Sacha Noam Baron Cohen (born 13 October 1971) is a British Jewish comedian, writer and Golden Globe-winning actor most noted for his comic characters Ali G (a hip hop gangsta wannabe from suburban Staines), Borat (a Kazakh reporter), and Bruno (a flamboyantly gay Austrian fashion reporter). In his routine, he typically conducts interviews with respected figures while posing as one of his characters for comic effect. His interviewees believe that the ostensible interviews are sincere and legitimate. His work has been recognized with several Emmy nominations, an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, a BAFTA award and a Golden Globe for Best Actor for his work in the feature film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.
On December 21, 2007, he announced that, because the public had become too familiar with the characters, he was going to retire Borat and Ali G.
Baron Cohen, the youngest of three sons, was born in Hammersmith
, London, England
, to a Jewish
family. His mother, Daniella (née
Weiser), teaches at a school of movement and was born in Israel
. His father, Gerald Baron Cohen, originally from Wales
, owns a menswear shop in Piccadilly
. Baron Cohen's paternal grandfather was born in Pontypridd
and his maternal grandmother, who now lives in Haifa
, was an acclaimed ballet dancer from Germany
. His paternal great grandfather was born in Kaunas
. His brother Erran Baron Cohen
, a composer and trumpet player, contributed to the "Borat" film with the song "O Kazakhstan". Sacha Baron Cohen's cousin Simon Baron-Cohen
is a leading researcher in the study of autism spectrum disorders
(including Asperger syndrome
Sacha attended Haberdashers' Aske's Boys' School
, a private school
. The same school was also attended by fellow Jewish comedians Matt Lucas
and David Baddiel
. He went on to Christ's College, Cambridge
where he read history under Niall Ferguson
and wrote his thesis on Jewish involvement in the American Civil Rights movement
, with emphasis on the 1964 murders
of James Chaney
, Andrew Goodman
and Michael Schwerner
At the Cambridge University Amateur Dramatic Club, Baron Cohen acted in plays such as Cyrano de Bergerac and Fiddler on the Roof, in which he played Tevye. His long-time collaborator Dan Mazer also attended the University of Cambridge and was a member of the Cambridge Footlights, and although Baron Cohen himself was not a member, he performed in at least one Footlights presentation as well as other shows (including singing the part of Guy Fawkes in the musical Gunpowder, Treason and Plot).
In the early 1990s Baron Cohen was hosting a weekly program on Windsor cable television's local broadcasts alongside Carol Kirkwood
, who has become the BBC
anchor for weather broadcasts. He was fired by Windsor TV for broadcasting a lewd presentation for Valentine's Day. In 1995, Channel 4
was planning a replacement for its series The Word
, and disseminated an open call for new television presenters
. Baron Cohen sent in a tape of himself in the character of Kristo, a fictional television reporter from Albania
(who developed into the Kazakhstani Borat
), which caught the attention of a producer. Baron Cohen bided his time by working for a Swindon
-based television company; during this period he made his first feature film appearance. He also presented the youth chat program F2F
Ali G character
Baron Cohen appeared during 2-minute sketches as his fashion reporter Bruno on The Paramount Comedy Channel during 1998. He shot to fame when his comic character Ali G, an idiotic Junglist, started appearing on The Eleven O'Clock Show on Channel 4, which first went to air September 8, 1998.
Da Ali G Show began in 2000, and won the BAFTA for Best Comedy in the following year. Also in 2000, Ali G appeared in Madonna's music video "Music".
In 2002, Ali G was the central character in the feature film Ali G Indahouse, in which he is elected to the British Parliament and foils a plot to bulldoze a community centre in his hometown, Staines. His television show was exported to the United States in 2003 (with new episodes set in America) for HBO.
Ali G interviews
Ali G's interviews with famous people (often politicians) gained notoriety partly because the subjects were not privy to the joke that Ali G, rather than being a real interviewer, was a comic character played by Baron Cohen. According to Rolling Stone
magazine, Baron Cohen would always enter the interview area in character as Ali G, carrying equipment and appearing to be an insignificant crew-member. He would be with a suited man, who the interviewee naturally thought was the interviewer. Baron Cohen, as Ali G, would sit down to begin conducting the interview by asking the interviewee some preliminary questions. The interviewee, however, would remain under the impression that the smartly-dressed director would be conducting the interview until short notice prior to cameras rolling: this would grant an advantage of surprise, whereby the interviewee would be less likely to opt out of the Ali interview prior to its commencement.
