British actor Sacha Baron Cohen was honored on Wednesday night with the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s Outstanding Performer of the Year award for his critically acclaimed work in both “The Trial of the Chicago 7” and “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.”
The award recognizes individuals who have distinguished themselves with exceptional performances in film during the past year.
“The Trial of the Chicago 7” is a historical legal drama following a group of anti-Vietnam War protesters. Baron Cohen plays Abbie Hoffman, an American political and social activist. “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” is a mockumentary where Cohen plays an undercover Kazakh journalist trying to give his daughter as a gift to former Vice President Mike Pence.
Hoffman was known for standing up for democracy and against racism and injustice, and Borat admires former President Donald Trump and his leadership.
The two very different films came out in the same week of October 2020, and the release date of “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” was strategically planned to land just weeks before the November presidential election, Baron Cohen told moderator and longtime awards columnist for The Hollywood Reporter Scott Feinberg.
“Even in these two really different movies, there’s a common truth and that’s the danger of lies and tyranny,” Baron Cohen said. “When I was being hustled out of Mike Pence’s speech or questioned by the Secret Service … I was inspired by Abbie Hoffman and the lesson of his life that, in the face of lies and tyranny, we cannot be bystanders and we cannot be silent.”
Baron Cohen first starred in “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” in 2006, and he did not plan on reviving the character for another film — that is, he said, until he was outraged watching the “dismantling of democracy” under the Trump presidency.
Baron Cohen said he first realized he could not be a bystander when former President Trump announced the Muslim ban in early 2017.
“I was angry that a politician was being racist and using racist policies. That angered me to my core. There’s not much that we can do as artists other than what we’ve been trained to do,” he said. “I sat down with my collaborators and I said, ‘Is there a movie that we can come out with that will be released just before the election that might possibly get some fans to go out and vote?’”
Within a half-hour, the team came up with the concept of Borat giving his daughter to the vice president as a gift, reminding the audience of the “misogyny in the heart of Trump’s soldiers,” Baron Cohen said.
Revitalizing the Borat character in a way that the general public would not recognize while filming posed a challenge, Baron Cohen said, and required extensive research, costume design and the creation of numerous new “characters” that Borat could disguise himself in.
“I realized the same thing that Borat realized: For him to make his mission, we would have to go out in disguise,” Baron Cohen said.
Every week for 10 weeks, Baron Cohen and his crew came up with a new character, designed the looks and attributes of the character, and had the character interact with three real-world people to see if it was believable.
“It was probably the toughest acting exercise of my life at that point,” Baron Cohen said.
The film’s prosthetic team came up with the disguises that were undetectable to the general public, so much so that when Borat’s character disguised himself as former President Trump at the Conservative Political Action Conference, the Secret Service didn’t even notice that he was wearing a fake head, Baron Cohen said.
One of the most memorable scenes, which ended up having a nationwide impact, was when former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani was seen reclining on a hotel bed with his hands in his pants in front of Borat’s teenage daughter, played by Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova.
At the time the film came out, Giuliani was set to present a hard drive that he claimed had evidence of corruption in the Biden family, Baron Cohen said.
“But at that moment, the biggest news story about Rudy Giuliani, as he was on his way to present that footage, was an image of him with his hand down his pants on his bed with a young woman,” he added. “I felt it had an impact that day. For that day at least, I think it was a good flow against autocracy.
“I don’t have enough anecdotal evidence to say the film made a difference. The film was entertaining, emotionally exciting, but served as a reminder of everything that Trump had done in the past four years and was used as a call to action.”
While Baron Cohen is known for his outlandish characters interacting with real-world people, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” showed a different side of his acting portfolio when he had to morph into historical figure Hoffman.
Aaron Sorkin originally wrote the screenplay for the film in 2007, with the intent of acclaimed Steven Spielberg directing the film. Baron Cohen studied Hoffman extensively during his time at the University of Cambridge, and Baron Cohen called Spielberg back in 2007 to ask if he could play Hoffman, Baron Cohen said.
Spielberg was hesitant, and worried that Baron Cohen could not perfect Hoffman’s accent, Baron Cohen said. Baron Cohen worked with a dialect coach every night for three weeks to master the accent, and ended up getting the role.
As some crew members passed away, and the movie went through a bunch of director changes, Sorkin was announced as the new director in 2018, more than 10 years later.
Baron Cohen said he called up Sorkin to ask if he could still be considered for the role, and Sorkin emphatically agreed.
“I don’t think I ever said the word yes, just hallelujah,” Sorkin said when presenting the award to Baron Cohen.
The film was cast with “a master class of actors,” Baron Cohen said, and all egos were left at the door. The film was a low-budget movie, and there was a limited amount of takes that the actors got to capture the scene, according to Baron Cohen.
“I was trying to make sure that the first tape was exactly what the director wanted,” he said.
Given such a short amount of time, Baron Cohen said he would do three takes in a minute and a half, with a three-second pause for the editor to have an in and out, and dramatically changed his performance each time to make sure he got the right shot.
After 13 years and 32 drafts of the screenplay, Baron Cohen said it was an incredible experience playing the role of Hoffman and that he was “this clownish character who used humor to handle the powerful.” Baron Cohen said he thought the film should be used to inspire young people to “go out on the street and protest.”
“It was an incredible coincidence that these movies came out within the same week,” Baron Cohen said. “This was a pivotal point in history. American democracy, I felt, was teetering on the edge and sliding into authoritarianism.
“If either of them had even motivated one person to vote, then that’s a job well done.”
Sorkin virtually presented Baron Cohen the Outstanding Performer of the Year award.
“He is a phenomenally gifted dramatic actor who would bring dimension to both the clown and intellect of Hoffman,” he said. “From the streets of Kenosha to Hong Kong, to Echo Park where just this week protesters are standing up for people who can’t stand up for themselves, I admire this man for using his voice.”