May 21, 2012
Guest: Sacha Baron Cohen
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, actor and writer Sacha Baron Cohen, is famous for taking his characters into the real world, and interacting with people who have no idea that they're dealing with a fictitious character.
He's done it with his characters Ali G, a hip-hop wannabe and clueless TV interviewer; Borat, a misogynistic, anti-Semitic and all-around clueless man from Kazakhstan; and Bruno, an Austrian, gay fashion reporter who comes to America and is, of course, clueless and incredibly inappropriate.
But Baron Cohen's new movie, "The Dictator," is scripted. He plays General Aladeen, the tyrannical ruler of the fictitious North African country Wadiya, who is trying to build a nuclear weapon. NATO has threatened his country with air strikes against the nuclear program unless he addresses the U.N. in person, which is what brings Aladeen to the U.S.
For reasons I won't give away, one of his body doubles is being passed off as General Aladeen, leaving the dictator on his own and, of course, clueless in Manhattan. So he takes a job at a health food store, run by an environmentally dedicated young feminist played by Anna Faris. Here they are right after she's hired him.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE DICTATOR")
ANNA FARIS: (As Zoey) Anyway, let me give you the grand tour. Up on the roof we've got this amazing organic garden, and...
SACHA BARON COHEN: (As Aladeen) Boring. Do you sell any assault rifles?
FARIS: (As Zoey) Oh wait, I got it. Humor, right? I took a feminist clown workshop once. Help, help, I'm trapped under a glass ceiling. I wasn't the best student, but...
BARON COHEN: (As Aladeen) You seem educated.
FARIS: (As Zoey) Yes, I went to Amherst.
BARON COHEN: (As Aladeen) I love it when women go to school. It's like seeing a monkey on roller skates. It means nothing to them, but it's so adorable for us.
GROSS: Sacha Baron Cohen, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Thank you so much for coming back to the show.
BARON COHEN: Thank you for having me back, Terry.
GROSS: So why did you want your next character to be a Middle Eastern dictator?
BARON COHEN: Well, I'll qualify that firstly and say he's a North African dictator. Because they are - dictators are ludicrous characters, and, you know, in my career and in my life, I've always enjoyed sort of inhabiting these ludicrous, larger-than-life characters that somehow exist in the real world. And just looking around, you know, over the last 10 years in particular, I kind of became obsessed Colonel Gadhafi, amongst others, but Gadhafi in particular because he was so over the top.
You know, his dress style was so flamboyant, so ridiculous. In fact it was only - it could only really get to be - get to that level of absurdity by the fact that he was somebody who was unquestioned. You know, it's a bit like when you walk around Los Angeles, and you see some of these stars dressed in a peculiar way, the reason they're dressed like that is that no one actually questions them.
You know, they get to a status where, you know, they are unquestionable. And obviously these dictators become unquestionable and therefore ridiculous, and they become more and more extreme. So Gadhafi with his virgin guards, you know, apparently he had 30 virgin guards who went with him everywhere.
He organized these orgies with Berlusconi. He, you know, is notorious for breaking wind furiously during various...
GROSS: Oh, I didn't know that. Really?
BARON COHEN: Various BBC interviews, yeah.
GROSS: Do they edit that out, or do they leave that in?
BARON COHEN: They actually, they did a little piece on it because after he did the interview, they noticed that he was breaking wind, not only breaking wind but sort of raising himself up before breaking wind in a kind of proud moment of defiance of Western journalistic standards.
So yeah, he was a kind of ludicrous character. I thought wow, he's a good inspiration. And then I sort of mixed that in with a kind of older character I had and took bits and bobs from sort of other dictators.
GROSS: I think there's a little Saddam Hussein in there.
BARON COHEN: A tiny bit, a tiny bit. I mean, Saddam Hussein I never found that ludicrous. You know, he was kind of pure scary to me, and maybe that was just my age when I was kind of watching him on television. But he didn't - he wasn't as laughable as Gadhafi.
Now Gadhafi, I would say when we started writing this film, it was with a few guys from - who write "Curb Your Enthusiasm." And Gadhafi was still alive, the Arab spring hadn't happened at all. And we started writing this idea of what would happen if the worst thing possible happened to this dictator, in other words what's the worst thing that could happen, it would be democracy coming to his country, you know, freedoms coming to his country.
