Sacha Baron Cohen rarely speaks to the press (unless he’s appearing as one of his comic alter egos), but when he does give an interview it's always worth listening to. On Monday, in the latest episode of American comedian Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, the creator of Borat, Bruno and Ali G opened up about his life, tackling everything from his time in a French clown academy to his run-in with a neo-Nazi killer.
As his new film, Grimsby, opens in cinemas this week, here are the most surprising things we heard from Baron Cohen on WTF:
His grandmother was a 99-year-old fitness instructor
“My late grandmother, who died last year, was apparently the oldest keep fit teacher in the world,” Baron Cohen said.
“If you go on Youtube and look up 99-year-old Keep Fit teacher, that’s my late grandmother.”
But she wasn’t a fan of his work.
“That side of the family were not into humour... they were very, very German.”
But Baron Cohen was determined to win his grandmother over. “I took her to Bruno, and she said she didn’t like it. So I asked her, ‘What kind of humour do you like?’, and she said, ‘ballet’.”
The FBI have a dossier on Borat
“On Borat the FBI started following us,” Baron Cohen said, nonchalantly. “They got so many complaints that there was a terrorist travelling in an ice-cream van…that they started compiling a file on us.”
He interviewed a violent neo-Nazi for Bruno
At university, Baron Cohen specialised in 20th Century history, and particularly Nazi Germany. So he leapt at the chance to use his comedy against modern-day fascists.
“We did one interview that never made the air, with this neo-Nazi guy,” he said. But the encounter became far darker than he expected. “His whole place [was] full of machine guns and ammunition – [even] in the kitchen. You know that somebody’s pretty extreme when they’ve got ammunition in the kitchen.” His interviewee, Frazier Glenn Miller, would later go on to kill three people in a mass shooting at Kansas's Overland Park Jewish Community Centre, and is currently on Death Row.
The skit involved Baron Cohen’s camp Austrian fashion reporter, Bruno, offering Miller advice on how to best promote “his little neo-Nazi organisation.” After making a few inappropriate suggestions, his “assistant” spilled a wheatgrass drink on Bruno’s white trousers, which had to be sent for immediate dry-cleaning – leaving Baron Cohen to conduct the remainder of the interview in his thong.
While Baron Cohen was being given a tour of Miller’s home, the actor playing Bruno’s lover burst in to accuse them of having an affair – and demanded an explanation for why Bruno was in only his underwear, in another man’s bedroom.
But Miller lashed out physically at the actors, who had to leave immediately, and the footage was never used. “It was too extreme”, Baron Cohen said. “The problem is, when you get somebody who’s that full of hate, you feel uncomfortable in the room and you feel uncomfortable watching them on screen. They’re tragic. You’re giving them, ultimately, a platform for their vicious, disgusting views.”
Baron Cohen has a minder whose only job is to keep him out of jail (he’s kept pretty busy)
“We hire a kind of bodyguard,” said the actor. “He’s bit like [Grimsby’s] Nobby actually – he’s this northern bloke, and his job is to prevent me from being arrested.”
The real-life Nobby has had to deal with some thorny situations.
“There’s a bit in Bruno where I end up drunk with my assistant, and we wake up in this hotel room. We’re chained together in all this extreme S&M gear, there’s faeces on the walls…it’s disgusting. We call down, and I get the manager up.”
Unsurprisingly, the hotel manager phoned the police – the cue for Baron Cohen’s security man to spring into action.
“We always have an escape van waiting in an alleyway. He unlocked us [from the chains], we start running to the service elevator, get in the service elevator, the doors are closing – suddenly the hotel security open the doors, and they say ‘Get out, we’ve got the police downstairs’… We run away from them, start running down the stairs – we’re on the 17th floor – and I’m in a G-string… I’m like, ‘Where are we going? There’s cops downstairs.’ And he says, ‘Out the window!’”
“So I look out the window and there’s a rickety old fire escape.” But Baron Cohen wasn’t yet home and dry: without a key for the ladder at the end of the fire escape, he was forced to jump the last 12ft.
"There are two little American ladies [on the pavement] who are having a little cigarette break, and there – from the heavens – appears me. I jump in front of them, wearing heels, and this crazy S&M stuff, and there’s my friend with a toilet brush in his mouth."
Baron Cohen landed so heavily he broke his foot. The escape van whisked him out of Kansas ("we always have to get out of the state"), but, because of the actor's injury, filming was then shut down for three months.
He would make an excellent spy
Just before his death-defying leap, Baron Cohen masterminded a daring covert operation. When he heard that a group called God Hates Fags were planning a demonstration, he decided he had to gate-crash it – but the police were determined to stop him. “The cops said, we’re arresting Sacha… if we see him, he’s arrested.”
“We found out the cops were circling the God Hates Fags demonstration,” he continued, “so I said, 'Alright, time how long we’ve got between every circle.' We time it, and it’s three minutes and 30 seconds.”
In two minutes and 50 seconds exactly, Baron Cohen leapt out of his van, filmed his skit at the demonstration, and then jumped into another car which carried him away before the police could catch him.
“We had a bond lawyer hiding in the bushes in case we got arrested, to get me out on bail immediately.”
Now that's organisation.
The police really, really wanted to arrest him
While filming Borat, several of his stunts took place in the same NYC district, and the local chief of police finally decided he’d had enough.
“They arrested the producer of the movie [Monica Levenson] and the assistant director,” Baron Cohen said. “Then we get a call, which was, ‘If Sacha comes down [to the station], we will release everyone.’ I call my lawyer in India who says, ‘It’s a trap, they’re going to arrest you, they’ll get publicity if they’re the ones who arrest Ali G’.”
Rather than take the bait, Baron Cohen left the state as soon as possible.
It seems to be a recurring theme – after watching Baron Cohen genuinely being chased by the police through Alabama, his wife, Isla Fisher, decided she would never visit him on set again.Apparently, Baron Cohen is still considered a felon in Sedona, Arizona.
He spent six months in France’s toughest boot-camp for clowns
In order to hone his craft, Baron Cohen dropped out of Cambridge University for six months to attend France’s most prestigious clown academy, Ecole Philippe Gaulier: “This guy, Philippe Gaulier, would sit there with a little drum. And if you weren’t funny, he’d hit the drum and you’d go off… Some people would start bursting into tears. They’d walk onstage, and after three seconds he’d bang the drum… Sometimes he’d let me stay on for 15 minutes, and the others started to hate me.”
WTF with Marc Maron can be streamed or downloaded atwtfpod.com