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Proof Sacha Baron Cohen Can Play Any Role

This content was paid for by Netflix and created by Looper.

What if we told you that Sacha Baron Cohen — yes, the man who gave us Borat and his lime green "mankini" — is one of the most versatile actors on planet Earth? If you're the kind of person who still gleefully quotes the fictitious Kazach TV journalist, you might not be aware that Baron Cohen also has an undeniable flair for the dramatic. Since his early days as a fashion model, and as a TV presenter on Pump TV, Baron Cohen's political conscience has anchored even his most outlandish roles. 

And now appearing as Abbie Hoffman in The Trial of the Chicago 7, we get to see him embody one of the most important American counterculture figures of the 1960s. When it comes to artistic range, there's really not a lot that Baron Cohen can't do. Here's all the proof you need that Sacha Baron Cohen can play just about any role.

Da Ali G Show (2000-2004)

Sure, Sacha Baron Cohen is a funny guy. But when it comes to his stable of hilarious characters — each one played by Baron Cohen himself — his work is anything but a joke. Da Ali G Show was arguably the greatest satirical talk show of the aughts, appearing on the UK's Channel 4 from 2000 to 2004. Here, Baron Cohen played a variety of characters, most notably the titular "Ali G," the enchantingly phony "hip hop journalist," along with the aforementioned Borat Sagdiyev and gay fashion maven Brüno Gehard.

Each character laid it on thick when it came to social stereotypes, but incredibly, Baron Cohen was always able to convince his celebrity interview subjects that the conversation they were having was genuine. Through leading questions and lightspeed improv, Baron Cohen always managed to get his interviewees to reveal some truth about themselves, usually in embarrassing fashion. The show proved so iconic that Cohen has been able to reprise each of his characters on the big screen (2002's Ali G Indahouse, 2006's Borat, and 2009's Brüno), with Borat 2 landing in October 2020. In fact, Baron Cohen has become so famous over the years that it has become increasingly difficult to convince interviewees that his Ali G characters are real. Even so, when it comes to this razor sharp classic political satire, we've got nothing but "Respek."

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

Sacha Baron Cohen's role as Adolfo Pirelli in 2007's Sweeney Todd showed the world another side of the Ali G actor. Sure, Baron Cohen already had the crazy accent work and exaggerated facial expressions ready to go because of his previous work. But he also proved that he could sing classic showtunes and nail complex choreography. The Pirelli role is fascinating, because of Baron Cohen's unique gift for disappearing into his characters. The global box office agreed, with the Tim Burton-directed adaptation achieving blockbuster success.

Baron Cohen impressed not just audiences, but the actors who appeared alongside him in the classic Sondheim/Wheeler musical. Johnny Depp glowed about his co-star in a 2007 interview with Entertainment Weekly, saying:

"He's not what I expected. I didn't look at those characters and think, 'This will be the sweetest guy in the world'. He's incredibly nice. A real gentleman, kind of elegant. I was impressed with him. He's kind of today's equivalent of Peter Sellers."

That's high praise coming from one of the world's most recognizable stars. But Sacha Baron Cohen was only getting started.

The Madagascar Series (2005-2012)

So we've established that Sacha Baron Cohen is a singing, dancing political satirist — and remember, this guy almost played Freddie Mercury. What other tools could he possibly bring to his trade? Well, how about voice acting?

Baron Cohen leant his versatile vocal cords to the Madagascar franchise, the mainline entries of which brought in nearly $2 billion at the global box office. While Baron Cohen typically plays tall and imposing characters in real life, his King Julien XIII, a lemur, is decidedly smaller in stature, though nothing less than vital to the story. Julien is thrust upon the throne when his cowardly uncle, Julien XII, becomes convinced that a sinister prophecy dooms whoever wears the crown, though Cohen's Julien XIII manages to manipulate the situation for his own advantage.

None of Baron Cohen's charisma is lost in his transition to voice actor. King Julien became one of the great animated antiheroes of the past 20 years, and a generation of kids grew up quoting the little lemur king. Of the character's unique accent, Baron Cohen told Jimmy Kimmel that he drew inspiration from his real life Sri Lanken lawyer. Even though we haven't had a new Madagascar theatrical release since 2012, Madagascar 4 is heavily rumored to be in production, meaning we likely haven't heard the last of Sacha Baron Cohen as the world's most famous lemur king.