And we were worried because Gadhafi was alive and kicking. So I went and met up with somebody who was quite up in an Arab government. I went on a little tour around some Arab countries. And I just wanted to find out whether there was any problem with us doing a movie loosely based on Gadhafi. And I said to this acquaintance, you know, is Gadhafi still dangerous, and the man answered yes, he tried to kill my father.
And then I said, well, is he still killing people, and he was saying yes. And I said, well, all right, you know, what happens if there's a problem, and he tries to somehow jeopardize the making of the film because we thought, you know, we didn't know how far his reach extended. Obviously, you know, Lockerby was a few years beforehand, but you never really want to risk an international terrorist incident while you're actually filming.
And he said, you know, this guy said if there was a problem that he'd try and sort it out. But then obviously events changed. So as a result of that, we released this statement saying that it was based on a book by Saddam Hussein in order to kind of slightly mislead the public and allow us to shoot the film.
GROSS: Saddam was - Saddam Hussein was gone already. But I think you did kind of capture some of Saddam Hussein's verbal grandiosity.
BARON COHEN: Yes, well, there was one other part, which is Saddam Hussein was a fan and kept this sort of plethora of bizarre art, often sort of slightly erotic, sort of fantasy art. And so we used some of that kind of imagery. We had a brilliant production designer in this called Victor Kimpster(ph), who did sort of "Born on the Fourth of July" and a lot of those Oliver Stone movies and done - had some great credits.
And, you know, I said him: Listen, we want to create this new country that is not quite in the Middle East, it's not quite in Africa, but, you know, it has elements of Gadhafi, it has elements of the United Arab Emirates, it has elements of Turkmenistan. We don't want it to be specific, but we want it to feel real.
So, you know, from Saddam Hussein we certainly got some of that visual style.
GROSS: One of the things you stay away from in "The Dictator" is religion. We don't know if this dictator is Muslim. There's no mention of Islam, there's no mention of the prophet Muhammad, and that's a good thing, I think, because I don't think it's - I mean, Muslims are very offended by anything that parodies the religion but also especially it's considered sacrilege to, you know, parody in any way the prophet. Did you intentionally try to avoid that so as not to be misunderstood, so as not to insult people who you had no interest in insulting?
BARON COHEN: Exactly. I mean, firstly again, he's not an Arab dictator, and he actually says that he isn't in the movie. And so we wanted to really ensure that he was not Arabic in any way. So we created a new language - well, I say that, but he actually speaks at times in Hebrew, which would be strange for...
GROSS: Like Borat.
BARON COHEN: Exactly, which would be strange for an Arabic dictator. And we created a new alphabet, which was actually a form of Manchu, which is a dialect, Chinese dialect. And we wanted to make sure the architecture was, you know, not exactly Arabic, as well. So we wanted it to be Arabesque but have influences of Africa and other dictatorships, as well.
And in terms of the religion, you know, he's not a Muslim. His religion is himself. You know, he's turned himself into a demigod. You know, and also we wanted to really make it clear particularly after the Arab spring that this was in no way a parody of Arabs. This was a parody of people who oppress Arabs and people who oppress other people around the world.
So that was kind of really crucial, you know, for me to, you know, put out there to show that, you know, that we do support, you know, the rights of people to be free, whatever their religion.
GROSS: So you mentioned that the language that you're speaking, and some of this is actually Hebrew, you come up with a word, and I don't know if this is a Hebrew word or a made-up word for the female genitals, which is something like Melawach
BARON COHEN: Melawach?
BARON COHEN: Melawach is actually - I think it's a fried bread, which you can order in any Yemenite restaurant.
GROSS: OK, and you chose that because?
BARON COHEN: Well, it was just easy to remember because I actually enjoy eating Melawach.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BARON COHEN: And I mean the - I'm sorry, I mean the Yemenite bread. I feel I've somehow dug a hole.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BARON COHEN: Anyway, you know what I mean. But I do enjoy Yemenite cuisine, and that's not a euphemism.
GROSS: Do you get any criticisms from Hebrew-speaking people for using Hebrew in your movies and passing it off as the language of the oppressor or the language of - yeah?
