10 Outrageous Facts About Sacha Baron Cohen

Astrid Stawiarz, Getty Images
Astrid Stawiarz, Getty Images

Not only is Sacha Baron Cohen the premier in-character satirist of this era, he’s peerless. An incendiary genius, Baron Cohen is the only person in the world doing what he does at the level at which he does it. Whether it’s as Borat or his new Who Is America? character Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr., PhD, his comedy works not because he tricks the people he’s interviewing into saying horrific, racist, sexist, xenophobic garbage, but because he makes them feel safe enough to say their worst opinions out loud, on camera.

His fearlessness in making serious people look silly has earned him a global audience and an appropriate amount of outrage—not to mention an Oscar nomination. Here are 10 facts about the comic behind the mustaches.

1. HE STARTED OUT AS A MODEL.

After graduating Christ’s College, Cambridge, Baron Cohen briefly worked as a fashion model before hosting low-paying local and regional TV shows in the early 1990s. Obviously is was good prep for crafting the stylish Brüno, who infiltrated Milan, Madrid, and Paris Fashion Weeks.

2. HE ALSO HELPED SELL FRENCH FRIES.

Like a lot of people in the entertainment industry (Hi, bank enthusiast Tina Fey!), Baron Cohen also appeared in a commercial before getting his big break. Far from embarrassing, though, the pun-heavy, absurdist pitch for microwavable French fries (“chips” if you’re English) would fit in well in today’s manic advertising age. Baron Cohen played a chef for about a nanosecond of screen time (as seen above).

3. HE OWES HIS SUCCESS TO A CLOWN.

One of the best clowns, in fact. Baron Cohen studied with the legendary Philippe Gaulier in Paris. Gaulier is known for his rigid deadpan, frizzy hair, and heartlessly brutal feedback. A post-fame Baron Cohen—who credits Gaulier for his success—returned to the clowning school on its 20th anniversary to perform in workshops. “He was so boring," Gaulier said of his former pupil. "But being boring is normal. Sometimes you have to be boring before you can discover something new.”

4. HE IDOLIZES PETER SELLERS.


Charley Gallay, Getty Images for Disney

Fans of both Baron Cohen and Peter Sellers will immediately see the connection between the two performers. Sellers made a mark dramatically transforming himself into a multitude of comic characters: the farcical, naive Inspector Clouseau; the shrieking, alien hand syndrome sufferer Dr. Strangelove; the television-brained Chance the gardener in Being There. All feature DNA that could morph into Baron Cohen’s characters. Baron Cohen said that Sellers was the “most seminal force in shaping his early ideas on comedy,” and he’s been favorably compared to the late comedy master.

5. HIS EARLY STUNTS INVOLVED MAKING PEOPLE THINK HE WASN’T THE INTERVIEWER.

How does Baron Cohen catch so many people off guard? In the early days of Ali G, he’d carry equipment in with the crew and do idiotic warm-up interview questions with his subjects while a sharply dressed confederate stood nearby. Subjects would assume the guy in the suit was the interviewer, and then the cameras would roll with Ali G still in the interviewer’s chair. This is, of course, after everyone has signed release forms.

6. A LOT OF PEOPLE HAVE THREATENED TO SUE HIM.

 Awards host Borat poses in the Awards Room at the 12th annual MTV Europe Music Awards 2005 at the Atlantic Pavilion on November 3, 2005 in Lisbon, Portugal
Gareth Cattermole, Getty Images for MTV

Baron Cohen has almost always had lawyers and producers guiding what’s in and out of bounds, but it’s no surprise that he’s been slapped with lawsuits by several people. After Borat, the Kazakhstan government threatened a suit (Baron Cohen responded by encouraging them in character as Borat), and the Romanian village where he shot his “Kazakhstan” segments wasn't pleased about being lied to either. He’s been sued by frat boys, a bingo hall employee, and a Palestinian grocer. The first two cases were dismissed, and the third was settled out of court.

7. THE FBI HAD A FILE ON BORAT.

Baron Cohen grew accustomed to the police showing up to his projects early on, but the FBI also got involved during the Borat shoot. “The FBI were following us for a while,” Baron Cohen told NPR. “They had so many complaints that there was a Middle Eastern man ... driving through America in an ice cream van that the FBI assigned a team to us.”

