After honing the difficult craft of creating laughs with characters embedded in situations where only he is in a comedy in Da Ali G Show, Borat and Bruno, Sacha Baron Cohen turned his skill toward exposing highbrow politicians and hard line conservatives with a coterie of new characters in Who Is America? For his Showtime summer series, Baron Cohen just received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor In A TV Comedy Or Musical, for the six distinctively different characters he disappeared into over seven episodes. Baron Cohen duped numerous high and low level people — including famous politicians like Dick Cheney, Roy Moore, Sarah Palin and O.J. Simpson — and got them and conservative Trump supporters to behave outrageously and reveal racist, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant and homophobic attitudes as his characters nudged subjects to scratch below surface civility. Often side-splittingly funny, the segments provided a glimpse into the divisions around America that have become more inflamed during Donald Trump’s polarizing presidency. Baron Cohen, whose work continues to draw comparisons to his idol Peter Sellers, doesn’t often talk about his craft in such a detailed manner — it would be like an illusionist breaking down a signature trick — but he has made an exception here for Deadline readers. Buckle up.
DEADLINE: I’d watch each episode and then read dismissive words like pranks and gags in reviews and articles. I thought some reviewers missed the point. You were duping current and former politicians, and people we’ve seen as staples on TV news shows, speaking credibly on important issues like mass shootings, gun control, and racism. It seemed important they revealed themselves on Who Is America? to be hateful imbeciles. What for you made it important enough to put so much time into pulling this off?
SACHA BARON COHEN: Donald Trump. I haven’t done this style of comedy for many years. My last attempt at it was the movie, Bruno. Donald Trump got elected and like many people, I started emailing my friends, and sharing articles and they were sharing stuff with me, and that was how we were dealing with upset and uneasiness at having this man take over. Then I realized, I have to do something else to deal with this kind of anger and total disgust at what was going on. So, purely for myself, I realized I had to go undercover again. As difficult as it was, as unpleasant as I knew it would be, I felt it was time to create new characters that were designed to expose people, and expose politicians and those in power.
DEADLINE: From planning to execution how long did it take to generate the material for seven episodes?
BARON COHEN: It took almost two years. There was a 10-week process at the beginning, which was the creation of the characters, and me and my co-writers Anthony Hines and Dan Mazer gave ourselves strict guidelines. Once a week, we would create a new character designed for a particular age, and we’d write for it and then we’d have the prosthetics built. At the end of the week, I would spend a day in the prosthetics, interviewing real people. We’d see whether people would believe it and if the character would work. It was an amazingly stressful process, each week coming out with something new, coming up with a complete backstory because obviously when you sit down with someone, these interviews can last up to five or six hours.
One of them lasted two days. That was at the Women’s March, and so your backstory for your character has to be complete because any conversation you have can’t indicate to this subject that you’re not real, particularly when they’re suspicious. These are highly intelligent people that you’re interviewing, who are trained to deal with interviewers and are highly suspicious. And I’m playing characters doing and saying bizarre things. So your backstory has to be complete and you have to be able to inhabit the character to the level that somebody cannot realize that the person in front of them is actually wearing a silicone mask.
DEADLINE: Watching the Georgia State representative Jason Spencer and others self destruct with what seemed like the slightest provocation was as funny as it was disturbing. Whether it was choreographing an elaborate sting or ad-libbing your way to find comedy when the script maybe wasn’t working, which segments left you walking away giddy and thinking, I cannot believe that just happened?
BARON COHEN: A number of segments on this show completely surprised me and actually upset me in a deep way. When we were shooting Borat, if somebody said something anti-Semitic or homophobic, we were surprised and we knew that it would make the cut. Now, going out all these years later, you realize that the political dialogue that’s come from the top has made an extremely negative impact on other politicians and to the populace. People are saying things that they never would’ve dreamed of saying publicly, prior to Trump. For example, one of the characters I played was Nira Cain-N’Degeocello. He is in this small town in Arizona and tells them there’s a great new huge building project, and they’re biggest Megamosque outside of Mecca there.
