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Sacha Baron Cohen: The Man Behind the Mustache

In his only interview as himself, the actor-comedian talks about growing up kosher in London, inventing a new kind of comedy with Ali G and conquering Hollywood with Borat

Sacha Baron Cohen, Borat, 'Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan'Sacha Baron Cohen, Borat, 'Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan'

Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat during 'Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan' Premiere in Hollywood, California on October 23rd, 2006.

Jason Merritt/FilmMagic/Getty

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.


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.”

When Baron Cohen first heard that the Kazakh government was thinking of suing him and placing a full-page ad promoting the country in The New York Times, he was editing his movie in Los Angeles. His reaction: “I was surprised, because I always had faith in the audience that they would realize that this was a fictitious country and the mere purpose of it was to allow people to bring out their own prejudices. And the reason we chose Kazakhstan was because it was a country that no one had heard anything about, so we could essentially play on stereotypes they might have about this ex-Soviet backwater. The joke is not on Kazakhstan. I think the joke is on people who can believe that the Kazakhstan that I describe can exist – who believe that there’s a country where homosexuals wear blue hats and the women live in cages and they drink fermented horse urine and the age of consent has been raised to nine years old.”

In actuality, it turns out that Borat is a far more damning critique of America than it is of Kazakhstan. The jokes that Baron Cohen mentions above – and all the rest about beating gypsies, throwing Jews down wells, exporting pubic hair and making monkey porn – are clearly parody. But the America that Borat discovers on his cross-country trek here – rife with homophobia, xenophobia, racism, classism and anti-Semitism- is all too real.

“I think part of the movie shows the absurdity of holding any form of racial prejudice, whether it’s hatred of African-Americans or of Jews,” Baron Cohen says.

A waiter places a complimentary appetizer in front of Baron Cohen.

“What is this?” he asks.

“Ceviche,” the waiter answers.

“No, what’s in it?”

“Coconut, fish, yuzu, pomegranate.”

Baron Cohen continues to grill the waiter: “What kind of fish?”

It soon becomes clear that he is not merely curious or vegetarian or allergic to peanuts. He keeps kosher and is making sure that there is no shellfish, pork or other forbidden food or food combination in the dish. A devout Jew, Baron Cohen also keeps the Sabbath when he can, which means that he doesn’t work from Friday evening to Saturday evening.

Unsure of the waiter’s trustworthiness, Baron Cohen pokes at the appetizer as he points out that his parents “love” the Jewish humor. And his maternal grandmother, who’s ninety-one and lives in Haffa, Israel, went to a midnight screening, then called her grandson at 4 A.M. to compliment him and dissect the scenes in detail.

“Borat essentially works as a tool,” Baron Cohen says. “By himself being anti-Semitic, he lets people lower their guard and expose their own prejudice, whether it’s anti-Semitism or an acceptance of anti-Semitism. ‘Throw the Jew Down the Well’ [a song performed at a country & western bar during Da Ali G Show] was a very controversial sketch, and some members of the Jewish community thought that it was actually going to encourage anti-Semitism. But to me it revealed something about that bar in Tucson. And the question is: Did it reveal that they were anti-Semitic? Perhaps. But maybe it just revealed that they were indifferent to anti-Semitism.

“I remember, when I was in university I studied history, and there was this one major historian of the Third Reich, Ian Kershaw. And his quote was, ‘The path to Auschwitz was paved with indifference.’ I know it’s not very funny being a comedian talking about the Holocaust, but I think it’s an interesting idea that not everyone in Germany had to be a raving anti-Semite. They just had to be apathetic.”

Baron Cohen doesn’t make this grand statement with confidence. He makes it shyly, as if he’s speaking out of turn. It’s interesting to watchBaron Cohen get bashful, because it is the exact opposite of the characters he portrays. These sincere boors aren’t afraid to bring a bag of their own excrement to the table at an antebellum dinner party or ask David Beckham if he can feed on his wife Victoria “Posh Spice” Beckham’s breasts.

There is a certain sadism to Baron Cohen, who seems most comfortable when making others uncomfortable. To some degree, Borat and Ali G are safe refuges for him, masks he can hide behind. If everything that comes out of your mouth is parody, then you never have to be accountable for what you say – because you didn’t really mean it anyway. You only said it to lead your interview subjects to the thin line between patience and intolerance in order for their true personality to reveal itself.

