Since his emergence on Channel 4 in 2000, Sacha Baron Cohen has entertained and shocked the world with his unpredictable antics, as he impersonated three distinct personalities: youth show host and wannabe rapper “Ali G;” sexist, racist and homophobic Kazakhstan TV personality “Borat;” and flamboyantly gay Austrian fashion reporter “Bruno.” His creations shared a similar modus operandi of cornering unsuspecting interview subjects and pushing boundaries of their psychological comfort.
Now too famous to delude the public with his reality-show ambushes, he is assuming the fictional character of Admiral General Aladeen, the despotic tyrant of a fictional eastern African nation of Wadiya, in his new movie The Dictator.
In The Dictator, Aladeen, who is loosely based on the late Libyan dictator Gaddafi, comes to New York to address the United Nations, but he gets betrayed by his uncle, Tamir (Ben Kingsley) and eventually winds up working in an organic health-food store and falling for a left-wing lesbian (Anna Faris).
Invariably, the British satirist’s embodiment of his characters continues off-screen, unflinchingly maintaining their boorish and politically incorrect points of view on talk shows, press conferences and awards shows. But with no man on the street to fool, this time he turns the promotion of The Dictator into a performance art.
The 40-year-old comes to meet the world’s media at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel fully in character, dressed in a uniform of extravagant gold epaulettes and numerous battle ribbons and wearing a lush beard and sunglasses. Hired supporters and opponents demonstrates outside the hotel. His supporters shouted “Give persecution a chance!” while his opponents shouted epithets at him.
Even the press room has been transformed to fit the occasion, posters of Aladeen and the colourful flags of Wadeiya covered the walls and a rug adorned with the shapes of people having sex in various positions laid on the floor. And before he enters the room, he demands that we rise to show respect for his leadership.
Flanked by scantly clad in khaki and submachine gun-equipped “virgins, whose virginity is checked every night by the head of his penis,” Aladeen ambles into the room smiling imperiously, before he brandishes a golden pistol in the air and shouts “Death to the West, Death to America!”
Taking the stage, he insists on being addressed Supreme Leader. “You don’t ask any difficult questions, you write good reviews, your families will be safe,” he warns in a crude middle-eastern accent.
Soon the interview spins off into absurdity as he throws jibes at world leaders and their countries, applauding Germany for being the home of the great dictators and pillorying its leader, Angela Merkel, for its “disgusting” look. “Maybe Merkel should save up and have a sex change and become a woman,” he laughs.
The Australian Prime Minister doesn’t fare any better in his eyes. “She makes Angela Merkel look like Heidi Klum,” he laughs.
He also claims that 30,000 Filipinos live in Wadiya. “They come, they look after the children, clean the shit. I love them; they are natural slaves.”
He continues making other preposterous claims such as building a pipeline from Hungary to Wadiya so all the prostitutes can come in easier. “Who should I negotiate with? Do you know a Hungarian pimp?” he asks.
In the movie, the walls of Aladeen’s palaces are seen plastered with thousands of nude photos of himsels and his sexual conquests: many of them are celebrities including Megan Fox, whom we witness having sex with him. “She became pregnant a few months ago and she is blaming it on me, but it’s impossible. This would be the world’s first ever anal conception,” he laughs.
Other than indulging himself in carnal pleasures, Aladeen is apparently a big fan of Wadiyan movies, particularly the ones he stars in, such as The Girl of the Aladeen Tattoo, The Beheading of Private Ryan, You’ve Got Mail Bomb, and a film inspired by Dominic Strauss Khan, Planet of The Rapes.
“I love American movies too,” he stresses. “I love science-fiction particularly Schindler’s List. I love it. It’s so fantastical, me and my friend Ahmadinajad saw it and laughed and then drank champagne at the end.”
But what is chiefly troubling his mind these days is the recent demise of many of his fellow dictators, who had inspired and comforted him. “The great Saddam and my good friend Gaddafi,” he laments. “ And of course Cheney and Kim Jung. He did so much to spread compassion, wisdom and Herpes throughout the world.”
Like other dictators, he believes that he is loved by his people. “The best thing about being a dictator is that you are loved by all the people but it is sadly becoming more difficult to be a dictator now. In the good old days, you just had to murder your father but now you have to do sneaky things to get power like rigging elections and imprisoning most of your citizens.”
“Now they are victimising dictators like we are so bad. I mean, take Assad, for example, he does a tiny bit of genocide and suddenly everybody is up in arms.”