DEADLINE: It was brilliantly funny.
BARON COHEN: But there were responses that I never would’ve expected, that people would never have said on camera, before. Somebody admitted to being a racist, which would never have happened. Another person said that he’d blow up the mosque. Somebody else admitted that they should bring in, he said, ‘the boys from Texas’ to deal with the situation like they did last time, both implying that a group of white supremacists had come over dealt with some African American situation. People felt emboldened to spout these racist views publicly. I think the population has changed and that’s a result of the president legitimizing these views. Bear in mind the caveat in this whole thing is, I’m a comedian, I’m an actor, I’m not a political commentator, I’m not an academic. So take all my views with a pinch of salt. But having occasionally gone out into America and having spent a few hours recording with people, it seemed to be a different America.
DEADLINE: What you said is self deprecating, but this seems a lot more effective than many who get on their soapbox on Twitter and wax on about politics and you see it and go, who cares what you think? You did something singular that provided a forum to show hubris and hate that is growing in this country.
BARON COHEN: My views on politics are fairly irrelevant. I think if somebody watches the program, and they find one of the sketches significant then I’m happy with that. But it’s not for me to preach.
DEADLINE: You perform these well fleshed out well-disguised characters, doing comedy when most everyone you’re sharing the stage with isn’t in on the joke. It seems terribly difficult. How did that skill come to you?
BARON COHEN: When I was 24 years old, I chanced upon this style of comedy. I was doing a very small cable TV show, it was a public access show in England called F2F and I was playing an early form of the character that became Ali G. In that version he was called Joseline Cheadle Human. He was an upper-class wanna be rapper, skateboarder, lover of hip-hop. In this show, I would go out and shoot little segments and then I would sort of pop them into this live show. I shot a little thing with this character and then I saw a bunch of real-life Ali G’s. The director with me at the time, a guy called Mike Toppin, a brilliant ex-editor of evening comedies who happened to be working on this public access show. I said, those guys are like me and he said, go and speak with them. That moment changed my career. I interacted with them, I started trying to get on my skateboard and they are going, ‘you’re wack, man. That is ridiculous.’ They were mocking me, and after two minutes I came out of character and I said, ‘guys, I’m pretending. It’s not me.’ They were shocked, and I realized oh my God, I’ve found something. Suddenly a tourist bus turned up. I jumped on the tourist bus with a camera. I grabbed the microphone. I started rapping into the microphone. We got off the bus, I went into a pub and started breakdancing on the floor. They called the cops. I then went into the lobby of some big business firm and I said my dad ran the business, and security threw me out, and I was completely invigorated.
I took the stuff and would cut it into the live show, and by the third segment everything was cut. It went black. Somebody had pulled these pieces that we’d shot. I was pulled in front of the station chiefs afterward and they said, never do that again or I’d get sued. I knew at that point that I had found something. It was by chance, by luck. I chanced upon a new style of comedy, which was putting comedy characters into the real world. A week later there was a pro-hunting rally in England, which every member of the upper class was there, save the royal family, and I decided to go undercover as a foreign character. I’m driving down there and in the back seat. There’s a hat from Astrakhan in Southern Russia. I put it on my head and I come out of the car and I am basically an early form of Borat.
Hello, my name is…[he assumes the Borat accent]. I would start asking people, ‘excuse me. When we went hunting in Moldova, we like to hunt the Jew. Would you hunt the Jew here?’ And they’d start answering…[assumes upper crust British accent] ‘Well, actually…yes, so long as he was given a fair start. Yes, I would.’ And I suddenly realized here was a method that allowed people to really reveal their true feelings on camera. I came back home and I said to my flatmate, I think there’s a new style of comedy here that I’ve accidentally chanced upon, an undercover character comedy. I just started working on that and when the cable access show got shut down, I started developing a show for Borat, which was going to be undercover in a house with students with hidden cameras for three months, kind of an early form of Big Brother. It was not commissioned, but that is how all this happened.
