Ben Affleck (“The Way Back”) and Sacha Baron Cohen (“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” “The Trial of the Chicago 7”) sat down for a virtual chat for Variety‘s Actors on Actors, presented by Amazon Studios. For more, click here.
Ben Affleck earned some of the best reviews of his career for “The Way Back.” The Warner Bros. drama — one of the final big theatrical releases before the pandemic — depicts a high school basketball coach struggling with the demons of alcoholism, a disease that Affleck, now sober, has lived through. It’s a grounded and frank take on human-scale issues that found a fan in Sacha Baron Cohen.
The British actor had two splashy big-screen outings in 2020: First, as “Flower Power” activist Abbie Hoffman in Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” on Netflix, and then as the gonzo Kazakh journalist in “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.” In the “Borat” sequel, made in secret and released by Amazon Studios before the election, Borat explores the divisions of Trump’s America, ending with an unruly ambush of Rudy Giuliani, who seems to creepily attempt to seduce Borat’s daughter, played by Maria Bakalova.
Sacha Baron Cohen: Hey, have you got a massage table behind you?
Ben Affleck: No, it’s a table cover.
Baron Cohen: Is it a crime thing?
Affleck: It’s my computer. They were like, “Cover it up — it’s too distracting.” But if you want a massage, I’d be happy to give you one.
Baron Cohen: Thank you very much.
Affleck: I was a massive “Ali G Show” fan and the Borat character in particular — love the movie. There’s something kind of exquisite and excruciating: like, the best Borat stuff is when you’re suffering watching it, because you’re so fucking uncomfortable with what’s happening.
How many of these setups of real people do you have to go through before you get somebody who will behave in this unselfconscious way? Or endure these incredible things that the character says?
Baron Cohen: For this, our hit rate was really high, actually. I’d say probably 80% of people that we shot ended up in the movie.
Affleck: And are there any actors mixed in with what appears to be non-actors?
Baron Cohen: No. It’s a bit like casting a movie. These field producers go out; they interview the people sometimes on Zoom. And on the day, I’ll have a code word with my co-writer who’s watching live. And the cameraman has a code word to me. Then I know whether we’re in sync.
Affleck I’m really curious how much you improvise when you get there. Or is it just the setup and you riff? To what extent is it written?
Baron Cohen: This time we wrote a screenplay. We didn’t with “Borat” or “Bruno.”
We were like, “Let’s do a table read.” And then the night before, we realized, “We don’t have the real people’s lines.” So we quickly wrote in the lines, what we hoped they would say. We had a bunch of comedy writers and directors turn up, and they’re like, “Oh, this is great. But you know, obviously this is going to be impossible to make.”
Affleck: Did anybody do anything when you went to CPAC with the Klan outfit?
Baron Cohen: That was the interesting thing. They reacted with indifference. None of the security were concerned.
Affleck: How did you get in there and do that and pull that off?
Baron Cohen: It reminded me a bit of “Argo,” actually. Where the vice president was speaking, that’s the same level of Secret Service as the president. We were limited with how much we could find out. We’d never break the law. We’re very, very careful in case anyone sues us that we’ve never done anything illegal.
Affleck: You must be sued relentlessly and constantly.
Baron Cohen: Oh, all the time.
Something like that, we know the scene is two minutes long. I’m going to run in with my daughter over my shoulder and try to give her to Mike Pence. That day, I had to get in the makeup chair at 1 in the morning in a motel near CPAC. I have a prosthetics team that we’ve flown over from England to transform me into Donald Trump, which is a six-hour process. Then you’re wearing a massive fat suit. I have to go through different layers of security, get a fake ID, go through TSA, wand me down.
By the way, TSA, when they wanded me down, I’m wearing a 56-inch fat suit, which is what we felt would be most realistic as Donald Trump. The wand goes over me, from the TSA guy. Over my chest, it goes, “Beep.” And the guy says, “What is that?” And I go, “It’s my pacemaker.” I’ve got a field producer next to me who’s completely crapping himself. We’re going to get busted. The moment they touch my belly, they’re going to know that I’m wearing a fat suit.
