In the seven episodes of his Showtime series Who is America? Sacha Baron Cohen played a series of characters thrown into meeting real people, and served up some of the year’s finest laughs, even as he charged into dealing with chilling alt-right subjects who were all too quick to demonstrate their racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism and stupidity. The show captured all that is wrong in this polarized country.
In the course of the series, he duped Dick Cheney, Roy Moore, Sarah Palin and O.J. Simpson with his larger-than-life characters. And for his efforts, he was Golden Globe nominated and is hotly tipped to appear on Emmy’s list for Best Comedy Actor, and the show for Outstanding Variety Sketch Series.
Donald Trump’s election victory prompted you to make Who Is America? but he’s been Telflon Don; why does nothing stick to him?
The caveat here is, you’re talking to a comedian and these are just my observations. One of the most impressive things he does politically is he’s able to take away the power of these accusations against him and turn them into weapons against his enemies. The idea of the term ‘fake news’; another politician would probably try and avoid it if they were guilty of spreading fake news and misinformation. He takes the accusation—including multiple accusations of sexual impropriety—makes it his own and then turns it into propaganda against his adversaries, and somehow he appears more morally virtuous as a result.
Is he smarter than we give him credit for?
I do think he is a monster of social media, and he knows basic propaganda talk of repeating a lie again and again, so that the more often you repeat the lie the more likely it’s going to be believed.
He won the election despite everyone thinking that he had no chance. He’s still in power. He’s still got a very good chance of winning the next election despite the dubious activity, and while he might not have committed treason, he’s certainly got enough there for impeachment proceedings to begin.
What does the kind of comedy in Who Is America?, where nobody else in the scene knows it’s a comedy, give you that traditional scripted roles don’t?
The exhilaration of having a scene go well in the real world is unmatched. Like, coming out of the cage fight at the end of Bruno, the feeling of… well, at first the feeling is relief that you have survived and didn’t end up in the hospital.
That’s the scene where, as the gay fashion figure Bruno, you are in that MMA ring, brawling with and then making out with your boyfriend as chairs fly into the ring, flung by the angry crowd.
That was one of the most difficult scenes that I’ve ever had to do. We shot it in a place called Texarkana, on the border of Texas and Arkansas. Its only claim to fame is that an African-American man was dragged through the town from the back of a truck. We organized this cage fight and I’d been assured by security that no one could get into the cage.
We had 3,000 people there and quite a lot of them were ex-felons. We were short of people. We had a parole officer working for us who said, “You need 300 people? I’ll get them.” Guys turned up with swastikas tattooed on their foreheads. We’d brought in 10 security guards for that night.
Also, I was also told by my lawyer there were a whole load of stipulations that added layers to the performances we were relying on. My lawyer said there are 17 things you cannot do in the state of Arkansas. One is, if you cross the state line and incite a riot, that’s a federal offense. It was what the Chicago Seven were brought up for. I said, “Well, that’s problematic because I’m trying to incite a riot.” He said, “Whatever you do, make sure you don’t.”
So we did the scene. I’m in character for three hours, the host of this ultimate fighting championship, and I’ve got to convince 3,000 people it’s real. Not only that, I knew I would have to convince everyone that the fight scene was real as well, even though we were faking it. These are ultimate fight fans.
The idea was we’re going traditional rom-com; we’re going to make out. Not like what happens at the baseball game and everyone cheers. We’re going to make out at a UFC event and everyone’s going to go crazy.
It was interesting to see how the writing of a scene can affect performance. We had written the scene wrong. My boyfriend comes in the ring, I fight him, and the crowd started booing me. He was a guy with glasses, he looked weak, and they felt I was a bully, picking on somebody weaker than me. I beat him up, he’s bleeding.
So they’re booing, and then I got too into character. I forgot about the lawyer and I challenged everyone. I said, “Come on! Any of you f*ckers want to come in here, I’ll beat the sh*t out of you.” Knowing no one could come into the ring.
What could go wrong?
At that point, I see this huge guy stand up in the audience and start towards the cage. I’m thinking, There’s no way he can get in, security is here. And then I look around and there’s no security. At the end of the arena, another fight had broken out among some of the convicts, and security is there. This guy just grabs onto the cage and does a flip and lands in the ring. He’s 6’8”, a trained ultimate fighter. I realize he’s going to hurt me quite badly.
Luckily we’d built a trapdoor, and I ran out of it. My co-writer, Ant Hines, comes into this tunnel that we’d built and he says, “Get back in there! Finish the scene.” I said, I think I’ll have to go to the hospital if I do. Also at this point, they were throwing chairs into the ring.
I said to a security guard, “Go, take a look. If you think I can go in there and not come out on a stretcher, I’ll do it. I’ll finish the scene and I’ll kiss my boyfriend, and I’ll deal with a few blows.” He pokes his head in and says, “Get out of here,” and we run out and get in the car and drive.
We had to do the scene over, and rather than stay in Texarkana, that night we drove through Little Rock, Arkansas. We did the cage fight again, but rewrote the scene and made my boyfriend attack me from behind. Since he was playing dirty, the crowd was on my side. That made a big difference. They were happy for me to defend myself and beat him up.
It shows you how important the subtleties are. Performances don’t work unless the writing is correct. We had 3,000 people instinctively knowing that the scene was wrong.