BARON COHEN: Well, when - during the premiere of "Borat" in Israel, they had a screening, and about two-thirds of the way through, somebody shouted in the back row, you know, (unintelligible), which means he's speaking Hebrew. And at that point, the whole audience erupted in applause. You know, I think they loved it, you know, the irony.
I do like the irony of Borat, a deeply anti-Semitic character, speaking Hebrew, and this guy, who is the - you know, wants to annihilate Israel, is also speaking Hebrew.
GROSS: My guest is Sacha Baron Cohen. He co-wrote and stars in the new movie "The Dictator." More after a break; this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: So if you're just joining us, my guest is Sacha Baron Cohen, and his new movie is "The Dictator," and he plays a North African dictator in this one. So this is the first time that you have a character who comes to America, and it's scripted. You know, Bruno's come to America, Ali G's come to America, Borat's come to America, but that has been your character coming and actually talking to real people who didn't know who the characters were and didn't know that they were, you know, made-up characters.
So what are some of the differences for you - first of all, why did you do this as a scripted film? My assumption would be because it was unsafe to do it any other way at this point, between how famous you are now, more people are in on the joke, lawsuits, you've risked your life in other films for the joke. So I assume that's among the reasons why this one's scripted.
BARON COHEN: That's it, and the biggest one was a creative one. We actually just thought we could make a better movie if it had a script and, you know, didn't involve real people. I think pulling off, pulling off a kind of fake documentary of me being a, you know, actual dictator would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible because, you know, we got away with it on "Borat" because Kazakhstan was a real country. So you could say I'm from Kazakhstan National Television, and people would look up Kazakhstan, and it existed.
But if I came this time and said I'm from Wadiya, they'd, you know, look it up and realize it didn't exist, and if I said listen, I'm the dictator of Turkmenistan or, you know, or Libya, they could look it up on Wikipedia and realize that I'm not. So it would have been impossible to, you know, have this real story.
And also we wanted to have a love story in it because, you know, it's really the transformation of, you know, this dictator becomes humanized. You know, he's inhuman, he's amoral at the beginning, and he does change a little bit over time. So we knew we needed a woman to do that. In Bruno's case, it was a man, but in this case we knew that we needed somebody to transform him a little bit, and that would have been impossible in a non-scripted film.
Plus it had got extremely dangerous. On "Bruno," I remember towards the end, you know, we loved the experience. But I did say to the team, you know, at some point we've got to stop because you can only be so lucky, and we'd been incredibly lucky by - you know, no one had been seriously injured.
You know, I broke my foot, but that was about it. I broke my foot and my thumb, and that was about it. But we were very close a lot of times to, you know, sustaining real injuries and not just me, the crew as well. You know, there was a lot of kind of very violent situations, and we were antagonizing a lot of people who were armed, which we hadn't really dealt with in "Borat."
But with "Bruno," we felt that because he was sort of more of an unlikeable figure in a way that you would have to put him in slightly more dangerous situations and situations of homophobia. And, you know, in a lot of places where we were dealing with homophobes, a lot of those guys were armed. And so it became - you know, we were very lucky that there wasn't really a problem.
GROSS: I remember you talking about you breaking your thumb. What happened to your foot?
BARON COHEN: Well, OK, this is what happened to my foot. I was in Kansas. There's a scene in "Bruno" where I am wearing S&M gear, and I'm chained up to my boyfriend, and he has a toilet brush in his mouth that is kind of strapped there. And anyway, we're chained up together. We were shooting it in this hotel room, and we, like, called up room service.
And the guy comes in, room service, and the room is in a despicable state. There are animals in certain drawers, and it looks pretty disgusting, and me and my boyfriend are, you know, semi-naked in S&M gear tied up together. And, you know, I'm saying: Do you mind, you know, can you give us the room service? Do you mind unchaining us?
And basically the guy called the police, and we were in Kansas. We'd had some problems with the police beforehand, and the local police had decided that they wanted to arrest me. And they'd warned me beforehand if we did anything in Kansas, they'd arrest us because I'd just done this - just done this scene with a group called the rather unpleasant and offensive name of God Hates Fags, who are run by the Phelps family.
And they are the people who protest at the funerals of soldiers who have returned from Iraq. They're quite a despicable group. And so I had done some stuff to slightly antagonize them, and I shot a scene with them, and the police had kind of warned me that they'd come and arrest me.