And he goes, “What is that?!” And I didn’t know what to say. I was completely stumped. He goes, “Oh, that’s the wire leading to your pacemaker, right?” I was like, “Obviously.” He goes, “All right, come through.” And I’m hiding in the toilets at CPAC for another five hours. I was left with a can of Coke, and I drew lines on it, because I knew I was going to be in there for five hours. I could have a fifth of a can every hour.
And then you get into CPAC, you do the scene, I get escorted out by a bunch of Secret Service, about 11 guys. And my main aim was not to give over my ID, because I felt like the moment they knew it was me, Sacha, that will become a big news story. And that would destroy the rest of the movie.
Affleck: How did you manage not to do that?
Baron Cohen: One of the cops goes, “Give me your ID.” I knew I had to delay. I knew if I delayed long enough, maybe they’d forget. So I said, “I’m not giving my ID until you show proof that you are a law enforcement officer.”
Another says, “Give me your ID.” I go, “Listen, I’d like to, but my ID is in my shoe. Do you want me to take off my shoe?” And the guy goes, “No, forget it.”
Affleck: I was so shocked by the Giuliani interview and the subsequent bedroom weirdness that happened. And I really wonder whether you came running in because you thought if I let this go any longer, something really horrible is going to happen. What did you think was about to happen?
Baron Cohen: In that scene, we built a secret compartment inside a wardrobe for me to stand in, and it was about six foot six. I’m standing in complete darkness. I have to change into this erotic outfit to seduce Giuliani with. And the idea was that I would communicate with a mobile phone.
I switched on the cellphone. I’m in pitch black and it’s got 4%. It’s an hour-and-a-half scene. And actually, I interrupted the scene. There was one other version where room service brings in a trolley, and I’m hiding in the trolley. I never thought that he was actually going to go in the room.
Affleck: You had no idea they would end up in the bedroom, right?
Baron Cohen: I was hoping for the movie they would. But also, you know this as a producer and a director, I have an actress there who I need to look after and protect as well. We’re putting her in a situation with a powerful man who may or may not have been in this situation before. And then eventually I basically ran in, but I had no idea that he was on the bed.
Affleck: It was shocking.
Baron Cohen: Yeah. We were scared that it would veer into really an even more ugly situation.
Affleck: You go from having the ability to completely improvise fluidly. Is it difficult to you, then, to go work for Sorkin? Or do you find it liberating because you don’t have to think of anything except the lines?
Baron Cohen: I’d be lying if I wouldn’t say I wasn’t nervous to work with Aaron, because he’s the greatest living screenwriter. He’s the Shakespeare of our time. Although you have won an Academy Award for writing.
Affleck: Oh, that’s right!
Baron Cohen: I’d heard his reputation, and I did wonder, “Why are you casting me, well-known improviser, to deliver special lines?” And I spent probably about two months pitching him alternative lines, because I read everything that Abbie Hoffman had written. Aaron was nice enough to humor me. Each time he’d say, “Thank you, but no.”
Affleck: I started watching “Chicago 7,” and I was like, “I’m not sure what accent that he’s trying to do, because that sounds like a Boston accent.” And then I look it up. He’s from Worcester! Very well done.
Baron Cohen: He had a really interesting accent, because he ended up in Berkeley and Brandeis and he was very Jewish. He actually sounds like a slight Jewish grandmother at times when he’s shrieking. I was quite scared about doing the accent. Thank you, my friend.
With “The Way Back,” how did you prepare for that role?
Affleck: This was a bit atypical for me. I’ve kind of changed as an actor, my approach, particularly from before and after I started directing, because it was really instructive. I learned more about acting from directing than I did from acting classes. There’s something really valuable about being on the other side, and seeing what works and what doesn’t. And what you can do editorially, and just getting used to the sound of your own fucking stupid voice.
