Sacha Baron Cohen: The men in his life
His latest alter ego, a gay Austrian fashionista, is already hailed as a work of genius. But can Sacha Baron Cohen ever just be himself? Guy Adams reports
Tuesday 28 April 2009
They didn't know, the Alabama National Guard. Never realised that allowing a German documentary-maker into their high-security training camp 65 miles east of Birmingham would go so wrong. They certainly couldn't have guessed, when they agreed to let him take part in training, that this curiously effeminate man would adorn his US military uniform with a white D&G belt, or strip in front of a locker room-full of crew-cut squaddies to reveal a camouflage thong.
Ron Paul didn't twig, either, that a TV interview that was supposed to be about Austrian economics might end in a candle-lit hotel bedroom, where a blond male journalist would proffer cheap champagne before attempting to seduce him. Never, in his wildest dreams, could the 73-year-old hero of the Republican right have envisioned that a predatory homosexual would have the gall to suddenly drop his trousers. That's why Paul ran away shouting: "This is ENDED!"
Then there was the crowd lured to a fairground in Fort Smith, Arkansas, on the promise of one-dollar beer and "blue-collar brawling". They expected to spend the evening watching good, old-fashioned fisticuffs. Instead, the cage-fighting took an unexpected turn when a contestant called "Straight Dave" and his opponent stopped wrestling and started, in the words of a police report, "stripping down to their underwear, kissing and rubbing" each other.
How could that crowd have guessed? How could they possibly have realised, in a town where men are men and "gay" is a form of insult, that a pair of tough-guys would start canoodling, and force them to watch? Little wonder they promptly started a riot. Whoever you happen to be, what other emotion, except extreme anger, is the natural reaction to being "punked" by Sacha Baron Cohen?
It's been a while, now, since this ludicrously talented British comedian burst onto the scene. A decade since his character Ali G first demonstrated that you can make highly intelligent people say incredibly revealing things by asking them the stupidest questions imaginable. Three years since his Kazakhstani alter ego, Borat, toured Middle America exposing staggering levels of misogyny, anti-Semitism, and public ignorance.
But now he's back. This summer, Baron Cohen will complete his trio of "mockumentary" films with a movie following the flamboyant exploits of Brüno, an outrageously camp fashion reporter from Klagenfurt, whose "MeinSpace" page proudly declares: "If I vas a Starbucks drink, ich vould be a tall, skinny Austrian mit a great personality und a really big brains."
The film boasts the extended title Delicious Journeys Through America for the Purpose of Making Heterosexual Males Visibly Uncomfortable in the Presence of a Gay Foreigner in a Mesh T-Shirt. That pretty much sums up what the film is about. Firstly, Brüno's preposterous vanity will expose the excesses of a fashion industry (and celebrity culture) obsessed with body image and consumerism. Secondly, his overbearing homosexuality will be used as a tool to generate, expose, and thus satirise public homophobia.
All the early signs are that Baron Cohen is sitting on a hit – a huge hit. In Hollywood, a town built on hype, it is often said that "buzz" is everything. And though Brüno is still two months shy of its opening weekend, it's already generating more "buzz" than several of its big-budget rivals put together. It sits like a cheeky upstart in the coming slew of summer blockbusters, sandwiched between major studio "tentpoles" like Star Trek, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Terminator Salvation, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Da Vinci Code sequel Angels & Demons.
This excitement is partly the result of a year-long succession of breathless news reports regarding Brüno's extraordinary stunts. In Milan, he invaded a catwalk during Fashion week. In Los Angeles, he infiltrated an anti-gay-marriage demonstration. In Texas, he appeared on a chatshow bouncing a small African child on his knee. The infant was wearing a T-shirt with the logo "gay-by." To cries of disbelief, he informed the studio audience that it was "a dick magnet".
Another portion of the buzz stems from the brutally funny 150-second Brüno trailer, which was released by Universal Pictures last month. Days earlier, it emerged that the film's first test screening, in Marina Del Rey, Los Angeles, had apparently garnered an extraordinary 99 per cent "positive" rate of feedback and prompted verdicts such as "flawless".
And a further dollop of eager anticipation stems from the verdict of the select group of critics who were invited to see 20 minutes of the finished film, including three key scenes, at the recent SXSW festival in Austin, Texas. Almost to a man, they declared the project a potential masterpiece.
"Baron Cohen makes me hiccup snort, and he reminds me to keep a sense of humour," said Entertainment Weekly's critic. "He also makes me think about important things. Things like the rage that accompanies homophobia, about the sour smell of desperation people get when they want fame, about the ridiculousness of daytime talk shows and the numbing drone of righteousness."