So this guy, back to the hotel room, the room service guy brought up the manager, the manager called the police, and so we knew we had about five minutes to get out of the hotel before the police turned up, and then I'd be arrested.
So I was chained to my co-star, and we had an English bodyguard. This guy said: All right, let's go, come on, everybody out, everybody out. And me and my co-star start running down the corridor, and we went towards the elevator, and we've got - you know, we always have like an escape car waiting, you know, a getaway car. It's like any good heist.
And so the getaway car is waiting 14 stories down in the alleyway. And so we get to the elevator, and the elevator is closing, and then suddenly their - the hotel security stopped the elevator from closing. And so we have to run out of the elevator, and we start running down the stairs.
And basically the bodyguard gets - hears in his earpiece that the police are downstairs waiting for me. And so he says: All right, follow me, follow me. And we start running, you know, down this corridor, and you see, like, other hotel guests looking at us. And he's - I go: Where are we going? He goes: Just follow me, follow me.
And we get to the end of the corridor, to the window, and he lifts open the window. And I said: Why are you doing that? He says: Get out, get out the window. Jump out. So I look outside the window, and we're 14 stories up, and it's a building from I think 1910, and there's an old, rickety fire escape there. And so he said, come on, go, go, go, the police are going to get you. Come on.
So we start running down this rickety fire escape 14 stories up. We get down to the second floor, and as with a lot of these old fire escapes, they don't reach the floor. So we're two stories up, and the getaway car is - you know, I can see the getaway car. And I said: How do we get down? He goes: Jump, jump.
And so I jumped, wearing these high heels, while I was still attached to my friend, and broke my heel and then, you know, got in the car, and we kind of - we left the state because that was always the rule, which was, you know, those police, if you're ever - if there's ever a warrant for your arrest, they've only got jurisdiction in the state.
So - but when I got back to the hotel, I filmed another day, and then I realized there was something wrong with my foot, and it had been cracked, the heel had been cracked.
GROSS: That sounds really horrible. And it reminds me of something that Jerry Seinfeld was quoted as saying in the New York Times, in an article about you.
BARON COHEN: Was he in S&M gear, as well?
GROSS: That's not what he was saying. What he was saying was he thinks that your comedy comes from a place of courage, and his comes from a place of fear. But you really have to be brave to do - and maybe crazy to take those kinds of chances.
BARON COHEN: I don't know if I'm brave. Yeah, I mean, I don't know if I'm brave. I think I think in the moment. So when I'm in character, I'm in character, and I'm obviously thinking about what's going on around me, but it's easier to do stuff when you're in character.
GROSS: Sacha Baron Cohen will be back in the second half of the show. He co-wrote and stars in the new movie "The Dictator." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Sacha Baron Cohen. He co-wrote and stars in the new movie "The Dictator." He plays General Aladeen, the tyrannical ruler of the fictitious North African country, Wadiya. "The Dictator" is scripted but Baron Cohen's previous films, "Borat" and "Bruno," were not. He took those characters, as well as his TV character Ali G, into the real world, feeling his interactions with unsuspecting people.
When we left off, he was telling us about running from the police while in character as Bruno. It's just one of dozens of encounters Baron Cohen's had with police in the U.S.
Note to parents: Some of his comedy is very adult.
Are there states that you can no longer shoot a movie in because you're still wanted by the police there because of things that you did in previous films?
BARON COHEN: Yes. There are some towns in certain states. There was, funny enough, years ago, when I started doing "Da Ali G Show," we went to Sedona in Arizona and I was, you know, this was the first "Ali G Show," I'd never really been in America before - I'd been once before - and I was doing a guide to the New Age and I went to see this guy and he was going to try and heal me and each time he kept, he goes, you know, he goes you've got to relax, man, you've got to relax, and I was being incredibly tense. I go - I try to relax. I try. And he goes, no, no, no. He goes you've got to relax, man. You've got to relax. And then he goes, listen, I'm going to give you five minutes to be alone. I'm going to come back in the room. It was this kind of hippie healer. He goes, when I come back in the room I want you to be relaxed.
