Who Is Sacha Baron Cohen?
Comedian and actor Sacha Baron Cohen is well-known for his unorthodox, fictional characters. He cracked up viewers by way of his wannabe rapper's interviews with unsuspecting celebrities on Da Ali G Show and later introduced Borat, an oversexed visitor from Kazakhstan, and Brüno, an Austrian fashion correspondent, on the big screen. Cohen has also debuted original characters in The Dictator and Grimsby, and appeared in other features like Talladega Nights, Sweeney Todd, Hugo and Les Misérables.
Sacha Noam Baron Cohen was born on October 13, 1971, in London, England. A middle child, he grew up in a London surburb. His father operated a number of clothing stores and his mother worked as a fitness instructor. Cohen developed a passion for breakdancing as a teen and belonged to a Jewish youth group through which he first started acting.
After spending a year at a kibbutz in Israel, Cohen enrolled at Christ's College, part of Cambridge University. He was a history student and also appeared in productions by the Cambridge Footlights, the university's famed comedy troupe. Other Footlights alumni include John Cleese, Peter Cook, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson, to name just a few.
For his thesis, Cohen wrote about the involvement of Jewish Americans in the civil rights movement in the South during the 1950s and 1960s. He even stayed in Atlanta for a time to do some research and interview activist Robert Parris Moses. While he was encouraged to continue his studies on the graduate level, Cohen wanted to follow a different path upon completing his degree.
'Da Ali G Show'
Like many comedians before him, Cohen worked at his craft doing stand-up comedy. His first television gig was as a host of a youth program. Landing a part on the late night comedy program The 11 O'Clock Show in the late 1990s, Cohen stood out with his character Ali G, a white wannabe rapper. He was later featured in his own series, Da Ali G Show, which had the blinged-out character conducting interviews with politicians, writers and other distinguished people, seeing how they responded to all sorts of off-the-wall questions.
Growing in popularity, Ali G made a cameo appearance in the music video for Madonna's 2000 hit "Music." He then got his own feature film, Ali G Indahouse, in 2002. While that film was not a success, Baron did get to introduce American audiences to the barely literate, nearly incomprehensible character through a new version of Da Ali G Show. Talking with former United Nations secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali, he asked "Is Disneyland a member of the U.N.?" And 60 Minutes commentator Andy Rooney got so aggravated with Ali G that he ended the interview. But this was not before Ali G asked the news veteran, "Has journalists ever put out tomorrow's news by mistake?"
Cohen faced his share of criticism for perpetuating negative racial and cultural stereotypes on his program, even receiving threats to his personal well-being, according to some reports.
The next of Cohen's characters to hit it big was Borat Sagdiyev, an oversexed, bigoted man-child television personality from Kazakhstan. With his origins in Da Ali G Show, Borat became the star of his own mocumentary film in 2006. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan was a surprise smash, bringing in more than $128 million at the box office. With the premise of making a documentary about the United States, Borat traveled the country, interviewing people and getting involved in some unusual and sometimes disturbing situations. As the film's website explained, Borat's "backwards behavior generates strong reactions around him, exposing prejudices and hypocrisies in American culture."
To do the satire, Cohen remained in character throughout the filming. "I had to be that way all day and all night, because even if the tiniest detail had gone awry, it could've made them suspicious," he told the Los Angeles Times in 2007. The convincing nature of this persona led to an anti-Semitic singalong in a bar and an encounter with some bitter frat boys in an RV who spewed a number of misogynistic and prejudicial remarks, among other adventures.
Not everyone was laughing, however. Several lawsuits were filed after the film's release by unhappy participants—including the now notorious frat boys — claiming that they were duped by Cohen. He responded to this charge by saying, "This wasn't Candid Camera ... I don't buy the argument that, 'Oh, I wouldn't have acted so racist or anti-Semitic if I'd known this film was being shown in America.' That's no excuse," he told the Los Angeles Times.
