The rise of Sacha Baron Cohen: from Hammersmith to Hollywood

How the man behind Borat went from French clown school to social justice satirist and serious actor

For the first four or five years of his breakout TV career, you could only guess what the real Sacha Baron Cohen actually looked like. In public, the Hammersmith-born, Cambridge-educated chameleon was never out of disguise, with either Kazakh TV journalist Borat Sagdiyev, Staines native Ali G or ostentatious fashionista Brüno Gehard showing up instead to shock, confront and entertain.

Today, in the wake of a sea of awards nominations including two Golden Globes for Borat Subsequent Moviefilm and his supporting performance in Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, the actor has done a full 180. In a recent interview with NPR, Baron Cohen vowed to put his public personas to bed permanently. “At some point, your luck runs out. And so I never wanted to do this stuff again. I can’t.”

It’s easy to be distracted by the headline-grabbing stunts and defamation lawsuits that have defined Baron Cohen’s career, but as the actor sheds the political pantomime act for good, NME looks at the unique trajectory that he’s managed to carve out for himself.

Borat
‘Borat Subsequent Moviefilm’ is on Amazon Prime Video now. Credit: Amazon

Chip ads and clown school

Though Baron Cohen’s later career became engrossed with America, the comedian’s roots couldn’t be more British. At Cambridge University he joined the same comedy club that once housed Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry and the Monty Python lads, before training at a prestigious clown school in Paris (OK, not quite so British). He made early appearances in a McCain’s chip advert and a Lee jeans viral campaign, and co-hosted a couple of quintessential ‘90s weekend magazine shows (think live audiences, prize giveaways and viewer call-ins).

The genesis of Borat

Baron Cohen’s time on Granada youth show F2F between 1996 and 1997 allowed him to play with character. One of his sketches involved Alexi Krickler, a TV journalist who would approach people on the street in a trapper hat and interview them in broken English. Early footage of Krickler in action is a good indicator of what was to come; Baron Cohen’s painfully direct, often purposefully misdirected questions are either met with amused bewilderment or barely masked impatience. A Khazak star was born.

Keeping it real with Ali G

Alistair Leslie Graham aka Ali G made his debut in 1998 as part of Channel 4’s The 11 O’Clock Show. In two-minute interview segments, the now notorious Staines personality would make a habit of stealing the show (which also featured a young Ricky Gervais). With his Adidas poppers and carefully designed lines of questioning, he pushed unknowing politicians to breaking point. This satirical Y2K framing of UK politics, peppered with a string of trendsetting catchphrases are what launched Baron Cohen into the mainstream. A BAFTA-winning solo show – which saw the comedian run circles around everyone from Donald Trump to Noam Chomsky – led to a movie, after which Ali G took to the sidelines so that Baron Cohen’s other characters of chaos could take over.

Brüno breaks out

By the time Brüno – also one of Baron Cohen’s early TV creations – had risen to movie status, the actor had developed a heightened commitment to publicity stunts. In the Brüno film, the world saw Baron Cohen’s satirical swipe at the fashion world as his blonde-haired presenter crashed a Milan catwalk in an all-velcro suit. What they didn’t see is the lengths that he took to get there, which included radically changing his crew’s appearance as well as his own to get past the security that had been hired specifically to stop them from getting in. Since the film’s release in 2009, Baron Cohen has spoken of how coming up against homophobes and the Baptist Church – as well as breaking his heel as part of a police getaway – left him traumatised.

Borat and beyond

It feels like a lifetime has passed since Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, first hit screens in 2006. The actor’s career outside of his self-made characters has flourished for one, with everyone from Martin Scorsese to Tim Burton hiring him to work on their films. He’s also now recognised by Hollywood as a prestige actor, with his standout role as the activist Abbie Hoffman in The Trial of the Chicago 7 tipped for multiple awards.

But despite Borat’s return in 2020’s Subsequent Moviefilm, Baron Cohen’s personal mission has also shifted in this time.The stunts and public acts of scandal still sit firmly on his agenda (you need only watch his acceptance speech for the 2013 Charlie Chaplin Award For Excellence In Comedy), and at his heart he will always remain a supreme physical comedian with an appetite for mischief. Yet this once cocky prankster is now taking a more active approach than simply highlighting how various systems of power are broken.

In 2019, following the the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Baron Cohen delivered an impassioned keynote address at the Anti-Defamation League’s Never Is Now Summit on Antisemitism and Hate. “To be clear, when I say “racism, hate and bigotry” I’m not referring to the names of Stephen Miller’s Labradoodles,” he quipped on the podium. He also risked the life of himself and his crew during the much-publicised gun rights rally stunt in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, such was his commitment to spotlighting the state of Trump’s America. “I felt democracy was in peril, I felt people’s lives were in peril and I felt compelled to finish the movie,” he recently told the New York Times.

With his various suits now hung up in the closet indefinitely, there’s no saying where Sacha Baron Cohen’s talents and commitment to social justice will take him next. But it’s good to know that if democracy falls further into disarray, a six foot three inch comedian from West London will be on the case.

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