The Big Reveal
Sacha Baron Cohen learned from his mockumentary Borat that by disappearing into characters, he could get people to reveal themselves. But what he learned making Showtime’s Who Is America? exceeded all his expectations.
Sacha Baron Cohen figured he was done.
After spending much of his career playing other people — obtuse rapper Ali G, oblivious journalist Borat, flamboyant fashionista Brüno — he was finally ready to be himself. No more posing as these characters that managed to convince people to show their true, and often very dark, colors.
Then, Donald Trump happened.
"He got in office, and I felt there was an imperative for me to go back into character," Cohen explains. "I was angry when he got elected, and I had to do something for myself. I didn't feel like I'd have any effect on anyone, but I felt I had to do something to cope with my own feelings of real anger and disappointment.
"And the way I know how to do that is to create characters and start meeting the people I dislike."
That "something" became the Showtime series Who Is America? Cohen's characters turned out to include conspiracy theorist Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr., hyperliberal lecturer Dr. Nira Cain-N'Degeocello, billionaire Italian playboy Gio Monaldo and Israeli terrorism expert Erran Morad, among others.
In the course of the show's eight episodes, these fictional people were responsible for real-world consequences that were simultaneously impressive and depressing.
A Georgia state legislator shouted the n-word and dropped his pants as part of a plan to turn terrorists gay. Residents of an Arizona town freely admitted to being racist. A right-wing conspiracy theorist agreed to murder people at a women's march because he considered them to be anti-fascist terrorists. Former Vice President Dick Cheney gleefully autographed a waterboarding kit.
These interviews gave the London-born Cohen a vehicle for venting his frustrations with this country's current cultural climate, but what he saw and heard in the course of shooting the series may have increased his concerns about where we're headed.
Though he's usually interview-averse ("I'm naturally quite reserved… in my particular line of work, the idea is to not talk about yourself and not talk about what you're doing, because that can jeopardize it"), Cohen sat down with emmy's Craig Tomashoff to discuss the difficulties of making his characters credible, the reactions that surprised him and his life-saving clipboard.
When you're in character doing interviews, what goes through your head as you see someone drop their pants to turn terrorists gay or agree to blow up some liberals?
When we were in the writers' room, we'd have discussions saying, "What about this or that idea?" And in those ideas we would have, we'd think, "That's never going to happen. You're not going to get someone to murder liberals at a women's march. It's absolutely impossible."
So when things like that happen, I know in the moment they'd make good television. However, at the same time, it's obviously upsetting to see the extremities that are out there, like having a politician scream the n-word.
Are you ever shocked enough by what you see to stop the interview?
There's a lot at stake if you don't stay in the moment. When I'm in character, I have to continually convince that person I'm real, and sometimes that has to last hours. In the case of the women's march, it had to last two days.
It's not like performing a normal scene in a movie or television show, where if you break character, you still get another take. You have one take here, and not only that, the person you're interviewing has to believe you're a real person till the moment they leave. If they don't, they'll complain. They'll come back, possibly with guns. Or lawyers. Or threats.
You mentioned a writers' room. How much writing do you do for an interview, and how much are you just winging it?
There is a script. It's just that the script is very long. I have to learn 400 to 600 lines a day rather than, say, the 20 lines a day you'd learn for a movie. I'm going to use most of them, but I'm going to have to pick and choose which ones and obviously improvise as well.
I always approach a scene by coming extremely prepared but being ready to completely throw everything away and seize whatever opportunities present themselves.
Is it more difficult when you're talking to a public figure like Dick Cheney, who has been interviewed hundreds of times?
Someone like Dick Cheney is an intelligent guy and a suspicious guy. You have to make sure your character is locked in, that there are no gaps or chinks in the armor.
We spoke to him for about three hours. There are thousands and thousands of lines in that case, so to prepare for that, you have to have the complete backstory of your character. I had an Israeli weapons expert with me that day because we were also doing a piece on guns, where we had 20 or 30 different types we were carrying around with us.
So I asked him to download me on his entire military career in an hour. He said [heavy Israeli accent], "At age of seven, I went to school with a lunchbox in one hand and a gas mask in the other." Then he took me through all the military operations he'd been involved in and I memorized it all.
When Dick Cheney came in the room, he said, "Before we start, I want to know a little about the guy interviewing me. Tell me about your military experience." So I regurgitated the whole thing.
The plan clearly worked, since he trusted you enough to autograph the waterboarding kit you pulled out.
I'm often surprised by the lack of self-awareness people show, and I could not believe the former vice president of the United States would do that. If anything, he should be incredibly embarrassed about being associated with waterboarding. The idea that he was proud enough to actually sign it as memorabilia was astonishing.
Why do you think he did it?
Part of my challenge is to charm the interviewee, so I figured if I approached the interview as a fan, he might bite and open up more. And the things he should've been completely embarrassed or silent about, he opened up about.
When I asked what his favorite war was, the fact that he said it was Iraq One — because they had all these new weapons to use — was shockingly revealing. The idea that somebody who started a war was excited to use weapons that could kill hundreds of thousands of people is dismaying.
I feel like because I was playing this incredibly macho character, he felt he was in the presence of someone who had done something he'd never done. Which was kill people. He'd given the orders to have people killed, but he'd never done it directly.
I was very blasé about killing people and was still a big fan of his, so it was similar to a virgin being with a womanizer. He slightly admired my character.
In addition to playing characters like Ali G, Borat and Brüno, you've done some straight acting work in films like Les Misérables, Hugo and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. What do you like about that process?