8. HE OBSESSIVELY STAYS IN CHARACTER.

Sacha Baron Cohen arrives at the Carlton Hotel as The Dictator during the 65th Annual Cannes Film Festival in 2012.
Andrew H. Walker, Getty Images

Part of Baron Cohen’s ability to avoid cracking during hide-under-the-carpet awkward moments is that he goes method, remaining in character regardless of whether cameras are rolling. That means he’s Borat or Brüno or someone else ridiculous during production meetings, while being questioned by the Secret Service after being pulled over outside the White House, or while an angry mob of rodeo fans are threatening to kill him.

9. HE RARELY APPEARS IN PUBLIC AS HIMSELF.

Focus on his characters has afforded the extremely private Baron Cohen a shield against those who would snoop into his real life. Almost all of his red carpet appearances are in character (which he frequently uses in the art itself), and he spent years giving remarkably few interviews without the put-on. During his rise to fame, Rolling Stone boasted having “the only interview as himself.” “I think that essentially I’m a private person, and to reconcile that with being famous is a hard thing,” Baron Cohen said. “So, I’ve been trying to have my cake and eat it, too—to have my characters be famous yet still live a normal life where I’m not trapped by fame and recognizability.”

10. HE LIED ABOUT ADAPTING A ROMANCE NOVEL WRITTEN BY SADDAM HUSSEIN TO AVOID BEING TARGETED BY A DICTATOR.

When Baron Cohen and Larry Charles were developing The Dictator, they were worried that the main influence for his Admiral General Aladeen character, Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi, would react violently to being the butt of the joke. To skew attention away from the satirical target during filming, they fed media outlets the story that the movie was based on the romance novel Zabibah and the King, written by Saddam Hussein (and published anonymously). No violence occurred because of the movie, but Baron Cohen was banned from filming at the United Nations because, as he claimed officials said, “We represent a lot of dictators, and they are going to be very angry by this portrayal of them, so you can’t shoot here.”

15 Fascinating Facts About Schindler’s List

Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

In 1993, Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List brought to the screen a story that had gone untold since the tragic events of the Holocaust. Oskar Schindler, a Nazi party member, used his pull within the party to save the lives of more than 1000 Jewish individuals by recruiting them to work in his Polish factory. Here are some facts about Spielberg’s groundbreaking film on its 25th anniversary.

1. The story was relayed to author Thomas Keneally in a Beverly Hills leather goods shop.

In October 1980, Australian novelist Thomas Keneally had stopped into a leather goods shop off of Rodeo Drive after a book tour stopover from a film festival in Sorrento, Italy, where one of his books was adapted into a movie. When the owner of the shop, Leopold Page, learned that Keneally was a writer, he began telling him “the greatest story of humanity man to man.” That story was how Page, his wife, and thousands of other Jews were saved by a Nazi factory owner named Oskar Schindler during World War II.

Page gave Keneally photocopies of documents related to Schindler, including speeches, firsthand accounts, testimonies, and the actual list of names of the people he saved. It inspired Keneally to write the book Schindler’s Ark, on which the movie is based. Page (whose real name was Poldek Pfefferberg) ended up becoming a consultant on the film.

2. Keneally wasn't the first person Leopold Page told about Oskar Schindler.

The film rights to Page’s story were actually first purchased by MGM for $50,000 in the 1960s after Page had similarly ambushed the wife of film producer Marvin Gosch at his leather shop. Mrs. Gosch told the story to her husband, who agreed to produce a film version, even going so far as hiring Casablanca co-screenwriter Howard Koch to write the script. Koch and Gosch began interviewing Schindler Jews in and around the Los Angeles area, and even Schindler himself, before the project stalled, leaving the story unknown to the public at large.

3. Schindler made more than one list.

Liam Neeson, Agnieszka Krukówna, Krzysztof Luft, Friedrich von Thun, and Marta Bizon in Schindler's List (1993)
Universal Pictures

Seven lists in all were made by Oskar Schindler and his associates during the war, while four are known to still exist. Two are at the Yad Vashem in Israel, one is at the US Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and one privately owned list was unsuccessfully auctioned off via eBay in 2013.

The movie refers to the first two lists created in 1944, otherwise known as “The Lists of Life.” The five subsequent lists were updates to the first two versions, which included the names of more than 1000 Jews who Schindler saved by recruiting them to work in his factory.

4. Steven Spielberg first learned of Schindler in the early 1980s.

Former MCA/Universal president Sid Sheinberg, a father figure to Spielberg, gave the director Keneally’s book when it was first published in 1982, to which Spielberg allegedly replied, “It’ll make a helluva story. Is it true?”