So he came back in the room after five minutes and I was simulating under the blanket and I go, I relax. I relax. And this hippie got incredibly angry. It turned out he was an ex-biker turned healer and he and his biker friends went crazy, they called the police, and so we made a run for it. We got to the next place and anyway, I'm in a van by myself. All the rest of the crew are down setting up the next, the next group of people that we were going to interview. I'm alone in the van. Suddenly three police cars turn up and they surround the van and they asked me to get out. So I get out of a van and one of the cops says, you know, tell me, sir, what were you doing? I go, it's not the problem. I was making simulations sexy time. They seized the tapes and they said all right, you know, stay here and we're going to come to your hotel in half an hour and then take you to the police station. And so I went back to the hotel, I gathered the crew, and I called up my lawyer and I said, what do I do? And he said get in the car and drive as fast as you can to the airport and get out of the state. Because he knew that we, you know, there was no way out; you know, they have the evidence and it would be, I was going to be in jail for a couple of years. So yeah, so yes, Sedona I have not returned to since.
GROSS: Well, I could definitely see why you're doing scripted movies now.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BARON COHEN: Yeah.
GROSS: In the don't push your luck category. Yeah.
BARON COHEN: I've got to say, I do miss some of the fun. I miss it a little bit.
GROSS: Well, it must be so weird not to have, I assume like you have permits to shoot on the street and you might have police protecting you as opposed to police trying to arrest you. That must be a new feeling for you.
BARON COHEN: Yes. I mean there was a time, you know, I got so used to the police turning up. You know, with "Borat" I think they came about 45 times. Sometimes it was the police, then the FBI were following us for a while. They thought that - they had so many complaints that there was a Middle Eastern man, and this was Borat, who is supposedly from Kazakhstan, a Middle Eastern man driving through America in an ice cream van, that the FBI assigned a team to us. And so we had the FBI and then we had the Secret Service. But there were so many of these instances, and with "Bruno" as well, that for a while it would take about six months afterwards for me not to totally freak out whenever I saw a policeman. And so it was totally bizarre shooting "The Dictator," to actually have cops protecting me. It was...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BARON COHEN: ...quite ironic. And you know...
GROSS: So were any of the police who were part of the let's arrest him chapter of your life the same people who are protecting you for "The Dictator"?
BARON COHEN: No. No.
BARON COHEN: No, I don't think so. I don't think so. I mean a lot of the cops loved it, you know.
BARON COHEN: But, I mean there was one time during the filming of "The Dictator," there's one shot where we are just driving down the street and I suddenly saw a bunch of police around a hotel room; I said all right, wait a minute, stop the car, and it turned out that Ahmadinejad was staying at the hotel. And I said, all right, great. We've got to shoot something here. And so basically Ahmadinejad's convoy arrived and, you know, it's a bit of the movie where The Dictator is down and out in New York on the street and no one recognizes him because he's had his beard shaved off. And so I was there saying, you know, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, it's me. I've still got your tennis shorts. What are you doing? It's me. Ahmadine, where are you? You know, my friend, (unintelligible), you know, you are my doubles badminton partner, why you're not responding?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BARON COHEN: Anyway, the police were so scared. They all were fans and they were, you know, they were saying listen, please don't ruin this for us. We've got, you know, they've asked, you know, the Iran government have asked us to look after Ahmadinejad. Said, you know, if you cross the street we will have to arrest you. So there is a, there's a shot in the movie that is, that we use. You see me surrounded by five cops and those guys are real.
GROSS: And they...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: And they didn't arrest you.
BARON COHEN: No, they didn't arrest me but they made it clear if I was going to cross the road that they'd arrest me. So, and I've got this thing where I can't get arrested in America, otherwise my visa then becomes taken away from me.
BARON COHEN: Which, if you want to get rid of me, anyone, just arrest me and then I'm out of the country.
GROSS: Duly noted.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: So, if you're just joining us, my guest is Sacha Baron Cohen, and his new movie is called "The Dictator," and it's a very funny film in which he plays a North African dictator of a fictitious country. Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Sacha Baron Cohen, who did the movies "Bruno" and "Borat," "Da Ali G Show," and his new movie is "The Dictator." And it's a comedy about a dictator of a North African fictitious country.
So the movie is scripted, but in promoting the movie you did things that were just in character, and this was really hysterical, when the Academy Awards people - I guess it's the National Academy of Arts and Sciences?