For me with this role, there’s nothing in it except the emotions. I mean, yes, there’s basketball games and there’s some of the plot, but ultimately it is going to live or die on whether or not the audience empathizes with the character.
I feel like my own acting, at least by my own standards, has gotten better as I’ve gotten older, and had more life experiences and had more stuff to access. And with a role like that, I am an alcoholic, so I understood to a certain extent the alcoholism, but I haven’t lost a child. This guy’s had a very different life from mine, but what was interesting about the story was I hoped people would find some catharsis in watching him go through something very difficult. I was concerned that I have to find ways to make this as realistic as possible.
Baron Cohen: I love the performance. It was completely believable. I thought it was beautifully played. I want to talk to you about that scene where you’re getting through the beers in the fridge, because obviously it feels like on the page, that’s a montage of him drinking. But it’s really captivating. I don’t know if it lasts two or three minutes. It’s just an incredibly challenging thing to make entertaining where you have nine words, whatever. You’re repeating again and again in slightly different variations while getting drunk.
Did you drink in that scene? Can I ask?
Affleck: No, I was sober. It’s the value of research. Research your role.
An actor who wasn’t an alcoholic or an addict would want to sort of illustrate it, show it, demonstrate it. And my experience — especially toward the end of the period of my time in my life when I was drinking — was that it was more drawn in, withdrawn, separate, isolating. And ritualistic and self-soothing, rather than what you think of as “drunkenness” that you often see, which is crazy and out of control. The guy in there is withdrawing into himself.
And what I thought was really interesting when we screened the movie for the first time was that the audience was laughing. They’re having fun. They’re thinking, “Oh yeah, another case of beer!” It’s like the Miller commercial or something.
Baron Cohen: And then it gets darker and darker.
Affleck: And you just think, “Oh, wait a minute. You should probably stop now. And we’re not having fun.” And you could feel the palpable discomfort. It’s hard for people to watch. And for me, I was able to sort of tell my mind, I sort of felt drunk. I was sober, but you kind of go, “I remember that feeling. I know what this feels like. It’s this point.” And then you’re just letting it go.
Baron Cohen: So obviously, you’re a two-time Academy Award winner, a multiple Golden Globe winner, you were nominated for best depiction of nudity, sexuality or seduction by the Alliance of Women Film Journalists in “Gone Girl.” What did that mean to you?
Affleck: Wow. Everyone dreams of that.
Baron Cohen: Were you furious when you didn’t win?
Affleck: I mean you do so much frontal, you’ve been so naked, and yet you were overlooked.
Baron Cohen: Yeah, the Alliance of Women Film Journalists never saw what I saw in the mirror.
Affleck: I noticed in the past, when you blacked out your penis, it was 14 inches. Now, how close to the truth was that really?
Baron Cohen: I feel like we’re veering away. Tell me about your Batman!
I want to ask you one other question. You’re slightly cursed in that you’re a brilliant writer and director. How do you decide what to do next?
Affleck: At this point in my career, I’m a little old. I’m 48, so I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be the “not-25-year-old” guy. But there are more interesting roles. People with whom you can identify are more interesting to me because I no longer have the ability to do something when I’m bored halfway through it and hate it.
I just can’t do it. It’s not worth it to be away from my kids. If I’m going to travel, there had better be something really satisfying that I think they’ll see at some point, hopefully. Although my kids are like, “Dad, we don’t want to watch your movies.”
With this movie, what happened was, we were released on the week that COVID became pervasive and they shut everything down. And I thought, “This is a disaster. My movie comes out that I really want people to see and they closed movie theaters.” But then they moved it right to streaming.
There was this captive audience of people who are all of a sudden at home, and I think more people saw it than would have gone out to the theater. I think you have to weigh that. So now the line is blurred, and I’m just looking to do stuff that is personally rewarding. I think my “Armageddon” days are behind me.