But he finds consolation in the United Nations’ reluctance to pass a resolution against the Syrian dictator. “United Nations has been the best supporter of dictators,” he exclaims. ”It takes a lot of balls to do that and let my good friend Assad carry on his great work. I really appreciate that.”
And he dismisses the Arab Spring as a passing fad, like the Atkins Diet or human rights. “The Arab Spring will never come to Wadiya because I have removed spring from the calendar, so I am not worried about that but I do miss my good friends.”
Then he offers “a simple solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “Destroy Israel!”
Having been born in an Orthodox Jewish family and to an Israeli mother and having spent time in Israel deepening his Jewish roots, Baron Cohen’s characters, including Aladeen, often speak Hebrew when they express themselves in their foreign languages, which seems incongruant with Aladeen’s anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli statements.
“Why do you speak Hebrew, Supreme Leader?” I asked.
Obviously, the entire interview is tightly scripted and evident from his reaction he is not prepared for this question. He pauses momentarily and then cries loudly:
“How dare you? Who are you? And where are you from?”
“I am Wadiyan from Wadiya,” I replied.
“You are a Jew!” lifting his pistol and pointing it at my nether region. “Drop them!”
He motions to one of his stiff virgins, who edges over and stands by me, utterly confounded, as I grab her
shoulder and begin unbuckling my trousers. Surprised by my action, Aladeen, his gun still levelled at my crotch, charges towards me as he waves his virgin away and peers inside my underwear.
“He’s got such a big hummus,” he cries as he lifts his head and addresses the amused crowd.
“It’s like looking in my mirror,” he adds.
Retaking the stage, he denounces me as a Mossad agent. “I look on Wikipedia and see that Israel is still in the present tense. It makes me very upset,” he laughs.
Before Aladeen departs, he does to me what he does to dissidents in his country: executing me. Luckily, his golden pistol is as fake as his beard, so I survived.
Adamant to remain in character, Baron Cohen evades questions about himself or his craft, saying about himself “I don’t watch any of these Zionist comedians.”
Luckily, Sir Ben Kingsley, who plays Aladeen’s uncle in the movie, is more than willing to help in decoding the enigmatic performer and shed light on his working methods.
Surprisingly, Baron Cohen is not as stringent about remaining in character on set as he does off-set. “He did go into character but for a very limited amount of time before the scene,” Sir Ben says.
Although Baron Cohen didn’t direct, he was able to articulate certain alternatives to shoot, hence he had to get out of character and assume the write-producer role.
The Oscar-winning actor is awed by Baron Cohen’s ability to shut himself off and inhabit the hideous character of Aladeen. “Sacha’s playing a man who cares nothing for his country, nothing for his people, has not a clue of the real world outside the walls of his palace, and riddled with prejudices and fears and phobias. Sacha’s the opposite. He’s a complete man of the world. You ask him any question about any historical event happening right now, he will have an articulate answer or response.”
During the shoot, Baron Cohen would be working with the writers and the director, refining scenes and honing dialogue. And when the rest of the cast leaves for the day, he would continue to work with the writers or with the makeup artist, trying different beards or wigs.
“Some nights he must have slept 2, 3, 4 hours. His energy was always extraordinary the following day and it’s a non-neurotic energy which makes it very good to be around,” Sir Ben marvels.
Even before meeting Baron Cohen on the set of Hugo, in which both starred, Sir Ben was a huge fan of his work. “I loved Ali G on TV. The courage, the bravery, the sharp edged satire of his wit and so connected to the real world.”
“The extraordinary thing is that even whilst filming Hugo, which was about a year before we filmed the Dictator, long before the Arab Spring, he was creating this character and this story about two years before even the first rumbling in Tunisia and Egypt and Libya,” he adds.
Only when the relationship between the two solidified did Baron Cohen ask Sir Ben to play his uncle Tamir in the film. “It’s very thrilling for me and he’s a great guy to work with so no worries, no doubts, just very good time.”
“He is urgently needed by our society,” the veteran actor says. “He’s very humane and caring and that’s why he is so funny because his comedy is rooted in things that he cares about rather than things that he thinks are funny so it’s not just a series of gags in a vaccum. He is our Charlie Chaplin and we should treasure him and be grateful for him.”
Sir Ben also describes his Cambridge-educated peer as a wonderful dad and a great husband, having met his wife, actress Isla Fisher, and his two daughters.