So this quirky little project looks like a sure thing. To an industry hobbled by uncertainty over its financial future, it also represents commercial gold. Having been made for what Hollywood would clal a paltry sum – when green-lit in 2006, the production budget was reported to be a mere $20m – Brüno is on course to outperform action movies that cost 10 times as much. It could even outsell Borat, which cost $18m, but generated an extraordinary $260m.
And yet while the film will almost certainly cement Baron Cohen's status as one the most profitable, original and gifted British comic talents of modern times, its release on 10 July will also leave some pressing questions unanswered.
How has this tall, dark, publicly shy man, who has been atop the greasy pole of showbusiness for more than a decade, managed to remain a relative enigma? How has an actor worth the $20m that Universal apparently paid him to star in this film, managed to avoid having ever given more than a handful of proper interviews? And by what strange alchemy – as Ron Paul, or the Alabama National Guard, or the rednecks of Arkansas might now wonder – does he manage to get away with it?
One day last December, a Los Angeles media consultant called Jacquie Jordan received a call from a German TV producer at the offices of her company, tvguestpert.com. They wanted to hire her as an expert adviser, to be filmed sitting-in on a focus-group screening of a new television pilot.
A week later, Jordan found herself at a production facility in Sherman Oaks, just north of Hollywood. She was instructed to sign a hefty disclaimer. Then she met the show's host: a bleached-blonde man, who spoke English with a strong German accent and appeared to be wearing make-up. He offered her a glass of champagne. She declined: it was 10am.
This man, of course, was Sacha Baron Cohen. He was appearing "in character" as Brüno. First, he jokingly asked Jordan to be nice "because Germans don't like criticism!" Then he apologised for the air of chaos, saying things were "running late", and asked her to watch, from behind a two-way mirror, while the test audience was shown the TV pilot.
"It was a celebrity fashion programme, and the first thing I noticed was that they'd chosen a very strange audience for the type of show," Jordan recalls. "They were mostly in their fifties. They had grey hair. I would describe a lot of them as beer-drinking fat men."
"The second thing I noticed was the show. It was quite shocking: a German man talking about a mixture of fashion and gay sex. He wore very skimpy clothes. There was full-frontal nudity. And he also paraded around in a thong. Obviously, the audience was disgusted. Lots of them walked out."
Jordan eventually realised what was happening: she was being filmed for a potential starring role in Brüno. The film-makers, presumably, hoped that she would react to the screening like their hand-picked test audience: by hitting the roof, or saying something homophobic, inappropriate, and plain stupid. Her reaction would then be cut-and-pasted into the finished film.
"Looking back, it's obvious what was happening," she says. "I was never actually introduced to Brüno by name, and he was a little over the top. Also, the release form was odd: it used the word 'filmed' and made lots of mention of 'no claims of money'. Initially, I put this down to something maybe being lost in translation, butabout halfway through, I twigged. So I didn't play ball."
Either way, this anecdote provides a fascinating insight into the way Sacha Baron Cohen's latest alter ego works. It reveals, in particular, how he uses small psychological tricks in an effort to unsettle subjects, and eventually deceive them. Having studied his methods, and spoken to several people involved in their creation, here are some of those most important secrets.
At the start of an interview, Brüno will normally offer champagne to his subject, and tell a couple of hideously bad jokes, often pegged to his nationality (though officially Austrian, he sometimes pretends to be German, figuring few people will be able to tell the difference). In the preamble, he will usually comment on a female guest's clothes, and compliment male interviewees on their looks. This allows Baron Cohen to size up his interviewee, and work out how far they can be pushed. Then, he will typically manufacture a minor confusion, to take the interviewee out of their comfort zone. With Jordan, he was "running late". During the Ron Paul interview, some of the TV crew's lighting (deliberately) caught fire, meaning they had to be evacuated into a next-door hotel room.
Finally, Cohen's production staff make sure every little detail of their back story adds up. To make Brüno, they created almost 30 phoney TV companies, with names that included "Rheinland Films" and "German Youth Television". These were then quoted in correspondence with would-be interviewees.
Several of the firms had realistic websites touting "world-class facilities, and state-of-the-art equipment". But of course, they only existed on paper. Each was registered to the same address: a metal mailbox at a postal facility on Sunset Boulevard. This many-layered technique meant big names were persuaded to unwittingly take part in Brüno, apparently including Harrison Ford and Paula Abdul, the American Idol judge, who was interviewed by Brüno at unfurnished apartment where – in a dark joke about US attitudes towards immigrants – he'd hired naked Hispanic day-labourers to get down on hands and knees to serve as tables and chairs.
The only other serious task for Baron Cohen was creating a narrative. The plot for Brüno was a team effort involving Director Larry Charles, and an inner circle that includes producer Dan Mazer, and comedy writers Anthony Hines and Peter Baynham.