Eventually the studio bought the rights to the book, and when Page met with Spielberg to discuss the story, the director promised the Holocaust survivor that he would make the film adaptation within 10 years. The project languished for over a decade because Spielberg was reluctant to take on such serious subject matter. Spielberg’s hesitation actually stopped Hollywood veteran Billy Wilder from making Schindler’s List his final film. Wilder tried to buy the rights to Keneally’s book, but Spielberg and MCA/Universal scooped them up before he could.

5. Spielberg refused to accept a salary for making the movie.

Though Spielberg is already an extremely wealthy man as a result of the many big-budget movies that have made him one of Hollywood’s most successful directors, he decided that a story as important as Schindler’s List shouldn’t be made with an eye toward financial reward. The director relinquished his salary for the movie and any proceeds he would stand to make in perpetuity, calling any such personal gains “blood money.” Instead, Spielberg used the film’s profits to found the USC Shoah Foundation, which was established in 1994 to honor and remember the survivors of the Holocaust by collecting personal recollections and audio visual interviews.

6. Before Spielberg agreed to make the movie, he tried to get other directors to make it.

Part of Spielberg’s reluctance to make Schindler's List was that he didn’t feel that he was prepared or mature enough to tackle a film about the Holocaust. So he tried to recruit other directors to make the film. He first approached director Roman Polanski, a Holocaust survivor whose own mother was killed in Auschwitz. Polanski declined, but would go on to make his own film about the Holocaust, The Pianist, which earned him a Best Director Oscar in 2003. Spielberg then offered the movie to director Sydney Pollack, who also passed.

The job was then offered to legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese, who accepted. Scorsese was set to put the film into production when Spielberg had an epiphany on the set of the revisionist Peter Pan story Hook and realized that he was finally prepared to make Schindler’s List. To make up for the change of heart, Spielberg traded Scorsese the rights to a movie he’d been developing that Scorsese would make into his next film: the remake of Cape Fear.

7. The movie was a gamble for Universal, so they made Spielberg a dino-sized deal.

When Spielberg finally decided to make Schindler’s List, it had taken him so long that Sheinberg and Universal balked. The relatively low-budget $23 million three-hour black-and-white Holocaust movie was too much of a risk, so they asked Spielberg to make another project that had been brewing at the studio: Jurassic Park. Make the lucrative summer movie first, they said, and then he could go and make his passion project. Spielberg agreed, and both movies were released in 1993; Jurassic Park in June and Schindler’s List in December.

8. Spielberg didn't want a movie star with Hollywood clout to portray Schindler.

Kevin Costner and Mel Gibson auditioned for the role of Oskar Schindler, and actor Warren Beatty was far enough along in the process that he even made it as far as a script reading. But according to Spielberg, Beatty was dropped because, “Warren would have played it like Oskar Schindler through Warren Beatty.”

For the role, Spielberg cast then relatively unknown Irish actor Liam Neeson, whom the director had seen in a Broadway play called Anna Christie. “Liam was the closest in my experience of what Schindler was like,” Spielberg told The New York Times. “His charm, the way women love him, his strength. He actually looks a little bit like Schindler, the same height, although Schindler was a rotund man,” he said. “If I had made the movie in 1964, I would have cast Gert Frobe, the late German actor. That’s what he looked like.”

Besides having Neeson listen to recordings of Schindler, the director also told him to study the gestures of former Time Warner chairman Steven J. Ross, another of Spielberg’s mentors, and the man to whom he dedicated the film.

9. Spielberg did his own research.

In order to gain a more personal perspective on the film, Spielberg traveled to Poland before principal photography began to interview Holocaust survivors and visit the real-life locations that he planned to portray in the movie. While there, he visited the former Gestapo headquarters on Pomorska Street, Schindler’s actual apartment, and Amon Goeth’s villa.

Eventually the film shot on location for 92 days in Poland by recreating the Płaszów camp in a nearby abandoned rock quarry. The production was also allowed to shoot scenes outside the gates of Auschwitz.

10. The little girl in the red coat was real.

Promotional image for 25th anniversary rerelease of Schindler's List.
Universal Pictures

A symbol of innocence in the movie, the little girl in the red coat who appears during the liquidation of the ghetto in the movie was based on a real person. In the film, the little girl is played by actress Oliwia Dabrowska, who—at the age of three—promised Spielberg that she would not watch the film until she was 18 years old. She allegedly watched the movie when she was 11, breaking her promise, and spent years rejecting the experience. Later, she told the Daily Mail, “I realized I had been part of something I could be proud of. Spielberg was right: I had to grow up to watch the film.”

