Arts interview

The Tech speaks to Sacha Baron Cohen about The Brothers Grimsby

The actor talks about improvisation, Donald Trump, and the challenges of escaping a hotel in bondage

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Sacha Baron Cohen stars in The Brothers Grimsby.
Courtesy of Rex Features

“I gotta say one thing: fuck Harvard!” This was the first thing Sacha Baron Cohen said when he walked on stage at the screening of his new movie, The Brothers Grimsby.

One day later, as he walked over to the table I shared with two college reporters in a busy Four Seasons Hotel dining room, wearing street clothes, I breathed a sigh of relief. The actor is famous for appearing in public in character, from the press events for 2006’s Borat to his appearance at this year’s Academy Awards as Ali G (which was not planned; he snuck his costume into the venue’s bathroom) — so I was very happy to see that I would be asking questions of him rather than Nobby, the main character of The Brothers Grimsby. The interviews, along with the screening, were part of his first press event out of character.

Sacha Baron Cohen is tall, with black spiked hair and glasses. He speaks deliberately and eloquently in a deep British accent, a far cry from the voices of his famous movie characters. He introduced himself to me and the other reporters (from Emerson College and Boston University) and asked what colleges we were from. When I answered “MIT,” he responded, “Well la-di-da.”

BU Daily Free Press: Brüno and Borat are old characters of [yours] — where’s the inspiration for Nobby?

Baron Cohen: Well, what happened was this guy who wrote Wreck-it Ralph, Phil Johnson, came into the office and pitched this idea, which was James Bond’s brother. My immediate response was, “Who’s the best guy to act as a foil to a James Bond-type that could create havoc for him on the road?” So I thought, “What are the common attributes of these action heroes?” Generally, they’re lacking in any empathy, they’re ruthless murderers, they’re often alcoholics, they use violence toward everyone, they have no loving relationships. They’re basically misogynistic, and they are almost monosyllabic.

You can work out who’s the opposite of that character. Somebody who’s full of love, who has real relationships, who has kids, who’s nostalgic, who cannot stop talking, and somebody who’s kind of from a lower stratum of society. A complete embarrassment for his brother. Then, you kind of work it out logically: okay, this kind of guy would be a good comic foil to him. It all sounds quite mathematical, and less funny, doesn’t it? Doesn’t sound very funny. That’s the problem with comedy, it becomes very unfunny when you’re talking about it.

The Tech: You’ve always been pretty immersed in your roles. Do you think Nobby was a character that you got as much into, or did it feel more like a role you were playing?

Baron Cohen: I got into it. I did some research, went up to the north of England, and researched and hung out with a lot of real-life Nobbys. I go undercover in order to get into the character. I set up a bunch of interviews with real people, and then I appeared as Nobby, in order to workshop the character. So I spent a few hours, you know, Ali G.-style interviews with real people.

Emertainment Monthly: When you’re promoting movies in character versus not in character, what’s the difference?

Baron Cohen: Up until now they’ve all been done in character. In character, you put on the costume, you try and be as funny as possible; out of character … I’m trying to work out what I’m like out of character. We’ll see whether I continue doing this.

Emertainment Monthly: What were the challenges of shooting this big action film for you?

Baron Cohen: We wanted it to be an authentic action movie, but we had about $150 million less than your average action movie to make it. The first thing to do was to create a style of action that could be as exciting as any other action movie out there. We knew that we couldn’t be Bond in terms of their magnificent action scenes but we realized if we created this new style of action — this kind of POV, shooter style of action — we could make the action feel more visceral.

I saw a video on the Internet called Bad Motherfucker. It was POV, so we called [the creator] up and said, “We want you as an advisor on this movie.” I started playing first person shooter games in order to work out what kinds of things would go well in a movie.

Emertainment Monthly: Did you do any stunts of your own for this movie?

Baron Cohen: Yes. I did some of the stunts. Ironically, the only time I broke a bone was [during] Brüno. We had a bodyguard whose only job was to make sure I didn’t get arrested, because if I got arrested it would mean that the Department of Homeland Security could stop me from coming into America again — I’d be denied a green card.

We did one scene in Brüno where I wake up, and I’ve slept with my assistant, who’s a guy. And he wakes up, and he’s got a toilet brush in his mouth, and we’re chained together. We were [filming] in Kansas, and the Kansas police had found out that I was there, and they’d made it very clear that if they found me they were going to arrest me.

