Sacha Baron Cohen: The Fresh Air Interview
This interview was originally broadcast on May 21, 2012. Sacha Baron Cohen's The Dictator is now out on DVD.
Actor and writer Sacha Baron Cohen is famous for taking his characters — Ali G., Borat, Bruno — into the real world, interacting with people who have no idea that they're dealing with a fictional character. But his new movie, The Dictator, is a scripted comedy about a tyrant on the loose in New York.
On why he enjoyed playing a dictator
"Dictators are ludicrous characters, and, you know, in my career and in my life, I've always enjoyed sort of inhabiting these ludicrous, larger-than-life characters that somehow exist in the real world. And just looking around, you know, over the last 10 years in particular, I kind of became obsessed [with] Colonel Gadhafi, amongst others, but Gadhafi in particular because he was so over the top. His dress style was so flamboyant, so ridiculous. In fact it could only really get to that level of absurdity by the fact that he was somebody who was unquestioned. You know, it's a bit like when you walk around Los Angeles, and you see some of these stars dressed in a peculiar way, the reason they're dressed like that is that no one actually questions them."
On Gadhafi's flatulence
Baron Cohen: "He, you know, is notorious for breaking wind furiously during various BBC interviews."
Gross: "Do they edit that out, or do they leave that in?"
Baron Cohen: "They actually, they did a little piece on it because after he did the interview, they noticed that he was breaking wind, not only breaking wind but sort of raising himself up before breaking wind in a kind of proud moment of defiance of Western journalistic standards."
On the design of the set:
"I said [to the set designer] 'Listen, we want to create this new country that is not quite in the Middle East, it's not quite in Africa, but, you know, it has elements of Gadhafi, it has elements of the United Arab Emirates, it has elements of Turkmenistan. We don't want it to be specific, but we want it to feel real."
On Borat speaking in Hebrew in the movie Borat
"I do like the irony of Borat, a deeply anti-Semitic character, speaking Hebrew, and this guy [in The Dictator,] who you know, wants to annihilate Israel, is also speaking Hebrew."
On why the movie The Dictator, unlike Borat, is scripted
"We actually just thought we could make a better movie if it had a script and, you know, didn't involve real people. I think pulling off, pulling off a kind of fake documentary of me being a, you know, actual dictator would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible. We got away with it on Borat because Kazakhstan was a real country. So you could say, 'I'm from Kazakhstan National Television.' People would look up Kazakhstan, and it existed. But if I came this time and said, 'I'm from Wadiya,' they'd, you know, look it up and realize it didn't exist, and if I said listen, 'I'm the dictator of Turkmenistan or, you know, or Libya,' they could look it up on Wikipedia and realize that I'm not. So it would have been impossible to, you know, have this real story."
On being brave
"I don't know if I'm brave. Yeah, I mean, I don't know if I'm brave. I think I think in the moment. So when I'm in character, I'm in character, and I'm obviously thinking about what's going on around me, but it's easier to do stuff when you're in character."
On the police and FBI following his characters
"There was a time, you know, I got so used to the police turning up. You know, with Borat, I think they came about 45 times. Sometimes it was the police, then the FBI were following us for a while. They had so many complaints that there was a Middle Eastern man ... driving through America in an ice cream van, that the FBI assigned a team to us. And so we had the FBI and then we had the Secret Service. But there were so many of these instances, and with Bruno as well, that for a while it would take about six months afterwards for me not to totally freak out whenever I saw a policeman."
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