Times 2 - UK (2020-10-16)

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the times | Friday October 16 2020 1GT 5

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gone away.” Is there a tension between
that seriousness and the broadness of
his comedy? No, the friend says. A lot
of his work “has been about exposing
all sorts of prejudices, so I don’t think
there’s a tension at all”.
If Baron Cohen isn’t conflicted then
some of his critics are. He told The
Daily Telegraph about getting a letter
“where the lawyer informed me I’m
about to be sued for $100,000 and at
the end says, ‘PS Loved the movie.
Can you sign a poster for my son
Jeremy?’ ” While many in Kazakhstan
were hostile to Borat, some concede
that it may have “put them on the map
a bit”, says Erran, who, in a bizarre
twist of fate, was subsequently
commissioned to write a symphony for
an orchestra in the country. The Anti-
Defamation League, an antisemitism
protest group, was at first concerned
that the film’s “irony may have been
lost on some of your audience”. It was
the ADL, though, that hosted Baron
Cohen’s speech on social media.
That speech and his article for Time
offered rare glimpses of Baron Cohen
playing himself. “It still feels bizarre to
speak out in my own voice, but I wrote
this for @TIME because Trump’s lies
and conspiracies, spread by Facebook,
threaten to kill more people — and
democracy as we know it!” he wrote
on Twitter. Note the Trump-style
exclamation mark. The plan is clearly
to go for the president before the
election, in a two-pronged attack of
serious journalism and cringeworthy
comedy. In another promotional
poster Borat rips off a Trump mask,
implying that he is the real leader of
the free world. “Thank you for giving
me fantastic head for the last four
years,” goes the caption. A playground
gag is never far away.
Strong remembers them flying back
together from the Grimsby shoot and
Baron Cohen saying to the air
stewards: “My boyfriend and I are very
tired. Could you find somewhere nice
and special for us?” They then sat
down “and he pulled out some book
on macroeconomics”. His woke
politics are often hard to spot in his
non-documentary comedies. Fisher
has talked about taking her father on
to the set of Grimsby and having to
explain why his son-in-law was inside
an elephant’s vagina being sprayed
with the semen of other elephants
with whom it was having sex. I’m not
sure what prejudice that exposes.
While his on-screen provocations
get more lurid, Baron Cohen’s private
life sounds reassuringly solid. “We get
on great and I think he’s handled this
fame and all the madness around it
pretty well,” Erran says. “He wants to
create great work, that’s what he’s
really about. The fame is almost an
unwanted side thing. He’s not
someone to go to all these parties.”
You can see why. Baron Cohen told
Jonathan Ross about being at a do in
Hollywood and talking to Jim Carrey,
who was moaning about being single.
An attractive woman walked past and
glanced at Carrey. “She looks like she’s
up for it,” Baron Cohen said. “That’s
my daughter,” Carrey replied.
Excruciating exchanges clearly aren’t
limited to his films.
“It’s been quite a journey working
with him,” Erran says. “We used to
play music together in little clubs in
London, and now we work on big
Hollywood movies together.” And
his little brother still hasn’t tired of
getting his kit off.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is on
Amazon Prime Video on October 23

Brian May of Queen after plans for
Baron Cohen to play Freddie Mercury
in the film Bohemian Rhapsody fell
apart. “It’s obvious that it wasn’t going
to work, him playing Freddie. It
wouldn’t suspend your disbelief.”
One co-star who was happy to talk
to me was Mark Strong, possibly
because he’s hard as nails. Invited to
improvise scenes as the secret agent
brother of Baron Cohen’s football
hooligan in Grimsby, Strong was
required to “throw Sacha up against
the wall and menace him, and I think
he was impressed that I was able to do
that without having to try that hard”.
Baron Cohen grew up in a Jewish
family in Hampstead Garden Suburb,
northwest London, the youngest son
of Gerald, a successful owner of
clothing shops, and Daniella, an
amateur photographer. It was a
stimulating childhood, with trips to
concerts and the theatre. “We were
encouraged to pursue our talents,”
Erran says. “They never told us to
focus on getting a proper job.” Their
elder brother, Amnon, “got the normal
job [in computers], but he’s quite clever
as well”. Their cousin is Simon Baron-
Cohen, the noted psychologist.
Sacha attended Haberdashers’
Aske’s, a private boys’ school in
Hertfordshire, where his peers
included Matt Lucas and Dan Mazer,
who co-wrote and co-produced several
of his films. Then Cambridge
University, where he read modern
history and acted in Fiddler on the
Roof and Cyrano de Bergerac.
He got an early taste for
performance at Habonim, a Jewish
youth organisation where one of
his leaders was Jonathan
Mendelsohn, now the Labour
peer Lord Mendelsohn. He
remembers Sacha at 12 as
“unbelievably talented, very
quirky and tremendously
admired by his peers. He’s
a very bright guy — he could
have been a world-renowned
scientist and done funny things
on an amateur basis.”
As teenagers Sacha and Erran also
did shows at home for Friday night
Shabbat. “We’re not that religious,
but my parents always used to invite
guests over,” Erran says. “I would
get on the piano and me and
Sacha would muck around,
improvising songs. We thought
they were quite funny — and they
were, some of them.”
They began playing in nightclubs,
doing songs including Shvitzing,
Yiddish for sweating, which became
a sketch that was shown on the
BBC’s Comedy Nation show in 1998
and can be found on YouTube. The
brothers are dressed as Hasidic Jews

and Sacha’s character gets so hot that
he takes his clothes off and, Erran
says, “ends up running around in
Speedos and converting to Islam and
Christianity”. All the Baron Cohen
hallmarks are there: religious
controversy, puerility, an aversion to
clothes. That year he got his big break
as Ali G on The 11 O’Clock Show.
In private he’s “a very thoughtful,
serious person”, Strong says. Baron
Cohen wrote his university thesis on
the role of Jews in the American civil
rights movement and is a fine
dramatic actor, most recently playing
the activist Abbie Hoffman in Aaron
Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7. In
2015 he and his wife of ten years, the
Australian actress Isla Fisher, donated
$1 million to charities in Syria.
He has three children, born in 2007,
2010 and 2015, with Fisher, who
converted to Judaism before marrying
him. They live in Los Angeles, but
have a house in Hampstead, and he is
in touch with many of his old friends.
The first Borat film, in which its
hero sang a song called Throw the Jew
Down the Well, was prescient in its
identification of the resurgence of
antisemitism, says one friend, who
asks not to be named. “The fact that it
was so funny added to the discomfort.
Antisemitism is a much
bigger problem now
than it was in 2006. He
was very perceptive; he
saw that it hadn’t really

Above: Sacha Baron
Cohen and, left, as
Ali G interviewing
Donald Trump in 2003.
Right: Baron Cohen
with his wife Isla Fisher

he is never officially their director.

“Sacha’s very involved with every

aspect of his own projects,” says his

brother Erran Baron Cohen, who

composed the music for most of his

films including the new Borat. “It’s his

film, really, at the end of the day.”

When he isn’t in control, things can

go awry. “Sacha became an arse,” said

He’s very


He could

have been

a world-




The new film and, above, “Borat” at the 2006 Cannes festival

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