[The hotel manager] calls the police, at which point the bodyguard says, “Alright, let’s get out of the room.” And I’m still attached, by chains, to this other guy. Anyway, we always have an escape route when we make these movies. We had a service elevator, and we knew that there was an escape car which was waiting down below in an alleyway with the doors open and the engine running. We get in the service elevator. And suddenly hotel security turns up, and they block the door.

We run. We’re on the seventeenth floor, we managed to separate the chains, we’re running through, but he’s still got this toilet brush in his mouth and we’re dressed in complete S&M outfits. We run toward this window on the seventeenth floor, and we climb out the window, because we hear that the police are downstairs waiting for us, and obviously they’re gonna arrest me.

So we start climbing down this rickety staircase in these S&M outfits. And in Kansas, as in a lot of places in America, the fire escapes don’t go all the way down. We get down to the first floor or second floor and I can see the getaway van. I was wearing high heels, platform shoes actually. I jump. [Claps].

Crack, I crack my heel, broke my heel, which is apparently an injury that no one’s had since 1970. Women used to get it when they wore platform boots in the ’70s. And we jump into the car and zoom off. Broke my heel and we had to shut down production.

Interviewers: That’s crazy.

Baron Cohen: Bloody stupid. I’m sure there was an easier way to get out.

The Tech: You said there was a lot of improvisation involved in filming The Brothers Grimsby. What was the filming of an average scene like in terms of the development?

Baron Cohen: What happens is, we write the basic scene, we shoot the basic scene a few times, and then we go “alright, let’s do a completely improvised take.”

[We] do an improvised take, then we do variations on the scene — we try and change the dynamics, or try different lines with a particular joke. We try to give ourselves as much space as possible with a particular scene. Because often the best idea will come out in that day. You’ll go, “oh wait a minute, what happens if I end up there, and actually you dunk your balls on me,” or whatever it is. A lot of things that came out in the movie were actually improvised on the day.

For me, normal movies can get a little bit boring because I came from a background where everything was real and there’s the tension of, “is this guy gonna punch me? Are the police gonna turn up? Is the crew gonna get arrested?”

I kind of need that tension and adrenaline to keep me motivated during the day. The way I do that is through improvisation and leaving it fairly loose.

Emertainment Monthly: In a world where political correctness is so topical and everyone’s trying to monitor it, does that influence you when you write or perform at all, or do you just kind of push the envelope regardless?

Baron Cohen: I always am careful to make sure that what we’re doing is not consolidating any racial stereotypes, or gender stereotypes, or sexual stereotypes. When there’s a scene, often, immediately in the writer’s room, we’ll go “all right, that would be really funny.” Then we analyze whether it’s the ethical thing to do.

Now, I would say I’m a comedian, I’m not a politician, so I’m entitled to be a complete hypocrite and I don’t have to be ethical, because I’m not forcing my movies on anyone. They pay to go and see them. But I do feel a sense of responsibility to not do something that is morally bankrupt. And ultimately, I hope, the main aim of the movie is to make people laugh hysterically, laugh harder than they do in any other movie, but underlying it, it’d be great if they take something out of the movie other than just some big cock jokes.

The Tech: So I know you had a lot of issues with the MPAA to make sure the movie was not NC-17. Do you feel like in the end you were still able to make the movie that you wanted to make?

Baron Cohen: Yes. I think, ultimately, we used some tricks to try and get them to give us what we wanted by extending certain scenes to, like what I mentioned with the elephant scene … because I’ve dealt with them beforehand, we did use techniques to make sure we got what we wanted. And I think ultimately, it’s pretty close to what I would have wanted everyone to see.

Emertainment Monthly: Donald Trump is a big punchline [at the end of the] movie. Are you nervous about what he might have to say about that because he’s such a wild card?

Baron Cohen: Not really. Years ago, I interviewed Mr. Trump in his office in Manhattan. And I remember he was a kind of Batman villain at the time, because he kept me waiting for an hour and I could hear him screaming in the other room, “Get me the mayor on the line!” You know, shouting at the mayor, “What the fuck are you doing?”

So, no, I don’t think he’s a terrifying guy. It’s terrifying if he becomes president. But he’s realized that saying the most offensive things will get you a lot of publicity — so it seems more than coincidence that he’s targeted a variety of minorities or people who are lacking in status or power, in order to garner attention. He’s an incredible manipulator of the media.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.