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Sacha Baron Cohen On 'Borat' Ethics And Why His Disguise Days Are Over

Sacha Baron Cohen talks about reviving his signature character Borat a dimwitted, anti-Semitic, sexist TV journalist from Kazakhstan and playing Abbie Hoffman in the real-life activist in the film The Trial of the Chicago 7.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Sacha Baron Cohen, is up for three Golden Globes this year, best actor in his new "Borat" sequel, best supporting actor in "The Trial Of The Chicago 7" and the third for producing the "Borat" film. It's only the fourth time anyone's gotten so many nominations in one season. We'll hear the results this Sunday night. He also has two Screen Actors Guild nominations for "The Trial Of The Chicago 7" as best supporting actor and as an actor in the best cast in a movie.

Sacha Baron Cohen is famous for creating characters and playing them in the real world, interacting with real people who have no idea the character isn't real. It's just a fictional character. In his new film titled "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm," which is streaming on Amazon, Baron Cohen returns to his character Borat, a journalist from Kazakhstan who's kind of an idiot and believes conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic tropes. In the sequel, he returns to America. We'll talk later about that film and what happened behind the scenes, including a now-infamous scene in a hotel bedroom with Rudy Giuliani.

In the Netflix film "The Trial Of The Chicago 7," Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, Baron Cohen plays Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman, one of the organizers of the Vietnam War protests in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The police met protesters with billy clubs and tear gas, leading to violent confrontations. The Nixon administration charged activists, including Hoffman, with crossing state lines and conspiring to riot. Hoffman was a countercultural radical who used humor, absurdity and theatrics. Even when he was testifying during the Chicago 7 trial, he was irreverent. In this scene, he's on the stand and is questioned first by Judge Julius Hoffman and then by his defense attorney, William Kunstler. Kunstler is played by Mark Rylance, Judge Hoffman by Frank Langella.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7")

FRANK LANGELLA: (As Judge Julius Hoffman) Would you state your full name for the record, please?

SACHA BARON COHEN: (As Abbie Hoffman) It's Abbie.

LANGELLA: (As Judge Julius Hoffman) Last name.

BARON COHEN: (As Abbie Hoffman) My grandfather's name was Shaposhnikov, but he was a Russian Jew protesting anti-Semitism, sir. He was assigned a name that would sound like yours.

LANGELLA: (As Judge Julius Hoffman) What is your date of birth?

BARON COHEN: (As Abbie Hoffman) Psychologically, 1960.

LANGELLA: (As Judge Julius Hoffman) What were you doing until 1960?

BARON COHEN: (As Abbie Hoffman) Nothing. I believe it's called an American education.

LANGELLA: (As Judge Julius Hoffman) Why don't we just proceed with the testimony?

BARON COHEN: (As Abbie Hoffman) Sure.

MARK RYLANCE: (As William Kunstler) Abbie, you know why you're on trial here?

BARON COHEN: (As Abbie Hoffman) We carried certain ideas across state lines. Not machine guns or drugs or little girls - ideas. When we crossed from New York to New Jersey to Pennsylvania to Ohio to Illinois, we had certain ideas. And for that. we were gassed, beaten, arrested and put on trial.

RYLANCE: (As William Kunstler) OK.

BARON COHEN: (As Abbie Hoffman) In 1861, Lincoln said in his inaugural address, when the people should grow weary of their constitutional right to amend their government, they shall exert their revolutionary right to dismember and overthrow that government. And if Lincoln had given that speech in Lincoln Park last summer, he'd be put on trial with the rest of us.

RYLANCE: (As William Kunstler) So how do you overthrow or dismember, as you say, your government peacefully?

BARON COHEN: (As Abbie Hoffman) In this country, we do it every four years.

GROSS: Sacha Baron Cohen, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's a pleasure to have you back on the show.

BARON COHEN: Thank you, Terry, for having me back.

GROSS: How did having played Abbie Hoffman when he was being tried for crossing state lines and conspiring to riot, affect how you saw the January 6th insurrection? And you know the shaman guy, the QAnon shaman, the guy with the bare chest and the face paint and the horns? How did you see him? Did you see him as some kind of bizarre theater or as somebody who had, like, a serious mental health problem or what? I'm just - like, from your point of view, who does all this kind of, like, taking theater into the real world, what do you make of him?