The actual girl in the red coat was named Roma Ligocka; a survivor of the Krakow ghetto, she was known amongst the Jews living there by her red winter coat. Ligocka, now a painter who lives in Germany, later wrote a biography about surviving the Holocaust called The Girl in the Red Coat.

11. The movie wasn't supposed to be in English.

For a better sense of reality, Spielberg originally wanted to shoot the movie completely in Polish and German using subtitles, but he eventually decided against it because he felt that it would take away from the urgency and importance of the images onscreen. According to Spielberg, “I wanted people to watch the images, not read the subtitles. There’s too much safety in reading. It would have been an excuse to take their eyes off the screen and watch something else.”

12. The studio didn't want the movie to be in black and white.

The only person at MCA/Universal who agreed with Spielberg and director of cinematography Janusz Kaminski’s decision to shoot the movie in black and white was Sheinberg. Everyone else lobbied against the idea, saying that it would stylize the Holocaust. Spielberg and Kaminski chose to shoot the film in a grimy, unstylish fashion and format inspired by German Expressionist and Italian Neorealist films. Also, according to Spielberg, “It’s entirely appropriate because I’ve only experienced the Holocaust through other people’s testimonies and through archival footage which is, of course, all in black and white.”

13. Spielberg's passion project paid off in Oscars.

Schindler’s List was the big winner at the 66th Academy Awards. The film won a total of seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director awards for Spielberg. Neeson and Ralph Fiennes were both nominated for their performances, and the film also received nods for Costume Design, Makeup, and Sound.

14. Schindler's List is technically a student film.

Steven Spielberg gives a speech
Nicholas Hunt, Getty Images

Thirty-three years after dropping out of college, Spielberg finally received a BA in Film and Video Production from his newly minted alma mater, Cal State Long Beach, in 2002. The director re-enrolled in secret, and gained his remaining credits by writing essays and submitting projects under a pseudonym. In order to pass a film course, he submitted Schindler’s List as his student project. Spielberg describes the time gap between leaving school and earning his degree as his “longest post-production schedule.”

15. Spielberg thinks the film may be even more important to watch today.

In honor of the film's 25th anniversary, it's currently back in theaters. But Spielberg believes that the film may be even more important for today's audiences to see. "I think this is maybe the most important time to re-release this film," the director said in a recent interview with Lester Holt on NBC Nightly News. Citing the spike in hate crimes targeting religious minorities since
2016, he said, "Hate's less parenthetical today, it's more a headline."

Additional Sources:
The Making of Schindler’s List: Behind the Scenes of an Epic Film, by Franciszek Palowski

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2015.

The Most-Searched Holiday Movie in Every State, Mapped

iStock.com/chrispecoraro
iStock.com/chrispecoraro

Do you live in a Gremlins state or a Home Alone state? StreamingObserver is here to tell you. The streaming-industry site recently used Rotten Tomatoes and other public data sources to figure out the most popular Christmas movies in each state. Spoiler: It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t quite the Christmas classic you thought it was.

The list takes some liberties with what might be considered a “Christmas” movie. Die Hard (a favorite in Missouri and Wisconsin) made the list, as did Batman Returns (California’s most-searched movie) and Edward Scissorhands (popular in Nevada and Arizona). They aren’t quite the traditional Hallmark holiday fare, but they each include at least some nod to the Christmas season.

Then there’s the more standard Yuletide entertainment, like A Christmas Carol (Tennessee’s favorite) and Frosty the Snowman (South Dakota's pick). Christmas in Connecticut, oddly enough, is Montana’s favorite (unclear whether that’s the 1945 film or the 1992 TV movie), while Connecticut’s favorite is the 1983 Eddie Murphy film Trading Places. The Apartment, The Snowman, Miracle on 34th Street, and The Best Man Holiday also make an appearance. Seven states list Gremlins as their favorite, while six chose Home Alone and three chose Scrooged.

The data is based on Google searches, rather than surveys, so it's possible that the movie at the top of each state's list isn't so much beloved as it is curiosity-inspiring. It's possible that all these people are Googling Gremlins, then deciding not to watch it. But we feel fairly confident saying a lot of people will be watching Die Hard this Christmas season. (Tip: You can't stream it on Netflix right now, but you can rent it on Amazon.)

The 2018 results are fairly different from StreamingObserver's 2016 data, which you can compare here. Do you agree with your state's preferences?

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