On at least one occasion, the interviewee was merely told that Ali G had a popular show on MTV
that children watched. The resulting willingness of Baron Cohen's targets to answer his frequently risqué questions often created surprising conversations. Interviewees have included:
Baron Cohen's second alter ego
' (sometimes written Brüno), a gay Austrian
fashion show presenter
, who often lures his subjects into unwittingly making provocative statements and engaging in embarrassing behaviour, as well as leading them to contradict themselves, often in the same interview. Bruno asks the subjects to answer 'yes or no' questions with either "Vassap" (yes), or "Ich don't think so" (no), or sometimes "Ach, ja!" (Achso!) or "Nicht, nicht" (not, not). In at least one segment on Da Ali G Show
he encouraged his guest to answer questions with either "Keep them in the ghetto" or "Send them to Auschwitz". Bruno's main comedic satire pertains to the vacuity and inanity of the fashion and clubbing world, so for instance the aforesaid indifference towards potentially upsetting Holocaust references is intended to reveal a certain insularity surrounding the cultural context of the interviewee.
Plans are underway for Baron Cohen to bring Bruno to the big screen, and after an intense bidding war that included such Hollywood powerhouses as DreamWorks, Sony, and 20th Century Fox; Universal Pictures paid a reported $42.5 million for the rights to the movie. According to insiders, Baron Cohen himself is getting paid $13 million upfront, and will also receive 15% of the box office take. That means if the film (tentatively titled "Brüno") does as well as "Borat", Baron Cohen stands to make approximately $30 million.
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, a feature film with "Borat" at the center, was screened at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival and released in the United Kingdom November 2, 2006, in the United States on November 3, 2006 and Australia November 23, 2006. The film is about a journey across the United States in an ice cream van, in which the main character is obsessed with the idea of marrying Pamela Anderson. The film is a mockumentary which includes interviews with various American citizens that poke fun at the hobgoblins of American culture, including sexism, racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, jingoism and Baywatch. However, Baron-Cohen's portrayal of residents of the Deep South in stereotypical poses is very visible: - he often sets up situations to give the impression that they are bigoted and unintelligent, done in much the same way as in Forrest Gump for instance. It is also notable that Baron-Cohen, in his Borat persona, took part in the charity event A Night Of Too Many Stars, which was organised in aid of Autism Speaks, an organization that seeks to find a cure for autism.
It debuted at the #1 spot in the US, taking in an estimated $26.4 million in just 837 theatres averaging $31,600 per theatre, the fourth highest per-theatre average of all time for movies opening wide (500 screens or more), behind Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest and Spider-Man. It easily outdistanced the expected #1 movie of the weekend, Disney's The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause, which earned an estimated $20 million in 3,458 cinemas.
Baron Cohen won the 2007 Golden Globe in the "Best Actor - Musical or Comedy" category, his sixth such award. Although Borat was up for "Best Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy", the film lost to Dreamgirls. On 23 January 2007, he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. He shared his nomination with the film's co-writers, Ant Hines, Peter Baynham, Dan Mazer, and Todd Phillips.
Aside from the comic elements of his characters, Baron Cohen's performances are interpreted by some as reflecting uncomfortable truths about his audience. He juxtaposes his own Jewish lineage with the anti-Semitism of his character Borat. In one sketch from the TV show (and as such, not included in the film), Borat performs at a small-town USA bar singing an anti-Semitic song called 'In My Country There is Problem' (including lyrics such as "Throw the Jew down the well!", "You must grab [the Jew] by his horns" and "[The Jews] take everybody['s] money; they never give it back"), with many in the bar singing along.
