Sacha Baron Cohen talks “Chicago 7,” “Borat” sequel and using comedy as a “form of peaceful protest”

CBS NEWS

Sacha Baron Cohen has had a busy year. The British actor, writer and producer starred in two of the most critically-acclaimed movies of 2020.

He surprised the world with the release of a sequel to 2006’s “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.” He took on a more serious role starring role in “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” directed by Aaron Sorkin. Both films are considered to be major Oscar contenders.

Baron Cohen plays Abbie Hoffman in “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” It’s a role that he told “CBS This Morning” co-host Anthony Mason he’s been chasing for 13 years.

“I just found him this incredibly funny, charismatic character, who underneath it all was amazingly courageous and was ready to give his life to fight injustice, so I needed to play him,”  Baron Cohen said.

Hoffman was one of the real-life “Chicago Seven,” political activists who were put on trial for their anti-Vietnam War demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. 

“In many ways, he’s very similar to you,” Mason said.

“I mean, that’s a great compliment…I would say he’s really inspiring. I mean, he realized the power of humor in being able to you know challenge certain things that he found immoral in society. He’s always saying,”We need to go where the cameras are.” he replied.

Baron Cohen has earned a reputation as revolutionary himself. Through the outrageous behavior of his own characters, he gets people to reveal their inner prejudices, most notably as his character of the infamous journalist from Kazakhstan, Borat. His performance playing the character won him a Golden Globe in 2007.

As a kid growing up in Northwest London, Baron Cohen fell in love with comedy.

“And actually, me and my brother, we used to improvise songs and there was an old South African 95-year-old pianist who used to come round to my parents’ house and she would say, ‘You know, one day you will be in Hollywood! They’ll love you there!’ We’re like, ‘Yes, that’s right, Granny. Sure we will! Course we will!’ It seemed so ludicrous,” he laughed.

Despite his success, the 49-year-old comedian has been reluctant to give interviews as himself. 

“Probably some of that [reason] is insecurity, but a lot of that is I just didn’t want to be recognized. I didn’t see the upside of becoming famous as myself,” he said. 

But in a 2019 speech to Anti-Defamation League, Baron Cohen spoke out publicly for the first time against social media companies. In his speech, he said that hate and violence are “being facilitated by a handful of internet companies that amount to the greatest propaganda machine in history.”

Baron Cohen thought he’d retired his iconic Borat character but decided he had to bring him back ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

In “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” he dressed as former President Trump using a fat suit and prosthetics to enter the actual Conservative Political Action Conference and try to get to former Vice President Mike Pence. This put his own safety on the line all for the sake of satire. 

“This wasn’t a prank movie. This was my form of peaceful protest,” Baron Cohen said.

“In those moments, you risk arrest or sometimes something even more dangerous,” Mason replied.

“So this was the first movie where I’ve been advised to wear a bulletproof vest during a couple of scenes. One of them was at a gun rally in Washington state where I was singing a song called the Wuhan Flu,” he recalled.

There was even a moment in filming where Baron Cohen was chased off a stage.

“Yes, a group of armed members of the crowd stormed the stage, overpowered the security, and one of them actually reached for his pistol,” he said. “And I was extremely lucky that I had a fantastic bodyguard who grabbed the guy’s arm and told him, whispered the words, the phrase, ‘It’s not worth it, buddy.'”

“Was there any point during it when you said to yourself, why am I doing this?” Mason asked.

“Throughout the whole movie, I remember being in the bathroom before that gun rally, and I was putting on a bulletproof vest, and I was looking at myself in the mirror, just thinking, ‘I must be completely mad. What are you doing?'” Baron Cohen said.

 At one point during filming, Baron Cohen had to spend five days in a COVID lockdown with two conspiracy theorists. It’s the longest he’s ever remained in character.

“I think I had close to having a panic attack. There are no crew around. I thought, ‘How do I do this?’ How am I not going to slip up, you know, having breakfast, lunch, dinner, getting drunk with them in the evenings?” he said.

Those two conspiracy theorists Baron Cohen spent time with were pivotal characters in the film.

“Jim and Jerry, which is their names, were good guys. You know, they were kind to a foreigner. … They were actually, to a degree, they’re feminists,” Baron Cohen said.

“But they believed in some reprehensible conspiracy theories. And it wasn’t really their fault. They had been fed a diet of these lies and conspiracy theories on social media and by various news channels,” he said. “We are living in a dangerous age where the difference between fact and fiction is not evident anymore.”

Baron Cohen is married to actress Isla Fisher. Together they have three children.

Despite the adventures he may have had playing Borat, Baron Cohen said it’s time to really put the character behind him.

“Was this your last undercover movie or would you do it again?” Mason asked.

“No. I can’t do it again. I was lucky to make it out of this one fully intact, so no,” Cohen said. 

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