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Whatever Happened To Sacha Baron Cohen?

Originally from London, England, Sacha Baron Cohen first introduced himself to American audiences back in 2003 when "Da Ali G Show" began airing on HBO. Previously, Baron Cohen had built a substantial following at home through his characters Ali G, Borat Sagdiyev, and Brüno Gehard, which led to HBO picking it up. Following "Da Ali G Show," Hollywood began to take notice of Baron Cohen, and he found roles doing voice acting work in the film "Madagascar" and on Larry David's comedy show "Curb Your Enthusiasm."

Yet, it was the year 2006 that kicked his career into overdrive. He starred in "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby," getting several award nominations and winning the MTV Movie Award for best kiss with Will Ferrell. Also that year he released his mega-hit "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," which earned him an Academy Award nomination for adapted screenplay and a Golden Globe win for best performance.

For a few years, Baron Cohen was one of the top attractions in Hollywood. He appeared alongside Johnny Depp in "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" in 2007, wrote and starred in "Brüno" in 2009, and released his sequel to "Borat," "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm" in 2020. Unfortunately, we haven't seen him nearly as often in the last few years. Looking back, here are the reasons why Hollywood won't cast Sacha Baron Cohen anymore.

He has retired most of his characters

Undoubtedly, Sacha Baron Cohen's most famous characters are Ali G, Borat Sagdiyev, and Brüno Gehard. Unfortunately for Hollywood studios, as of late 2023, all three of those characters are inactive. Baron Cohen originally put both his Ali G and Borat Sagdiyev characters to bed in 2007 following the release of "Borat," but lamented doing so after building the characters for several years.

In 2016, Baron Cohen reiterated that Borat was still retired and added Brüno to the list, citing death threats he'd gotten over the film's homosexual content. However, Baron Cohen did briefly revive Borat in 2020 for the sequel film "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm" in response to the rise of Donald Trump, before immediately putting the character back down again. While fans might have loved his character's pranks, especially the ones that made bigots and homophobic people uncomfortable, they were also dangerous, too.

According to a 2021 interview with NPR, Baron Cohen said that his most recent experience filming the newest "Borat" involved him wearing a bulletproof vest for fear of potentially being shot. He also spoke about how the cat is pretty much out of the bag in terms of his characters, so it's hard to still do them undercover. If Baron Cohen decides to bring back his characters again he might find a willing Hollywood studio, but until then they might be wary of another flop.

His comedy is perceived as offensive by many

Sacha Baron Cohen has undoubtedly earned many fans due to his characters' political incorrectness, but he has also gained a lot of detractors, too. Somewhat paradoxically, some of the same things that make his comedy appealing and relevant to fans, are also what makes it so offensive and off-putting to others.

According to a 2006 interview with Rolling Stone, he uses his characters as a way to parody what he sees as "the absurdity of holding any form of racial prejudice." Through them, he "lets people lower their guard and expose their own prejudice" and indifference, such as when he got patrons at a bar in Tucson to join Borat Sagdiyev in a rendition of an anti-Semitic song. However, not everyone agrees with Baron Cohen's style and methods, and some think his comedy is even harmful. There is an argument to be made that many people watching his work will not understand the satirical nuances, and will instead imbibe its racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic tropes as truths.  

Additionally, some say that his portrayal of Kazakhstan in the original "Borat" was needlessly offensive and exploitative and that his brand of politically incorrect satire is inappropriate in the current political and social climate. Furthermore, his character Brüno Gehard has come under fire by LGBTQ+ groups for reinforcing and promoting homophobic stereotypes. Baron Cohen's movies undeniably attract a certain kind of audience, and it's not for everyone.

His stunts could be destructive

Though most of his audiences find Sacha Baron Cohen's stunts funny, they're not always so comical to those in charge of the events he disturbs.

In September 2008, flamboyant fashion reporter Brüno crashed the famous Milan fashion week and — as the national newspaper La Repubblica commented — "violated the sacred rituals of high fashion" (via The Telegraph). During a show by Spanish designer Agatha Ruiz de la Prada, Baron Cohen and crew used fake passes to gain access to the backstage area where he proceeded to cause quite a ruckus while wearing a full-body velcro suit. He somehow ended up on the catwalk with a whole plethora of clothing stuck to his body and thus began to strut his stuff before organizers cut the lights. He was forcibly removed by security and had to explain himself to the Italian police.

The disruptive stunts were, of course, used in the filming of Cohen's "Brüno," but not everyone appreciated Baron Cohen's gatecrashing for the sake of his art. "Everybody is talking about it," a spokeswoman for the National Chamber of Italian Fashion told The Telegraph after Cohen's fashion-week stunts. "Some people were very angry and annoyed," though she also admitted some had a good laugh.

Lawsuits galore

Sacha Baron Cohen's controversial stunts not only offend and anger some people, but they also tend to provoke lawsuits.