Although the character Borat is Kazakh, he frequently begins segments with Polish expressions "Jak się masz?" (How are you?), "Dzień dobry" (Good morning) and "Dziękuję" (Thank you). His use of "Boutrous" was used on BBC's The Fast Show sketches, and Mahir "I Kiss You" Çağrı publicly claims much of the Borat character was based on him. Borat's favourite singer is Korki Buchek. He sings the famous song "Bing Bang". In one scene of the film, Borat encounters some men from Atlanta, Georgia. When asked of his favourite music, he shares the name Korki Buchek and proceeds to sing a song, which causes the men from Atlanta to laugh at him.
In 2007 Cohen published a travel guide as Borat, with dual titles: Borat: Touristic Guidings To Minor Nation of U.S. and A. and Borat: Touristic Guidings To Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan., however on 21st December it was announced Borat would retire'
Although his three principal characters (Ali G, Bruno and Borat) widely range in their interview style and subjects, there is an underlying theme which could be defined as extreme narrow-mindedness or the incapability of understanding. Interviews are made comical by the lack of education, in the case of Ali G, extreme preoccupation with sex or being superficial, in the case of Bruno, poor command of the language, which is similar to Borat's misunderstanding of language and foreign cultures.
- Baron Cohen as Ali G appeared as the limousine driver in Madonna's 2000 video "Music", directed by Jonas Åkerlund who was also responsible for directing the titles for Da Ali G Show.
- Baron Cohen guest-starred in the finale of the fifth season Curb Your Enthusiasm, with Dustin Hoffman as a guide to Heaven. He also provided the voice of the lemur king, King Julian, in DreamWorks' family movie Madagascar (2005), and appeared as Will Ferrell's arch rival the French Formula 1 speed demon Jean Girard in the 2006 hit Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.
- Baron Cohen has twice presented the MTV Europe Music Awards, first as Ali G on November 8, 2001, in Frankfurt, Germany, and then as Borat on November 3, 2005 in Lisbon, Portugal.
- At the 2006 MTV Movie Awards, Borat introduced Gnarls Barkley's performance of "Crazy", where he made a sexist remark about Jessica Simpson, saying that he liked her mouth and that he could see it clearly through her denim pants. His appearance was cut from subsequent rebroadcasts.
- Baron Cohen is a supporter of Comic Relief, and (as Ali G) has hosted interviews with, among others, David Beckham and wife Victoria, for make benefit of the charity.
- Baron Cohen appears alongside Johnny Depp in the 2007 film Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007 film) as Signor Adolfo Pirelli.
- Baron Cohen appeared out of character around the time of the launch of Da Ali G Show on HBO, in the United States, including appearances on The Late Show with David Letterman and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
- Baron Cohen appeared out of character to present an award at the British Comedy Awards in December 2006. He said at the time that Borat could not make it to the awards as 'he is at a conference in Iran at the moment,' referring to the International Conference to Review the Global Vision of the Holocaust. Baron Cohen also referred to that same Iranian conference as a "holocaust denial conference", saying that Borat was the "guest of honour" and jokingly describing it as a "very important conference".
Baron Cohen has encountered several controversies regarding some of his comic characters.
- Two residents of Glod, the Romanian village in which the opening scenes of Borat were filmed, hired US attorney Edward Fagan to sue the makers of Borat for $30 million. They allege the intent of the film was misrepresented to them, that the poorest members of their village were made to look like "savages", and that they were underpaid, particularly when their minute salaries were compared to the millions earned by the completed movie. During several unaired segments, kids were filmed with guns and other weapons and in another scene, an amputee who lost his arm was told to wear a rubber fist sex toy. The lawsuit was dismissed in a New York hearing on the grounds that the allegations were too vague to stand up in court.
- In an interview with Neil Hamilton in 2000, Ali G offered Hamilton what was allegedly marijuana, which Hamilton accepted and smoked, creating some minor controversy in the British media.
- Baron Cohen has had some troubles because of racist or prejudiced comments his characters have made (see Da Ali G Show). HBO spokesman Quentin Schaffer has replied to the criticisms: 'Through his alter-egos, he delivers an obvious satire that exposes people's ignorance and prejudice in much the same way All in the Family did years ago.'
