Why Sacha Baron Cohen Finally Revived Borat: ‘I Felt Democracy Was in Peril’

Photographs by Steven Chee

Sacha Baron Cohen wanted to end “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” the sequel to his 2006 smash mockumentary, with a bang.

But Rudolph Giuliani, the Trump apparatchik he hoped to prank into embarrassing himself on camera, wasn’t cooperating. The former mayor of New York City had arrived at a hotel suite to be interviewed for a documentary, “Keeping America Alive,” he had no idea was fake; the “Borat” sequel’s filmmakers told him it was about the president’s efforts to defeat the coronavirus. (A cooked-up sizzle reel included the tagline “Where Trump saw an invisible enemy, the Democrats saw an invisible friend.”) Team Borat had at various points flirted with ensnaring another member of the president’s inner circle, floating such names as Donald Trump Jr. and MyPillow CEO and Trump booster Mike Lindell, but Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, became their prime target.

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Steven Chee for Variety

The problem was that Giuliani refused to take a rapid test to determine if he had COVID-19, violating the strict safety protocols that Baron Cohen and his producers had established in order to shoot the film during a public health crisis.

“There was this debate of what do we do?” Baron Cohen remembers. “Do we go ahead with this scene? What happens if he has coronavirus? We concluded that it was worth the risk.”

The result was an interview that will live in infamy. In it, “America’s mayor” appears to proposition his on-screen interlocutor (Maria Bakalova, playing Borat’s daughter, Tutar) by asking for her phone number and home address after she leads him into an adjoining bedroom. There, he lies on the bed and sticks his hands down his pants. Giuliani insists he was tucking in his shirt; the “Borat” cast and crew disagree.

“The movie is out, and everybody can see it the way they want to see it,” says Bakalova. “I felt like he would not do that with a man, and I should be seen as a woman and not as a sexual object.”

It was also an example of the risks that Baron Cohen and the “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” team were willing to take as they embarked on a mission to not only lampoon America in the Trump era but also expose the bigotry that helped fuel the 45th president’s rise to power. The mission took this modern-day Tocqueville from the halls of CPAC to the stages of anti-lockdown rallies, where he rubbed elbows with QAnon conspiracy theorists and semiautomatic-toting protesters.

“It is so daring and there is so much peril involved, but there’s also a big discrepancy between who he is as a person and who you see on-screen,” says Seth Rogen of Baron Cohen, a longtime friend. “He’s a neurotic Jewish guy when you get down to it, and the fact that he has chosen a line of work where he genuinely puts himself in danger doesn’t add up.”

It’s the kind of outrageous comedy, one that prances on a knife edge, that Baron Cohen had hoped to put behind him after finishing 2009’s “Bruno.” That mockumentary about a flamboyantly gay Austrian fashionista saw Baron Cohen risk life and limb while engaging with everyone from armed and homophobic hunters to members of the Westboro Baptist Church. It also left him ready to retire his act in favor of a scripted form of humor, where the punchlines are delivered from the safety of a closed Hollywood set.

“After ‘Bruno,’ I was fairly traumatized,” says Baron Cohen, who, as Rogen mentions, seems far removed from his gonzo screen persona during a 90-minute interview in which he intersperses Voltaire quotes with tangents about medieval history. “For about six months afterwards whenever I heard a police siren, I would start to get tense, because I’d been chased by the police so much. I vowed never to make another undercover movie again.”

His resolve dissipated with the 2016 election. What has followed has been an enormously fruitful period in Baron Cohen’s professional life, which has seen him wielding satire as a weapon of resistance. Not only has he revived Borat, but he has also earned Oscar buzz and the best reviews of his career channeling Abbie Hoffman in Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” The two performances are complementary, and both projects are part of a larger effort to make sense of dual sides of the American psyche — the progressive pull toward a more diverse future and the countervailing push to uphold the status quo.

The movies debuted as Baron Cohen was flexing a different kind of muscle. Since emerging as a comedic force with “Da Ali G Show,” the 49-year-old star has largely shunned publicity, preferring to conduct interviews as Borat, Bruno or one of his other creations. In November 2019, he eschewed the prosthetics and wigs at the Anti-Defamation League’s Never Is Now summit. There, the actor gave a keynote address in which he pinned the blame for the rise in hate crimes and prejudice on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media platforms. He argued that their refusal to police political ads and take down inaccurate commentaries in the name of free speech turbocharges conspiracy theories and imperils democratic ideals.

