An unmasked Sacha Baron Cohen has revealed that the United Nations barred him from shooting The Dictator at its New York headquarters because his comic portrayal of a Middle East tyrant would embarrass the heads of member states.
The BBC declined to let Baron Cohen appear as Admiral General Aladeen, his latest screen character, on The Graham Norton Show. So the comic actor sacrificed his much-prized anonymity to give his first broadcast interview as himself.
Speaking to the BBC’s Will Gompertz in Cannes, Baron Cohen said: “When we asked to shoot inside the United Nations, they actually refused. We said 'this is a pro-democracy movie'. They said 'that's the problem - we represent a lot of dictators, and they are going to be very angry by this portrayal of them so you can't shoot in there'.“
Aladeen was intended as a parody of the “ludicrous” Colonel Gaddafi, he said. Baron Cohen denied that the role was an attack on Arabs, saying the only people likely to be offended would be “dictators and fans of dictatorship.”
Giving his first interview out of character was “probably a mistake”. As Ali G and Borat, Baron Cohen lured unsuspecting interviewees into making fools of themselves. “It was a way of exposing prejudice and getting really big laughs. I draw a certain amount of pleasure from riling bigots,” he said.
He had previously declined to appear in person and explain his comedy because potential targets, seeing him on chat shows and alerted to a “set-up”, would withdraw their consent to appear.
Since The Dictator did not require any subterfuge, he could now appear as himself. But the unmasked Baron Cohen regretted the loss of anonymity. He said: “I remember sitting on the Tube and people would talk about Ali G while sitting next to me. Before anyone had seen Borat I was dressed as him standing by the Ali G DVD stand in the Oxford Street HMV. All the Ali G fans were standing around and no-one knew it was me. I enjoyed being anonymous.”
Baron Cohen said his provocative characters had been able to “expose things that, let’s say, a documentary finds difficulty in exposing.” He was emboldened to pursue his faux-documentary style when he took an early version of Borat to a fox hunt and found support among the “upper class” participants when he suggested that they “hunt the Jew.”
The comic actor also discussed his Jewish background, citing US comics such as Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, and suggested that a “history of persecution” had encouraged Jews to develop an acute sense of humour.
The Dictator displaced The Avengers Assemble from the top of the UK box office chart during its first week of relase. A biopic of Freddie Mercury, with Baron Cohen playing the Queen singer, has moved a step nearer with Stephen Frears being lined-up as a possible director for the stalled project.