- Regarding his portrayal as the anti-Semitic Borat, Baron Cohen says the segments are a "dramatic demonstration of how racism feeds on dumb conformity, as much as rabid bigotry", rather than a display of racism by Baron Cohen himself. "Borat essentially works as a tool. By himself being anti-Semitic, he lets people lower their guard and expose their own prejudice", Baron Cohen explains. Addressing the same topic in an NPR interview with Robert Siegel, Baron Cohen says "...and I think that's quite an interesting thing with Borat, which is people really let down their guard with him because they're in a room with somebody who seems to have these outrageous opinions. They sometimes feel much more relaxed about letting their own outrageous, politically incorrect, prejudiced opinions come out." Baron Cohen, the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, says he also wishes in particular to expose the role of indifference in that genocide. "When I was in university, there was this major historian of the Third Reich, Ian Kershaw, who said, 'The path to Auschwitz was paved with indifference.' I know it's not very funny being a comedian talking about the Holocaust, but it's an interesting idea that not everyone in Germany had to be a raving anti-Semite. They just had to be apathetic." Regarding the enthusiastic response to his song "In My Country There is Problem", he says, "Did it reveal that they were anti-Semitic? Perhaps. But maybe it just revealed that they were indifferent to anti-Semitism."
- The government of Kazakhstan threatened Baron Cohen with legal action after the MTV Europe Music Awards ceremony in Lisbon, and the authority in charge of the country's country-code top-level domain name removed the website that he had created for his character Borat (previously: http://www.borat.kz) for alleged violation of the law — specifically, registering for the domain under a false name. The New York Times, (among others), has reported that Baron Cohen, (in character as Borat), replied: "I'd like to state that I have no connection with Mr Cohen and fully support my government decision to sue this Jew. He was, however, recently defended by Dariga Nazarbayeva, a politician and the daughter of Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who stated 'We should not be afraid of humour and we shouldn't try to control everything, I think.' The deputy foreign minister of Kazakhstan has recently invited Baron Cohen to visit the country, stating that he could learn that 'women drive cars, wine is made of grapes, and Jews are free to go to synagogues.'
- Baron Cohen encountered another problem around his Borat character. Two of the three University of South Carolina students who appear in Borat sued the filmmakers, alleging that they were duped into signing release forms while drunk, and that false promises were made that the footage was for a documentary that would never be screened in the USA. On 11 December 2006, a Los Angeles judge denied the pair a restraining order to remove them from the film. The lawsuit was dismissed in February 2007.
- Baron Cohen walked onto the runway during the Ágatha Ruiz de la Prada fashion show in Milan on 26 September 2008. In the character of his latest alter-ego Bruno, he was wearing an outlandish costume consisting of a large black cape with eccentric accessories. Lights were turned off while security intervened and escorted him off the stage, and the fashion show resumed normally shortly thereafter. Baron Cohen and his team allegedly accessed the fashion show using fake IDs.
TV, radio and magazine appearances
As a general rule, Baron Cohen rarely does interviews out of character. However, in 2004, he did the talk show circuit appearing as himself on The Late Show with David Letterman
, The Opie and Anthony Show
, The Howard Stern Show
, and others in order to promote the upcoming season of his show on HBO. He was also interviewed on NPR
's All Things Considered
. He also did an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine
, published in November 2006, that the magazine labelled as "his only interview as himself". He also appeared in an interview out of character with Terry Gross
on NPR's Fresh Air
on 4 January 2007
"Borat" Director Larry Charles explains that Baron Cohen generally appears in character partly to "protect his weakness", by focusing public interest on his characters rather than himself. His other reason, Newsweek claims, is that Baron Cohen is fiercely private: "...according to the UK press, his publicists denied not only that he attended a party for the London premiere of "Borat", but also that a party even occurred."
It was reported online that Baron Cohen may play Freddie Mercury in a biographical film. However, his publicist has declared that Baron Cohen will not be playing the part.
Baron Cohen is engaged to Australian
actress Isla Fisher
, and the pair plan to wed in a traditional Jewish ceremony
. After several years of study, Isla has converted
, and has received the approval of Baron Cohen's observant Jewish parents. On October 19
Isla gave birth to a baby girl named Olive in Los Angeles
The couple reside in Los Angeles and London.