In contrast, Baron Cohen himself has no defenses or alibis. One wonders if he could withstand the awkward situations to which he constantly exposes his alter egos.

“I think I’d find it hard to,” he admits. “I think you can hide behind the characters and do things that you yourself find difficult.”

There are two things Baron Cohen doesn’t like talking about: his background and his creative process – how he creates his characters, how he procures interviews with highly inaccessible figures like Newt Gingrich and Donald Trump, and how he gets them to take seriously his preposterous questions.

Here’s what I have gathered, through interviews and observation, about how he does it. Of course, his techniques are ever-evolving, and after every close call or less-than-perfect interview, the scrupulous Baron Cohen adds a new rule.

With Ali G, the interview requests come from a fake British production company (United World Productions). And until just before the cameras roll, the interviewee is under the impression that the clean-cut, well-dressed director is going to do the interview and the baggy-clothed, wraparound-shades-wearing character carrying equipment is just part of the crew.

For the Borat film and TV segments, on the other hand, subjects are told that the crew is shooting a documentary intended for Kazakhstan television. Much to the surprise of producers, celebrities and politicians are willing to do such an obscure interview and, once on camera, are eager to please.

Because Da Ali G Show had run already for two seasons on HBO, most of the Borat movie had to be shot in areas of the Deep South with minimal cable penetration. As an extra precaution, during the pre-interview, researchers made sure subjects hadn’t heard of Baron Cohen. For a final safety measure, a lawyer was kept on retainer. Before each scene, producers would tell her what they planned to do, and she’d let them know where the boundary between comedy and criminality lies.

Once on site, the first order of business is to get subjects to sign releases, which are worded vaguely and omit the actual name of the media outlet where the show will air. In the case of scenes shot in public, passers-by are given releases before entering the area. “We’d have someone in the lobby of a hotel with release forms,” Borat director Larry Charles, who previously directed Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, recalls of one scene. (Full disclosure: Charles is slated to direct the film version of a book I wrote, The Dirt.) “We’d tell people we were shooting today and they may be in the background of a shot. Then they’d get in the elevator and, boom, two naked guys would come running in.”

As Ali G, just before the interviews begin, Baron Cohen emerges and asks his subjects really stupid questions (like spelling simple words, how to pronounce their names, how to write particular letters in the alphabet) so that they get accustomed to his idiocy. Then, once the cameras start rolling and he begins asking actual interview questions, they realize that the person they’ve been talking to is not a crew member doing a pre-interview but the actual show host.

Though what airs on television is just a four-minute clip, Ali G spends some fifteen minutes warming his subjects up with straightforward questions. Once any lingering doubt has been banished, he sticks the knife in and starts asking ridiculous questions like, “What is the type of acid that actually makes you fly?” and “But what harm has violence ever done?”

As Borat, Baron Cohen tests his subjects differently. First, he’ll often give them a Kazakh cigarette or do something else to prove his authenticity. Occasionally, he’ll start the interview by giving them a gift – a tin of fish, a bag of cookies or an over-affectionate kiss. He watches as they accept the gift (or decline it), and the manner in which they do so lets him know how far they’re willing to go. In the case of right-wing activist Alan Keyes, the gift was identified as the rib of a Jew. Keyes accepted the gift with the words, “Thank you very much.” However, as it dawned on him what he’d just done on camera, he freaked out, tore his microphone off and stormed out of the room. Producers were able to bring him back into the interview by saying there had been a misunderstanding and Borat had said a “dew’s rib,” as in a rib of the morning dew, which may not have made any more sense to Keyes but at least it couldn’t ruin his political career.

Once each interview ends, the charade is not over. Whether playing Ali G, Borat or Brüno (a gay fashion reporter from Austria), Baron Cohenremains in character from the moment he leaves his hotel until the crew wraps. This sometimes means leading production meetings in character. “He and I had some heated discussions, the way a director and actor might, but he’d be chastising me as Borat,” Larry Charles recalls. “I’d be standing in the middle of a cotton field in Louisiana being yelled at by Borat.”

Sometimes, after an interview, Borat would get stuck in lengthy off-camera discussions with his curious subjects – and, occasionally, when things went really wrong, the police.

“The first time I got stopped by the police, I thought to myself, ‘What do I do?,’ because I was separated from the crew,” Baron Cohen says. “And I thought, ‘There can’t be a law against speaking in a funny voice to a policeman.’ Plus, I didn’t know what story the rest of the crew had told the police since they’d separated all of us. I remember Larry was quite surprised when the Secret Service stopped us outside the White House and I stayed in character.”