DEADLINE: Your targets seemed to have had a fair chance to acquit themselves. Ted Koppel did, so did that wealthy couple of Trump supporters in the opening episode. But then you had hardcore conservative Trump supporters who simulate a gang-rape on a Trump sex doll, or who dressed in drag down to a fake vagina in an attempt to root out illegal Mexican immigrants at a Quinceanera. You had current and former pro-gun politicians espousing a KinderGuardian program to arm children at young as 3 to halt school shootings, a restaurant critic with Michelin Star influence cutting through a condom and sampling ‘anally aged’ veal and later a Chinese dissident to evaluate your ex-con character’s new restaurant whose cuisine was based on his prison experience, or The Bachelor star Corinne Olympios doing a PSA to support child soldiers by giving them better weapons. This had to be embarrassing to all these people. In your mind what did you owe these subjects?
BARON COHEN: Again, the caveat. I’m not a politician, or an academic. I’m a comedian, I’m an actor, so my responsibilities are less than any of those people. However, I made a real effort to not misconstrue, or edit to misrepresent anyone who’s on camera. There were no tricks in editing where we put words into people’s mouths. People are allowed to reveal their true selves, whatever their political background. I interviewed Matt Gaetz and asked him to endorse this program to give three-year-olds in kindergarten some machine guns to kill terrorists. And his answer to that was that it was a ridiculous idea. I decided to keep that in because I wanted to show that whether Republicans or Democrats, politicians had an option. They didn’t have to endorse anything. There was no trickery. At any point, these people can say yes, I’m going to say that, or no, this goes against my ethics and my morality. People had the option to stay in the room or leave the room or reject something or accept it. At the Women’s March, I convinced a man who believed in all of the conspiracies that he was hearing from everyone, from the president on down. He believed in the dangerous threats of Muslim terrorists, and he believed the President’s assertion that Antifa or the Alt-Left were as dangerous and as bad as the Alt-Right.
I convinced him to murder three people at the Women’s March, who had done nothing. Obviously he didn’t actually blow them up but in his mind he believed that he had killed three liberals. To me that was very significant. The words that come out of the president’s mouth and Twitter feed have a real effect. And if you say Alt-Right racist things, or spread racist propaganda or misinformation that encourages hate, it eventually leads to persecution and violence, and in this case murder. Without the president endorsing the idea that the Alt-Left was dangerous and violent, this man would never have agreed to blow up and murder three of them at the Women’s March. That’s the danger of those conspiracy theories.
DEADLINE: The Dick Cheney was very interesting, beyond him signing your waterboarding kit. It seemed like he would’ve answered your questions all day. How much time did you actually spend with him and what great stuff did you leave on the cutting room floor?
BARON COHEN: I spent about three hours with Dick Cheney, and I got very lucky. In that half an hour before the interview, we had an Israeli ex-army officer with us who was in charge of all the weapons that we had. We were carrying around a bunch of weapons around DC because we were doing this KinderGuardian demonstration. At one point we were in the truck, we had a bunch of machine guns in the back, and we were actually stopped by the Secret Service because we were just near Congress. They got us to open up the trunk and they found all the machine guns and all the semiautomatics. We had the licenses and everything, and they allowed us to carry on. But I realize that Dick Cheney is an intelligent guy and he was the Vice President. Whatever you think about his morality, he’s smart. So I said to this Israeli, tell me everything about your army service. He speaks on it for 25 minutes, until I go into Cheney. [Assumes Israeli accent] ‘When I was seven years old, I went to school with my lunchbox in one hand and a gas mask in the other, and that’s when I knew I had to protect my country.’ Cut to half an hour later. Dick Cheney comes into the room. He says, before we start filming, I want to find out who my interviewer is. I sit down with him in a corner, and he says all right, tell me about your army experience. I said ‘listen, at the age of seven I walked to school and I had a lunch box in one hand and a gas mask in the other…’ I went through the entire military career that I’d memorized from this guy. When you’re sitting down with Dick Cheney, I had to have a fairly extensive knowledge of military operations in the Middle East for the period of my army service. For him to believe me, the backstory was huge and I spent hours and hours creating it and bolstering it with real facts.