The resulting film starts at Milan Fashion Week, where Brüno ("the most important cable TV fashion reporter in any German-speaking country outside of Germany") suffers an unfortunate accident involving a Velcro outfit and the near-destruction of a real-life catwalk. As a result, his Austrian television show is cancelled. He goes to America, to relaunch himself.
The search for fame leads him to Ron Paul's door. Brüno attempts to seduce him after being told that featuring in a sex tape will help his celebrity stock to rise. Then it leads him to the Alabama National Guard, visited as part of Brüno's fruitless effort to make himself more heterosexual (and therefore acceptable to family audiences). Finally, he swings by a very heterosexual swingers' party, a session with a dominatrix (which ends with him falling out of a window) and winds up at the Arkansas cage-fighting event, scene of the extraordinary set-piece with which the film culminates.
Jacquie Jordan has already seen a finished version of the film. By chance, she was walking through Marina Del Rey on the day of the Brüno's first test screening, and asked if she'd like to attend. She describes it as "brilliant", saying of Baron Cohen: "The man's a genius. I have such respect for him. His greatness is that he also makes a point. He's not just a frivolous comedian."
Perhaps that's easier for her to say than the others who were filmed; her scene ended up on the cutting room floor. This final observation lays bare a last secret of Baron Cohen's success: hard work. He recorded hundreds of hours of footage, during 100 days of filming. Then he edited it down to four or five hours of usable material. Then a two-hour cut was creamed off the top to create the film. It was a long and torturous process. But even a "genius" sometimes has to throw plenty of mud at the wall for some of it to stick.
Based on his track record, we can confidently assume that Sacha Baron Cohen won't have a role in promoting Brüno's international launch in July. Or at least, the real Sacha Baron Cohen won't have a role in it.
Instead, Brüno himself will appear on red carpets, and breeze through publicity junkets. He'll flounce, preen, and offer photographers shots of the latest elaborate outfit picked out from the vast wardrobe that costume designer, Jason Alper, has assembled during trips round the bargain rails of boutiques in Germany, New York and Los Angeles.
If the film stokes up enough controversy, he may even convene a press conference. For it is quite possible that Brüno will upset the people of Austria, just as Borat caused a diplomatic incident with Kazakhstan. It is also possible that its risqué subject matter will play uneasily in Islamic markets like Turkey, where it's due out in August.
This is fair enough, in so far as it goes. But by always using his alter ego to carry out the promotional duties, Baron Cohen neatly sidesteps the requirement – which falls on every other major film star – to offer up a bit of his own character for public consumption. In other words, Brüno, Borat, and Ali G have protected Baron Cohen from being held properly to account.
Since achieving fame a decade ago, he's only appeared as "himself" in a handful of US radio and TV shows (when he took Ali G to America in 2003). He has done only one major press interview, with Neil Strauss in 2006, published in Rolling Stone and The Independent, and a small handful of Q&As with reporters when he's taken straight acting roles, such as in PR work for Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd and Will Ferrell's Talladega Nights.
With fiancée Isla Fisher, he forms part of one of Hollywood's power couples. Yet while Fisher is naturally extroverted, he hates the showbiz circus. When forced to face the press in person – after Borat won a Golden Globe in 2007, for example – Baron Cohen often seems prickly to the point of ludicrousness.
It's difficult to know why he feels so defensive. After all, the public love him. Friends say, almost to a man, that he's a polite and charming character. He can be shy in the company of strangers, has a naturally bumbling manner. But he is also highly intelligent, capable of immense charm. Since his work can be controversial, and his public pronouncements are so rare, some friends say he is naturally cautious of proffering half-thought-out opinions. Others venture that he simply dislikes the process of self analysis and revelation that interviews involve.
But even so, there is at least half a problem with this modus operandi. By hiding behind his characters, Baron Cohen is using them as both a protective shield, and a weapon. Brüno, Borat or Ali G can be outrageous and controversial. But since they, and not their creator, are "talking", Baron Cohen doesn't have to suffer the consequences.
As Neil Strauss, author of The Game and the recent Emergency, and (perhaps) the journalist who knows him best, once put it, there is a certain sadism about Baron Cohen's comedy. It's difficult not to wonder if he'd be brave enough to even consider facing the situations to which he exposes his other personae.
The private veil can also prevent us properly understanding his work. For much that underpins his comedy – in particular, the recurring theme of anti-Semitism – stems from his background. He was born in 1971, the youngest of three boys in a middle-class Jewish family from west London. His father ran a clothes shop. His mother, who was born in Israel, taught at a school of movement.
In a roundabout way, his religion got him into entertainment: aged 12, he formed a break-dancing troupe to perform at his barmitzvah. That, and a childhood obsession with Peter Sellers, prompted him to join the Footlights during his student days at Cambridge, where he studied history. After graduating, he gave himself five years to make it in showbusiness. If he failed, he'd get a proper job.