BARON COHEN: Well, it seemed bizarre, firstly, that Borat wasn't next to him.

GROSS: Yeah (laughter).

BARON COHEN: I mean, we had a chat. The writers got together after that happened, and we said, listen. If we were still filming, we probably would have been there. But he - listen. The whole basis of QAnon is so completely bonkers that, in a way, he's a perfect visual representation of those who believe in this bizarre conspiracy theory of, you know, a pedophilic, cannibalistic cabal of certain politicians and Hollywood celebrities. So I thought he was the perfect representation of what QAnon is, which is this completely loopy ideology that has become mass through social media.

GROSS: And I'm sure you were struck by T-shirts like, 6 million not enough in Camp Auschwitz. I know you're very much involved with fighting anti-Semitism and with Holocaust awareness.

BARON COHEN: Yeah. Well, I mean, on the plus side, at least those people believe that the Holocaust existed. What (laughter) I'd been trying to work on was the Holocaust denialism online had been helped a lot by Facebook and YouTube and Google. So, yes, I wasn't very happy to read those requests for some increase for a more thorough genocide next time. However, at least they believe that the Holocaust existed, which - a large proportion of the world don't (ph).

GROSS: So before we talk about the "Borat" film, I want to talk about "The Trial Of The Chicago 7." You know, I thought you were so perfectly cast as Abbie Hoffman because in totally different ways, like you've turned, like, the world into your stage by bringing your characters into the world just as, like, Abbie Hoffman in his own different way, really, was practicing a form of street theater a lot of the time. Do you see it that way?

BARON COHEN: What we first heard about him - he was very aware of the stage and of the cameras and that he was creating a persona and, you know, performing actions in order to get young people motivated. So he knew that, you know, he could use humor to firstly challenge systemic racism and the establishment. But he also knew that if he was funny and brilliant, which he was, he would be able to get sort of young people to sacrifice their lives to fight against the Vietnam War. You know, he was influenced by the idea of taking theater into the streets. And he was very, very thoughtful.

So he was going on stand-up tours during the trial, but they felt very off the cuff. However, they were extremely prepared. And he had studied Lenny Bruce, studied the rhythms and also learned some other lessons from Lenny Bruce, including that the trial was a show trial and that they would be convicted. So yes, I think he was very aware of that. He was influenced by certain theatrical movements at the time. And he was aware that they didn't have any money. You know, the Yippies didn't have any money. And the way they could actually make an impact was by being funny, by doing these seemingly crazy things, like getting thousands of students to try and levitate the Pentagon or nominating a pig to run for leader of the Democratic Party. You know, the more I read about him, I did see some similarity.

GROSS: Between you and him.

BARON COHEN: To a degree. I mean, he was ready to die for his cause.

GROSS: You've almost died for your (laughter) - inadvertently, yeah (laughter).

BARON COHEN: That's accidental.

GROSS: You've broken bones to make your movies. You've been chased by police. You've been sued. You've taken a lot of risks, including risks you swore you wouldn't take again, and you just took them again.

BARON COHEN: Yes. I mean, we can get onto that, but that...

GROSS: We'll get onto that later. Yeah (laughter).

BARON COHEN: I can tell you why I returned to the madness.

GROSS: Yeah, we'll get to that in a little while. Just to get to something, like, less profound than what we've been talking about - less deep - is just your voice in it. Like, instead of saying park, you'll say pahk (ph). And I was trying to place the accent because I think Abbie Hoffman's from New York.

BARON COHEN: No, he's from Boston.

GROSS: No wonder, 'cause it always sounded like really Boston to me 'cause New Yorkers have a - New Yorkers like me have a real hard, ah, like park. You know?

BARON COHEN: Yes, yes, yeah. He's from Massachusetts. So his accent is actually a little bit complex because it's Boston mixed with a little bit from sort of Brandeis and Berkeley, where he was educated. And then - at times, he jumps an octave. You know, when he's speaking to the crowd, he gets very excited. And then he would almost sound like a Jewish shrieking grandmother. You know, it's a really, really complex accent, and I was terrified about it.

