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Sacha Baron Cohen moves the needle of history with 'Borat,' 'Chicago 7'

Glenn Whipp, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

Sacha Baron Cohen was all set to play radical activist Abbie Hoffman in 2007. Steven Spielberg planned to direct the Aaron Sorkin script of "The Trial of the Chicago 7," but the writers strike, among other things, scuttled that version of the project.

Cohen moved on to make the comedy "Brüno," and all of his research about Hoffman ended up becoming unexpectedly useful. "Brüno" ends with the title character, under the alias of "Straight Dave," traveling to Texarkana, Arkansas, to stage a cage-fight match that would climax with him making out with his ex-boyfriend to pointedly illustrate the audience's homophobia. Cohen's attorneys cautioned him that he couldn't go too far aggravating the crowd ("watch your hands, Sacha"), otherwise he could be charged with crossing state lines to incite a riot.

"And I was like, 'I know about this law ... this is the law the Chicago Seven and Abbie Hoffman were tried for," Cohen says, laughing. "In one way or another, I've felt very connected to Abbie through much of my life."

We're talking by Zoom on a winter evening, Cohen wearing a black baseball cap, black long-sleeve T-shirt and proffering a black humor. Director Jason Woliner, who worked on this fall's wildly successful "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm" ("it almost felt like we were this little band of bank robbers," Woliner says of the secret process involved in making the sequel), says the first thing that strikes you about Cohen is "how deeply he cares about the issues he believes in."

That passion is evident throughout our conversation, with Cohen repeatedly championing his causes: curbing defamation and disinformation on the internet and stopping Trumpism, which he views, now and forevermore, as an existential threat to democracy.

Of course, this being Cohen, the serious discourse often takes bizarre comic detours, musing on Stephen Miller's bowel movements and the time he spent five days on the "Borat" sequel undercover with two QAnon conspiracy theorists and became so immersed in character that he forgot how to practice good dental hygiene. ("It was really hard to pick up the toothbrush and then I realized, 'Oh, my god! I'm still Borat!'" Cohen says, adding that he literally slapped himself back to reality. And that was just Day 3. He still had another 48 hours to go.)

 

Cohen shot a chunk of "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm" before starting on "Chicago 7" in October. ("I didn't know about it," Sorkin says. "I found out about it the same time as everyone else.") He returned to the project in the new year, in time to crash Mike Pence's speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February, dressed as Donald Trump. The stunt required an intense amount of planning, Woliner says, because "there's Secret Service everywhere ... and, you know, they've got guns.")

"I'm often asked, 'How does an actor prepare for a scene?'" Cohen says, deadpan. "And I prepared by waking up at 1 in the morning, driving to a motel, sitting in a chair for six hours while a prosthetics team changed my face to Donald Trump's and then, yes, sneaking into CPAC and staying in a men's lavatory for a number of hours."

When I expressed surprise that he got in in the first place, he agrees before I can finish the sentence. "So was I! I couldn't believe it!"

As to how he whiled away several hours in a restroom stall wearing a 54-inch-waist fat suit, Cohen explains: "I had a phone, and I had one Coca-Cola. And I put little lines on the Coke bottle for how much I could drink per hour. In the meantime, I became familiar with the inner workings of the right-wing man more than anyone around. I know their diets. They need more roughage. It was a little too lively in there."

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