BARON COHEN: Yes.
GROSS: When you were told that he couldn't show up in character for the red carpet, you did a really hysterical video in character in your full dictator regalia with your virgin bodyguards protecting you. And I'm going to play the clip of - we'll just hear the audio of that video that you did.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
BARON COHEN: (as General Aladeen) Good morning, great Satan of America. How are you? I am fine. Thank you. On behalf of the nation of Wadiya, I am outraged at being banned from the Oscars by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Zionists. While I applaud the Academy for taking the lead my right to free speech, I warn you that if you do not lift your sanctions and give me my tickets back by 12:00 p.m. on Sunday, you will face unimaginable consequences. Furthermore, it is an act of aggression that nobody in films have been recognized by the Academy. Where are the nominations for such classic films as "When Harry Kidnapped Sally," "You've Got Mail Bomb" or "Planet of the Rapes"? On top of all this, I paid Hilary Swank $2 million to be my date and she will not refund a penny. My Sunday calendar is now as empty as a North Korean grocery store. But whatever happens, I still plan to attend director Brett Ratner's after party, since it's impossible to catch herpes twice. Death to the West. Death to America. And good luck, Billy Crystals(ph) . You're fantastic. How was that? Did I sound crazy enough?
GROSS: that Sasha Baron Cohen in character as The Dictator after he was banned from the Oscars. Why were you banned in character?
BARON COHEN: I don't know. I mean I'll tell why I was invited. I was invited to the Oscars originally because I did this movie "Hugo" with Martin Scorsese and the movie got nominated for a few awards. And so I think he was quite an unprecedented thing that the Academy essentially banned me from coming with a beard on. And...
GROSS: And this was to the red carpet and to the Oscars?
BARON COHEN: Yes.
BARON COHEN: Yes. I was not allowed to come. So the head of the...
GROSS: Could you have come yourself or just not come in character?
BARON COHEN: They said I could come as myself. Yes. But The Dictator was not to be dictated to.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BARON COHEN: So, but the head of the Academy called my up agent and threatened him and it became kind of like a, you know, semi kind of mafia-like threat of, you know, if I turned up within half a mile of the Oscars, he said that I would be arrested by one of the 250 plainclothes FBI officers that were, you know, under his command, which kind of was ludicrous. And then, you know, everyone who knew me was being, you know, called up telling, you know, saying convince Sacha not to turn up. This is, you know, he's taking it too far now. This is the Academy Awards. It's one thing taking the mick out of terrorists but, you know, doing it out of the Academy Awards, that really is, he's gone too far now. So yeah, you know, they reached Martin Scorsese, they, you know, they tried to get everyone to prevent me, you know, to turn up. They called the studio. They said that there would be repercussions for my career in Hollywood, that I would, you know, there'd be repercussions for the film "Hugo." And so - so I issued that statement.
GROSS: Well, you used the opportunity to release like a really funny video which ended up promoting the film very effectively, but you defied the Academy. You actually showed up in character as The Dictator on the red carpet. How did you decide to defy them?
BARON COHEN: Well, they actually capitulated. I mean I put the video out saying that they had until 12:00 and it was obviously, it was a kind of jokey threat, but they actually gave in and they gave, handed me back my two tickets. So...
GROSS: OK. So what you did was, you were talking to Ryan Seacrest, who was doing, you know, the red carpet stuff and, you know, broadcasting from the red carpet, and he was interviewing you and you explained that you had Kim Jong Il's ashes in the urn and that like, oops, you accidentally spill them all over his beautiful tuxedo jacket. And I think you've explained that the, quote, "ashes" were actually flour and baking flour.
BARON COHEN: Yes. Yes. It was flour. And then I was showing him the irony that the urn was actually made in South Korea. And so I lifted it up and it spilled on him.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: So I kept trying to put myself in Ryan Seacrest's shoes because it was a very funny stunt. At the same time I'm thinking like, god, this is like his big night. It's almost like, you know, in the movie "Carrie" when she's like, she's finally like, she's prom queen, they like her after all and then she has the pig blood spilled on her. Did you worry like you were going to ruin his night and maybe the flour wasn't going to come out of the jacket and he'd have to be on like global television with a stained jacket for the rest of the evening?