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Sacha Baron Cohen photographed in Sydney Australia for Variety Magazine December 1, 2020 Steven Chee for Variety

“On the internet, everything can appear equally legitimate,” Baron Cohen said. “Breitbart resembles the BBC. The fictitious Protocols of the Elders of Zion look as valid as an ADL report. And the rantings of a lunatic seem as credible as the findings of a Nobel Prize winner. We have lost, it seems, a shared sense of the basic facts upon which democracy depends.”

The actor was hesitant to step forward but did so at the urging of ADL head Jonathan Greenblatt.

“I’ve been a very reluctant celebrity,” says Baron Cohen. “I’ve spent my entire career trying to shy away from publicity. I also am very wary of the concept of someone being famous pushing their views on other people.”

His speech went viral, in part because he had been grappling with the issues surrounding social media for years. Concerned about Facebook’s and Twitter’s disinclination to fact-check political ads and politicians spewing falsehoods, Baron Cohen reached out to the Mark Zuckerbergs and Jack Dorseys of the world through informal channels only to receive a polite brushoff.

“My general conclusion is that these are very nice people, who are doing horrible things they justify to themselves by saying that there is no good without bad,” says Baron Cohen. “I don’t agree with that principle. I think you should try to have a business that is good and try to get rid of the bad.”

Baron Cohen didn’t just speak out about the danger he saw in leaving Silicon Valley’s power unchecked — he organized. The actor helped create Stop Hate for Profit, a coalition of civil rights groups and advocacy organizations, such as the NAACP, Color of Change, Free Press and the ADL designed to hold tech companies accountable for hate speech on their platforms. To that end, the group got A-list celebrities like Katy Perry and Kim Kardashian West to boycott Instagram for 24 hours. It also organized an exodus of advertisers such as Coca-Cola and McDonald’s from Facebook to pressure the platform to crack down on disinformation being spread by users.

“I credit Sacha with the existence of Stop Hate for Profit,” says Roger McNamee, an advisor to the organization and an early Facebook investor turned outspoken critic. “He’s sort of our spiritual leader. He brought with him massive energy and urgency and this creative spark.”

And the tech giants have started to respond — Twitter now includes disclaimers on false tweets from prominent political figures like Trump, while Facebook has agreed to remove “fake news” about the coronavirus vaccine.

“I don’t know if there’s been a person in public life who has engaged more and used their platform more effectively than Sacha has to take on these issues in an incredibly constructive way,” says Greenblatt. “He’s catalyzed meaningful change.”

Baron Cohen, born in a suburb of London, grew up a fan of Monty Python and Peter Cook but once said Peter Sellers was “the most seminal force” in shaping his early ideas about comedy. Borat Margaret Sagdiyev, the Kazakh television journalist who ranks as Baron Cohen’s most popular creation, traces his origins to a series of skits that the comic did on a long-forgotten Granada Talk TV show that aired from 1996 to 1997. Initially known as Alexi Krickler and later as Kristo Shqiptari, the Borat character was partly inspired by a Russian cab driver who Baron Cohen encountered in his travels. Over the years, Borat popped up on “Da Ali G Show,” where he was one of several absurdist characters vying for audiences’ attention, before graduating to full-fledged film stardom with 2006’s “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.” That movie became a box office sensation, grossing $262.6 million worldwide and making Borat one of the most recognizable comic figures, alongside Chaplin’s Little Tramp and Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau. It also made it difficult for Baron Cohen and his collaborators to revive Borat since a big part of his appeal involved pulling the wool over the eyes of unsuspecting Americans, prodding them to reveal their innermost prejudices.

Instead, Baron Cohen tried to find alternative ways to send up Trumpism. He used his 2018 Showtime series, “Who Is America?,” to create characters that might be able to serve as Trojan horses of sorts for another mockumentary about the U.S. One, the Israeli anti-terrorism expert Erran Morad, was a series breakout, and Baron Cohen began crafting a feature film in the vein of “Borat” or “Bruno.”