GROSS: So you initially got the role as Abbie Hoffman years ago when Steven Spielberg was going to be directing it. Then it kind of sat in limbo for a while, and then Aaron Sorkin took over directing the film and rewriting it, I guess. And he kept you in that role even though you were more than a decade older than you were when you first got it. How did Spielberg cast you? Did he just think, I know who would be perfect for this, and it was you? Or did he ask you to audition?

BARON COHEN: No, it was the opposite. Basically, I heard that there was going to be a movie about the Chicago 7. I was kind of obsessed with Abbie Hoffman from the age of 20. And with great hutzpah, I called up Steven Spielberg. And I said, can you let me audition? And he had some reservations, particularly about the accent, because he knew it was a very specific accent. And he sent me a dialect coach. And together, the dialect coach, every night we recorded three versions of his speech. And after two weeks, Spielberg said, OK, I need the - a version of that speech that you're happy with, deliver it to my house at 9 a.m.

So I had - you know, I had recorded about 30 versions. The dialect coach said take Take 28. And I instructed my assistant - I said, put Take 28 on a CD, deliver it to Mr. Spielberg's house. I meet up with Steven at lunchtime at the Milky Way, which was his mother's kosher restaurant on Pico, and he sits me down. And he says, Listen, Sacha, I've got to be honest. I got the CD. Thank you. The first 10 or so takes were not very good at all. And I realized my assistant had given the wrong CD.

GROSS: Oh, oh right.

BARON COHEN: He'd listened to all - yeah, he'd listened to all 28. And he said, by the - he goes by the end, Sacha, it was perfect. But, you know - I mean, by the way, that is why Spielberg is Spielberg and why a lot of those people are who they are. They've got incredible talent, but they sit through till Take 28 when they should have switched off after Take 4.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Sacha Baron Cohen. He's up for three Golden Globe nominations. We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEASTIE BOYS' "GROOVE HOLMES")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Sacha Baron Cohen. He's nominated for three Golden Globes - best actor for his new "Borat" sequel, best supporting actor in "The Trial Of The Chicago 7" and he's nominated for producing the "Borat" film. The awards ceremony is Sunday, and "Borat" is streaming on Amazon. "The Trial Of The Chicago 7" is on Netflix.

OK. So let's talk about your "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm." And you know, you'd been sued and nearly killed. You suffered broken bones for your work in character in other films, including your first Borat film. Why did you decide to do it again? I mean, you're lucky to have gotten out alive from those films.

BARON COHEN: I think the answer is Donald Trump. I remember the Muslim ban and friends sending me articles. And at that point, I think I was just so angry that I felt I had to do something other than forward articles in The New York Times and Washington Post.

So I went back to, you know, my own skill, which is creating characters to go undercover. And I created a show called "Who Is America?" that was attempting to understand Trumpism and the issues that were going on at the time. And also, the idea was to create characters that people who were associated with Trump or were Trumpists would be interviewed by. That had some impact and led to one politician losing his job. And another couple of politicians blamed the show for them not being reelected. But it didn't have enough of an impact.

And then it was the midterms, and I had assumed that Borat was impossible to revive. However, Jimmy Kimmel invited me on, and I did a tiny skit as Borat with real people. And the next day, I just sat with my two writers in the room, Anthony Hines and Dan Swimer. And I said, hold on. Is there a movie in Borat that we can make that could possibly influence the election? And we came up with this concept. I mean, obviously, you know, I'm a writer and a comedian. I didn't think I'd have a large impact at all, but we felt we had to do something. We felt that democracy was in real danger. You know, I was terrified that if Trump got in again, that America would be a democracy in name only. It would be similar to the democracy you see in Turkey or in Russia. I felt very clearly from the start of the last administration that we were heading towards authoritarianism. And so I felt I had to do something.