Any scenes in Who is America? that rose to that level of physical danger?
Yes, definitely a few times. There was this scene where I’m pitching a mega mosque.
This was the one in Kingman, Arizona, where your character called a town meeting of locals to sell them on the construction of the world’s largest mosque outside the Middle East, built onto the local Safeway store.
We knew that people would get angry because the level of Islamophobia is so extreme, and I was provoking them. So the challenge was, how do you stop these people, who are used to carrying guns, from pulling out a gun?
We had a security guard who was an ex-special ops guy, supposedly—according to him—and he said, “Don’t worry, I’ve built this bulletproof clipboard for you.” It was the size of a clipboard. I said, “What am I meant to do with it?” He goes, “Well, if somebody pulls out a gun, just put it in front of yourself.”
The challenge is, you don’t know who’s got a weapon on them. We tried to take away as many guns as we could. We had a metal detector, but it’s a difficult thing in some areas of the country to take away a man’s gun. They feel it’s a very important thing for them to keep, and actually at the end of the scene, one of the men said, “Now I know why you took our weapons away from us.” When I asked why, he says, “Because we would’ve used them.”
You see Saturday Night Live skits all the time where the prosthetic ear or mustache falls off. How did you manage to get through three hours with as skeptical a person as former Vice President Dick Cheney, who didn’t blink even when your Israeli commando character asked him to autograph a waterboarding kit?
He was the Vice President. He’s a shrewd, smart guy. The other challenge is, it’s not just creating a persona, you are wearing a silicone head. Anyone meeting somebody wearing a silicone head is instinctively suspicious. Something’s wrong. They don’t know what’s wrong. It looks good, but you look different, so instinctively everyone knows something’s off.
Occasionally you have to convince people even when the prosthetics are slightly falling to pieces. I did one scene where we shot in a very stuffy, hot room and about two hours into the scene, the cameraman told me to go outside. I go, “What’s the matter?” And he says, “Your ear.” I look in the mirror and I had three ears. My prosthetic ear was horizontal. Somehow the person I was interviewing had not noticed I had three ears. I corrected it and went back in.
How could you get away with that?
He was this intelligent guy who argued to the Supreme Court and ensured that campaign financing had no financial limits. Intelligent guy. But for 10 minutes he’s looking at a man with three ears. What happens is, if you’re engaging the person and you’re consistent and fully immersed in the character, if there are small changes that are happening to the person’s appearance, like his ear is falling off, you don’t really notice it.
So I’m with Vice President Cheney, and he was obviously suspicious. He wanted to make sure that it wasn’t a setup, and so he grilled me for 30 minutes before the interview. He said, “I want to know everything about your military career,” and so I had to make sure that all of that was completely consistent and believable for somebody with great knowledge of Israel’s military campaign.
I was very pleased with the Dick Cheney interview. He rarely gives interviews, and we got to see him proud of his heinous acts; an interesting thing to show to the public. This is a man who should be ashamed of starting one war, in particular, that led to hundreds of thousands of civilians killed for no reason, and he was still proud of it. There’s no regret or remorse. I told him that there were statues of him up in Iraq and he believed it. He should’ve been ashamed that torture was used, but no, he was ready to sign a waterboarding kit.
Is it greed or hubris that makes them vulnerable to being caught out?
It varies, and each character relies on a different trait. Gio, the billionaire, relies on the greed of the subjects, that they are willing to do anything for money. So a yacht salesman is willing to sit in a room while Gio is being fellated because he wants to make the sale of a yacht to President Assad, and he doesn’t flinch about sex trafficking.
What I wanted to look at there was these networks that allow powerful, immoral people to operate. Harvey Weinstein must have relied on the network around him to achieve his ends, and these people that I was interviewing were that network, who will do anything for money, really. My question was, how far would they go? Would somebody build a yacht if they knew it was for a man who slaughtered more Arabs than anyone else in history, who was going to use the yacht to transport sex slaves, who had weapons aboard the yacht that were specifically designed to kill as many refugees as possible, and who would sit in front of a guy and be so disrespectful that he was getting blown in the middle of the meeting? How greedy would he be?
It’s an interesting moment, greed and what people will do for money, and I think that’s part of the reason that you have this revulsion with what is called the elites. We see this increasingly stratified society where you have a huge divergence in what people can afford. You have people who are amazingly poor, and increasingly a small group of people who have an amazing concentration of wealth.
What about the diehard Trump supporters your Israeli commando character duped into fellating and sodomizing a Trump doll, or willingly pressing a button they believe will murder a participant in the Women’s March?
The Women’s March was the most extreme thing, when a man readily murders three liberals, and you ask, “Why?” The answer lies with the President who has helped spread a fear of “antifa” – a name for a bunch of disparate groups who have protested against fascists. He has turned the concept of being against fascism into a negative thing. It’s bizarre and dangerous that calling someone an anti-fascist is somehow an insult now.
This guy believes that Antifa are a dangerous group. And he’s relying on misinformation-fake news, whatever you want to call it-spread by the President of America, because you’ve grown up with a deference for the political system here, and when the President says something, you’re likely to believe it. If you believe that Antifa are a dangerous and potentially a terrorist group, reinforced by the President’s comments and conspiracy theories being spread online, then it is actually a logical step to say, “To protect my country I’m going to do whatever it takes, even if it means killing them.”