When Sacha Baron Cohen's comedy first crossed American waters, he had already established a fair amount of dedicated fans. Those familiar with his sketch comedy series, Da Ali G Show, knew that Cohen created awkward, often offensive characters whose idiocy tricked unsuspecting interviewees into revealing their own ignorance -- always fun. Those who weren't familiar, however, were fair game. His three iconic characters are now endlessly quotable and known worldwide: Borat, a painfully oblivious television host from Kazahstan exploring the United States; Brüno, a sassy Austrian model with a pension for contradiction; and Ali G, "voice of da yoof." With the aforementioned success in the US came two wildly popular feature films -- Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan and Brüno, both of which preyed upon regular ol' Americans falling once again for his characters and mockumentaries.
The mad success of the Cambridge educated stand-up comedian, writer, and actor led to Cohen retiring his familiar alter egos, knowing full well he could no longer twist semi-anonymity to his advantage. After impressive turns in Tim Burton's Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and Martin Scorsese's Hugo, Cohen set his sights on another full-length feature, The Dictator. Amidst full-character stunts, the British comedian created a film that both plays with American stereotypes and provides commentary for world-wide governments. His co-stars Anna Faris, Ben Kingsley, and Jason Mantzoukas met with Buzzine's Emmanuel Itier and revealed what it's like to work with Sacha Baron Cohen and recounted their favorite moments from the off-the-wall political spoof, The Dictator.
Emmanuel Itier: As a fellow Brit, what do you think of Sacha Baron Cohen’s humor?
Ben Kingsley: Well, it has evolved in stages because he started out as a very English comic with his sense of humor, very British, which as you know is a very particular kind of humor. It’s dry. It’s ironic. It’s satirical. It’s not very physical, slap stick. It’s very much language based humor. Then, with his television success and his films he became a European comedy hero.
BK: Now, with his later work, he’s become a universal comedy hero. As you and I were discussing before the cameras were rolling, anything that has a universal appeal and is unified, particularly humor, is going to be very, very valuable to us. This is a great summer comedy blockbuster for 2012 – absolutely without question. But, wrapped inside it is things that are rooted in the truth. That’s where comedy for me – like Chaplin, like all our great comedians, Peter Sellers – they always have this truth and vulnerability in them, which makes them accessible, which makes them reach us from the screen.
BK: Last night, I heard the audience roar with laughter. I even heard them applaud the screen and I even heard them cheer at the screen. That’s a wonderful feeling. As you said, it’s very unified and it’s very necessary. To be unified by a comedian is a very good thing.
EI: You mentioned the truth in Charlie Chaplin’s comedy – do you think there are further parallels to be drawn between The Dictator and Chaplin’s work?
BK: Very much so, I think that years ago Chaplin… I bought it actually recently because I needed to make comparisons. In Chaplin’s film there is a double. In Chaplin’s film there is a dictator. This time Chaplin’s dictator was absolutely real, no question -- it was Hitler in Germany – no question. Chaplin made this wonderful film during World War II, but before America had entered the war. Somehow it must have provided the US audience and their consciousness. Roosevelt brought America into the war – thank God – but all these things added to a common unified determination to get rid of that guy.
We have to get rid of these guys. My character included. My character is the uncle of the dictator. He cares nothing for his nephew. He cares nothing for his country. He wants to get out and live on Lake Cuomo. He cares nothing for the well being of his country. All he’s interested in are offshore gas rights, oil rights, and shell deposit rights to the big oil corporations for a massive payoff. These guys do exist. For us to laugh at them, to see them as they are and laugh at them through comedy is a very good thing.
EI: The Dictator also thrives on war. Do you think comedy can be wielded as a weapon?
BK: Always has been. In the UK, political cartoons and satires in magazines and newspapers were very ruthless. They were vicious. They were cruel. And, they did in fact change. We in the UK have that tradition of being quite hardnosed when it comes to comedy and satire. Sacha has taken this great tradition and made it a universal treat for everybody.
EI: You said you were watching the film yesterday. There are really some incredible, over the top moments. Is there one that really encapsulates the movie for you?
BK: Well, there are so many extraordinary moments. Also, it’s put together so beautifully. It’s like one continuous stream of amazing events. I’m not sure that I have a specific favorite scene. It’s just seeing Sacha… seeing the Dictator learn about the world beyond his palace, which is really interesting.
EI: What other character would you like Sacha to explore?
BK: I don't know whether I should say this, but I have been trying to get him interested in playing Don Quixote. I think he would be phenomenal. I would like to play Sancho Panza and I’d love him to be Don Quixote. I think that’s… he would just… he would get it. That absurd -- he’s a wonderfully good person. Everything he does is for the good of everybody, so he’s a bit of a Don Quixote.
Emmanuel Itier: Sacha Baron Cohen has so many characters that he projects, including conducting full interviews without ever breaking. You’ve worked with him first hand now – how would you describe the real Sacha Baron Cohen?
Anna Faris: I think that he loves to fully embrace a character. I think his humor is sort of… it’s shock. It’s self-deprecating. He’s also… he also pokes fun at sort of everyone else in his movies. So, it’s kind of a mixture of sort of petty intellectualism and also complete raunchy silliness.
EI: You work with a ton of gifted comedians, yourself included! Do you ever have moments where you completely break character and burst out laughing?