GROSS: So I want to talk about the premise of the film. Let's start with a clip. The movie opens - I should explain. Borat is a journalist from Kazakhstan who, in the past, has made trips to the U.S. and misinterpreted everything he hears. And as I mentioned earlier, he's a total anti-Semite. He thinks women are there to serve men. He believes in a lot of conspiracy theories. So when the film opens, he's actually on a chain gang in Kazakhstan, being punished for ruining Kazakhstan's reputation in the U.S. And I'm going to pick it up with some of your opening narration from the beginning of the film.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BORAT SUBSEQUENT MOVIEFILM")

BARON COHEN: (As Borat) Fourteen year ago, I release a moviefilm (ph) which was great success in the U.S. and A. But Kazakhstan become a laughing stocks around the world. Our exports of potassium and pubis plummet. Many brokers leapt from our tallest skyscrapers.

(SOUNDBITE OF THUD)

BARON COHEN: (As Borat) Since running of Jew had been canceled, all Kazakhstan had left was Holocaust Remembrance Day, where we commemorate our heroic soldiers who ran the camps. I was blamed for Kazakhstan's failure and banned from ever make reportings again. I was publicly humiliate.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLANGING)

BARON COHEN: (As Borat) Wah-wah-wee-wah (ph). I was sentenced for life to hard labor in gulag. But 14 year later, man from government bring me to presidential palace.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

BARON COHEN: (As Borat) Premier Nazarbayev.

DANI POPESCU: (As Nursultan Nazarbayev, speaking Hebrew).

BARON COHEN: (As Borat) He explained that while I was in gulag, U.S. and A. was ruined by an evil man who stood against all American values. His name - Barack Obama. This led to other Africans becoming political leaders. But then a miracle occurred. A magnificent new premier named McDonald Trump rose to power and made America great again. He also became buddies with tough guy leaders across the world - Putin, Kim Jong Un, Bolsonaro and Kenneth West.

GROSS: (Laughter) So that's the opening clip, the voiceover narration from the new "Borat" movie. And, Sacha Baron Cohen, take it from here. Describe the setup and how Mike Pence enters the picture.

BARON COHEN: OK, so Premier Nazarbayev, our version of Premier Nazarbayev - obviously, our whole Kazakhstan is completely mythical. But Premier Nazarbayev wants to get into the club of authoritarian leaders that Trump has set up. And, you know, that came about because obviously, Trump became friendly with a bunch of these dictators around the world. Premier Nazarbayev wants to get into it. He tells Borat that the way to get into that is to give a bribe to Vice President Pence. That bribe is - there's someone called Johnny the Monkey, who's their minister of culture. And when Borat gets to America, he finds out that the monkey is dead. And in the crate with the monkey is his 15-year old daughter.

GROSS: Who stowed aboard. And he decides to - Borat decides to make his daughter the gift to Pence because he knows that Pence is such a famous ladies man that he can't be alone in the room with a woman, which I thought was hilarious.

BARON COHEN: He cannot be left alone in a room with a woman. And it's after seeing - he doesn't know what to give as a gift. And he sees a shot of Epstein and Trump on the TV and realizes that the Trump government love young girls. And he's there with a 15-year-old girl. So his - Premier Nazarbayev says, yeah. How old is she? Fifteen - perfect marriage age. And then, yeah, he decides to give her to Mike Pence, and she's extremely happy. It's like a kind of Disney story for her. She's going to live the dream and become the new Melania.

GROSS: My guest is Sacha Baron Cohen. He's nominated for three Golden Globes for his two latest movies, "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm" and "The Trial Of The Chicago Seven." We'll talk more after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M YOUR GUMMY BEAR")

FANFARE CIOCARLIA: (Vocalizing).

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Sacha Baron Cohen. He's nominated for two SAG Awards and a Golden Globe for his performance as Abbie Hoffman in "The Trial Of The Chicago 7," which is streaming on Netflix. He's also nominated for Golden Globes for his starring role in the film "Borat The (ph) Subsequent Moviefilm" and for producing the film, which is streaming on Amazon.

We were talking about Borat when we left off. To recap, Baron Cohen's character, Borat, is a dim-witted journalist from Kazakhstan who believes a lot of conspiracy theories and racist, sexist, anti-Semitic stereotypes. Baron Cohen takes the character Borat into the real world, interacting with real people who don't know he's a character.