DEADLINE: I had heard that in the interview, you actually had people asking Cheney questions and making comments, like an ISIS guy thanking him for clearing out Iraq so they could flourish, or a woman asking about a lump she had on her breast.
BARON COHEN: At one point, we had a live internet chat. Obviously, we had created all the questions, and so people were saying ‘Dick, thank you. You’re the man. I always wanted to kill Arabs and you gave me the opportunity. I got 16 of them. Thanks. You’re the man.’ And he was like, ‘thank you very much.’ Another says, ‘thank you, I’m Iranian. You killed 800,000 Iraqis. You’re the best. You’re my hero.’ And then at one point there was a 15-year-old girl who said ‘Dick, I don’t know if my breasts are growing correctly. Can I send you a photo of my right breast? I think it’s a little bit lower than my left.’ He actually stayed in the room for all of this.
DEADLINE: Totally unflappable?
BARON COHEN: Unflappable. Looking back at it, I think he felt happy and almost excited to sit in a room next to my character because I had done the one thing that he hadn’t actually done. He’d ordered people to be killed but he never actually killed someone with his bare hands. In his mind, I was a guy who’d killed a lot of people. It’s a bit like a virgin sitting next to a womanizer and being enamored by them. I think he had a kind of man crush on me, on my character.
DEADLINE: Which allowed you to push further…
BARON COHEN: I’m saying, ‘Dick, you are the guy, we are always looking up to you.’ Because I gave a kind of fan interview, he was just very happy to explain everything, and how great all his achievements were and how exciting it was to use all the new military hardware. At one point I think I said to him, you know, you saved Iraq. Without you, it would’ve been a breeding ground for terrorists. And he’s like ‘yeah, you’re right.’ I think he was completely unaware and deluded that he had done anything wrong.
DEADLINE: Your response to your Golden Globes nomination was to invite Sarah Palin to be your date. She complained she had been duped but she was nowhere to be found in the series. Why, and what did we miss?
BARON COHEN: The upsetting answer is, I don’t think you missed much. There was a lot of pressure on me from the channel to put out Palin. And obviously, she did the only publicity for the show because I did zero interviews. There was no other publicity at all for the show. Thanks to her, people knew that the show was coming. But ultimately, I looked at the footage and it just wasn’t funny enough. For the pieces to be good ,there has to be a good comic dynamic. She was just delivering these kind of rote answers, as if she was doing a campaign speech. And even though I sat with her I think for about two-and-a-half hours, there was no comedy gold.
DEADLINE: So the novelty of having her on was outweighed by the lack of a payoff?
BARON COHEN: It just was not funny enough and I just didn’t want to put out something that…didn’t really make me laugh.
DEADLINE: You employed your white haired playboy Gio character to interview O.J. Simpson, which closed the series with a bang. What did you like about that segment most, and how close did it come to what you were hoping for?
BARON COHEN: My aim for it was completely unrealistic. My aim was to get O.J. Simpson to confess to murder. It was egotistical to even assume that I would be able to do that. We found one of the legendary FBI interrogators and I spent many, many hours training with him. How do we get the guy to confess to something that he never confessed to beforehand? So this interrogator told me very specific things to do, and the things that need to be done in the room, and specific ways to kind of repeat the question with slight alterations until I could get him to confess. In the end, he never confessed, so yes, I was disappointed but it was unlikely for him to do that. I mean, in the end, he agreed…I was pretending to represent a sheikh from the United Arab Emirates, who was obsessed with O.J. I said he wants to be making love to a hooker while you’re in the room and you’re going to tell him how you killed them, while he’s making love to the hooker. And O.J. said, ‘listen, I’m fine to be in the room with him while he’s making love to the hooker but I can’t tell him how I did it because I didn’t do it. So I kept at it…I think I asked him about 34 times during the two hours, ‘come on, admit that you did it. Stop mucking around.’ And he was getting more and more agitated, which is obviously a quite unpleasant experience because the last time he was in a hotel room like that, he ended up in jail.