The executive director of Desert Valley Charities unsuccessfully attempted to sue the people behind "Brüno" for upwards of $25,000, claiming a Baron Cohen prank at a bingo game left her confined to a wheelchair. A Palestinian grocer settled a slander suit against both Baron Cohen and David Letterman for defamation of character, after being portrayed as a terrorist in the same movie. Two South Carolina college students, a Baltimore driving instructor, and a Macedonian singer all tried to sue over issues taken with "Borat," as did the residents of the Romanian village Glod. And that's just the start.

In addition to upsetting Eastern European villages, Baron Cohen unsurprisingly managed to offend the country of Kazakhstan by portraying its people as backward and bigoted. "We consider this movie offensive, a complete lie, and nonsense," a prominent Kazakh cinema distribution manager told Reuters, adding that "it's a shame that some Americans will probably believe what they see there." However, Kazakhstan ultimately realized that any publicity is good publicity when building a brand state, and Deputy Foreign Minister Rakhat Aliyev even invited Baron Cohen to Kazakhstan, so Borat himself could see that that "women drive cars, wine is made of grapes, and Jews are free to go to synagogues."

He rarely did interviews out of character

There is no shortage of interviews with Ali G, Borat, or Brüno. During the height of his popularity, however, Sacha Baron Cohen seldom granted interviews as himself — causing most moviegoers to know very little about the man behind the personas.

Before Baron Cohen promoted "The Dictator" on Today in May 2012, the actor had only done an astonishing two interviews out of character. Far from being camera shy, the actor attributes that fact primarily to the nature of his previous films. "Well, the movies that I did up until now, they involved real people and so we wanted to limit the exposure ... for lawsuits — at the moment I think I have the Guinness World Record for most sued actor in history," he explained. "But basically if people saw that I was me, and that Borat was not a real person, beforehand, then they could injunct the movie and shut the movie down." Of course, it also would've been harder for Baron Cohen to trick his unsuspecting victims had he been putting himself in the media spotlight the whole time.

These days, Baron Cohen is heard from and seen out of character much more regularly.

Studios don't want to take the risk

The Hollywood landscape has changed since "Borat" hit theaters in 2006, so much so that Sacha Baron Cohen thinks his past films might not have even gotten made had he pitched them today. "I think studios are becoming more reluctant to take big risks," he told The Telegraph. "They're all owned by multinationals now and have to show profits."

Still, Baron Cohen doesn't think Hollywood's gotten too far off track: "If it wasn't for the Academy Awards, studios would only make movies to make money," he explained. "Because of the Academy Awards, studios make movies to be good as well."

Though Baron Cohen appreciates the Academy for keeping quality in Hollywood, the feeling is almost certainly not mutual. The Actor offended the powers-that-be not once but twice: First by ruining Ryan Seacrest's suit on the red carpet and later by making a surprise (and unwanted) appearance as Ali G. "I think my publicist got into a bit of trouble," the actor admitted, "and I doubt if I'll be invited back."

He's afraid of being too offensive

In today's political and cultural climate, some might argue that it's easier than ever to offend someone. And while one might assume Sacha Baron Cohen isn't concerned with political correctness, that's far from the truth.

"We will do a joke that makes us laugh in the room," the actor explained to The Telegraph, "and we say, 'Can we do this joke?' And then there is a discussion of 'is it moral to do and is it ethical to do; is it too far?'" Oftentimes, it is too far, and many of his team's ideas are left on the cutting room floor. "There are a lot of jokes that I would not make ... I am continually filtering stuff that is too much."

Comedians have been coming under fire more than ever in recent years, and Baron Cohen's job has only become more difficult in the process. "Comedy is a weird thing that's hard to analyze," he admitted. "I work very hard to make these films. They happen once every three years, and I put as many jokes in as I can and I want the movie to be as good as possible ... Sometimes they work and sometimes they don't."

He quit the Bohemian Rhapsody biopic

When the 2018 Queen biopic "Bohemian Rhapsody" was released, it got stunning reviews and Rami Malek's portrayal of Freddie Mercury won him both an Oscar and a BAFTA Award. Interestingly, Malek wasn't the first choice to play Mercury — that was Sacha Baron Cohen, but things didn't work out. 

According to an interview with Baron Cohen in 2016 with Howard Stern, he voluntarily removed himself from the project after several years due to disagreeing with the surviving members of the band over the film's direction. Baron Cohen wanted it to focus more on their exploits during Mercury's era, while they wanted to make it more about their career after his death. The hard feelings were mutual, as Queen's drummer Roger Taylor later commented to Classic Rock (via Loudersound) that he thought Baron Cohen "would have been utter s***" in the role.

