.

The Man Behind the Mustache

In his only interview as himself, Sacha Baron Cohen talks about growing up kosher in London, inventing a new kind of comedy with Ali G, and conquering Hollywood with Borat

November 30, 2006
Sacha Baron Cohen borat
Sacha Baron Cohen on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Robert Trachtenberg

Two Escalades stop in the middle of Sixty-fifth Street on the West Side of Manhattan. Out of the front SUV a tall, awkward mustachioed man in an ill-fitting blue-gray suit emerges. In the past month, through a series of press stunts, interviews, news events and blanket advertising, this man has turned himself into a household name in America: Borat. It is Halloween, the night of a thousand living Borats roaming our city streets in costumed adulation of the spurious Kazakh journalist, but this Borat is the real thing. A throng of movie publicists, photographers, collaborators and assistants close in around him as he heads toward the escalators that lead up to the Walter Reade Theater, where an advance screening of his American cinematic debut is about to start. He pauses at the foot of the escalator, turns to me and extends a hand. "Hi," he says, in a deep, genteel British accent that I've never heard emerge from this mustachioed visage, despite having watched every minute of available footage he has recorded. "I'm Sacha." And with this one word – "Sacha" – he reforms me that I am being let behind the Kazakh curtain, into the mind of the man behind the buffoon, into the very private world of England's most popular enigma, Sacha Baron Cohen. Since reaching star status in Britain in 1998 with his other alter ego, the gangsta jester All G, Baron Cohen has never done an interview in his home country as himself and has never done an interview this extensive anywhere. Even when promoting his supporting role in the Will Ferrell Nascar parody, Talladega Nights, the Sacha Baron Cohen he presented to the press was still a character: typical of either a pretentious British thespian or a really stupid bystander who didn't understand any of their questions. A shorter, shaven-headed man chases after Borat. "Your hair," he mouths, as he reaches him and adjusts the tangle of black curls on his head. This man is Jason Alper, who has designed all of Baron Cohen's costumes and will later tonight accidentally steal his shoes.

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After pausing for paparazzi in his usual pose – shit-eating grin, elbows pressed against his sides and two thumbs up – Borat heads into the theater and introduces Borat!: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.

"At first, Kazakh censors wouldn't let me release this movie because of anti-Semitism," he tells the assemblage. "But then they decided that there was just enough."

What follows is one of the greatest comedies of the last decade and perhaps even a whole new genre of film. It features just four actual actors (and a male porn star found to portray Borat's teenage son, Huey Lewis); the rest of the cast consists of real people Borat encounters while traveling across the country in pursuit of Pamela Anderson – each one an unwitting actor propelling forward his Don Quixote-like quest (Anderson was in on the joke). If you've been anywhere near a television or newspaper in the last month, you know the story. Chances are you've already seen it. Maybe even twice.

After the screening, Borat returns to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel to shower and transform back into Sacha Baron Cohen: mild-mannered Londoner, fiancé of actress Isla Fisher (Wedding Crashers), reluctant sometime resident of Los Angeles. I wait outside the restaurant Asiate for him to appear. I'd met Baron Cohen once before, three years ago, when he was recording his first series of Da Ali G Show for HBO, interviewing a panel of leading scientists as pseudo hip-hop youth talk-show host Ali G. ("Let's talk about when technology goes horribly wrong: Could there be another Nintendo 64?") At the time, our interview resulted in answers like this one: "When me came out me mum's poom poom bush, me immediately started crying in a junglistic riddim. Me first word was 'ho.'"

This interview promises to be different.

Though Borat was mobbed on his way into the hotel an hour earlier, the man who emerges from the elevator bank an hour later is not. For Halloween night, Sacha Baron Cohen has finally shed his costume, revealing a tall recluse with a sheepish grin. He is wearing a well-fitting white sweater, crisp bluejeans, a baseball cap pulled down to his eyebrows and white hotel slippers.

"I couldn't find my shoes," he apologizes. "I think Jason took them away when he was collecting my wardrobe for Borat. It happens all the time."

His energy is low. He has spent nearly every day of the last month as Borat. "It's exhausting," he says, "because there's a greater pressure to be funny if you turn up somewhere as your comic character."

At the same time, this promotional trip could very well be Borat's swan song: The character has been subjected to such merciless international exposure, it's going to be hard to find anyone in the Western world who believes he's a Kazakh reporter. "I think it's going to be impossible to have him operate in the way he used to," Baron Cohen concedes. "He might be going to live in a very obscure part of Kazakhstan where it's hard to contact him."

As the maitre d' ushers us to a quiet booth, he adds, "Did you like the movie?" He isn't making conversation; he actually wants to know. Pre-opening-night jitters.

I did.

"Yeah, it would have been bad if you didn't," he muses.

I reassure him.

"Really?"

More reassurance.

"It was hard," he says. "I mean, it was a hard film to make."

Baron Cohen, 35, seems nervous about the release of the film in three days, unsure if the American audience is going to understand it, unsure flits anti-anti-Semitism be misinterpreted, unsure flit will beat The Santa Clause 3 at the box office, unsure if in editing 400 hours (plus fifty hours of behind-the-scenes footage) down to eighty-four minutes all the right decisions were made.

Despite his worries, the film will go on to hit Number One at the box office, earning back its $18 million budget with $26.4 million in ticket sales. Rarely has a film been heralded by so much fawning media coverage. Borat's performances on nearly every major-television promotional outlet became performance art in themselves, each one a separate scripted comedy. And he stoked the flames of hype even higher with a press conference outside the Kazakh Embassy and a walk to the White House in response to the Kazakh government's rumblings about suing him (and griping about him during a summit with George Bush).

As Borat, Baron Cohen responded, "I'd like to state I have no connection with Mr. Cohen and fully support my government's decision to sue this Jew."

But today, without the funny mustache, Baron Cohen responds to the statements from the Kazakh government seriously for the first time.

"I've been in a bizarre situation, where a country has declared me as its number-one enemy," he says, forcing a wry grin. "It's inherently a comic situation." He stops, then backpedals a little. "I mean, it's always risky when you don't go down the normal route." Pause. Maybe he's taking himself too seriously now. "I wish I would have been there at the briefing that Bush got about who I am, who Borat is. It would have had to be great."

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