BARON COHEN: Well, I think that's why it was flour rather than something that could stain, and that's why it was something that you could really brush off. And also, that's also the reason, you know, I was, you know, sitting with my co-writer and we were saying, you know, who do we - who do we spill it on, and we only came up with the idea the night before. And, you know, we thought, you know, do we do it on Clooney or Brad Pitt? And I thought no, we can't do it on them because that really is their big night, you know, that is, you know, Hollywood is celebrating them for the, you know, their, you know, achievement in movies.
You know, really the journalists on the red carpet are just there to, you know, talk about what suit you're wearing and what, you know, and promote various fashion labels. So to cover a suit that was given by a fashion label with a bit of flour that could be brushed off we thought wasn't really such a terrible thing. And also, after the actual event, I sent him a new jacket that was identical with a little label inside, which said made in the Republic of Widya by child slavery.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: Any regrets about anything you've done in character that looking back you think did cross the line and was maybe like hurtful in a way you didn't want to be or inappropriate in a way that you did expect it to be?
BARON COHEN: There's always a discussion before anything is done. It's, you know, me and my co-writer or, you know, this can be co-writers, and we sit around and discuss the morality of a particular act. You know, is the subject worthy of, you know, having an hour of their time wasted? Or - and if something worse is happening, you know, then, you know, for example, the hunters in Arkansas, when I'm Bruno and I'm coming onto them, you know, and being flirtatious with them, which really isn't such a terrible thing. If a woman was being flirtatious with a man, I don't think a man would get extremely upset; he might blush. But - so there was no real logical reason why a man being flirtatious with another man should get a man incredibly upset unless the subject exhibited some deep-rooted homophobia. So, you know, when it's something like that, we do always question the morality. And, for example, if a woman was pregnant or, you know, there was somebody who was poor or somebody who was undeserving, you know, I'm certainly much more reluctant to do anything, and those people would be ruled out.
And, you know, if you look at the Ali G show and you look at generally the people who I interview, they tend to be white, wealthy, powerful males, you know, in positions of extreme influence.
GROSS: My guest is Sacha Baron Cohen and his new movie is "The Dictator." So in addition to your movie late last year there was "Hugo," Martin Scorsese's movie which is based on a book about, you know, a children's or a young adolescent's novel about the rediscovery of the very early filmmaker, George Melies.
And I'm just thinking what it must've been like for you to not only be in character but to be in somebody else's character. It's not a character you created. It's not something you have a lot of control over, and also you probably have to do a lot of takes, as you would in any movie, not only to get it right but just to get, you know, get it from different angles which the film director will need, you know, coverage.
Do you have the patience for that? Since you're so into, for lack of a better word, you know, like, guerilla filmmaking.
BARON COHEN: Yes, I did. I mean, the great thing with that movie was that Scorsese allowed me to create the character - and that was part of the reason why he wanted me to do the movie. In the book and in the script the character didn't really exist much. It was quite a two-dimensional character, and he, you know, he said what can we do with this.
So I said, you know, let's give him a fake leg. Sorry, let's give him - originally I said let's give him a fake leg because it was a 3D movie and I thought it'd be quite nice to have in the first chase scene to have something knock my leg and my leg to fly off into the audience.
Then we realized that was impractical and, you know, we gave him a sort of gamey leg. And then, you know, I said, you know, what would be nice would be is it possible to have a love story? And so we kind of developed that and we kind of developed this back story together. I mean, he's an incredible - he's not only probably the greatest film director in the world, he is totally egoless and a total collaborator.
And part of the reason I agreed to do that movie, is I knew I was going to make "The Dictator." I knew it was a different genre and I knew I had to learn how to make a real movie. And so I said, you know, Marty, if I make this movie do you mind if I sit by your side and ask you a variety of inane and, you know, often idiotic questions about how to make a movie?
And he said fine. And I ended up sitting next to him by the monitor watching how he directed. And it was inspirational. So I just loved it. I actually, you know, loved every second on that set.
GROSS: What's a kind of question you asked him?
BARON COHEN: Well, I would ask basic stuff like - because there's so much improvisation on my movies, you know, because it's a scripted movie but, you know, we improvise a lot. So, you know, we do a couple of takes that are scripted and then half an hour of improvisation.