That plan was abandoned. Two years ago, Baron Cohen briefly revived Borat during an appearance on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” during which he went door to door in L.A.’s Westlake Village in a satirical attempt to swing the midterms for Trump. He was surprised by how many of the people he interviewed were unaware that Borat was an act, not a Trump-supporting Eastern European with retrograde ideas about women and minorities.

“I had just turned in the draft of the Erran Morad movie, and Sacha called me up and said, ‘You know that project? Let’s not do that. Let’s do Borat instead,’” says Anthony Hines, the producer and co-writer of “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.”

There was a catch. Baron Cohen was juggling other commitments. His involvement with “The Trial of the Chicago 7” began in 2007 when Steven Spielberg was originally directing the film, but his interest in the Yippie leader extended to his days at Cambridge University, where history was his focus. He learned about Hoffman for a thesis he was writing on Jewish involvement in the American civil rights movement.

“When he heard that the gears were turning and the movie was starting up again, he got in touch with me to make it clear that the part was still his and that I would not be considering any other actors for the role,” says Sorkin, who took over the director’s chair from Spielberg along with writing the screenplay.

Baron Cohen was drawn to Hoffman because he understood the power of humor to attract supporters to the peace movement.

“He knew that by becoming a standup he would have a greater impact on the crowd, and his aim was to influence people — to get people to take immense risks to fight the war in Vietnam,” says Baron Cohen. “He used humor to inspire followers, and he realized that absurdity was a way to undermine institutions that he thought were corrupt.”

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Sacha Baron Cohen photographed in Sydney Australia for Variety Magazine December 1, 2020 Steven Chee for Variety

On set, Baron Cohen would listen to Hoffman’s speeches between takes so he could master his distinct rhetorical style. The results are uncanny. It’s not an impersonation but something richer. A performance that channels Hoffman’s iconoclastic spirit and excavates his rebel soul to remind a new generation of viewers why his kind of activism was so radical and so sorely needed. During a key sequence toward the end of the film in which Hoffman takes the stand to argue that the federal government’s prosecution of Democratic National Convention protesters was part of an elaborate show trial, Sorkin made sure that the courtroom was packed with extras.

“I had a hunch that Sacha likes an audience,” says Sorkin. “Now I’ve been on sets when the crew and extras clap at the end of the take, but I’ve never seen anything like the eruption of applause that greeted Sacha when he finished his testimony. It was a combination of ‘Wow, he was great’ and ‘Wow, I didn’t know that Sacha Baron Cohen could do that.’”

Baron Cohen was so committed to playing Hoffman that he suspended filming on “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” in the fall of 2019 so he could complete the two-month shoot on “Chicago 7.” Both projects were racing against the clock and hoping to debut in 2020 prior to the presidential election. Baron Cohen was assured by his production team that he would just be able to pull it off if everything worked according to plan. What no one counted on was COVID-19. Filming on the “Borat” sequel ground to a halt last spring as the virus gripped the U.S.

“I was emotionally resigned to the fact that this was not going to happen before the election,” says Hines. “It seemed to be dead in the water. I thought we’d have to reinvent the movie.”

But Baron Cohen was determined to get cameras rolling. He believed that the virus and the Trump administration’s bungling response made the film’s message more relevant.

“I felt democracy was in peril, I felt people’s lives were in peril and I felt compelled to finish the movie,” says Baron Cohen. “The movie was originally about the danger of Trump and Trumpism. What coronavirus demonstrated was that there’s a lethal effect to his spreading of lies and conspiracy theories.”

Working with public health experts from Johns Hopkins University, the “Borat” team developed safety protocols, which included shelling out $1 million for testing and PPE. In June, the film became one of the first major Hollywood projects to venture back into production. The filmmakers also made the decision to incorporate the coronavirus in the plot, instead of ignoring the crisis.

“Rather than run away from how the world was dealing with coronavirus, I felt we should lean into it,” says Baron Cohen. “Borat is a fake character, played by me, in a real world. … If we got people to take their masks off, it would be a fake character in a fake world, in a manipulated world, so the basis of the comedy wouldn’t work.”

Moving forward with the production also necessitated a change of plans when it came to releasing the finished film. Universal had planned to distribute the movie in theaters, but Baron Cohen opted to sell the film to a streaming service after it became clear that many cinemas would still be closed by the fall. Ultimately, Amazon Prime stepped forward to buy the movie and distribute it. “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” originally set up at Paramount, would suffer a similar fate, selling distribution rights to Netflix to get the movie in front of voters before Election Day.