Hugo (2011)

If you told the average Ali G Show viewer in 2002 that star Sacha Baron Cohen would be working with Martin Scorsese within a decade, you might be met with disbelief. But this is exactly the path that Baron Cohen's unconventional career took. Appearing as station inspector Gustave Dasté, Cohen is the main antagonist to Hugo, the orphan boy who secretly repairs clocks in a Parisian railway station.

Baron Cohen impressed critics with the depth he brought to what could've been a one-dimensional villain role in the underrated Hugo, complete with the curly moustache. His Inspector Gustave is a veteran of World War I, who walks with a clumsy limp and leg brace from a wound sustained in that conflict. And though Baron Cohen is nothing but menacing at the start, we get to see his vulnerability as he crushes on Lisette the flower seller, and in the way he gradually warms to young Hugo.

As to why he picked the brash and controversial Baron Cohen for a prominent role in his PG-rated children's book adaptation, Scorsese explained his choice to Extra in 2012:

"Having seen Borat [...], we met after I screened it, so we just met for what was supposed to be a half hour. Three hours later, we were still talking."

A deep impression was clearly made, and Baron Cohen got to create another distinctive performance in front of a new kind of audience.

Les Misérables (2012)

Victor Hugo's 1862 Les Misérables is a literary classic in many ways, but it's not known for its comedy. And even though its 1980 stage musical adaptation had its share of uplifting numbers to lighten the mood, the overall story is one of...well...misery. Perhaps it's for this reason that Sacha Baron Cohen's Thénardier explodes on the screen with such energy, alongside his Sweeney Todd co-star Helena Bonham Carter playing Madame Thénardier, of course.

The Thénardiers are thieving innkeepers, who manage to swindle their tenants out of money, jewelry, glass eyes — anything that can be sold or stolen, really. Again, Baron Cohen proves that he can hold a tune, in his hilarious and captivating rendition of "Master of the House," a memorable duet with Bonham Carter. Les Mis proved once more that Baron Cohen could achieve box office gold well outside of traditional comic roles. The musical went on to earn $441 million at the global box office, having cost only $61 million to produce, and won three Academy Awards.

The Spy (2019)

Though Sacha Baron Cohen hails from Great Britain, his mother Daniela Naomi was born in Israel. With this personal lineage, it only makes sense that the actor might be interested in portraying another Cohen — though one with a decidedly different profession. That Cohen — Eli Cohen — was a real life Mossad spy, active during the 1967 "Six Day War" between Syria and Israel. The six-part miniseries The Spy follows Eli Cohen from his earliest days as a recruit, through his infiltration into Syrian high society, and the thrilling personal and political consequences that concluded his activity. 

Baron Cohen again proves that he can make his larger-than-life persona disappear into a deeply serious role, and he received a nomination for Best Actor in a Miniseries of TV Film at the 77th Golden Globes. The miniseries is a must-see for anyone interested in international intrigue, or for those who simply wish to see Sacha Baron Cohen the sophisticated side of his considerable acting range. 

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)

Written and directed by The West Wing writer Aaron Sorkin, The Trial of the Chicago 7 sees Sacha Baron Cohen stepping into the shoes of Abbie Hoffman, one of the 1960s' most prominent Anti-Vietnam protestors, and all around political agitator. Baron Cohen covers the life of Hoffman in 1968, when he and a group of political allies were tried for conspiracy and inciting a riot during the Democratic National Convention. When it comes to physical resemblance, Baron Cohen is a dead ringer for the late Mr. Hoffman and, like Hoffman, Baron Cohen identifies strongly with his Jewish heritage

The film drops at a fitting time in American history, when widespread political protests fill city streets, much like the Vietnam protests of Abbie Hoffman's heyday. The film is also the much-anticipated sophomore directorial project for Aaron Sorkin, who is celebrated for penning numerous well-regarded screenplays, including The Newsroom, Moneyball, The Social Network, Charlie Wilson's War, and A Few Good Men

Throughout his career, Baron Cohen has appeared prolifically on TV — like his Showtime limited series Who is America? – and in film, including high profile appearances in Alice Through the Looking Glass and The Brothers Grimsby. It's clear by now that Baron Cohen can bring his special talents to any role he sets his mind to. So it's only a matter of time until Baron Cohen finds his next iconic character...