So I said how do we make it an interesting shot? And he said, well, you know, I said how do we get any movement to the camera while we're improvising? Because often, comedies can be very, very static. And he said, well, he goes, you know, there's a method that Kurosawa uses which is you put two cameras, you put them on sticks and then you put them on dollies and then you keep on moving them around.
And so, you know, he knows every movie that's been made since the beginning of cinema and actually in every continent, and he's memorized every single movie. So it was incredible. He was giving me incredibly obscure movies to look at, which inspired me for the character in "Hugo" and inspired me for "The Dictator."
And I kept on asking him about it, and also asking the other people on set how I would, you know - I basically abused everyone on set and abuse the fact that they were sitting ducks for six months.
GROSS: Well, Sacha Baron Cohen, it's been great to have you back. Thank you so much for coming back to our show.
BARON COHEN: Thank you having me back. Thank you for letting me speak for so long.
GROSS: Sacha Baron Cohen co-wrote and stars in the new movie "The Dictator." Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews the first studio album by singer/songwriter John Fullbright. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: John Fullbright is an Oklahoma singer/songwriter in his early 20s who's just released his first studio album called "From the Ground Up." Raised in Woody Guthrie's hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma, Fullbright has been the opening act for performers as various as Jimmy Webb and Joe Ely, and our rock critic Ken Tucker says he's more than ready for headliner status.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ME WANTING YOU")
JOHN FULLBRIGHT: (Singing) This is not reflection. Reflection is true. This is just me, me wanting you. Sweet silver memories...
KEN TUCKER: John Fullbright's voice rises up and around the guitar chords on that song, "Me Wanting You," his tone intended to haunt the person he's addressing. His desire, his me wanting you, is as direct as he can possibly make it. It's not a cry of despair or hope or lust, it's the sound of someone intent on making as strong a connection with the listener as he possibly can.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GAWD ABOVE")
FULLBRIGHT: (Singing) Six long days, seven day he rested. Said there's one sure way humans can be bested. Give them wine and song, fire and lust. When it all goes wrong I'm the man to trust. And now you're all my own, all mine together. Well, you sing my praise, sing my name forever. I am gawd above, lord gawd almighty.
TUCKER: For a guy who's not yet 25 years old, Fullbright sounds as though he's lived through a lot, or at least thought it through. Speaking in the voice of God as he does on that song called "Gawd Above," Fullbright doesn't seem like a callow youth overreaching for profundity.
Here and on other songs on the appropriately titled "From the Ground Up," Fullbright is building the foundation for his method: acoustic guitar and piano, mostly, with vocals that are conversationally inflected whenever they don't build into a strangled yowl. And occasionally, he'll work an actual hook into a song if it doesn't strike him as unseemly.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
FULLBRIGHT: (Singing) Old man broke down on the side of the road. Stop and see if maybe I can lighten his load. Well, he opened the door and he thanked me in kind. Told me the words that would open my mind. He said don't worry about gasoline because we're moving. Don't worry about the TV screen 'cause we're moving. Don't worry about the bombs that fall 'cause we're moving. Don't worry about nothing at all 'cause we're moving.
TUCKER: The limitation of sparsely arranged material like this is that it can rely too heavily on words, lyrics that don't hold up to close philosophical or metrical scrutiny. There's a bit of that here, most notably in Fullbright's game but thin variation on early-period Randy Newman, called "Fat Man."
And, speaking of Randy Newman, Fullbright could use more humor. But there's no doubt that he's an up-and-comer moving in the right direction; it's a good sign when you get 11 cuts into an album and the quality remains high, as it does with "Daydreamer."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DAYDREAMER")
FULLBRIGHT: (Singing) You men spend a lot of time looking down at the ground. Looking down when they pray. Looking down every day. Dreamers know that the finer things wait up in the air. But young men are proud; sometimes dreaming ain't allowed. Dreaming...
TUCKER: There's an unassuming sureness to John Fullbright's best songs. He's an Oklahoma kid who's not pushing his Okie authenticity down your ears. Instead, he already knows how to pull back, to establish a mood and then fill it in with details, both verbal and musical, that draw you into his world, and make you momentarily forget your own.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed John Fullbright's new album "From the Ground Up." You can download podcasts of our show on our website freshair.npr.org.
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