The premise of the new film is that when Borat first came to America, he made Kazakhstan look bad and as a result, he was imprisoned and sentenced to hard labor. In the new film, he's taken off the chain gang and sent to America to restore Kazakhstan's reputation and give a gift to the Trump administration so that Trump will bring Kazakhstan's president into the club of strongman authoritarian leaders. When the first gift doesn't work out, Borat decides to offer his daughter as a gift to the famous lady's man, Mike Pence.

So let's talk about, like, the most famous or infamous scene from the film. At some point, the attempt to give her to Mike Pence fails. So now, she's going to be offered to Giuliani - Rudy Giuliani. And the setup is she's posing as a reporter for a right-wing journalism group called Patriots Report. She's going to interview him in a hotel room.

So let's start with how did you get - to the extent that you can tell us - how did you get Rudy Giuliani to agree to this? My understanding is that you have really long, complicated release forms that people have to sign. And a lot of people probably sign them without representation and don't read all of it, but Rudy Giuliani is a lawyer. Can you tell us how you got him to agree to do this interview with somebody who was not a journalist for a journalism site that doesn't even exist?

BARON COHEN: Yes. I mean, just first, in terms of the release forms, I mean, for them to be able to stand up in court, they have to be easily readable. Otherwise, they wouldn't stand up in court. So that obviously - Rudy Giuliani signs a release form, which is interesting because in that particular release form, he permitted the use of hidden cameras, which was odd that the president's lawyer didn't thoroughly read a contract.

So but with him, she was shooting a documentary about how President Trump had been so fantastic with his response to coronavirus that he'd saved 2 million lives. And that was the documentary that she was a reporter for. And so he was speaking to her about what a fantastic job Trump had done in terms of coronavirus.

GROSS: So in this scene, Borat's daughter, played by Maria Bakalova, she poses as this right-wing journalist. She's interviewing him in a hotel room. And she's behaving very flirtatiously with him. She's kind of giggling. She puts her hand on his knee a couple of times. And after the interview, she invites him for a drink in the bedroom of this hotel suite.

They go in. He says, you can give me your name and phone number. She takes off his lavalier mic. And for anyone who's ever had a lavalier mic for broadcast, you usually have to, like - or at least often have to tuck it under your shirt or under your jacket. So she's helping him get off the lavalier mic as he's sitting on the bed. He leans back a little. She's kind of fidgeting inside his shirt. And he puts his hands down his pants.

And he says later, I was just tucking in my shirt after getting the lavalier off. His hands seemed to linger there longer than that. And it's kind of ambiguous what's happening in his pants (laughter). So I should just say here, although your daughter is supposed to be 15, I should mention that the actress who plays her is in her 20s so that you're not...

BARON COHEN: Yes.

GROSS: ...You're not exploiting somebody who is underage here. She is a full adult and knows exactly what she's doing and is a really fantastic improviser and actress.

BARON COHEN: Oh, she's incredible.

GROSS: When he said, I'll take your name and address, what was the context of that? Or you can give me your name and address.

BARON COHEN: It's unclear. It's unclear because he asked for her number a few times. I mean, it is what it is. I mean, he's in a room drinking whiskey with a young girl, touching her body, asking for her number, and then he's got his hand down his pants. So I don't know. At some point, I urge people to watch him, you know, draw their own conclusions. I wasn't - I can't claim to have been inside Rudy's mind.

But all I know, we had a number of women who were watching it live because we were streaming it. That was the way during COVID for a number of the producers and writers to write. And they were shrieking when he was in that bedroom with her. And, you know, I think you need to speak to her, but, you know, she felt rather uncomfortable.

GROSS: Did the actress, Maria Bakalova, have a safe word in case things got out of hand - a safe word that you would hear?

BARON COHEN: I cannot remember if there was actually a safe word. We had a plan, which was that if she was scared or she felt in danger, that she would run to a certain door. We had a security guard who would lead her to safety.

But yes, I mean, at one point when Rudy got worried, he basically called the police. And I don't know what he told them, but I think he accused us of having committed a federal crime because the cops came, and they raided the room. They searched the room. They actually found some script. And they basically impounded our equipment. So we couldn't film for the, you know, next 36 hours.