“We were in front of the White House in the ice cream van with all our camera equipment in the back, and the Secret Service pulled us over,” Charles says. “And Sacha stayed in character: He asked them what organization they were from, and they said, ‘Secret Service,’ and he said, ‘Like KGB?’ He stays so cool under fire.”

The crew’s first objective when the police came was to get Baron Cohen away as quickly as possible, because if he were arrested, he’d be deported and the movie would be finished. In Manhattan, after shooting a scene in which Borat thinks that because his hotel bill is so high he must have purchased his room’s furniture as well, the line producer and first assistant director ended up spending nineteen hours in jail. This happened because the hotel manager flipped out when he saw Borat dragging his room’s comforter and alarm clock through the lobby. When a warrant was issued for Baron Cohen’s arrest as well, the crew shipped him out of state to a hotel in New Jersey.

Just mentioning one of his covert interview tactics over dinner causes Baron Cohen to squirm. “You actually know more about the process than . . . ” He pauses. “Anyone who’s not actually part of it.” Long pause. “That’s a disaster. Terrible for me.” Nervous laughter.

It sometimes seems as if Baron Cohen is doing himself a disservice by being so secretive about his techniques. After all, what makes his comedy so effective is not the process, which anyone could approximate and replicate anyway, but Baron Cohen himself.

“My parents were incredibly loving,” he explains. “And I think that gives you the strength to go out into a crowd of people who hate you.” Pause. Doubt. Realization that this comment may follow him in interviews for years to come. Backpedal. “Probably. If you want to analyze it.”

The youngest of three boys, Baron Cohen spent his formative years at the private Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys School near London. His grandmother was an acclaimed ballet dancer who fled Germany during the Third Reich. She relocated to Haifa, where she started her own fitness school combining yoga, aquatics and aerobics for older people – an occupation which, at age ninety-one, she continues to this day. In London, her daughter (Baron Cohen’s mother) made a living by teaching her school of movement. And Baron Cohen’s father, from Wales, owned a clothing store in Piccadilly Circus.

Baron Cohen’s future was set when he was roughly eight years old by two significant events. The first was seeing one of Peter Sellers’ Pink Panther movies at a friend’s ninth birthday party – setting off a lifelong admiration of the British comic actor’s work. The other was when his older brothers snuck him into a theater to see Monty Python’s Life of Brian. A few years later, Baron Cohen started listening to tapes of the show Derek and Clive, with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. And, among Sellers, Python and Cook, his comedy tastes were cemented.

“As a kid, I was also very into rap,” Baron Cohen adds. He hesitates, reluctant to divulge any information about himself, because every new fact is soon scrupulously added to his scant official biography. After a moment, he relents: “I used to break-dance. Starting at the age of twelve, my mother would take me and my crew in the back of her Volvo. We had the linoleum in the back, and she’d drive us to Covent Garden in the dead middle of winter, and we’d pull the lino out and start breaking.”

What was the name of the group?

Hesitation. Acceptance. “Well, we didn’t really have a name until we started doing bar mitzvahs. I think we were called Black on White. We used mainly robotics. Essentially, we were middle-class Jewish white boys, who were adopting this culture, which we thought was very cool. That was sort of the origins of Ali G.”

Dan Mazer met Baron Cohen at the Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School when the two were eleven years old. “It’s basically a factory of comedy,” he says of Haberdashers’. “It’s just cocky young Jews. And because we were all too weak to fight each other, we compensated with verbal jousts. Sacha was always the gregarious one in a room. He was such a big personality that I didn’t envision him being able to hide himself so well with such brilliantly formed characters as Borat and Ali G.”

In high school, Baron Cohen spent much of his time with a Jewish youth group, Habonim Dror, where he started acting. When he graduated, he took a year off to live in Israel at the Rosh Hanikra Kibbutz, then attended Christ’s College at Cambridge University to study history, ultimately performing in productions like Fiddler on the Roof with the Cambridge Footlights.

During college, Baron Cohen also laid down the roots for his future career: “I started developing characters partly as a way to get into places without paying. At Cambridge there was something called the Cambridge Balls, which at that time cost about 120 pounds per head. I would try to get myself and other people in, pretending to be the band or something. And we’d do it. I remember when I came to New York at the age of twenty-three, it was a fun thing. Me and my friends, we would get into the clubs claiming we were bouncers or drug dealers.”

