Will the real Sacha Baron Cohen please stand up? For months, he’s been making the media rounds still in the character of Borat from his hit film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. The Hollywood Foreign Press awarded him Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role. And at the show, he shocked viewers by appearing as…himself! But that doesn’t mean he’s left Borat behind.
Audience members from the Santa Barbara Film Festival screened his controversial film and eagerly awaited the actor behind the character. Prior to the screening, attendees were warned not to bring recording devices nor cameras into the Q&A, press included. “Will Smith doesn’t even pull this,” noted one event organizer.
There was talk of confiscation for those caught with the banned items. Ironic considering Cohen is making a career off recording the reactions of real people. Perhaps the comedian worries that he’s created a few enemies along the way? Maybe he’s hip to the danger in having one’s words recorded?
Still, Cohen sense of humor came shining through. His sarcastic delivery was deadpan, and every now and then, he’d slip between answering questions as Borat and as the mysterious Sacha Baron Cohen.
Appearing in jeans, a bear hat and jacket with his collar popped, a low-key Cohen carried bottled water as he took his seat. With his proper British accent in tact, he joked, “How come there are four seats? There are only two people in the cast.” Then, here came producer Jay Roach and screenwriters Peter Baynham and Ant Hines, who joined Cohen for the discussion.
The film first began production three years ago with director Larry Charles, Cohen and a different crew. The first cut came in at five and half hours long with hundreds of hours of footage on the cutting room floor. In May, a longer version of the film was screen in Marina del Rey, Calif., for friends. The audience went nuts. Cohen and the filmmakers learned that people cared about the film’s overall story, which surprised them.
“There was no story!” interjected Cohen.
Moderator Leonard Maltin disagreed, and he pointed out that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences also disagreed. Borat was recently nominated for an Oscar in the Best Adapted Screenplay category.
Cohen facetiously said, “I’m sorry. There’s a lot of story.” Baynham and Hines explained the story process and admitted they utilized the traditional three act structure with their focus on “trying to get Pamela [Anderson].” When asked if he’s since met Ms. Anderson, Cohen said, “I have met her out of character. Yes. She’s now divorce.” End of topic.
After a series of questions answered with “Sorry,” “Pardon me?” and blank stares, the audience got their first real answer from Cohen. Asked how much he trusts his instincts and how much he trusts his subjects to react, Cohen revealed, “Once you’re there in the real world—no matter the preparation—[the subjects] respond in their own way.”
The foursome also spoke of scenes that didn’t make the final cut, which finished at 84 minutes. What about the hundreds of hours that wound up on the cutting room floor? Did Cohen mind the missing scenes? He answered, “It’s annoying if you feel it’s going to be dangerous. You can only justify [doing dangerous things] if an audience will see it and love it. If you do it and it doesn’t go in, you’re pissed.”
Danger, not Baron, turned out to be Cohen’s middle name. He was reportedly approached 40 times by FBI and local cops because of his outlandish acts. Each time he was approached, the authorities had a list of his previous encounters. During one shoot in front of the White House, the Secret Service approached him. According to the producers, the Secret Service were concerned he was a member of Al Qaeda because he was “driving fast and screaming things” in front of the White House. Cohen sarcastically noted, “That’s what Al Qaeda do naturally.”
Because Cohen is not an American citizen, they had to worry about him being deported back to England. They constantly feared being shut down and filmed near state lines in case Cohen needed to escape. Asked if he was fearless and learned to wear armor of bravery, Cohen joked, “Let’s remember. I am Jewish.”
Cohen’s bravado had limits. When shooting the infamous naked fight with his co-star, Ken Davitian, he told Charles, “You know what? I can’t do this.” But an agreement was made: “Between every take, we’d shower… thoroughly.”
Maltin inquired, “Together or separately?”
“I was not that brave!” Cohen laughed. Charles and Cohen also agreed to have a signal. He said that he had 20-30 seconds before he would suffocate. He’d bang on the bed three times when he couldn’t take any more. He swore if you watch the scene, you can see him doing their secret signal for “cut.” Cohen shared, “I saw that scene from a totally different perspective. I haven’t slept since that night.”
Another popular topic? The identical twin bears Cohen worked with while filming Borat. They recruited a Scottish bear trainer to coordinate scenes involving the bear. Cohen admitted he was nervous working with the Scottish professional. “They’re known for kelts and whiskey… not their bears,” joked Cohen. But as a low budget production, they had no choice and had to put their faith in the trainer and the bears. The bear became a leading player in the film. The filmmakers divulged that a scene after the “naked fight” had to be cut, which showed a naked Azmat sleeping in the car, while the camera panned to Borat spooning the bear.
“[The bear] was a star f**ker,” Cohen said, who also “tore at his crotch between takes.” Roach teased, “I think [the bear] is suing us.”
During the discussion, Cohen seemed to play bored, amused; he even lapsed into Borat a few times, leaving Maltin desperate for real answers. Cohen teased, “Are you saying I have no personality?” But the actor then acknowledged, “I’m a little weird,”
The moderator asked when he first became fascinated with America? “I heard about America at the age of 18,” he joked. “What language do they speak? Do they have hair and ears? They look like us.”
Cohen first visited the U.S. at the age of 13. He stayed for three weeks while writing a thesis on the Civil Rights movement and stayed in various ghettos. Further probed, Cohen joked, “I think that’s enough from the floor. This is revenge of the American people!” And as more questions were asked about how he got his start and what kind of acting training he had, Cohen merely replied, “How long is this?”
So, we ask again: Who is Sacha Baron Sacha Baron Cohen? For now, it still remains a mystery.