I was advised by my lawyer to leave the state, which I was surprised by because I thought, hold on, has Rudy Giuliani really still got power in New York? Apparently he does because it's very uncommon for police to raid a room without a warrant.

GROSS: So you had to evacuate the state (laughter). Your crew had to sneak out of the hotel. Do you know if you actually broke any laws? And I don't know how freely you can speak about this.

BARON COHEN: Yeah, I can. I mean, I know that I did not. So, you know, we have a fantastic legal team.

GROSS: You need it (laughter).

BARON COHEN: Yeah, we do. We do. Everything we do is legal. I mean, I'm currently still being sued by Roy Moore. So that - these cases take a long time. And, you know, there are standards and practices with any channel that we're with, whether it is HBO or Fox or Amazon. And then there's the law. So, you know, we're very, very careful that we're operating within the standards and practices of the channel and doing stuff that's completely legal.

GROSS: OK. Well, let's take a short break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Sacha Baron Cohen. We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JON CLEARY'S "DYNA-MITE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Sacha Baron Cohen, and he's nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance in "Borat Subsequent Movie" (ph) and also for his performance in "The Trial Of The Chicago 7."

BARON COHEN: Terry, I'm just remembering. I think my first-ever interview out of character was with you.

GROSS: I think that's right.

BARON COHEN: You were literally the first person I ever spoke to as myself. So...

GROSS: And how come?

BARON COHEN: Well, I had never wanted to give any interviews as myself. And I'd had a fantastic period in England where Ali G was, which was the first sort of character that I'd done, was a phenomenon in England. Ali G, the character, was huge. It was incredibly famous. And actually, even the queen's mother was a - did Ali G impressions. But me, Sacha, I was unknown. And it was just fantastic. I was able to go on the Tube. I was able to have all the benefits of fame and not be famous. So I wanted to continue that. And also, it helped my work. I realized that if I became famous as myself, it would make making my work almost impossible.

GROSS: But now you are famous as yourself. So how has that changed your life?

BARON COHEN: I mean, it's a regret. I wish I could have carried on like that and not become famous as myself. You know, there are great benefits of fame in that you can - you can speak to people who shouldn't be able to speak to. People will take your call. And that's been really useful with some of the stuff I've been doing on the side with the Internet. But I mean, some people love getting recognized and love the attention. I don't love it. And I don't know. I did - I loved that period where the shows were really successful, but nobody knew who I was.

I remember once, the first time we released the Ali G video, and it was a video back in those days. And I stood in this record store called HMV on Oxford Street. It was the biggest one in London. And I was surrounded by Ali G fans who were buying the VHS. And I was dressed as Borat. And they were like, get out of the way; oh, get out. You stink; get out. And it was such a pleasure for me to - for them not to know who I was. And then, you know, being on the Tube, the Underground in London, and hearing people talk about Ali G or do Ali G impressions and not realizing that they were next to the man who performed it, for me, that was the most fun period.

GROSS: So you did some shooting for "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm" at a rally in Olympia, Wash., that was called March for Our Rights Rally. I'm assuming the rights were gun rights and the right to not wear a mask. Is that what the...

BARON COHEN: I think so, yes. Yes. It was essentially a gun rally. But it was an anti-mask rally as well.

GROSS: Yeah. And so in this rally, you sang a song in which you kind of led the audience in a singalong. And do you want to describe what the lyrics are?

BARON COHEN: Yes. It was called "The Wuhan Flu." And the chorus was - you know, we'd have somebody like, (singing) mask wearers, what we going to do? Inject them with the Wuhan flu, inject them with Wuhan flu. Journalists, what we going to do? Slice them up like the Saudis do, slice them up like the Saudis do.

And the crowd joined in. So that was - it was really a song intended to reveal the danger of Trumpism and again, to discuss that theme about, you know, if Trump got in again, would people be ready to imprison or punish enemies of the state, you know? And those enemies of the state were Fauci, journalists, mask-wearers, scientists and Democrats. And so that was really - you know, it was a fun song. It was funny. But it was a little bit like a song I'd done earlier on called "Through The Jew Down The Well" for those who are familiar with "Da Ali G Show." And the idea of that, it was a bygone time when anti-Semitism was, you know, the dark underbelly of society, and people were shocked to hear people sing this chorus, which was (singing) throw the Jew down the well.