Performer versus characters
Baron Cohen has often been confused with the identity of one of his characters. When he posed as Borat to host the MTV Europe Music Awards in Lisbon, the central Hungarian
news wire agency MTI
reported that the host was 'Borat Sagdiyev'. As most Hungarian newspapers and television networks take MTI as their official source, the misinterpretation of the character spread rapidly in Hungary, with some sources (such as TV2
) emphasizing that a Kazakhstani news reporter hosted the awards, while others (such as Index.hu
) noticed and pointed out the error.
Israel and Judaism
Baron Cohen first acted in theatrical productions featuring the Socialist-Zionist youth movement Habonim Dror
He spent a year in Israel at Kibbutz Rosh HaNikra and Kibbutz Beit HaEmek as part of the Shnat Habonim Dror, before matriculating to university.
According to Baron Cohen, "I wouldn't say that I am a religious Jew, but I'm still proud to be Jewish." However, he keeps kosher and generally observes the Jewish Sabbath, refusing to answer the phone on Shabbat.
Baron Cohen frequently speaks in Hebrew and Polish while playing the anti-Semitic character Borat. He also sang the lyrics from an old Hebrew folk song in an episode of Da Ali G Show. Additionally he identifies his country's greatest scientist, who he says discovered a woman's brain is the same size as that of a squirrel, as "Dr Yarmulke". (A yarmulke, or kippah, is the skullcap worn by Jews.)
Awards and nominations
- 1999 - Won British Comedy Award, Best Male Comedy Newcomer for The 11 O'Clock Show (1998)
- 2000 - Nominated BAFTA TV Award, Best Entertainment Performance for The 11 O'Clock Show (1998)
- 2000 - Nominated National Television Awards, UK, Most Popular Comedy Performer for Da Ali G Show (2000)
- 2000 - Won TV Quick Award, TV Personality of the Year for Da Ali G Show (2000)
- 2001 - Won BAFTA TV Award, Best Comedy (Programme or Series) for Da Ali G Show (2000) (shared)
- 2001 - Won BAFTA TV Award, Best Comedy Performance for Da Ali G Show (2000)
- 2003 - Nominated Emmy Award, Outstanding Non-Fiction Program (Alternative) for Da Ali G Show (2003) (shared)
- 2003 - Nominated Emmy Award, Outstanding Writing for Non-Fiction Programming for Da Ali G Show (2003) (shared)
- 2004 - Nominated Golden Satellite Award, Best Performance by an Actor in a Series, Comedy or Musical for Da Ali G Show (2003)
- 2005 - Nominated Emmy Award, Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Series for Da Ali G Show (2003) (shared)
- 2005 - Nominated Emmy Award, Outstanding Writing for a Variety, Music or Comedy Program for Da Ali G Show (2003) (shared)
- 2006 - Won Ronnie Barker Award
- 2007 - Won MTV Movie Award for Best Kiss alongside Will Ferrell in Talladega Nights
Borat awards and nominations
- 2006 - Won Los Angeles Films Critics Association Award for Best Actor
- 2006 - Won San Francisco Films Critics Circle Award for Best Actor
- 2006 - Winner Toronto Film Critics Association Award for Best Actor
- 2006 - Won Deutscher Comedypreis (German comedy award) for Best International Comedy
- 2007 - Won Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Comedy/Musical and Nominated for Best Picture Comedy/Musical as well.
- 2007 - Nominated for London Film Critics Circle Award for British Actor of the Year
- 2007 - Nominated for Writers Guild of America Award for Best Adapted Screenplay (shared)
- 2007 - Nominated for Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay (shared)
- 2007 - Won the MTV Movie Award for Best Comedic Performance
- Sports Illustrated's November 6, 2006 issue contains a column called "Skater vs. Instigator", which illustrates various amusing "parallels" between Sacha Baron Cohen and figure skater Sasha Cohen, ranging from their mutually held personal significance of the number 4, to their mutual romantic interests in redheads.
- Baron Cohen featured in the Time 100 list for 2007.