After making Borat, I did a movie called Talladega Nights. It was the first [fully scripted] movie I'd done, and I couldn't believe certain things. Like, number one, I had a trailer. I was used to getting made up in the back of a van with the director and a driver in there. Second, I had a bed in the trailer, and third, I had a TV in the trailer.
Then, once I went on set, the takes were so short — and you could do another one.
I don't want to upset every actor reading this, but after doing Borat, where the takes could be seven hours long, doing a movie felt... I'm trying to think of another word that's not insulting to actors… relaxing.
With stuff I've done as my characters, if you make a mistake, the scene is over. And in the case of something like what we shot in Kingman, Arizona, for Who Is America? [as ponytailed liberal Dr. Nira, he tried to get the locals on board with building a mosque in their town], you could get badly hurt if they think this guy is mocking them.
There were guns around, whether in the room or out in their cars. So the downside of getting it wrong is huge.
Do you enjoy the adrenaline rush that must come with never knowing how a particular scene is going to play out?
I don't! I'm actually easily scared. When I'm writing a scene, I have an inability to imagine how I will feel on the day. So I get into a situation and I'm scared, and then a lot of what I have to do mentally is get over my fear. That was particularly true in Kingman.
We had a bodyguard there, and he was an ex-special ops guy. He said, "I built you something. It's a clipboard that's bulletproof. If anyone pulls out a gun and fires, just hold it in front of you."
I said, "Wait! What do I cover? My head or heart or groin?"
He said, "I don't know, just choose."
So obviously something like that is scary. We try to take as many weapons off people as we can before they get into the room, but it's hard. People can still bring knives in. And they have guns in their cars. People were leaving and trying to bring guns back into the room. I think at the end, one of the subjects said, "Now I know why you took our guns off us."
Do you remember the first character you ever created?
The first time was at the end of university, when I tried one character that was very experimental. I just came up with him one night and tried it out in Footlights [the student drama club at Cambridge University, which Cohen attended]. He was this very, very stupid character called Solly.
I remember the audience laughing really, really hard because Cambridge students back then had never seen that style of comedy and I'd never performed it.
At that point in Footlights, all performances were coming from a position of intelligence. They were variations of Monty Python sketches. So I was coming in playing the stupidest character in the world, who got lost and faced the wrong way and then began explaining the rules of comedy.
I still remember coming off the stage and feeling euphoric. And even during the performance, there was this feeling of complete joy.
Whatever happened to Solly?
I started doing that character on the stand-up circuit in England, and the crowd would laugh hysterically. Then I'd never get paid to come back again. I'd ask why and they'd say, "Because you're terrible." I'd say, "But the audience was laughing." They'd say, "Yeah, because you're so bad." I'd say, "That's the idea for the character." They'd say, "No, no, no! You're so bad."
At that point, there was nobody doing characters on the comedy circuit, and I was indistinguishable from other really bad comedians who were so bad they were funny.
How did you go from a purely comic character like that to doing something like Who Is America?, which carves out new territory somewhere between scripted and reality television?
The first time I did the Borat character was on a cable show in England, where I went to a fox-hunting rally in Hyde Park. I started telling these people, who were mainly members of the upper class [in his Borat accent], "In my country, we hunt criminals. We give them 20 minutes head start."
They said [in a stilted British accent], "Oh yes, we would do that… and give them a fair start."
I said, "Would you hunt Jews? We sometimes hunt Jews."
I came back from that experience and realized, "Oh, this is a way to get people to really reveal themselves." If you think the purpose of documentaries is to get people to reveal themselves, this is doing it in a far more effective way. In a documentary, nobody would ever say, "Yes, I'd hunt Jews." They might say it behind closed doors.
I wrote up a treatment for a show that wasn't a comedy. I called it Undercover Character Documentaries. And the idea was to reveal what people in Britain really felt, and to do it through this character of Borat.
What do you think your Who Is America? characters revealed about what Americans really feel?
I think each character showed different things in each interview. With Gio, we wanted to show what people would do out of greed. Would someone build a yacht for [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad knowing it'd be used to ship sex slaves and it would have weapons that would be used to murder any immigrants trying to get on board?
Erran revealed the extent that the fear spread by the president and the internet can affect people's lives and lead them to do irrational things. The concept that a politician would drop his underpants and use his bare buttocks to turn an Islamic terrorist into a homosexual is ludicrous, but it can happen because of a climate of fear and Islamophobia.
What I'm revealing is the effect of this new political culture.
What did it reveal to you about the state of our political culture?
lt's important to say that I'm an actor and a comedian. I'm not a politician. I'm not a philosopher. I'm not an ethicist. So my comments on society are fairly irrelevant. There's a danger in me or anyone else thinking they're too valuable. The interesting thing is what people revealed about themselves, rather than my own opinions about it.
Still, did doing this show change those opinions?
This is probably my fifth outing in America. When I was 19, I traveled around the U.S. doing my undergraduate thesis on Jews in the African-American civil rights movement. I interviewed about a hundred people who'd been involved in the civil rights movement.
Then, I did Da Ali G Show a number of years later. Then I did Borat. Then I did Brüno. Then I did this. So I've managed to interview various Americans — granted, it hasn't been a huge sample size — over a number of years.
I was dismayed by many of the things that I saw this time. I'm not saying anything about the society as a whole. That's probably remained unchanged. However, people are now far less inhibited about doing and saying heinous things.
So whether it's Dick Cheney signing a waterboard kit or a conspiracy theorist agreeing to murder three liberals or a politician screaming the n-word, I can safely say those things wouldn't have happened 10 years ago.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 7, 2019
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