The government of Kazakhstan was also not happy with how the country was portrayed on screen. In the film, Borat showed some of the people he encountered explicit photographs of him and his "sister" and said that the country produced wine made from horse urine. Yerzhan Ashykbayev, a spokesperson for the country's foreign ministry, said they were considering legal action against Cohen. "We do not rule out that Mr. Cohen is serving someone's political order designed to present Kazakhstan and its people in a derogatory way," he said.
Despite the controversy and the looming legal battles, Borat scored big with movie goers and critics alike. Cohen won a Golden Globe Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy and earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Cohen brought Borat back to life in the 2020 sequel Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.
'Brüno' and 'The Dictator'
Next up for the actor-comedian-provocateur was a film about another one of his characters — Brüno, a gay, Austrian fashion correspondent. The film, Brüno, was released in July 2009.
The film and its star generated controversy even before making it to theaters; in May 2009, a woman filed a lawsuit over claims that she was injured during production of the film. Soon afterward, at the 2009 MTV Movie Awards, Cohen, dressed as an angel, landed in rapper Eminem's lap after a "problem" with his wire harness. Cohen then exposed himself onstage to Eminem's cursing and threats. It was later revealed that the duo had planned the gag together.
The attention helped fuel success at the box office, as Brüno was at No. 1 following its opening weekend. Critics largely responded well to the feature, too, though some were troubled by the over-the-top lampooning of LGBT culture.
The Dictator (2012) took elements from the comic's previous films, as it featured Cohen as Admiral-General Aladeen, dictator of the fictional Republic of Wadiya, on his fish-out-of-water journey through New York City. This time, the screen action was dramatized — as opposed to generating laughs from unwitting participants — and although it offered Cohen's usual assortment of outrageous gags, the critical response was not as favorable as those from earlier efforts.
'Talladega Nights' and Other Film Roles
Outside of his own characters, Cohen has tackled other roles on the big screen. He appeared as a French race car driver in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006), with Will Farrell, and the musical Sweeney Todd (2007), with Johnny Depp. Turning to voiceover work, Cohen played Julien, king of the lemurs, in Madagascar (2005) and its two sequels. Additionally, the actor had a prominent supporting role in Hugo (2011), as the station inspector, and returned to the musical genre with the star-studded cast of Les Misérables (2012).
Cohen was back to his old ways in Grimsby (2016), a raunchy, outrageous action-comedy in which his character teams with his MI6 agent brother to save the world. He then appeared in Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016), the sequel to the 2010 adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, as the deity-like Time, and in 2020's The Trial of Chicago 7.
'Who Is America?'
In July 2018, shortly after news surfaced that Cohen was in talks with Showtime for a new interview program, it was announced that Who Is America? would debut on the cable network on July 15.
Cohen, who tweeted an old video clip of a seemingly irritated Donald Trump insulting him on July 4, followed with another clip, from his upcoming program, in which he gets former Vice President Dick Cheney to sign his "waterboarding kit." Adding more intrigue, on July 10, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin wrote a lengthy Facebook post in which she complained about being duped into agreeing to an interview with a disabled U.S. veteran, who turned out to be Cohen in disguise.
In the Who Is America? premiere, Cohen debuted his right-wing conspiracy theorist Billy Wayne Ruddick for an interview with Bernie Sanders, leaving the Vermont senator befuddled with his proposal for wealth redistribution. Other new alter egos included Israeli anti-terrorist expert Erran Morad, who convinces former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and other sitting congressmen to support his "Kinderguardians" program of arming children.
Marriage to Isla Fisher and Children
While Cohen is extremely private about his personal life, one bit of good news was made public in 2007: He and his then-fiancée, Australian actress Isla Fisher, welcomed their first child, daughter Olive, that October. Following their marriage in Paris in March 2010, they had two more children — daughter Elula, in August 2010, and son Montgomery, in March 2015.
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