DEADLINE: Sounds intense.
BARON COHEN: That’s always the balance. I’m trying to stay in character, making sure that he doesn’t see through the character while I’m wearing a fake head, and at the same time achieve my goal. And my goal was to try to get him to admit. And so, in the end, it was a kind of battering ram of using the techniques the interrogator had given me. But yeah, even though it’s a funny interview I didn’t get what I wanted.
DEADLINE: Your takeaway: guilty or innocent?
BARON COHEN: My takeaway is that he’s very charming. At the end of the interview, he left. He sort of enjoyed meeting Gio. At the end I said, ‘listen, I hope you don’t mind, my girlfriend and I we’re going to make love now. I’ve got a bit of a problem with my genitals so is okay if she just injects me in the penis now while we carry on talking? ‘And I basically pull out my prosthetic penis while my girlfriend comes over to inject me in the phallus.
DEADLINE: Oh my.
BARON COHEN: And at that point he said, ‘you know what, I should really be going.’ And that was kind of the end of that. I go, what’s the problem? She’s injecting me in the pee pee while we…
DEADLINE: I recall that moment in Bruno, where you brought in Paula Abdul for an interview. She went along when asked to sit on a Mexican laborer on all fours, but when that smorgasbord came out, canapes spread across the body of a naked Mexican man, that was too much and she left in a hurry.
BARON COHEN: Exactly. Immediately after that interview, the next person I interviewed was again with the character Gio. The satirical aim of him was to show the levels to which people would go to, out of greed. What would they do for money? In one of the interviews a yacht builder is ready to build a yacht for Colonel Asaad even though it’s going to be used to transport women, basically sex slaves. And during the interview Gio receives fellatio and [the yacht broker] is ready to carry on and keep on talking about the deal.
And there was an interview that didn’t make it in, with Gio. We were shooting some of this at the time of Harvey Weinstein. We wanted to investigate how does someone like Harvey Weinstein gets away with doing what…get away with criminality, essentially. And the network that surrounds him. We decided that Gio would interview a concierge in Las Vegas. During the interview, I revealed that basically Gio has molested an eight-year-old boy. Now, mind you, this is extreme comedy and we thought that the guy would leave the room. Instead, this concierge stays in the room and I go, listen, you’ve got to help me get rid of the problem. And this guy starts advising Gio how to get rid of this issue. We even at one point talk about murdering the boy, and the concierge is just saying, ‘well, listen, I’m really sorry. In this country, we can’t just drown the boy. This is America we don’t do that.’ And then, in the end, he puts me in touch with a lawyer who can silence the boy. I became really dark stuff. And then at the end of the interview I say, listen, I want to go out and celebrate now. Can you get me a date for tonight? He says, ‘what do you mean, a date?’
I go, you know, like a young man. He says, ‘well, what kind of age?’ I say, lower than Bar Mitzvah but older than eight. And he says, ‘yeah, I can put you in touch with somebody who can get you some boys like that.’
DEADLINE: None of this remotely qualifies as comedy. What did you do?
BARON COHEN: We immediately turned over the footage to the FBI because we thought, perhaps there’s a pedophile ring in Las Vegas that’s operating for these very wealthy men. And this concierge had said that he’d worked for politicians and various billionaires. But in the end the FBI decided not to pursue it.
DEADLINE: Not surprising you didn’t put it in the show…
BARON COHEN: It was too dark and wrong. In a journalistic way it was fascinating, but it was so extreme and so dark that it was too unsettling for the audience.