And yes, the idea of that was, you know, a form of satire and a warning that these conspiracy theories, that these lies, the hate spread by Trumpism and Trump would ultimately lead to violence.

GROSS: And people were happy to sing along. One of the chorus was, you know, gas them up like the Germans do. So people are gleefully singing along with you. Not included in the film is a video that you later tweeted. One of the event organizers eventually tries to shout you down because he does not approve of this song. You're basically chased off the stage, and then you run into your van, which was maybe an ambulance. I read it was an ambulance, but it looks like a van. And you're trying to escape from what, at this point is, a really angry crowd who are trying to get to you. You're holding - you're inside this van trying to hold the door shut because people angry with you outside are trying to open it because they realize that there's something amiss. I don't know if they realize who you are or what you're up to. Maybe - do you know?

BARON COHEN: Yes. So what happened was people were singing along with the song. And there were groups there who had been trying to undermine the Black Lives Matter protests. As a result, Black Lives Matter had sent a couple of infiltrators there. They had been recording the rally. And in fact, there was a kind of Black Lives Matter protest. They were coming to confront the groups who were present at this rally. Luckily, we got out before that confrontation. So they'd sent a few people ahead. Those people were videoing the rally. They were videoing me. Word spreads that, hold on; this is me, you know?

And then people tried to get me offstage, and eventually the stage was stormed by people who were armed. One of the members who stormed the stage went for his pistol. And luckily, I had a bodyguard who grabbed his arm and whispered in his ear, it's not worth it, buddy, which is apparently what you say to somebody when they're about to shoot somebody. And then I ran off into this ambulance. And so we were surrounded, really, by a bunch of people, an angry mob with guns. And at one point, they tried to pull open the door of the ambulance and pull me out. And then I happened to be lying on the floor at the time.

GROSS: The floor of the van.

BARON COHEN: Yeah. So it's a great question in a physics exam, which is, how can one person keep a door shut? And it was really through leverage. I was using my leg muscles to push against the wall of the van. And with all my weight, I was literally trying to save my life or save myself from extreme injury by keeping the door shut. But, yes, that was a little hairy.

GROSS: Do you ever think, like, well, I understand why they're angry. I was kind of - you know, I was a fake. I was trying to show them as being, you know, like, violent or stupid. I mean, I guess in some ways, like, you have to expect people to be angry with you if they think that you're taking advantage of them.

BARON COHEN: I was not surprised that a gun rights rally where people are heavily armed and fundamentally - and believe in the right to exert violence, extreme lethal violence against those that are trying to take away their rights - I was not surprised that it could end up in violence. I mean, I was wearing a bulletproof vest, and that's only the second time in my career that I've ever done that. But I was told that there was a chance that somebody might try to shoot at me. So, yes, I was very aware that, once the crowd realized that I was a fake, that it could turn really ugly and it could be really dangerous.

GROSS: I'm tempted to say you're crazy (laughter) to take these kinds of risks.

BARON COHEN: No. I must say no. I remember putting on the bulletproof vest before the scene, looking in the mirror of a nearby hotel and just getting into costume. And I looked at myself and thought, I'm - what is going on? You're crazy. You are absolutely crazy. You're putting on a bulletproof vest. And I remember asking the makeup guy, going, do you think I'm going to get shot today? Do you think I'm going to - and he's like, no, no, no, no. OK, well, why am I putting on the bulletproof vest then? He didn't really have an answer.

And I kept on coming back to this feeling. Again, I didn't want to do Borat again. I didn't want to do "Who Is America?" again. I didn't want to go undercover again. I felt I had to do anything I could to remind people of what - in 90 minutes, in a humorous way - of what Trump had done the prior four years. And I felt it was - I had to try and infiltrate his inner circle, which we did do with Rudy Giuliani and Mike Pence. We felt we had to do that. You know, I felt I had to get this movie out before the election. But, yes, maybe I am crazy (laughter).

