Sacha Baron Cohen Meets the Press as The Dictator
NEW YORK - "Welcome, devils of the Zionist media."
Admiral General Aladeen - the fictional dictator of the fictional African nation of Wadiya - is addressing the world's press in the ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. He's dressed in a uniform of extravagant gold epaulettes and numerous battle ribbons, standing in front of posters of himself, on a rug adorned with the shapes of people having sex in various positions.
The Admiral General is guarded by six beautiful women wearing short skirts and carrying submachine guns, part of a corps of what he calls "25 female virgin guards who protect me at all times. I know they are virgins, because I have their virginity checked every night by the head of my penis."
Yes, Sacha Baron Cohen is back in town.
He's hiding in there somewhere, behind the character's lavish beard and vaguely Middle Eastern accent. Aladeen is the hero of The Dictator, the new film from a performer - "actor" seems too limited - whose art is to dive into a provocative persona and push it to the limits of its discomfort.
Baron Cohen developed his style on the British TV program, Da Ali G Show, and then took it to the movies. He has been Borat, the simple-minded racist from Kazakhstan, and Bruno, the gay fashion icon from Austria, in two ambush films that used guerrilla street theatre to expose common attitudes to exaggerated stereotypes. He provoked outrage by, say, bringing a black prostitute to a dinner party given by old-fashioned white hosts in the American South, then filmed the resulting mayhem.
Now, in The Dictator, Baron Cohen is assuming a new alter ego: an anti-Semitic tyrant who believes in both rape and nuclear weapons. He comes to New York to address the United Nations and somehow winds up working in an organic health-food store in Brooklyn and falling for a left-wing lesbian do-gooder. It's a rare scripted starring role - Baron Cohen is now too famous to delude the public with his reality-show ambushes - but he can't let go of his obsession with impersonation.
So with no man on the street to fool, Baron Cohen is now playing to the band: It's movie promotion as performance art. He is marketing The Dictator by appearing in character as Admiral General Aladeen on TV shows (including a stint on Saturday Night Live) and now, in front of several hundred reporters who have been recruited as part of the gag. They have been asked to submit questions for The Dictator in advance, and ask them at the news conference. There's a teleprompter on the stage, as well.
We play along, partly because everybody wants to get into the act, but also because it's the only way to get close enough to get the story. Baron Cohen will not do straight interviews, and so the details of his life (he's married to actress Isla Fisher, with whom he has two daughters, and lives in Los Angeles and London) and his fascinating family (his brother Erran is a composer who wrote the music for The Dictator; his cousin Simon is the world's foremost researcher on autism) are part of what must remain hidden behind the beard. He's like a Method actor who won't surface out of his role.
You learn about him from hints. Ben Kingsley, who plays Aladeen's right-hand man, says Baron Cohen is totally different from what he is playing.
"The man he's playing cares little for his country, less for his people, and holds most of the rest of the world in utter contempt," Kingsley said in a more traditional news conference earlier in the day. "(He's)the polar opposite of Sacha Baron Cohen, who has a massive humanitarian heart."
Therefore, Kingsley said, Baron Cohen performs a ritual to get into the role. "About two to three minutes before going into a take, he would go into character, which I found admirable and fascinating. . . . Sometimes he would clap, sometimes he would sing, sometimes he would chant his way into his world."
The Dictator arrives near the end of the Arab Spring ("one of the great tragedies of our time," the Admiral General calls it), a bit of prescience, considering that the preparation for the film began two years before the start of the democracy movement.
"He has his finger on so many pulses, historically, culturally, politically," Kingsley said. He called it an amazing intuition of the sort that Charlie Chaplin showed in The Great Dictator, a film about a Jewish barber who is mistaken for a Hitler-like dictator named Adenoid Hynkel. The movie was made in 1940, before the U.S. entered the Second World War. Kingsley, who watched The Great Dictator in preparation for his role, called Baron Cohen "Charlie Chaplin of the 21st century."
If so, it's a more vulgar version, but they share the elements of satire, slapstick, and an underlying political message. Baron Cohen brought a similar combination of elements to his live event.
He began by saying, "I want to thank the United Nations for their brave inaction over Syria. Thirteen months and still no Security Council resolution. You guys are amazing. You have done next to nothing for the Syrian people, but remember, you can always do less."
Then his jokes spun off into absurdity. He said his country has its own version of the TV show, Two and a Half Men. "It used to be called Three Men, but one of them tried to steal a grapefruit." He did political jokes ("What people call genocide in my country is called the judicial system in Texas,") and celebrity insults (Kim Kardashian is "unbelievably hairy. When I pulled her pants down, I thought I was looking into a mirror"). Someone asked if he was the father of Megan Fox's child, and he said, "Impossible. It would be the first-ever anal conception."
That was too far, but too far is part of what he does. He made his joke about violating his virgin bodyguards to a female journalist, and as she walked away from the microphone, he said, "There is no danger of that with you." The comment drew some moans of disapproval from the press.
"You are so all the time worried about everybody's feelings," said the Admiral General, perhaps echoing the philosophy of the man behind the accent. "You can't ever do anything or say anything. Everything forbidden in this country."
Not to Sacha Baron Cohen. Another actor in the film, Jason Mantzoukas, says that's part of his comic genius.
"He is willing to go to a place that provides a sense of danger and is so surprising," he said. "What makes a lot of it work is the surprise of it, that literally, 'I can't believe this is happening right now.'"
By now, Aladeen had had his fill. He left the news conference to the cheers of supporters - also part of the show - holding signs reading "Give Persecution a Chance" and "Say No to Democracy."
He waved goodbye to the journalists. "As you write good reviews, your families will be released," he said.
The Dictator opens Wednesday, May 16.