AF: There were a few times where it was like, this is just so crazy. I had to, you know, bite the insides of my cheeks a little bit to not laugh. There were so many times I just remember like shaking my head like, are we really? We’re shooting this? This is insane.
EI: Which scene stood out as the most absurd?
AF: I think the scene – I mean, all of them to some degree – but the scene where we’re delivering the baby. The story is just so bizzare and weird and kind of inappropriate and romantic, and I think thatwas the scene where it was like, does this make any sense at all? There are so many elements going on here. Yeah, but I loved shooting it. It was fun.
EI: What drew you to this project, and challenged your abilities as an actress?
AF: I think the constant improv. You know, as an actor, it’s really interesting to work with somebody who just uses the script as a very lose framework. So, you come to a set with your lines memorized as you do, and maybe you’ve rehearsed them a couple of times or whatever, but then you throw that all out the window. You’re suddenly just on your toes. You’re playing. The scene is going in a million different directions. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. So, I think just that… keeping that up all day is very challenging and very exciting and just a completely different way of working.
EI: Clearly the film has a social commentary about world leaders. What concepts do you think the writers were trying to play around with?
AF: I think on sort of a loftier level, not only is it critical of dictatorship, it’s also critical of democracy and American policy to some degree. But, I think that if someone goes to this movie looking for political undercurrents, I think that they might be a little bit disappointed. It’s a movie to laugh at and to have fun at. I think that there are some sort of interesting elements in that regard. But, mostly it’s a lot of silly fun.
EI: Sacha Baron Cohen loves to push boundaries with his films, from Borat to Brüno, and now The Dictator. How do you think his style fits in with modern comedy?
AF: I think that comedy is always shifting it seems like. You’re always sort of upping the ante with your subject matter. I think that maybe some people will be offended, but then the larger group would be disappointed if there wasn’t material in the movie that was pushing the envelope. I think people go and can expect a Sacha Baron Cohen movie to really be shocking to a degree.
EI: What do you think his next character study should be?
AF: Oh my gosh. What would he be good at? I think it’d be interesting for him to play an American politician maybe – a conservative republican would be kind of an interesting idea. I think for him to poke fun at that idea would be really fun.
Emmanuel Itier: Sacha Baron Cohen has a very specific sense of humor. After working with him on The Dictator, do you have any deeper insight to Cohen’s style?
Jason Mantzoukas: I mean, I think he likes taking on certain social things or being controversial, but he’s also very silly and very funny. To me, a lot of what people are saying about the movie, which cracks me up, is like, ‘oh it’s so political’ or ‘it’s so this…’ The movie I saw had a lot of boner jokes. He has a very clown-like background to me, which I love, and is very physical and is very funny.
EI: You said a lot of the buzz about this film is its political message. What social commentary, if any, do you think Sacha Baron Cohen is trying to make with The Dictator?
JM: I don't know exactly. I like that the movie takes on a lot of different social issues -- whether it’ss dictatorships or democracy, or it’s US foreign relations -- but I also like that the movie is a romantic comedy. All of the stuff with him and Anna is kind of just a straight love story. I love that the stuff between he and I is kind of a buddy comedy. That, I think, is great.
EI: Was there a particular scene that you enjoyed shooting in this movie?
JM: I loved the scene with the missile, the scene in the nuclear facility that had the big missile in it. That was a really… it was a long day, but it was … like it was a really funny scene to do. We laughed that whole day. We just were laughing because it was very funny. So, it was a fun day to shoot.
EI: Cohen is known for a lot of improvisational work on his films and projects. Did you two manage to play around with the content a little bit?
JM: Yeah, we would improvise. We had a great script. We would find different jokes and different things to explore as the scenes went on. Yeah, there was lots of improvisation.
EI: The director, Larry Charles, has not only written for irreverent comedies like Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, but also directed Sacha Baron Cohen’s previous two films, Borat and Brüno. How would you describe their relationship? They seem to work very well together.
JM: They do, and [it’s] not just him. All the writers are the same writers from Borat and Brüno. He has a real team of great people. They all have a shorthand in a relationship that actually helps a lot in terms of making something – especially making something this big – that all of these people have already a working relationship. It was actually really good.
EI: Do you think that we are embarking on a period in comedy where anything goes? Or do you think that we are still concerned with being perceived as politically correct?
JM: I don't know. I mean, I certainly don’t think… perhaps there is some of that, but I certain don’t think in this movie there would be that. I think right now, almost anything is fair game. I am saying comedy like comedy TV shows [and] movies. I think there’s a lot of stuff that is very safe obviously and very family friendly, but there’s a lot of stuff that’s outrageous and controversial. I think this movie kind of has both, which is great.
EI: Do you see yourself working with Sacha Baron Cohen again?
JM: Is he hiring me? Let’s go! Yeah, of course! Yes, that’d be great.
EI: So far, he’s portrayed a sassy Australian fashionista, an overblown dictator, and a blundering fish out of water from Kazakhstan. What do you think his next character should be?
JM: Oh boy, such a good question. I mean, maybe he and I could both play French astronauts. What do you think?
EI: Absolutely. Next, on to Paris.
JM: That’s it. Paris and then the moon.
Paramount Pictures' 'The Dictator' blasts into theaters Wednesday, May 16th, 2012.