DEADLINE: Each episode opened with images and voices like JFK and ‘Ask not what your country can do for you,’ and Reagan’s ‘Mr Gorbachev, tear down that wall.’ Then you have Donald Trump, mocking a disabled journalist. Why did you choose that moment for him?
BARON COHEN: Well. It was so base and so crass. We picked these eloquent moments of politicians with integrity and juxtaposed them with a base, vicious insult against somebody without any power, by a presidential candidate. Just to show, that’s who’s in power at the moment, and that this was part of his appeal.
DEADLINE: Was there any attempt to try to ensnare somebody maybe in his administration, or even him?
BARON COHEN: Yeah. I came very close to getting Dr. Ben Carson. We set up an interview with Dr. Ben Carson and we had a hotel room in the Mandarin Oriental in DC. I’d been living in DC, undercover, for about three weeks. Bernie Sanders’ people had become suspicious from day one, and so I needed to ensure that nobody knew that I was there. That no one recognized me for three weeks. So I was basically living undercover and in disguise for three weeks. And in the last couple of days, Ben Carson agrees to an interview. We get to the Mandarin Oriental and there are Secret Service everywhere. We had bad luck and there was a big international conference of politicians. Condoleezza Rice was there, a bunch of other politicians, and the whole place was filled with Secret Service, some of whom were completely undercover and some of whom were clear.
We booked two hotel rooms. One hotel room I was going to interview Ben Carson in, and obviously, he had his own Secret Service detail and he was coming with White House press staff. I was in the other room and I got on the phone to my lawyer and said listen, there’s an issue. What happens if a part of his security detail asks for my ID? Because if I give them my real ID we’re done, and so I had a fake ID on me with the name of my character, this Finnish unboxing YouTube star [the character was OMGWhizzBoyOMG], and he said, ‘if you give out a fake ID they’ll arrest you and you’ll probably go to jail.’ So we came up with a solution, which was, if my ID fell on the floor and they picked it up and they made the assumption that this fake ID was real, then I hadn’t actually misled the Secret Service. So I go into the room, got past the Secret Service, got in front of the camera. This character has a bunch of Shopkins [collectible toy figures], and the White House press representative was there. He says, ‘what are those?’ I say, these are Shopkins. He says, ‘I know what they are, but why are there Shopkins here?’ I go, it’s because that’s what I do, I unbox Shopkins. And I can see Ben Carson is literally walking in front of the camera. He’s just about to enter frame and this guy from the White House had an instinct and he said, ‘Pull him.’ And suddenly the Secret Service pulled him out. So the most I got to see was Ben Carson’s leg.
DEADLINE: Showtime entered Who is America? as an open-ended and not a limited series. These characters you disappeared into were so well drawn and multidimensional. Do they have a future? Will you do more?
BARON COHEN: It would be impossible. We relied on the fact that no one was expecting me. I hadn’t done anything undercover for over a decade and so nobody thought, oh wait a minute, is this a Sacha Baron Cohen character?’ That’s the problem. You’d have to wait another 10 years to get away with it again, otherwise you’d have some very slim pickings. And no publicist worth his or her weight would allow an interview with anyone suspicious now.
DEADLINE: Your character Dr. Nira, from the mosque segment and many others, proclaimed his goal was to heal the divide that resulted after the presidential election. Based on your immersion, what has to happen in order for this country to heal the divide?
BARON COHEN: That’s an interesting question. My conclusion was that it’s more divided than it’s ever been. Having gone out as part of Da Ali G Show and as Borat and as Bruno over the years, it feels more divided than it has ever been. And I don’t see any healing, particularly with a president whose most upper hand is division. He attempts only to appeal to his base, his core, rather than to appeal to the American people. Combined with the way we receive news now through social media and the internet, with the dissemination of misinformation, propaganda and conspiracy theories, it means that we’re likely to see more division, not less.
Again, with the caveat of my being a comedian, so don’t take it all too seriously.