“I don’t want to egotistically imply that people would watch ‘Borat’ and not vote for Trump, but that was the aim,” says Baron Cohen, explaining that he opted not to delay the film until theaters had reopened because his goal “was how do we get as many people as possible to watch this before Nov. 3?”

The country that Borat explores in the recent film is different from the one he journeyed through in his initial big-screen foray. The changes are more dramatic than the masks that people are seen wearing, a persistent reminder of the pandemic that altered everything. When Borat said something racist or anti-Semitic in the first film, he would receive a tacit endorsement. However, there was still a sheepishness about owning up to bigotry or misogyny. Those inhibitions have atomized during the Trump administration, with the president’s rhetoric on Muslim bans and border walls emboldening people to join along proudly as Borat sings about chopping up journalists “like the Saudis do” or nuking Chinese people “like in World War II.” It’s funny but also deeply disturbing.

“The America he was going into, as opposed to the first one, was just a much darker, crazier place,” says Adam McKay, who directed Baron Cohen in “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.” “It’s quite a journey he goes on. It was like seeing what’s his name going up the river after Kurtz, except funny.”

Perhaps the film’s biggest shock is its beating heart. The country he traverses tacked hard right in the 16 years since he was last on movie screens, but Borat as a character slowly embraces his inner feminist over the course of the sequel. He may start “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” eager to gift his daughter to Vice President Mike Pence, but he ends it by rescuing her from Giuliani’s clutches, having come to realize that women should have rights — a political rebirth brought about by his love of Tutar.

“I was blown away by it,” says McKay. “I knew it would be a funny movie, but what I didn’t expect was that it had such a sweet side to it.”

Producer Monica Levinson believes Borat’s political transformation serves as a necessary rebuke to Trump-ism and to the Supreme Court’s rightward lurch on issues like abortion rights.

“During a time when women’s rights are still being litigated in this country and a man who openly talks about grabbing women’s vaginas can be elected president, it felt like the right time to take on the patriarchy,” she says.

Shooting the sequel didn’t just require Baron Cohen to open up emotionally; he also had to expose himself to greater jeopardy. His bodyguards urged him to wear a bulletproof vest when he took the stage in character to perform a satiric song called “Wuhan Flu” at a right-wing rally in Olympia, Wash., and one claimed to have glimpsed a protester reaching for his firearm at a particularly heated moment. Those were only the seen threats; there were unseen ones stemming from the coronavirus. While shooting sections of the film in Romania (standing in for Kazakhstan), Baron Cohen and several crew members shared a set with two actors who later tested positive for COVID-19. The Borat team chartered a plane and flew the exposed cast and crew to Los Angeles in case they needed medical care. No one came down with the virus, but the rest of Baron Cohen’s scenes in Romania were shot using a double, and he was later digitally inserted into the footage with green screen technology.

“There were moments in making this movie where I thought, why the hell am I doing this?” says Baron Cohen. “This is illogical. You think, am I mad? Have I got something deeply wrong with me?”

Regardless of the root of Baron Cohen’s willingness to open himself up to the slings and arrows of far-right activists and conspiracy-mongering Trumpsters, the film succeeded in overshadowing the president’s October surprise. “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” was released as Giuliani was trying to drum up interest in Hunter Biden’s questionable foreign dealings, but the former mayor’s on-screen behavior made him a problematic messenger. Once ballots were counted, the film also threatened to derail Giuliani’s campaign against Biden’s win, occasionally bubbling up when he was interviewed about his baseless assertions of widespread election fraud.

“I do feel happy that every time his name is mentioned as he tries to undermine the election, people are reminded that this is the guy with his hand down his underpants,” says Baron Cohen.

“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” may have succeeded beyond Baron Cohen’s ambitions, but don’t hold your breath for “Borat: Part 3.” He’s finally ready to hang up the character’s handlebar mustache.

“I brought Borat out because of Trump,” says Baron Cohen. “There was a purpose to this movie, and I don’t really see the purpose to doing it again. So yeah, he’s locked away in the cupboard.”

Styling: Nadene Duncan/DLM; Makeup: Liz Kelsh/22; Hair: Travis Balcke/Talentland; Location: Sun Studios Sydney