As we now know, "Bohemian Rhapsody" became the biggest-grossing music biopic in cinema history, and even though the production was beset with problems, many questioned Baron Cohen's decision years later after seeing how successful it was. In addition, comments from band members like Taylor and guitarist Brian May — who called Baron Cohen an "a***" and a liar (via The Daily Mail) — have possibly given him a reputation for being difficult to work with. Not appearing in the film didn't end his career, but it didn't help it, either. 

He's notoriously private

Many celebrities make it their business to be in the public spotlight as much as possible, yet Sacha Baron Cohen is quite the opposite. He rarely appears in the tabloids, and when he does show up in the news it's not for excessive partying or walking back controversial statements. Often it's for activism or humanitarianism, like his speech at the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington in 2023, or when he was the keynote speaker for an Anti-Defamation League summit in 2019.

Additionally, even though Baron Cohen has provided many interviews over the years, most are done in character. In a 2021 interview with NPR, he explained his reason for doing so, saying he "never wanted to give interviews" as himself and that he preferred it when people didn't recognize him and only knew his characters. In another interview the same year with The New York Times, Baron Cohen recalled avoiding the paparazzi and referred to himself and his wife Isla Fisher as B-listers — something he takes pride in. 

Evading the spotlight has allowed him to live a lower-profile personal life — something important to him and Fisher due to their kids – but it's easy to wonder if this has hindered his pursuit of some roles. With little known about him outside of his off-the-wall characters, his antics may have discouraged potential directors and producers from working with him. It's impossible to know, but either way, Baron Cohen seems very secure with how his fame has worked out.

His recent films haven't done great at the box office

When Sacha Baron Cohen released "Borat" in 2006, it was one of the biggest surprises of the year. Despite not having a massive reputation stateside, Baron Cohen's flick grossed an incredible $128 million domestically in the U.S. and Canada and more than $262 million worldwide, on a budget of just $18 million.

This made Baron Cohen and his characters seem like an extremely attractive option for Hollywood studios, but unfortunately, his newer films have not had nearly the same box office success. His next release "Brüno" in 2009 had a strong opening day, but enthusiasm cratered almost immediately. It did less than half of what "Borat" did domestically in the U.S. and Canada ($60 million), with more than half of that on the opening weekend. His 2012 film "The Dictator" had a rough opening weekend at just $4.2 million, and failed to top the $60 million mark domestically. His worst by far was 2016's "The Brothers Grimsby," which lost money on a $35 million budget.

Baron Cohen's most recent film "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm" in 2020 was released directly to Amazon Prime for streaming, and though Amazon said it did well, those numbers were disputed almost immediately. Baron Cohen just hasn't had the same success since "Borat," and it seems to be making some studios weary of bigger projects.

He's upset many politicians

For many fans of Sacha Baron Cohen, nothing would delight them more than to unwittingly appear in one of his films. However, there are also quite a few people who have been featured in his work who wished they hadn't, including several famous politicians. Going back to "Borat" in 2006, Baron Cohen filmed a scene with former congressman Bill Barr Jr., after which Barr had Baron Cohen thrown out of his office.

Yet, that was nothing compared to his 2018 Showtime series "Who is America?", which skewered numerous politicians. Sarah Palin complained that she was tricked into doing an interview and made fun of, and he got former vice president Dick Cheney to sign a fake waterboard kit. The former state representative from Georgia, Jason Spencer, resigned from his position in the government after he was in an episode and yelled racial slurs while walking around in his underwear. Finally, former judge and U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore sued Baron Cohen after being made to look like a pedophile on the show.

When Baron Cohen revived his Borat Sagdiyev character for 2020's "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm," he then caught former New York Governor Rudy Giuliani in what seemed like a compromising position with a young female interviewer, igniting a massive controversy. Baron Cohen has certainly rubbed some politicians the wrong way, maybe just enough to scare off some Hollywood studios.

He's reviving a controversial character

Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Sacha Baron Cohen first made a name for himself through his character rapper Ali G. However, there were many critics of his alter-ego, including those who found Ali G offensive and accused him of mocking Black culture. In 2007, after the release of "Borat," Baron Cohen announced that he was retiring Ali G's character, but it didn't last.

Nine years later, he brought the character back for the 2016 Academy Awards — without the prior knowledge of the Academy — which received mixed reviews, with some saying it was outdated (via The Guardian). He once again revived the rapper in 2021 during a stand-up performance, which went largely unnoticed, and it appears he is intent on potentially bringing him out once again. Reports indicate that he will be devising a new stand-up routine featuring Ali G, though details are relatively scarce.

For many Baron Cohen fans, this is welcome news to see a favorite character again, but there are probably also some who are less than enthused. The political and social climate in America has shifted dramatically since Ali G's heyday in the early 2000s, and his character's cultural appropriation of Black culture might not go over too well with some audiences today. Ali G has always been controversial, and it might be a step too far for Hollywood to accept him back in 2023 and beyond.