioned bad taste that draw many younger moviegoers back to cinemas.
When it comes to the charge that his films are anti-American,Baron Cohen notes, “Movies today are generally oriented toward the U.S.” — as “Ali G Indahouse” was not. “The major portion of ‘Borat’ and ‘Bruno’ take place in the U.S. Otherwise, you’re not going to have much of a chance at the U.S. box office.
“What some people have complained about is that we point up bigotry in the U.S. Bigotry against Jews and blacks and, in ‘Bruno’ especially, against gay men. But we’re not inventing a thing. We’re merely showing the actual reactions of those particular, fairly average Americans. The U.S. talks a lot about ‘liberty and justice for all,’ and it has made significant progress, of course, but it still harbors a lot — a hypocritical lot — of homophobia, racism and anti-Semitism.
“However, if ‘Bruno,’ for instance, were set in Austria or Germany, then we’d be illustrating — and with almost no effort on our part — the bigotry there.”
Of his character Bruno, Baron Cohen says, “His whole world is fashion. His concerns revolve around looks and clothing. When he says he too is a famous, rejected Austrian, he isn’t trying to build up Hitler, he’s just being the nonthinking, shallow person that he is. Obviously, Bruno is not a typical gay man. Is he a typical Austrian? I think we know that Austria hasn’t entirely gotten over its involvement with what happened in World War II and the hateful nationalism of the Nazis.”
Then there’s the issue of not everyone being aware that a Jewish performer is satirizing anti-Jewish hate as Borat or Bruno, and them possibly taking the characters at face value. “Well, there are many dumb people in the world . . . what can you do? If you can’t tell from my names that I’m Jewish, what can I say? . . . We’re not creating any bigotry; we’re mirroring it. Some audiences will rethink their prejudices; others will see nothing but what’s on screen. One can’t force people to become educated or more tolerant. But we are not spreading bigotry.
“Sometimes we can help diminish bigotry. Other times we can’t.”
Baron Cohen did find out, starring as Bruno, that “the one surviving prejudice that is very common, particularly in the United States and the Muslim world, is homophobia. You can’t criticize blacks, you can still criticize Jews to some extent, and you can — largely — criticize gays and get away with it, although less and less.”
Compared with “Borat,” “Bruno” has not busted the box office, which isn’t surprising given that a gay-centered film inevitably does less business than a heterosexual story — even “Milk” and “Brokeback Mountain” weren’t megahits, just hits. How did Baron Cohen feel playing Bruno? “He’s one of my children, and when I finish a film as one of my characters, it’s kind of sad, because I have to retire the character. After he’s starred in a film that’s played all over the world and then gone on to DVD, he’s too recognizable . . . I can’t do him anymore.”
In both “Borat” and “Bruno,” Baron Cohen’s character ends up in an atypical one-on-one relationship: in the former with an obese black wife, in the latter with Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten) — the male partner with whom he rears a black baby brought from Africa a la Madonna. The actor feels, “A happy ending is appropriate for these characters and for the audience that likes them for their positive values and hopes that their negative values will in time diminish. We’re also showing that all kinds of people can live and love together, that there isn’t any one formula anymore.”
Apart from his own creations, Baron Cohen (who coproduces and cowrites his films) has played characters scripted by others — a gay French race-car driver in “Talladega Nights” and an Italian conman in the 2007 movie “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” for which he sang his own “aria.” “I went in to audition. I wanted that part. I took in the score of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ and sang, then got the part. It’s small but intriguing, and I had a great time, although I was soon killed off — gruesomely — by Johnny Depp.”
What will Baron Cohen do next? That he is a talented and attractive leading man, with or without the Borat mustache or blondish Bruno hairdo, is clear. “I have several things in preparation,” he near-whispers. His private life? Very private indeed. He and his partner, Isla Fisher, an actress, are the parents of Olive, who was born in 2007, and his brother Erran composes the music for his films. Universal apprises reporters that Baron Cohen does very few interviews and prefers “not to be probed or subjected to aggressive scrutiny.” Unlike most movie stars, he puts his characters on display — very much so — but keeps his personal self out of the limelight. Und vy not?