Actor, comedian. Born October 13, 1971, in London, England. While his comic personas Borat, Bruno, and Ali G have stirred up all kinds of controversy, Sacha Baron Cohen has largely hidden from the media spotlight. A middle child, he grew up in a London surburb. His father operated a number of clothing stores and his mother worked as a fitness instructor. Cohen developed a passion for breakdancing as a teen and belonged to a Jewish youth group through which he first started acting.
After spending a year at a kibbutz in Israel, Cohen enrolled at Christ’s College, part of Cambridge University. He was a history student and also appeared in productions by the Cambridge Footlights, the university’s famed comedy troupe. Other Footlights alumni include John Cleese, Peter Cook, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, and Emma Thompson to name just a few.
For his thesis, Cohen wrote about the involvement of Jewish Americans in the civil rights movement in the South during the 1950s and 1960s. He even stayed in Atlanta for a time to do some research and interview Robert Parris Moses. While he was encouraged to continue his studies on the graduate level, Cohen wanted to follow a different path upon completing his degree.
Like many comedians before him, Cohen worked at his craft doing stand-up comedy. His first television gig was as a host of a youth program. Landing a part on the late night comedy program, The 11 O’Clock Show in the late 1998, Cohen stood out with his character Ali G, a white wannabe rapper. He was later featured in his own series, Da Ali G Show, which had the blinged-out character conducting interviews with politicians, writers, and other distinguished people and asking them all sorts of off-the-wall questions.
Growing in popularity, Ali G made a cameo appearance in the music video for Madonna’s 2000 hit “Music.” He then got his own feature film, Ali G Indahouse, in 2002. While that film was not a success, Baron did get to introduce American audiences to the barely literate, nearly incomprehensible character through a new version of Da Ali G Show for the cable network HBO. Ali G continued to befuddle and irritate his guests. Talking with former United Nations secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali, he asked “Is Disneyland a member of the U.N.?” And 60 Minutes commentator Andy Rooney got so aggravated with Ali G that he ended the interview. But this was not before Ali G asked the news veteran “Has journalists ever put out tomorrow’s news by mistake?”
For the show, Cohen faced a lot of criticism for perpetuating negative racial and cultural stereotypes. He even received some threats to his personal well-being because the program, according to some reports.
The next of Cohen’s characters to hit it big was Borat Sagdiyev, an oversexed, bigoted man-child television personality from Kazakhstan. With his origins in Da Ali G Show, Borat became the star of his own mocumentary film in 2006. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan was a surprise smash, bringing in more than $128 million at the box office. With the premise of making a documentary about the United States, Borat traveled the country, interviewing people and getting involved in some unusual and sometimes disturbing situations. As the film’s website explains, Borat’s “backwards behavior generates strong reactions around him exposing prejudices and hypocrisies in American culture.”
To do the satire, Cohen remained in character throughout the filming. “I had to be that way all day and all night, because even if the tiniest detail had gone awry, it could’ve made them suspicious,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2007. The convincing nature of this persona led to an anti-Semitic singalong in a bar and an encounter with some bitter frat boys in an RV who spewed a number of misogynistic and prejudicial remarks among other adventures.
Not everyone was laughing, however. Several lawsuits were filed after the film’s release by several people—including the now notorious frat boys—claiming that they were duped by Cohen. He responded to this charge by saying, “This wasn’t Candid Camera…I don’t buy the argument that, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t have acted so racist or anti-Semitic if I’d known this film was being shown in America.’ That’s no excuse,” he told the Los Angeles Times.
The government of Kazakhstan was also not happy with how the film portrayed their country. In the film, Borat showed some of the people he encountered explicit photographs of him and his “sister” and said that the country produced wine made from horse urine. Yerzhan Ashykbayev, a spokesperson for the country’s foreign ministry, said that the Kazahstan might pursue legal action against Cohen. “We do not rule out that Mr. Cohen is serving someone’s political order designed to present Kazakhstan and its people in a derogatory way,” he said.
Despite the controversy and the looming legal battles, Borat scored big with movie goers and critics alike. Cohen won a Golden Globe Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture—Musical or Comedy and earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Outside of his own characters, Cohen has tackled roles in other comedies. He appeared as a French racecar driver in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006) with Will Farrell and the musical Sweeney Todd (2007) with Johnny Depp. In a voiceover part, Cohen has played Julien, king of the lemurs in Madagascar (2005) and in its upcoming sequel Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (2008). Next up for the actor-comedian-provocateur is a film about another one of his characters—Bruno, a gay, Austrian fashion correspondent. The film, Brüno, is slated for release in 2009.
Several controversies surround the new film; Cohen made headlines while introducing an award at the 2009 MTV Movie Awards. Dressed as an angel, Cohen landed in rapper Eminem’s lap after an “problem” with his wire harness. Cohen then exposed himself onstage to Eminem’s cursing and threats. It was later revealed that the duo had planned the gag together. A lawsuit was also announced in May of 2009, when a woman claimed she was disabled during a shoot for Cohen’s new movie. The woman is suing for $25,000 in damages.
While Cohen is extremely private about his personal life, one bit of good news was made public in 2007. He and his fiancée, Australian actress Isla Fisher, welcomed their first child, daughter Olive, in October of 2007. The couple currently splits their time between Los Angeles and London.