GROSS: My guest is Sacha Baron Cohen. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Sacha Baron Cohen. He's nominated for three Golden Globes for his two latest movies, "The Trial Of The Chicago Seven" and the new "Borat" sequel, "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm." In the sequel, he returns to America as Borat, a fictional character who interacts with real people who have no idea the character isn't real. In this way, he's able to get people to reveal themselves and their beliefs that are often racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic.

Do you ever feel like what you're doing is in a kind of ethically grey area by telling people one thing that isn't true, by basically lying about who you are and what you're doing and why you're there? Like, how - my impression of you is that you're a very moral person. So what is your compass in figuring out how to handle situations like that and what is just and what is unjustified?

BARON COHEN: I mean, you know, that - those are the discussions that we have in the writers' room continually. You know, is this ethical? What's the purpose of this scene? Is it just to be funny? Is there some satire? Is that satire worth it? You know, and when you're doing stuff like a gun rally, and you're taking - you could get shot, yeah, then morally, it's very clear.

Or if you're undermining one of Trump's inner circle who later, you know - whose sole aim is to undermine the legitimacy of the election, then, yeah, that's moral. I mean, look at what Rudy did post Borat coming out. He spread this big lie that Trump had won the election. And that lie is so dangerous and so misleading that it led to the attack on the Capitol - I mean, and it hasn't ended.

You know, so the morality of seeing how Rudy would react if - when he was alone in a room with an attractive young woman, I think that morality is pretty clear. I think it's evidence of the misogyny that was trumpeted by the president and was almost a badge of honor with his inner circle.

You know, what we did with Rudy was crucial. I mean, we made the movie to have an impact on the election. The movie came out a couple of hours before the final presidential debate. On that day, Rudy Giuliani was in charge of undermining President Biden - well, at that point, he was not President Biden - with this hard drive of material that was supposedly showing that Biden was part of a crime family.

So yes, our movie came out on that day. And instead of Rudy undermining the president - the new president - he was on the back foot explaining why he had his hand down his pants. So ethically, oh, I can stand by that all day long.

Is the movie as a whole ethical? Yes. You know, we did it because there was a deeply unethical government in power. And there was no question as to we had to do what we could to inspire people to vote and remind people of the immorality of the government prior to the election. I think, compared to anything I've ever done before - and, you know, I've been doing this for 22 years - I have no doubt about the morality of this film. Oh, I'm very proud of it.

GROSS: Would you ever do anything like this again - you know, like another undercover movie?

BARON COHEN: No. No, I don't want to. You asked beforehand, are you mad?

GROSS: That's what you said the last time. So why do you - yes (laughter).

BARON COHEN: I think I'd be mad to. I was so angry with what was going on in America. And I'm not an American citizen, but I was scared for America, and I was scared for the rest of the world because I knew that if - I felt that if democracy was completely dismantled in America, then other democracies around the world would follow suit, and other authoritarian leaders would do the same. And I felt I had to take a stand. So no, I can't do this again.

Firstly, just practically, at some point, your luck runs out. You know, escaping from that gun rally - you know, I spoke to the security guard afterwards and he just said, listen, a few seconds later and this could have ended very differently. If I hadn't have had a security guard who luckily grabbed the hand of, you know, somebody who reached for his gun, who knows? Maybe that guy would have tried to shoot me. Maybe he was just waving me to intimidate me. But at some point, your luck runs out. And so I never wanted to do this stuff again (laughter). But no, I can't.

GROSS: Well, Sacha Baron Cohen, thank you so much for coming back on our show and stay safe.

BARON COHEN: Terry, thank you so much for having me back again.

GROSS: Sacha Baron Cohen is nominated for three Golden Globes, two for "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm" and one for his performance as Abbie Hoffman in "The Trial Of The Chicago 7," which has also earned him two SAG nominations. The Globes are this Sunday. The SAG Awards are Sunday, April 4.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Jonathan Cohn, author of the new book "The Ten Year War: Obamacare And The Unfinished Crusade For Universal Coverage." It looks back on the politics of the Affordable Care Act, why it ended up looking the way it did and why those compromises were made, what it tells us about our governing institutions and how it's functioning today. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF YURI YUNAKOV ENSEMBLE'S "9/8")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF YURI YUNAKOV ENSEMBLE'S "9/8") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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