HOLLYWOOD — HOLLYWOOD -- It was a little disconcerting to see Sacha Baron Cohen without his Borat mustache.
When the lanky comedian showed up the other day for his first newspaper interview as himself since the inception of Borat-mania last fall, Cohen looked a little smaller than life, especially compared with the outsize character who caused such a sensation in Borat.
Sipping hot lemon tea at a coffee shop in Santa Monica, Cohen had the air of a man who had shed a layer of skin that had been worn to a frazzle. With a thatch of unruly black hair and a three-day beard, wearing a rumpled corduroy jacket, the 35-year-old comic could pass for a young film professor at the University of California, Los Angeles without attracting a second glance. His thick Kazakh accent was gone, replaced by a sober British purr.
Most comics drop the act when the movie finishes. But for months last fall, wherever he went, Cohen arrived in full Borat drag, taking the Toronto Film Festival by storm, holding a news conference outside the Kazakh embassy in Washington and, while accepting a magazine honor, praising Mel Gibson, saying, "It is you, not me, who should receive this GQ award for anti-Jew warrior of the year."
Still, the burden of being Borat took its toll, especially during months of filming when, to keep up the charade, he was Borat from dawn to dusk.
"It was exhausting," he recalls, slumped in the booth, fighting off a nagging cold. "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. I mean, even if I went to the bathroom, I had to make sure I went to the bathroom as Borat."
He allowed a tiny sliver of a smile. "There would definitely be potpourri in the toilet, so you'd know Borat had been there."
Cohen cleverly created a comic character that provided him free passage for all sorts of outrageous behavior, be it lewd remarks about women, mocking of worshipers at a Pentecostal church or a visit to a gun shop where he asked the proprietor, "What is best gun to defend against Jew?"
Having perfected this sly schtick in television doing Da Ali G Show, where he posed as a gold-chain-encrusted hip-hop dunce, torturing a variety of government officials with wildly inappropriate questions, Cohen has become a master provocateur. Borat - whose persona dates to Ali G - seems uniquely suited to our time.
Cohen's breakthrough is that he presents his comedy in a realistic setting - with recognizable people, people who might live next door, as foils. It gives his bits a barbed authenticity that is often as troubling as it is funny.
Some of the people Cohen and his director, Larry Charles, filmed say their actions were taken out of context, a charge Cohen vehemently denies. "If you saw all of our footage with the gun shop owner, for example, we had a whole conversation about the right gun to use to shoot a Jew's horns off his head."
Nonetheless, a number of people in the movie have complained or filed suit, claiming they were hoodwinked. Cohen isn't exactly sympathetic. "This wasn't Candid Camera," he says. "There were two large cameras in the room. 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."
Borat was produced by Jay Roach (director of Meet the Parents), who likens Cohen's comedy technique to the work of a gifted magician. "You know it's a contrivance and that you're going to be fooled, but then there's this extra layer of reality that takes you past the amazement factor and to a place where you're not even sure that it's a trick anymore," he explains. "Sacha's a real student of comedy, so he's incredibly thorough."
Born into a middle-class family in London, Cohen had early dreams of being a basketball player or a break dancer. He spent a year on a kibbutz as a teenager and was a member of Habonim, a Socialist-Zionist youth movement that he jokes "basically meant that we shared our sweets." He was ambivalent about becoming a performer. "I think I was embarrassed to admit to my friends or myself that I wanted to be a comic - it was sort of like admitting you wanted to be a model."
At Cambridge he read history, spending a summer in the United States researching a dissertation on the prominent role Jews played in the American civil-rights movement titled The Black-Jewish Allies: A Case of Mistaking Identity. As the title suggests, he was already fascinated by the notion that irony and identity play a big role in cultural differences.
Not long after graduating from Cambridge, Cohen found himself drawn to the early hip-hop scene in London, where he became a fan of a hip-hop DJ named Tim Westwood. "I'm sure he helped inspire Ali G," he says. "I'd thought he was black, because he sounded like a New York gangsta, but he was actually a tall, skinny white guy who was the son of a bishop."
Soon Cohen was creating Ali G-style sketches for TV, which spawned the character that became Borat.
By his count, people called the police 37 times during filming of the movie. His closest escape came in Louisiana, when a woman whose family had once been plantation owners was insulted by a question he asked her and instructed her husband to call the police.
"We had 30 seconds to make our getaway in an ice cream truck whose top speed was 50 mph," he recalls. What did he say to insult her? He furrows his brow. "I'm not sure," he finally responds. "But I think I might have been trying to sell her some [Kazakh] slaves."
Patrick Goldstein writes for the Los Angeles Times.