“He always just had chutzpah – no fear in whatever scenario,” says Mazer, who went on to write and produce with Baron Cohen. “He’s more unwilling to take no for an answer than anyone I’ve ever met. In New York, he’d never consider the option of not getting into a club in the same way he’ll never consider the option of not getting an interview with the FBI as Ali G. His great skill is his unbelievable tenacity. And he’s frustratingly always right.”

After college, Baron Cohen decided to make it in entertainment. “I gave myself five years to start earning money from being an actor, a comedian,” he says. “If it didn’t work out, I was going to move onto something else, become a barrister [lawyer] or something.”

At twenty-four, he found his first television work as a mediocre host on a mediocre pop-culture show called Pump TV on a small satellite station. “The budget was about forty pounds a week, and we had a viewership of about fifty to sixty people. But it gave me access to a crew and an editing room, so we started experimenting with making these little short films, which generally never got broadcast. One time, on Valentine’s night, two of the guys who were working with me broke in to the studio and transmitted all the sketches that never made it to air. They got fired. Not long after that, they shut the channel down.”

Baron Cohen drifted to a show called Talk TV on London Weekend Television, where he found a mentor in Mike Toppin, a director in his fifties who used to edit classic Ealing Studios comedies. Toppin pushed Baron Cohen to develop and expand his characters.

Baron Cohen shakes his head, muttering something about how all his embarrassing early videos are probably going to end up on YouTube after this story. “The idea was that I would host the show, and then we would play some prerecorded segments of me appearing as these different characters, who would comment on myself as a host. And one of those characters was an early form of Ali G.”

One of the inspirations for the character was a white BBC Radio One hip-hop DJ named Tim Westwood. “We used go to these hip-hop happenings, and even then he was kind of laughable. Once I found out that he was actually the son of a bishop, it became even more absurd. He was so keen to be presented as a gangsta.”

At the time, the proto-Ali G was a slightly more upper-class character who delivered wack monologues and went by various monikers, among them MC Jocelyn Cheadle-Hume (named after an area of Chesire). But one day, everything changed: Baron Cohen, while filming an MC Jocelyn Cheadle-Hume segment, saw a group of white skateboarders who were also dressed like wanna-be gangstas. Baron Cohen and Toppin decided it might be fun to interact with them.

“Afterward,” he recalls, “me and Mike looked at each other and suddenly had this realization that people believe this character. And at that point, a tourist bus turned up at a bus stop right next to us. I looked at Mike and he looked at me, and I said, ‘All right, follow me.’ So we jumped on and essentially commandeered the bus. I took the microphone and I was like, ‘Yo, check it out. I is here, and this is me bus. Booyakasha.'”

High from their high jinks, Baron Cohen and crew marauded on to a pub, where he started break-dancing until the police were called and they were thrown out. “Then we saw this building, which was a home of a multinational company. I went into the lobby and said, ‘I’m here to see my dad; he works on the sixth floor.’ So we went up and essentially we were thrown out by security after about twenty minutes. We were walking over the Waterloo Bridge, back to the London Weekend Television studio, and the adrenaline was pumping and we were just so excited, because here was this new form of comedy that we discovered. Probably it existed, and other people had done it, but we’d never discovered it before – this idea of taking a comic character into a real situation.”

The giddy pair arrived at the studio just in time to film the show. And midway through airing the second segment of the new and improved poseur MC, the head of the channel called the studio and demanded they pull the material.

“He said, ‘What do you think you’re doing? We’re gonna get sued!’ It was at that point that I knew that we were doing something that might be good.”

Years later the character was given the name Ali G by a Channel 4 producer, Harry Thompson, who thought that an ethnic name would make interview subjects less likely to challenge him for fear of appearing racist.

Around the same time, Baron Cohen began playing with another archetype: a reporter named Alexi Krickler from Moldova, who wore a tie emblazoned with musical notes and was patently unable to understand British expressions and concepts. For example, when interviewing someone about the rugby team British Lions, he’d go back and forth with the interviewee for ten minutes, seemingly unable to comprehend that they don’t have actual lions playing rugby.

“I was struck by the patience of some of these members of the upper class, who were so keen to appear polite – particularly on camera – that they would never walk away,” Baron Cohen says. It was a tiny epiphany that would eventually fuel his career.