For a while, Baron Cohen worked on an obscure satellite channel in Berkshire. Then he moved to London Weekend Television, where he met director Mike Toppin, who helped him develop his first character act, the MC Jocelyn Cheadle-Hume: a would-be gangsta rapper, from a middle-class background.
One day, while out filming with Toppin, "Cheadle-Hume" began joshing with a group of white skateboarders.
"Me and Mike looked at each other and suddenly had this realisation that people believe this character," he recalled in 2006. "At that point a tourist bus turned up at a bus stop right next to us. I looked at Mike and he looked at me. So we jumped on and essentially commandeered the bus. I took the microphone and I was like 'Yo, check it out. I is here and this is me bus. Booyakasha'."
That character became Ali G, who debuted on Channel Four's 11 O'Clock Show, and went on to become the programme's break-out star. The rest, as they say, is history. Today, for all his fame and fortune Baron Cohen apparently remains the way he started out: a fairly observant Jew, he does his best to keep kosher and observes the Sabbath with his family whenever possible.
"Family and religion seem to be strong for him," said Strauss this week. "I found it interesting when he said that these traditional qualities are what gave him the courage to play the non-traditional characters he does. As he put it, 'My parents were incredibly loving. And I think that gives you the strength to go out into a crowd of people who hate you'." Even if it isn't "you", but your alter ego, that they really hate.
At this late point: full disclosure. I have never met Sacha Baron Cohen. I did, however, once enjoy a wide-ranging conversation with his fiancée, Isla Fisher. It was in 2001, at a charity fancy dress party at San Lorenzo restaurant in Mayfair, which I attended as a gossip columnist for the Daily Telegraph. Fisher was wearing a nurse's outfit. She introduced herself by pinching my bottom.
Fisher is in many ways Baron Cohen's polar opposite: loud, outgoing, endearingly bonkers. She can also be blokeish, and (in those days, at least) flirtatious. She told me, during our conversation, that she had a "thing" for tall, dark Englishmen.
She met Baron Cohen a year later. He measures 6ft 3in, speaks with a relatively posh accent, and according to the friends and colleagues – past and present – who helped with this article, has impeccable manners. It was, in retrospect, a perfect match. The couple now have a daughter, Olive, who is 18 months old. They live in a comfortable house near where Mulholland Drive meets Laurel Canyon, in the Hollywood Hills. Given their now-enormous wealth, it is relatively modest. Visitors describe its "vibe" as suburban, rather than ostentatious.
These facts are important because, as we already know, family is central to Baron Cohen's existence. Unlike many Hollywood stars, his future career will almost certainly be defined by the wishes of both Fisher and their daughter.
"Since Olive was born, Isla is essentially a mother first, and an actress second," says a long-standing friend of the couple. "She likes making films. But she doesn't love it, and has always said that living in Los Angeles is a temporary thing. She doesn't have any films on her agenda for the next couple of years, and she and Sacha have recently been talking about how their life will be 'when we go back to England'."
This leaves a big question mark hanging over his future. We know, of course, that he is not just a brilliant satirist, but also a very talented, straightforward actor. His turns in Sweeney Todd and Talladega Nights, the two "proper" films he's produced, were exceptional. He could easily be a Hollywood leading man. But only if he wants to.
"People don't realise that he's an amazing actor," says a colleague who worked on both Brüno and Borat. "His range is incredible. You can see that when we're trying out ideas. He's a great dancer, and an amazing singer. He hasn't had the chance to play a tough guy, but he'd be good at that too. I'm just not sure he can be bothered."
Once this summer's release is out of the way, Baron Cohen also has nothing on his agenda. He isn't signed for a single film role (and there's no guarantee, given the PR duties straight acting jobs entail, that he'd agree to one). More pressingly, he doesn't have any fresh characters left in his locker to form the basis of a fourth "mockumentary". And it could take him years to develop a new one.
"When you look at Ali G, and Borat, and Brüno, these all took a long time to develop," notes a member of Brüno's production team. "He was working on them for years, in short TV sketches, before ever trying to make a film. Even if Sacha wanted to get up tomorrow and make another film, it would take three or four years for him to get right. He's a perfectionist."
For now, then, we'll have to ready ourselves for the gay Austrian fashion reporter's arrival in the knowledge that it might represent a sort of swansong: the last in Baron Cohen's string of gonzo film projects. At least, according to everyone who's had anything to do with the film, we won't be disappointed. "The phrase that keeps coming up in meetings about Brüno is 'lightning in a bottle'. We're all straight and male, but we've made this incredibly gay film. It's not Brokeback. We're not ramming it down people's throats. But the way it's worked out is just funny. So funny. That's all Sacha ever wanted to do: to make people laugh."
And why are 'southern' ways of speaking spreading north?
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