Not only is Sacha Baron Cohen the premier in-character satirist of this era, he’s peerless. An incendiary genius, Baron Cohen is the only person in the world doing what he does at the level at which he does it. Whether it’s as Borat, Brüno, or any one of his any other onscreen alter egos, Baron Cohen's comedy works not because he tricks the people he’s interviewing into saying horrific, racist, sexist, xenophobic garbage, but because he makes them feel safe enough to say their worst opinions out loud, on camera.
His fearlessness in making serious people look silly has earned him a global audience, an appropriate amount of outrage, plenty of headlines, an Oscar nomination and, coming soon, a sequel to Borat. Here are 10 facts about the man behind the mustaches.
1. Sacha Baron Cohen started out as a model.
After graduating Christ’s College, Cambridge, Sacha Baron Cohen briefly worked as a fashion model before hosting low-paying local and regional TV shows in the early 1990s. Obviously is was good prep for crafting the stylish Brüno, who infiltrated Milan, Madrid, and Paris Fashion Weeks.
2. Sacha Baron Cohen once hawked French fries in a commercial for McCain's.
Like a lot of people in the entertainment industry (Hi, bank enthusiast Tina Fey!), Baron Cohen also appeared in a commercial before getting his big break. Far from embarrassing, though, the pun-heavy, absurdist pitch for microwavable French fries (“chips” if you’re English) would fit in well in today’s manic advertising age. Baron Cohen played a chef for about a nanosecond of screen time (as seen above).
3. Sacha Baron Cohen owes his success to a clown.
And not just any clown—but one of the best clowns in the business. Baron Cohen studied with the legendary Philippe Gaulier in Paris. Gaulier is known for his rigid deadpan, frizzy hair, and heartlessly brutal feedback. A post-fame Baron Cohen—who credits Gaulier for his success—returned to the clowning school on its 20th anniversary to perform in workshops. “He was so boring," Gaulier said of his former pupil. "But being boring is normal. Sometimes you have to be boring before you can discover something new.”
4. Sacha Baron Cohen idolizes Peter Sellers.
Fans of both Baron Cohen and Peter Sellers will immediately see the connection between the two performers. Sellers made a mark dramatically transforming himself into a multitude of comic characters: the farcical, naive Inspector Clouseau; the shrieking, alien hand syndrome sufferer Dr. Strangelove; the television-brained Chance the gardener in Being There. All feature DNA that could morph into Baron Cohen’s characters. Baron Cohen said that Sellers was the “most seminal force in shaping his early ideas on comedy,” and he has been favorably compared to the late comedy master.
5. Sacha Baron Cohen's early stunts involved making people think he wasn't the interviewer.
How does Baron Cohen catch so many people off-guard? In the early days of being Ali G, he’d carry equipment in with the crew and do idiotic warm-up interview questions with his subjects while a sharply dressed colleague stood nearby. Subjects would assume the guy in the suit was the interviewer, and then the cameras would roll with Ali G still in the interviewer’s chair. This is, of course, after everyone has signed release forms.
6. A lot of people have threatened to sue Sacha Baron Cohen, and several have.
Baron Cohen has almost always had lawyers and producers guiding what’s in and out of bounds, but it’s no surprise that he’s been slapped with lawsuits by several people. After Borat, the Kazakhstan government threatened a suit (Baron Cohen responded by encouraging them in character as Borat), and the Romanian village where he shot his “Kazakhstan” segments wasn't pleased about being lied to either. He’s been sued by frat boys, a bingo hall employee, and a Palestinian grocer. The first two cases were dismissed, and the third was settled out of court.
7. THE FBI HAD A FILE ON BORAT.
Baron Cohen grew accustomed to the police showing up to his projects early on, but the FBI also got involved during the Borat shoot. “The FBI were following us for a while,” Baron Cohen told NPR. “They had so many complaints that there was a Middle Eastern man ... driving through America in an ice cream van that the FBI assigned a team to us.”
8. Sacha Baron Cohen is almost always in character.
Part of Baron Cohen’s ability to avoid cracking during hide-under-the-carpet awkward moments is that he goes method, remaining in character regardless of whether cameras are rolling. That means he’s Borat or Brüno or someone else ridiculous during production meetings, while being questioned by the Secret Service after being pulled over outside the White House, or while an angry mob of rodeo fans are threatening to kill him.
9. Sacha Baron Cohen rarely appear in public as himself.
Focus on his characters has afforded the extremely private Baron Cohen a shield against those who would snoop into his real life. Almost all of his red carpet appearances are in character (which he frequently uses in the art itself), and he spent years giving remarkably few interviews without the put-on. During his rise to fame, Rolling Stone boasted having “the only interview as himself.” “I think that essentially I’m a private person, and to reconcile that with being famous is a hard thing,” Baron Cohen said. “So, I’ve been trying to have my cake and eat it, too—to have my characters be famous yet still live a normal life where I’m not trapped by fame and recognizability.”
10. Sacha Baron Cohen lied about adapting a romance novel written by Saddam Hussein to avoid being targeted by a dictator.
When Baron Cohen and Larry Charles were developing The Dictator, they were worried that the main influence for his Admiral General Aladeen character, Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi, would react violently to being the butt of the joke. To skew attention away from the satirical target during filming, they fed media outlets the story that the movie was based on the romance novel Zabibah and the King, written by Saddam Hussein (and published anonymously).
No violence occurred because of the movie, but Baron Cohen was banned from filming at the United Nations because, as he claimed officials said, “We represent a lot of dictators, and they are going to be very angry by this portrayal of them, so you can’t shoot here.”
This story has been updated for 2020.