The forefather of Borat, Alexi Krickler, was based on a doctor Baron Cohen had met when he was invited by a friend to a free beach getaway in Astrakhan in southern Russia. Baron Cohen arrived to find one of the most depressing places he’d ever seen. “But there was a guy there who was a doctor, and the moment I met him, I started laughing,” Baron Cohen remembers. “I remember meeting him, and him saying, ‘You’re English, yes, you’re English – you say cock, but Americans, they say a cack. Yes, they say a cack. You say a cock and they say a cack.’ Within seconds, me and my friends were crying with laughter. He had some elements of Borat, but he had none of the racism or the misogyny or the anti-Semitism. He was Jewish, actually.”

The last major character Baron Cohen created was Brüno, a fashion reporter who got his start begging celebrities for interviews and, when they finally agreed, forgetting his questions. He made his debut during a piece on London Fashion Week for the Paramount Comedy Channel.

Eventually these characters would fuel a comedy empire. But not before Baron Cohen had given up on a career in entertainment altogether. He was fast approaching his five-year-window for making a living as a comic actor, and little had come of it. He was so broke he often had to wear Ali G’s clothes when he went out.

“I was sitting on a beach in Thailand. It was four years and ten months since I’d graduated, and I had just come back from my brother’s wedding in Australia,” Baron Cohen recalls, wolfing down his sea bass. Though it is almost 10 P.M., he is running late to a meeting with his writing team to prepare material for appearances on The Howard Stern Show and Late Night With Conan O’Brien the next day. “I was thinking about staying in Thailand, because I was having this very nice life on a pound-fifty a day. And that’s when I got a call from my agent saying there’s this audition for The 11 O’Clock Show, this satirical late-night show, and they were looking for a host. I remember telling her that I didn’t know if I wanted to come back. I had been rejected so many times that I didn’t know if it was worth it.”

He decided to go. And after his audition for host was greeted with a lukewarm reception, he decided to show them a tape of Alexi Krickler at a pro-fox-hunting rally in Hyde Park. They hired him on the spot.

And so it was that Baron Cohen’s clips as Ali G on The 11 O’Clock Show developed a cult following, enabling him to spin his characters off into their own six-episode show, Da Ali G Show, and such a bona fide British phenomenon that it became nearly impossible to keep the character alive because everyone recognized him in the U.K. Introduced to American audiences after dressing as Ali G to play a limo driver in Madonna‘s “Music” video, Baron Cohen eventually resuscitated his characters by bringing them to the U.S. for two seasons on HBO. In addition, he took Hollywood roles as the voice of the king of the lemurs in Madagascar (mainly for the benefit of his nephews, who, he said, got scared midway through the premiere and walked out) and in Talladega Nights (at the request of Will Ferrell, an Ali G fan).

“I do have other characters, actually, that I want to start developing in the next six months,” Baron Cohen says. “But I think it’s going to be harder to do stuff in a reality setting. I’m just really looking forward to starting to do movies on set.”

Late last month, Universal Pictures won a bidding war to develop a new Baron Cohen vehicle. Though the deal has been reported at $42.5 million for a film featuring Brüno, Baron Cohen says the figure is inaccurate, the deal is just to see if it’s possible to develop the movie, and he’s still not sure whether the film will be scripted or reality-based or whether it will feature Brüno or a different character. Right now, in fact, all Baron Cohen really knows is that he needs a vacation.

After Baron Cohen takes his last bite of sea bass, he excuses himself to spend the rest of Halloween night scripting the next day’s television and radio appearances. However, he promises to call in a few days to continue talking.

A week later, shortly after returning from New York to his rented house in L.A., Baron Cohen makes good on that promise. He begins the conversation by saying that he’s worried about a couple of the things he said in the interview, and hopes he isn’t being too flippant in his comments about the Kazakh government.

“Sorry I’ve been so overcautious, but these things start to gather a lot of weight and importance when you put them off for years and years,” he finally admits, referring to doing an interview as himself. “Literally, it was terrifying agreeing to do this.”

Though he has cited in the past everything from legal reasons to efforts to maintain the believability of his characters, Baron Cohen offers another reason for staying out of the press himself. “I think that essentially I’m a private person, and to reconcile that with being famous is a hard thing,” he admits. “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.”

“I guess I’ve been greedy.” Pause. Sigh. Possible epiphany. “Maybe it’s time to let go.”

This story is from the November 30th, 2006 issue of Rolling Stone.

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